The Road to Nashville
— 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 in 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".
After the Confederate breakout on February 15, 1862, the roads were open for escape from Fort Donelson, but the men returned to the trenches when Confederate Gen. John B. Floyd lost his nerve and ordered them back. The Confederate commanders met at the Dover Hotel late that night and began to discuss the surrender of the fort. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest was appalled by the idea and argued forcefully against it, but to no avail. His counsel disregarded, Forest told the group that he had not come to surrender his command, announced his intention to cut his way out of the trap, and left the meeting.
After informing his officers of his plans, Forrest roused the cavalrymen and left the fort about 4 A. M. Almost immediately, scouts reported Union troops blocking their path. Forrest and his brother, Lt Jeffrey E. Forrest, rode ahead to see for themselves and discovered that, in the morning mist, the wooden posts of a rail fence appeared to be infantrymen drawn up in a line of battle.
After resuming the march, the column encountered a deep slough filled with the backwater of the Cumberland River. When a volunteer to test the icy crossings was slow in coming, Forrest plunged his mount into the water and determined that it was only saddle-skirt deepand could be forded safely. Forrest posted a rear guard and marched the rest of the men along the Cumberland Iron Works road toward Nashville.
"I am clearly of the opinion that two-thirds of our army could have marched out without loss, and that, had we continued the fight the next day; we should have gained a glorious victory."
— Col. Nathan B. Forrest
Ft. Donelson and vicinity — Courtesy Library of Congress
Gen. John B. Floyd Library of Congress
Gen. Nathan B. Forrest Library of Congress
Cavalry crossing a river — Courtesy Library of Congress