The Battles at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson


By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The American Civil War, fought between the Confederates from the South, and the Union, or Federals from the North, comprised a number of battles, wherein a number of men on both sides lost their lives. An extremely significant battle out of these, was the one fought in the Western Theater. There, the battles at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson stand out as momentous ones, which, to a great extent, paved the way ahead for the battle, and even for the war.

Fort Donelson, the site of the battle where Confederate forces surrendered to the Union.
Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, hosted the momentous battle of the Western Theater where the Confederate Forces Surrendered, giving way to the fall of Confederate rule in the West. (Image: garciatrails/Shutterstock)

The West was seen as a pivotal battlefront, which would be decisive towards the future of the war. Therefore, both sides had put up their best men to lead their soldiers into battle here. 

General In Chief Winfield Scott was the primary commander of the Federal forces. Two men under his leadership led commands into the West: Henry Wager Halleck, and Don Carlos Buell. 

The Confederate armies were commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston, a formidable soldier, who had served several years at various posts.

Learn more about The Confederacy Generals.

Due to their large troops and excellent advance routes, the Federals decided to go on the offensive, and the Confederates had to defend their enormous territory in the west, with the aid of their extensive railroad and internal lines connections. 

The western frontier under Johnston’s command was vulnerable along four primary routes: the Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad; any of these could have proven viable for the Federals. In order to defend all four routes, Johnston deployed his troops along a great arc. In a bid to protect the heart of Tennessee, the left flank was anchored at Columbus, Kentucky, a very strong, heavily fortified position.

On the other hand, the right flank for Johnston’s formation was anchored on the Louis and Nashville Railroad at Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Within the arch, there were a pair of forts intended to guard the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers: Fort Henry on the Tennessee, and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. However, Johnston didn’t give too much of his attention to either, focusing instead on his flanks.

 On the other hand, the leading commanders of Scott’s Union forces, Halleck and Buell, were able to soon identify Fort Donelson on the Cumberland and Fort Henry on the Tennessee River as the weakest points in Johnston’s defense line. 

With a few early victories that took down small platoons of the Confederates, the Union now decided to move ahead towards Fort Henry to begin their offense. 

Halleck’s Strategy

Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, both, happened to lie in Halleck’s department, so he was tasked with creating the overall plan to not only take the forts down but also to break down the railroad that ran from Memphis to Bowling Green, denying the Confederacy their much needed interior lines. To do so, he parked his troops in Missouri, which he thoroughly swept to make it safe for the Union. 

From thereon, he appointed Ulysses S. Grant to proceed up the Tennessee river towards Fort Henry with an army of 15,000. Grant was supposed to take down Fort Henry, move southward to break down the Memphis and Ohio Railroad, and then focus his attention towards Fort Donelson.

Learn more about The loyalty of slaveholding states.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Fall of Fort Henry

At the very end of January, 1862, Grant began to move through the Tennessee river towards Fort Henry. The Union leveraged both their navy and their military strength for the operation, sending Grant along with a flotilla of gunboats, headed by Flag Officer Andrew Foote. Then, while the soldiers surrounded the fort on land, the gunboats bombarded the installation from the river, and by February 6, the fort was gone.

Fort  Henry was an easy target, as it was an extremely fragile construction, and it was too close to the river for its own safety. Further, the river, at the time, was at its high point, and frequently flooded the fort, rendering a lot of defense weaponry useless.

In fact, the Confederate commander himself knew how hopeless the situation for him was, which is why he sent away most of his 2,500 man garrison towards Fort Donelson before the Union forces had even arrived. 

Fort Henry fell, and Grant executed the next part of his assignment very efficiently. He went south, cut the railroad, and then started to move to Fort Donelson through the quickest route for such a force: going back down the River, going up the Ohio River just a few miles, and then steaming up the Cumberland River. 

Ulysses S. Grant, the decorated war hero who led the Federals to victory in the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.
Ulysses S. Grant led the Federal Forces into Battle to Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and ended up winding up the entire Confederate force on the Western Frontier, becoming known as a decorated war hero himself. (Image: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress/Public domain)

Cracking Fort Donelson

Although Fort Donelson had a much sturdier construction, and housed far more troops than Fort Henry, it was still vulnerable to the approach that Grant had used at Fort Henry. 

Grant wished to reach there and establish contact from both sides on the river to seal the Confederates inside. At this point, Halleck had given Grant an extra 8,000 men to infiltrate Fort Donelson.

 However, as the Union forces approached the fort, they found out very quickly that this was a very different kind of place than Fort Henry.

Confederate batteries at Fort Donelson drove the Union’s flotilla back out into the water, with a number of Union vessels bearing severe damage, and many soldiers getting wounded. Fort Donelson was a large earthen fort surrounded by a ring of smaller earthworks, which made it a much more difficult place for Grant to capture. 

At this point, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, seasoned army-men, stepped into the field to ease the burden off of an inept John B. Floyd, who had been holding the fort hitherto. They tried to launch an assault on the Union forces but to no avail. 

Now, Floyd and Pillow bailed out of the Fort with their troops, leaving Buckner in command. 

Buckner had, by now, realized that he was at a dead end, and he pleaded terms to Grant, a pal from the old army. In response, the only terms offered by Grant were unconditional surrender. Although Buckner found that ‘ungentlemanly’, he had no choice but to accept, and with that, Fort Donelson had fallen, taking along with it an entire confederate army, and hoisting Grant as a War hero of the North. 

Learn more about the Soldiers of the War.

It was, however, not just Grant who led to the Union’s Victories; Johnston had also made a series of serious mistakes that led to this outcome. 

Johnston’s Mistakes

Albert Johnston made his first serious mistake when Grant infiltrated Fort Donelson with his troops. Johnston then decided to withdraw from Bowling Green. He abandoned Bowling Green even before there was a resolution at Fort Donelson. Then, he pushed his infantry into Donelson, as a result of which they were all stuck there, without any defense from the Navy. To make matters worse, he put John B. Floyd, a thoroughly incompetent man with extremely limited military capabilities, in command of Fort Donelson. It was Floyd’s maladroitness that allowed Grant to make contact with the fort from both above and below very quickly.

In the end, Albert Johnston was unable to live up to his reputation, and his mistakes were paid for heavily by the Confederacy. 

Commonly Asked Questions about The Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson

Q: Who captured Fort Henry?

General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union captured Fort Henry with his platoon of 15,000 men.

Q: Who surrendered at Fort Donelson?

Simon Bolivar Buckner surrendered to Grant’s army at Fort Donelson, after confederate attempts to assault their army failed.

Q: How did Grant plan to take down the Confederates?

The Union planned to take down Fort Henry, break down the Memphis and Ohio railroad, and then take down Fort Donelson.

Keep Reading
North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War
Common Soldiers of the American Civil War
Politics before the American Civil War