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February 14, 1862: Fort Donelson attacked by Union ironclads

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From the American Civil War web site: http://www.civilwar-online.com/

At 3:00pm in the afternoon of February 14, 1862, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote led four ironclad gunboats forward to attack the river battery at Fort Donelson. Foote was in the St. Louis and was joined by the Carondelet, the Louisville, and the Pittsburg. Behind Foote, further back, the wooden gunboats Lexington, Conestoga, and Tyler fired in support at long range.

The water battery at Fort Donelson was designed to stop enemy vessels from passing the fort on the Cumberland River. It was armed much like Fort Henry with "ten 32-pounder guns (two of them ship carronades), one 8-inch howitzer, two nondescript 9-pounders, one 10-inch Columbiad, and one rifled gun throwing a conical shell of 128 pounds" with most of these guns probably salvaged from Gosport navy yard, but the resemblance ended there. Whereas Fort Henry had been built on a low floodplain next to the Tennessee River, Fort Donelson's water battery was built into the face of a bluff that overlooked the Cumberland River, giving its gunners a slight height advantage that would be important in the fight to come.

Fort Donelson was also equipped with another new technology: a telegraph, and that fact led to what might be a first in military history: the "live" broadcast of a battle in progress for the benefit of an audience nearly one hundred miles away. This amazing series of telegrams began when the Confederate defenders spotted the arrival of federal reinforcements, including three more ironclads, giving Foote a total of four "turtles" to lead his attack.

[Telegram.]

FORT DONELSON, February 14, 1862.

The enemy have reached the ground near the fort with eight or ten gunboats, I am uncertain which, and fifteen transports, reported to have on board near 20,000 men. They are now landing. This makes their force nearly 40,000 strong. I will fight them this evening.

JNO. B. FLOYD,

Brigadier-General

General JOHNSTON.

[Telegram.]

FORT DONELSON, February 14, 1862.

The enemy are assaulting us with a most tremendous cannonade from gunboats abreast the batteries, becoming general around the whole line. I will make the best defense in my power.

JNO. B. FLOYD.

Brigadier-General

General JOHNSTON.

Operator at Donelson says gunboats passed and are right on him.

[G.W.] TRABUE,

Superintendent.

[Telegram.]

FORT DONELSON, February 14, 1862.

The fort holds out. Three gunboats have retired. Only one firing now.

JNO. B. FLOYD,

Brigadier-General.

General JOHNSTON.

[Telegram.]

FORT DONELSON, February 14, 1862.

The fort can not hold out twenty minutes. Our river batteries working admirably. Four gunboats advancing abreast.

JNO. B. FLOYD,

Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

General JOHNSTON.

[Telegram.]

FORT DONELSON, February 14, 1862.

The gunboats have been driven back. Two, it is said, seriously injured. I think the fight is over to-day.

JNO. B. FLOYD,

Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

General A. S. JOHNSTON.

[Telegram.]

NASHVILLE, February 14, 1862.

The following dispatch just received from Fort Donelson:

We have just had the fiercest fight on record between our guns and ten gun-boats, which lasted two hours. They reached within less than 200 yards of our batteries. We drove them back, damaging two of them badly and crippled a third very badly. No damage done to our battery and not a man killed.

GID. J. PILLOW, Commander.

N. WICKLIFFE, Assistant Adjutant-General.

General POLK.

[Telegram.]

EDGEFIELD, [TENN.], February 14, 1862.

If you lose the fort, bring your troops to Nashville if possible.

A.S. JOHNSTON, General.

General FLOYD,

Fort Donelson.

