After a forced march of some five days, some 25,000 men under US Grant started his assault on Ft Donelson on 12 February 1862. The weather on 6 February when they left Ft Henry on the Tennessee River was balmy, but by the time they were halfway to the Confederate fort on the Cumberland it turned cold and wet. The Federals, few of whom had ever heard a shot in anger nor gone more than a day’s walk from where they were born, suffered in the cold in part because they had discarded their heavy winter coats and blankets along the way.
The Confederates, less than a week after the loss of Ft Henry, scrambled to protect the last bastion protecting Nashville, just three days’ march south. Nearly all the Confederate uniform manufacturing west of Virginia, and half the ammunition manufacturing, was in Nashville. That and some 16,000 Confederate troops (probably more) at Ft Donelson, as well as 48 irreplaceable artillery pieces were in peril from the larger Federal force. Albert S. Johnson, the Confederate commander of District Number 2 that encompassed everything Confederate between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, knew that holding Ft Donelson was key to holding middle Tennessee and the gateway to the Southern interior, but had nearly nothing to send to John B Floyd, the garrison’s commander.
As Grant began his siege (Impractical, since his batteries only had the ammunition in their batteries, as his staff had neglected to send any more), he realized that if Ft Donelson held out more than a few days, he would have to withdraw or wait for reinforcements. Henry W. Halleck, Grant’s boss, had already said that Grant had to win to get stronger. Excuses were not to be tolerated, for Grant’s reputation in the Army was not one of a stellar officer, but tainted by allegations of drink. To go any further at all just to provide for his family, Grant had to take Ft Donelson. To hold the western theater at all, Pillow had to hold it.
If Grant informed Halleck that he had reached Ft Donelson it would have been by horseback messenger to Ft Henry (or by steamboat to either Paducah or Galena), then by relays of telegraph stations to Halleck at St Louis. If Lincoln had heard about Ft Donelson before it was captured, it would have been at least a day after his 53rd birthday. Still, when he and the rest of the country heard about the fall of the fort, he regarded it as a wonderful gift.
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War is the story of the middle Tennessee campaign in the spring of 1862, of which Forts Henry and Donelson were just the opening act. Available in paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.