The Stand of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry
— 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 14 while Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's gunboats shelled it. 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 15, 1862, the morning of the Confederate breakout from Fort Donelson, Gen. Gideon J. Pillow's attacking column smashed into the Federal line, overlapping the right wing under Gen. John A. McClernand, and began driving it back. Faced with superior numbers and short of ammunition, each Union regiment was forced to withdraw in turn before it was cut off. McClernand desperately appealed for help.
The Union right wing was bent back, and at the center of the bend stood the 11th Illinois Infantry. It was part of Gen. William H.L. Wallace's brigade; Wallace had been the regiment's first commander before he was promoted and Thomas E.G. Ransom took his place. The 11th suffered heavy casualties as it held its position despite repeated assaults, caught in the crossfire of artillery shells from the Confederate trenches and small arms fire from the attacking infantry. Wallace ordered his brigade to retreat and re-form, but the fighting was so heavy that the order failed to reach the regiment.
Then, Col. Nathan B. Forrest's cavalry struck the 11th hard in the rear and left flank. Alone after fire hours of fighting, and with Ransom wounded, the Midwesterners fought their way back to their own lines individually. The last surviving member of the color guard carried the regimental colors from the field. During the battle, the 11th Illinois suffered 399 casualties out of 500 soldiers—the most of any Union regiment engaged.
"The movement (to retire) was executed, but too late to prevent the cavalry from getting in rear of most of my command, who bravely cut their way through with terrible loss. I found what was left of the Eleventh a few hundred yards in the rear of our first position."
— Lt. Col. Thomas E.G. Ransom.
Sneden map - Courtesy Library of Congress
Col. Thomas E.G. Ransom Courtesy Library of Congress
Battle of Fort Donelson - Courtesy Library of Congress