A Senseless Loss
— 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 it 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".
On February 13, 1862, Union Col. William R. Morrison led his brigade from this point in an unsuccessful, costly assault on Confederate Capt. Frank Maney's battery at Fort Donelson. The attack demonstrated the impatience of the Morrison's commander, Gen. John A. McClernand, and the rawness of Morrison's green Illinois regiments. The attack, however, may have convinced the fort's Confederates defenders that the Federals were numerically stronger that they actually were.
A Mexican War veteran, lawyer and politician, Morrison organized the 49th Illinois Infantry Regiment and mustered it into service on December 31, 1861. It arrived at Fort Henry on February 8, 1862, where it was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division. Morrison was given command of the brigade.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered McClernand's division to besiege the southern half of the Confederates' defensive line outside Fort Donelson on February 12. The next morning, without authority, McClernand ordered Morrison's brigade (reinforced with the 48th Illinois Infantry from the 2nd Brigade), to capture Maney's battery. Col. Isham G. Haynie, commander of the 48th Illinois, joined Morrison in leading the charge. Despite a ferocious crossfire, the inexperienced troops tried three times to move forward, but Morrison was wounded and the Federals withdrew.
As the Union wounded lay in front of the battery, dry leaves caught fire. Rather than allow them to burn to death, the Confederates dragged some of the men from the flames, an act of humanity amid the horrors of war.
"The works were, as I thought, almost ours, ... when I was struck in the right hip with a musket ball, knocked out of the saddle, and compelled in consequence to relinquish my command."
— Col. William R. Morrison
Gen. John A. McClernand Courtesy Library of Congress
Col. Isham G. Hayne Courtesy Library of Congress
Ft. Donelson and vicinity Courtesy Library of Congress
Battle of Fort Donelson — Courtesy Library of Congress