February 16, 1862
Sir, Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
General Ulysses S. Grant to General Simon Bolivar Buckner, February 16, 1862
Forts Henry & Donelson
Fort Henry guarded the Tennessee River. Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland River. Both were located along the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, strategic locations for Union invasions of the South. At orders from the president to advance, General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote coordinated their land and water forces for an attack.
On February 6, 1862, Union gunboats appeared on the Tennessee River and started firing on Fort Henry; the Confederate defenders eventually retreated overland to Fort Donelson. During the next few days, Union troops march overland toward Fort Donelson, and Union gunboat proceed toward that fort on the Cumberland River. Hemmed in by the gunboats and troops, the Confederates faced surrender after their river artillery batteries were disabled and a flanking attack/breakout failed. On February 16, the remaining Confederate general at Fort Donelson asked for terms of surrender.
Grant responded. Buckner would surrender.
Escape, Surrender, or Promotions
When it became apparent that Fort Donelson was lost, some Confederate commanders and troops decided to escape. Generals Floyd and Pillow departed, taking about 2,000 gray-clad soldiers and leaving General Simon B. Buckner to ask for the surrender terms. Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest insisted that he and his command of cavalry leave before the capitulation.
Buckner had no choice, except surrender. He was surrounded, and Grant could have attacked from a position of strength. The Confederacy surrender approximately 12,000 men and 48 artillery pieces that day. The Union had scored their first major victory.
The capture and surrender of Fort Donelson was a major boost for Union war effort morale. While the newspapers started hailing him as “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” Lincoln promoted the successful commander to the rank of major general. With Fort Donelson in Union hands, most of Kentucky and western Tennessee couldn’t be held by the Confederacy. The rivers and rail-lines in the area provided major roads into the center of the South and would be used with advantage in coming campaigns.
General Grant and General Buckner had served together in the U.S. Army prior to the Civil War; in fact, Buckner had loaned Grant money for his return trip from his station on the west coast after Grant’s resignation. That didn’t change Grant’s official response as army commander. He wasn’t going to let a friend have easy surrender terms at the expense of the United States. Interestingly, when Grant and Buckner chatted after the surrender, the Union general offered to loan the prisoner some money to ease his captivity. Buckner refused. The surrender at Appomattox was bloody years and miles away, but at the ending of the Civil War, Grant would still be firm and courteous to his surrendering foe.
P.S. Not quite enough information in our short overview? Check out the National Park Service website: Fort Donelson – The Battle or Emerging Civil War: Fort Donelson / Ft. Donelson for more detailed articles.