There is something incredibly human in the little personal note slipped in by the telegraph operator at Donelson and forwarded by the operator in Nashville. For a moment the engagement had looked like it would be another victory for Foote's gunboats like the one at Fort Henry, but then a few things went wrong for the federals. Here's a description of the battle from the Union perspective from "The Western Flotilla" by Henry Walke, U.S. Navy:

At 11:30 on the night of the 13th Flag-Officer Foote arrived below Fort Donelson with the iron-clads St. Louis, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, and the wooden gun-boats Tyler and Conestoga. On the 14th all the hard materials in the vessels, such as chains, lumber, and bags of coal, were laid on the upper decks to protect them from the plunging shots of the enemy. At 3 o'clock in the afternoon our fleet advanced to attack the fort, the Louisville being on the west side of the river, the St. Louis (flag-steamer) next, then the Pittsburgh and Carondelet on the east side of the river. The wooden gun-boats were about a thousand yards in the rear. When we started in line abreast at a moderate speed, the Louisville and Pittsburgh, not keeping up to their positions, were hailed from the flag-steamer to "steam up." At 3:30, when about a mile and a half from the fort, two shots were fired at us, both falling short. When within a mile of the fort the St. Louis opened fire, and the other iron-clads followed, slowly and deliberately at first, but more rapidly as the fleet advanced. The flag-officer hailed the Carondelet, and ordered us not to fire so fast. Some of our shells went over the fort, and almost into our camp beyond. As we drew nearer, the enemy's fire greatly increased in force and effect. But, the officers and crew of the Carondelet having recently been long under fire, and having become practiced in fighting, her gunners were as cool and composed as old veterans. We heard the deafening crack of the bursting shells, the crash of the solid shot, and the whizzing of fragments of shell and wood as they sped through the vessel. Soon a 128-pounder struck our anchor, smashed it into flying bolts, and bounded over the vessel, taking away a part of our smoke-stack; then another cut away the iron boat-davits as if they were pipe-stems, whereupon the boat dropped into the water. Another ripped up the iron plating and glanced over; another went through the plating and lodged in the heavy casemate; another struck the pilot-house, knocked the plating to pieces, and sent fragments of iron and splinters into the pilots, one of whom fell mortally wounded, and was taken below; another shot took away the remaining boat-davits and the boat with them; and still they came, harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smoke-stacks, and tearing off the side armor as lightning tears the bark from a tree. Our men fought desperately, but, under the excitement of the occasion, loaded too hastily, and the port rifled gun exploded. One of the crew, in his account of the explosion soon after it occurred, said: "I was serving the gun with shell. When it exploded it knocked us all down, killing none, but wounding over a dozen men and spreading dismay and confusion among us. For about two minutes I was stunned, and at least five minutes elapsed before I could tell what was the matter. When I found out that I was more scared than hurt, although suffering from the gunpowder which I had inhaled, I looked forward and saw our gun lying on the deck, split in three pieces. Then the cry ran through the boat that we were on fire, and my duty as pump-man called me to the pumps. While I was there, two shots enter our bow-ports and killed four men and wounded several others. They were borne past me, three with their heads off. The sight almost sickened me, and I turned my head away. Our master's mate came soon after and ordered us to our quarters at the gun. I told him the gun had burst, and that we had caught fire on the upper deck from the enemy's shell. He then said: 'Never mind the fire; go to your quarters.' Then I took a station at the starboard tackle of another rifled bow-gun and remained there until the close of the fight." The carpenter and his men extinguished the flames.

When within four hundred yards of the fort, and while the Confederates were running from their lower battery, our pilot-house was struck again and another pilot wounded, our wheel was broken, and shells from the rear boats were bursting over us. All four of our boats were shot away and dragging in the water. On looking out to bring our broadside guns to bear, we saw that the other gun-boats were rapidly falling back out of line. The Pittsburgh in her haste to turn struck the stern of the Carondelet, and broke our starboard rudder, so that we were obliged to go ahead to clear the Pittsburgh and the point of rocks below. The pilot of the St. Louis was killed, and the pilot of the Louisville was wounded. Both vessels had their wheel-ropes shot away, and the men were prevented from steering the Louisville with the tiller-ropes at the stern by the shells from the rear boats bursting over them. The St. Louis and Louisville, becoming unmanageable, were compelled to drop out of battle, and the Pittsburgh followed; all had suffered severely from the enemy's fire. Flag-Officer Foote was wounded while standing by the pilot of the St. Louis when he was killed. We were then about 350 yards from the fort.

