Illinois Regiments in the Battles of Ft Henry and Donelson
(near the Tennessee-Kentucky border)
(February 1862)


Due to split public opinion at the start of the war, the State of Kentucky declared itself neutral in the war. Both the Union and Confederate Governments agreed to abide by this decision, but both governments also prepared to act quickly when neutrality ended. The Confederate defensive line was established just south of the Tennessee-Kentucky border at two river forts (Link to Regional Map). Fort Henry and its supporting Fort Heinman were built on the Tennessee River, with Fort Donelson 10 miles away on the Cumberland River at Dover.

After Kentucky's neutrality ended with the Confederate seizure of Columbus, Kentucky, Union forces under US Brig. General Grant occupied Paducah and Smithfield, Kentucky at the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Grant also began planning a joint army-navy assault on the twin Confederate forts.

The first target was Fort Henry (Link to Henry-Donelson Map). It was sited on low land adjacent to the river. Grant's transports landed troops north of the fort while the Navy's gunboats moved upriver and bombarded the fort. The fight was so one-sided between the gunners at the fort and the gunboats that the fort's defenders surrendered even before the infantry arrived. Most of the defenders of the fort escaped down the road to Ft. Donelson.

Grant consolidated his forces and sent the gunboats back downstream to the Ohio so that they could then come up the Cumberland River for the assault on Ft. Donelson. On February 12, Grant's troops started the march to Ft. Donelson in unseasonably warm weather. Many of the new troops, still green, discarded their heavy blankets and coats. The Union troops marched to Ft. Donelson and took up positions surrounding the fort unopposed by the Confederates.

The Confederate troops were having their own difficulties, notably too many Generals. The commander of the fort was Former Secretary of War Brigadier General John Floyd. Also in the fort was another political Brigadier General, Gideon Pillow. The third General (who happened to be the only professional solider) was Brigadier General Simon Buckner, a former classmate and close friend of Grant's.

The fortifications of Donelson were too strong to attack with infantry alone, so Grant chose to repeat the plan from Ft. Henry. He would let the gunboats pummell the fort from the river and then mop up with the infantry. Unfortunately, it was the Confederate gunners at Donelson that did the pummelling. The gun placements were on much higher ground. When the Union gunboats closed the range to get better accuracy, the Confederate gunners found the range and started raining shells on the boats, severely damaging 2 of the 4 ironclads in the attack.

As Grant was pondering what to do, the Confederates made the decision for him. Troops had been pulled from the right of the line to attempt a breakout on the Union right (south). While Grant was away from the battlefield conferring with the Navy, General Pillows troops pushed back the Union troops until he had access to the escape route to Nashville. However, instead of capitalizing on the success, the Confederates pulled back to the original lines. When Grant returned, he sensed that the lines on the Confederate right (north) had been stripped of troops for the breakout attempt, and successfully pushed forward on that side. At that point, it was only a matter of time before the battle was over.

Not wanting to be captured, the two political Generals each turned over command and escaped by water. General Buckner was forced to ask Grant for the terms of surrender. In response, Grant replied "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works" Buckner surrendered 15,000 troops, and countless badly-needed supplies.

The fall of the two river forts opened up all of middle Tennessee to Union control, including the capital in Nashville. Gunboats could also control the Tennessee river as far as northern Alabama. Nashville remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war (Link to Regional Map showing situation).

The large number of prisoners captured at Ft. Donelson were sent back to prison camps in Illinois.

The Illinois regiments which took part in the battles of Ft Henry and Ft Donelson are listed below. The links will take you to the regimental pages.

Source: Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Dyer's Compendium

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