By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society
The North Star reported that things were looking up for the North. The Union Navy secured another victory and a bearded, soft-spoken small man from the West appeared on the scene to accomplish what eluded the Union generals who came before. In addition there is a story of “boys being boys” in Brattleboro and Captain R. W. Laird making a trip back home to Danville.
North Star February 1. 1862
Capt. R. W. Laird of Company H., 4th Regiment Vermont Volunteers, was presented with a splendid sword, at Camp Griffin, VA on Jan 20th, as a slight token of high esteem in which he is held by the men of his command, for his energy and untiring zeal in their behalf.
Captain Laird returned to his home in West Danville, last week Thursday. We understand that he has returned with recruiting orders, and will enlist recruits for the Vermont Brigade.
North Star February 15, 1862
Capture of Fort Henry
Official Account of the Action
Washington, Feb 7 Secretary Welles has received the following despatch.
Flag Ship Cincinna
Off Fort Henry, Tenn. River Feb 6, 1862
The gunboats under my charge… after severe and rapid fire of the hour and a quarter, we have captured Fort Henry. We have taken Gen. Lloyd Tilghman and his staff, with sixty men, prisoners. The surrender of the gunboats was unconditional, as we kept an open fire upon them until their flag was struck. In half an hour after the surrender, I handed the fort and prisoners over to Gen. Grant commanding the army, on arriving at the fort in force.
…The Essex had a shot in her boilers, after fighting most effectually for two thirds of the action, and was obliged to drop down river. I hear that several of her men were scalded to death, including two pilots. She, with the other gunboats, officers and men fought with the greatest gallantry. The fort…was defended by Gen. Tilghman with the most determined gallantry…
A. H. Foote. Flag Officer
Cincinnati, Feb 7 The Gazette and Commercial’s Cairo correspondent of the bombardment and capture of Fort Henry: –
Gen Tilghman is disheartened, He thinks it one of the most damaging blows of the war. In surrendering to Flag Officer Foote he remarked, “I am glad to surrender to so gallant officer.” – Flag Officer Foote replied, “You do perfectly right sir, in surrendering, but you should have blown my boat out of the water, before I would have surrendered to you.”
For all its gallantry, the capture of Fort Henry, which sits on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, was not a major battle, but it was a victory nonetheless for the North that was still despondent over the loss at Bull Run. More importantly, it gave the Union control over the Tennessee River, which provided a major highway into the deep South. General U.S. Grant’s army was supposed to have taken part in the operation; however, bad weather prevented his troops from getting to Fort Henry in time. His message to his boss, General Henry Halleck in the Western Theatre, was “Fort Henry is ours, I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th,” was suggestive of a new confident and aggressive fighting spirit that would inform Grant’s future endeavors and distinguish him from his peers.
Meanwhile, there was debauchery and indignation on the home front.
War and General News Items
– The Montpelier Freeman publishes the following, being the first attack of the gallant eighth under Col. Thomas.
Col. Thomas Regiment in Arms –
Not against the rebels in Secession, but against the rumsellers in Brattleboro. It appears that some of his soldiers had been furnished with liquor; the Colonel had remonstrated, but without effect. Again the soldiers returned to camp intoxicated. Col. Thomas indignant to such lawlessness, ordered out an armed company and, with pledge in hand led them into the village, visited each hotel and grocery store suspected and demanded of the landlords to sign the pledge to sell no more liquor to his soldiers. A refusal to comply would make their liquor “contraband of war” and consigned to destruction.
– John Crittenden is deeply affected by the news from Kentucky and has not been in the House since the report of the battle of Somerset was received. Although he has two sons in the Union army, the presence of one in the rebel army, his eldest, overwhelms him with grief.
US Congressman Crittenden’s dilemma was not that uncommon, especially in border states like Kentucky. There were many instances where brother was pitted against brother. In addition, men who went to the Army or Navy military academies or fought in Mexican War together, often found themselves fighting on opposite sides of the conflict.
The Union victory at Fort Henry created a problem for the commander of Southern forces. General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was betwixt and between over his limited options, concentrated all available men to defend Fort Donelson, which overlooked the Cumberland River. He could possibly counterattack to retake Fort Henry; or, he could relinquish Kentucky and use his forces to defend Nashville’s vital factories and depots. Johnston chose to send 12,000 troops to Fort Donelson and defend Nashville with the remainder.
Grant and Foote would attempt another one-two punch.
North Star February 22, 1862
Fort Donelson Taken!
15,000 men captured – Floyd escaped with 5,000
3 Generals Taken Prisoner
The Loss Severe on Both Sides
First Despatch – St Louis Feb 16
The city is wild with excitement and rejoicings. The news has just been made public that the American flag waves over Fort Donelson. One of Gen. Gram’s batteries was taken by our troops. The gunboats are said to be badly damaged. Further particulars tonight.
Thirty-four years old, the quiet, soft-spoken Grant had surrounded the fort with 25,000 troops. The gunboats had made an initial attack, but only one of four escaped serious damage. The fort’s commander, John Buchanan Floyd, had repulsed two attacks by Grant’s troops. The next day his forces attempted to break out from the fortress but without success. True to form, Grant’s assessment of the situation was whoever attacked first would win, and he meant to be first. On Feb 15, with Foote’s one lone gunboat for support, Grant ordered a full attack on Donelson. However, Floyd, who Northerners accused of diverting Federal munitions to the South just before the secession, managed to orchestrate his escape.
The commander left in charge of the fort was Simon Bolivar Buckner, who sent a telegram to Grant attempting to negotiate a surrender. Grant’s reply, “[proposal] to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
The rebels had suffered 2,000 casualties, while the Union incurred 3,000. Such a loss was expected for an assault on a defensive position. By taking the fort, Ulysses S. Grant became a hero overnight earning the sobriquet “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Lincoln had found a general who would fight.
Fort Donelson became a harbinger of Grant’s willingness to take heavy losses. “Gallant” didn’t apply to Grant. Even though the gallant Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s troops would take more casualties, it was Grant who would come to be called the “butcher” and symbolize the slaughter that was the American Civil War.