There was no alternative for the Carondelet in that narrow steam but to keep her head to the enemy and fire into the fort with her two bow-guns, to prevent it, if possible, from returning her fire effectively. The enemy saw that she was in a manner left to his mercy, and concentrated the fire of all his batteries upon her. In return, the Carondelet's guns were well served to the last shot. Our new acting gunner, John Hall, was just the man for the occasion. He came forward, offered his services, and with my sanction took charge of the starboard-bow rifled gun. He instructed the men to obey his warnings and follow his motions, and he told them that when he saw a shot coming he would call out "Down" and stoop behind the breech of the gun as he did so; at the same instant the men were to stand away from the bow-ports. Nearly every shot from the fort struck the bows of the Carondelet. Most of them were fired on the ricochet level, and could be plainly seen skipping on the water before they struck. The enemy's object was to sink the gun-boat by striking her just below the water-line. They soon succeeded in planting two 32-pound shots in her bow, between wind and water, which made her leak badly, but her compartments kept her from sinking until we could plug up the shot-holes. Three shots struck the starboard casemating; four struck the port casemating forward of the rifle-gun; one struck on the starboard side, between the water-line and plank-sheer, cutting through the planking; six shots struck the pilot-house, shattering one section into pieces and cutting through the iron casing. The smoke-stacks were riddled.

Our gunners kept up a constant firing while we were falling back; and the warning words, "Look out!" "Down!" were often heard, and heeded by nearly all the gun-crews. On one occasion, while the men were at the muzzle of the middle bow-gun, loading it, the warning came just in time for them to jump aside as a 32-pounder struck the lower sill, and glancing up struck the upper sill, then, falling on the inner edge of the lower sill, bounded on deck and spun around like a top, but hurt no one. It was very evident that if the men who were loading had not obeyed the order to drop, several of them would have been killed. So I repeated the instructions and warned the men at the guns and the crew generally to bow or stand off from the ports when a shot was seen coming. But some of the young men, from a spirit of bravado or from a belief in the doctrine of fatalism, disregarded the instructions, saying it was useless to attempt to dodge a cannon-ball, and they would trust to luck. The warning words, "Look out!" "Down!" were again soon heard; down went the gunner and his men, as the whizzing shot glanced on the gun, taking off the gunner's cap and the heads of two of the young men who trusted to luck, and in defiance of the order were standing up or passing behind him. This shot killed another man also, who was at the last gun of the starboard side, and disabled the gun. It came in with a hissing sound; three sharp spats and a heavy bang told the sad fate of three brave comrades. Before the decks were well sanded, there was so much blood on them that our men could not work the guns without slipping.

We kept firing at the enemy so long as he was within range, to prevent him from seeing us through the smoke.

The Carondelet was the first in and the last out of the fight, and was more damaged than any of the other gunboats, as the boat-carpenters who repaired them subsequently informed me. She was much longer under fire than any other vessel of the flotilla; and, according to the report of the Secretary of the Navy, her loss in killed and wounded was nearly twice as great as that of all the other gunboats together. She fired more shot and shell into Fort Donelson than any other gun-boat, and was struck fifty-four times. These facts are given because a disposition was shown by correspondents and naval historians to ignore the services of the Carondelet on this and other occasions.

In the action of the 14th all of the armored vessels were fought with the greatest energy, skill, and courage, until disabled by the enemy's heavy shot. In his official report of the battle the flag-officer said: "The officers and men in this hotly contested but unequal fight behaved with the greatest gallantry and determination."

Although the gun-boats were repulsed in this action, the demoralizing effect of their cannonade, and of the heavy and well-sustained fire of the Carondelet on the day before, must have been very great, and contributed in no small degree to the successful operations of the army on the following day.

After the battle I called upon the flag-officer, and found him suffering from his wounds. He asked me if I could have run past the fort, something I should not have ventured upon without permission.

Foote had pressed in too close and too soon. At point blank range the plunging fire of the Confederate guns had been too much for the 2.5 inch thick armor of his boats. Although no serious or lasting damage was done to Foote's boats, they were knocked out and forced to withdraw. Fortunately, Foote and his men were fighting upstream into the current, and when knocked out they simply drifted backwards out of range and to safety.

Grant and Foote had their answer: the Confederates in Donelson would not be cowed into an early surrender by gunboats.

