Friday, February 3, 2012

Attack on Fort Donelson

Lew Wallace (1827–1905)
From The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 12–16, 1862), the first major Union victory of the Civil War. One of the most vivid accounts of the battle was written four decades later by General Lew Wallace, who commanded the division that, late in the afternoon on February 15, won back the ground lost by Union forces under General John McClernand to a Confederate counterattack that morning. Wallace brings to this recollection his talents as one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century; in 1880 he published Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which “outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out in 1936,” according to a recent article.

Wallace’s account opens with the Union forces in disarray on the 15th and reforming as rapidly as possible. In the first few pages he introduces all the major figures in the battle, most of whom would have still been familiar names to his readers. Under General Ulysses S. Grant there were three divisions commanded by Wallace, McClernand, and Charles F. Smith. Under Wallace, attacking the Confederates on the afternoon of the 15th, there were three brigades led by Colonels Ross, Morgan Smith, and Cruft. (See this map for a visual representation of the battlefield forces that day.) The following list of dramatis personae provides additional information.


Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote: commander of the gunboat flotilla attacking the fort from the Cumberland River.

Brigadier General John A. McClernand: commander of one of the three Union ground divisions surrounding Fort Donelson. His troops were regrouping after being attacked by Confederate forces attempting to break out and escape to the east.

Brigadier General Charles F. Smith: commander of the westernmost division outside Fort Donelson.


Colonel Leonard F. Ross led a brigade under General McClernand but acted under Wallace’s command in the attack on afternoon of the 15th.

Colonel Morgan L. Smith led a brigade under General Charles F. Smith but acted under Wallace’s command in the attack on the 15th. His brigade included the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, trained in French Zouave military tactics.

Colonel George F. McGinnis led the 11th Indiana Infantry regiment as part of Morgan L. Smith’s brigade. The 11th Indiana also used Zouave military tactics.

Colonel Charles Cruft led a brigade under Wallace’s command on the right during the attack on the 15th.

Colonel John M. Thayer led a fourth brigade under Wallace, held in reserve to the rear of the attack.

Others mentioned in Wallace’s narrative include Lieutenant James R. Ross (p.38), one of his aides; Colonel William R. Morrison (p.39), wounded in a failed attack on the fort the previous day; Captain Fred Knefler (p. 42), Wallace’s assistant adjutant general; and Colonel Joseph D. Webster (p. 42), Grant’s chief of staff.

Note: The Lindell, mentioned on page 39, was a famous, large hotel in St. Louis, then under construction. It opened in 1863 and was destroyed by fire in 1867.

We had been put in the mood for ghosts, that evening, after an excellent dinner at our old friend Culwin’s, by a tale of Fred Murchard’s—the narrative of a strange personal visitation. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.