Grant and Buckner: A Story of Fort Donelson

On the morning of 16 February 1862, Simon B. Buckner wrote a note to US Grant:

HEADQUARTERS, Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
Commanding U.S. Forces near Fort Donelson.

SIR: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

Grant, commanding the Union army outside Fort Donelson, must have read the note with some sadness, and not a little despair.  His small force had suffered about a thousand casualties out of about 25,000 in a week of combat and bitter cold weather, was down to its last cracker and cartridge, and was riven by dissent in the upper command.  The Navy, which had done tremendous service the week before at Fort Henry, had withdrawn its gunboats, unable to reach the high bluffs with their big guns where Fort Donelson sat on the Cumberland River.  If pressed. Grant wasn’t certain he could take Fort Donelson by force.  But his family depended on him, and he could not withdraw.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY IN THE FIELD
Camp near Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

General S. B. BUCKNER,
Confederate Army.

        SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Writing his response likely caused Grant no end of pain.  Though his closest adviser, Charles F Smith, had told him “no terms the the damned rebels,” Grant was still torn.  In 1854, when Buckner and Grant were both officers on the California coast, Buckner had loaned Grant money to get home.  Grant had resigned his captain’s commission for reasons unclear to scholars to this day (the popular reason–drink–is under serious challenge with only anecdotal evidence to support it) and was pining to return to his family. Buckner was one of Grant’s best friends, and Grant didn’t have that many friends.

Buckner, a thorough military professional, probably received the note with some pain himself.  Just hours before he wrote his note to Grant, Buckner was third in command of Fort Donelson.  The senior officer, John B. Floyd, had been a governor of Virginia and a US Secretary of War.  He was also wanted in the North for corruption.  In a staff meeting that might have been funny in a Three Stooges act, Floyd passed the command to Gideon J. Pillow, who had beaten Grant at Belmont, Missouri the previous fall.  But Pillow,  though wounded and brevetted for his service in Mexico, was also under a cloud in the Union for graft.  Pillow passed the command of the fort to Buckner and joined Floyd in the small boat carrying them across the river with a few loyal retainers.  The night before, Nathan B. Forrest and about a thousand men took advantage of a thin escape route Pillow had opened the previous day.

Buckner commanded about 16,000 men (no one knew for certain how many), but without control of the river his rations would be gone in a week; his ammunition, less.  And though he knew Grant to be his friend, Grant was also known as a man of his word, there was no one with a better known reputation for determination and courage in the US Army than US Grant.

HEADQUARTERS,
Dover, Tenn.
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
U.S. A.

        SIR: The distribution of the forces under my command incident to an unexpected change of commanders and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

I am, sir, your very obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier. General, C. S. Army.

Buckner likely didn’t see what else he could have done.  As they were taken into custody, the Confederates sullenly accepted their paroles and were released in a week.  But the name of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant rang from coast to coast as his star rose in the Union heavens.  It wasn’t the first time the phrase “unconditional surrender” was used during the war; the first was a Confederate demand that a tiny Federal garrison surrender an arsenal in Georgia.  But the press saw a beautiful harmonic in the phrase and Grant’s (not real) name.  Grant was born Hiram Ulysses, and was known in his youth as “Ulys.”  The name “Ulysses Simpson” (his mother’s maiden name) was one he accepted upon his entrance to West Point.

But no matter.  Buckner surrendered fully 5% of all the Confederate combat forces.  This staggering loss doomed middle Tennessee to Federal occupation, forced the evacuation of the state capital at Nashville, and provided the Union with a route into the Confederate west’s heartland.  Regardless of what happened in Virginia, where George B. McClellan was building a huge army of over 100,000 men, Grant was the current hero of the Union.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War tells the story of Fort Donelson and the struggle for Middle Tennessee in early 1862,  Available in paperback and PDF.

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