Jim

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It appears that the attack against Fort Henry was authorized by MGen Henry Halleck after U.S. Grant and Andrew Foote hashed out an arrangement by which that fort could be reduced without the aid of Mortar boats (under forge and construction at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)

 

However, Flag-Officer Foote realized through reconnaissance that Fort Donelson would be a tougher nut to crack, and appears to have requested (in a letter sent February 11th, 1862) that Naval operations against Donelson be delayed until February 21st, to permit soon-to-be completed 13-inch mortars to arrive and take a crucial role. That request was ignored; and Foote's gunboats made their attempt against Fort Donelson on February 14th ...and suffered mightily.

 

Six mortar boats arrived at Union-controlled Fort Donelson on February 20th and Foote intended to use them in the reduction of the Fort at Clarksville. But a reconnaissance-in-force by two gunboats found Clarksville's fort evacuated; and the Mayor of Clarksville only too happy to turn over control of the town to Foote. Back at Fort Donelson, Foote and Grant determined to move up the Cumberland (Foote thought that Nashville could be easily taken), but a telegram from Halleck arrived midnight 20/21 February directing the return of the mortar boats to Cairo; and authorizing U.S. Grant to go no higher up the Cumberland than Clarksville.

 

Just a bit of random information

 

Ozzy

 

 

Reference   http://archive.org/stream/lifeandrewhullf00hoppgoog#page/n254/mode/2up     The Life of Andrew H. Foote, pages 231-235.

 

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Ozzy,

 

That's quite accurate about Andrew Foote wanting to wait for the mortars. He wrote afterward, “I strongly objected to open on Fort Donelson when we did as by waiting three days, as I wanted to do, we could have brought four mortar boats, and shelled out the Fort and troops, with the saving of hundreds of valuable lives.”

 

Joe

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Joe

 

I believe that 'the Navy,' Confederate torpedoes, and mortars are some of the most under-appreciated aspects of the Civil War. There is a school-supported belief (I attended Illinois state schools) that 'the Navy supported the Army' (so what is there to study?); torpedoes and land mines came 'later in the war, when it was practically all over;'  and mortars... I suppose you have to have an appreciation for how difficult it is to load a 215 pound shell -- anywhere -- to understand the significance (and potential devastation.)

 

But I must admit... I only learned a few weeks ago that McClellan sent a balloon west to work with Halleck... and he gave it to the Navy. (Imagine... a balloon at Pittsburg Landing, with the ability to observe happenings 25 miles away...) Would anyone have allowed it to fly?

 

Just a rant

 

Ozzy

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Ozzy,

 

I didn't know that about a balloon going west (it must have taken a long time, given the prevailing westerlies). Did the Navy ever do anything with it?

[i just answered my own question: looking at my notes, I find: March 25, 1862 - Balloon ascension opposite Island No. 10 Excerpt from Abstract log of Mortar Division of the Western Flotilla, March 14 to April 10, 1862. March 25.-At about 3 p. m. balloon ascensions were made in Captain Steiner's balloon Eagle, to height of 500 feet. The day being hazy they could not define fully the position of the enemy, but the experiment worked satisfactory . . . Navy OR, Ser. I, Vol. 22, p. 771. Of course, Island No. 10 was a great union victory, not that the balloon necessarily had anything to do with it.]

 

It's one of the underutilized technologies of the war. You would think that it's so obvious that any good commander, given a realistic option of deploying one, would want a balloon corps. One balloon certainly could have prevented the Shiloh surprise.

 

Of course, there's a U.S. Grant link. One of his staff engineers, Cyrus Comstock, who had even been laughed at by the staff for being somewhat of a military incompetent, had fought against the balloon corps in the East (apparently by cutting its funding) well before Grant became General-in-Chief (although Comstock was impressed with the balloon's capabilities the first two times he ascended). Balloons could have been very helpful during the Overland campaign, and in the stalemate of Petersburg, you would think that they would be extremely so.

 

Joe

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I suppose the Army was more keen on that double-barreled howitzer, with the chain connecting the two cannonballs. Now that had potential...

 

Ozzy

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