Breaking Out of Fort Donelson
— Battle of Fort Donelson —
In February 1862, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant attacked Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to take control of western Tennessee and Kentucky as well as the rivers. Grant captured Fort Henry on February 6, then approached Fort Donelson with his army on February 12. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's gunboats shelled in on the 14th. Confederate artillery repulsed the ironclads. Confederate Gen. John B. Floyd ordered a breakout from the fort for the next morning. At first successful, the Confederates retreated, and the Federals counterattacked. On February 16, part of Floyd's command escaped in boats. The remainder yielded to Grant's demand for "unconditional surrender".
The Confederate gunners and troops in Fort Donelson were elated after they repulsed Union Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's gunboat fleet on February 14, 1862. Federal reinforcements continued to arrive, however, to supplement Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army. After a council of war, Confederate Gen. John B. Floyd ordered a dawn attack on the Union right flank to open an escape route.
Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalrymen let the way. As Confederate infantry men forced Union Gen. John A. McClernands's division back from the Cumberland River, Forrest endeavored to turn the Federals' right flank. He led a charge against an Illinois battery and captured the guns but lost his horse. Next, Forrest's men outflanked the 11th Illinois Volunteers after a stubborn resistance and forced a retreat with heavy Union losses. The Confederate drive stalled in front of Capt. Edward McAllister's 1st Illinois Light Artillery. After two unsuccessful charges, Forrest joined the 2nd Kentucky Infantry to overwhelm the battery after supporting Union infantry fled. The road to escape from Fort Donelson had been opened. It closed the next day.
The Confederate attack succeeded largely because of Forrest's use of massed cavalry in the hottest part of the battlefield. He soon changed the face of warfare in the West and transformed the traditional role of cavalry beyond scouting, screening infantry movements, and pursuing retreating forces to independent, large-scale cavalry raids.
"The enemy stood their ground until we were within 40 yards of them, when they fled in great confusion, under a most destructive fire. This was not, strictly speaking a "charge bayonets," but it would have been one if the enemy had not fled."
— Col. Roger W. Hanson, 2nd Kentucky Infantry
Cavalry charge Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. Nathan B. Forrest Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. John A. McClernand Courtesy Library of Congress
Ft. Donelson and vicinity — Courtesy Library of Congress