Tuesday, August 02, 2011

New and Noteworthy---The Battles of Forts Henry and Donelson

The Battle of Fort Donelson: No Terms But Unconditional Surrender, James R. Knight, The History Press, 158 pp, 51 photographs, 8 maps, index, notes, appendices, 2011, $19.99.

Though the title features Fort Donelson, Knight's work offers so much more. The rise of the Union's brown water navy, the Confederate's of dilemma protecting the Trans-Appalachian region that is bisected by three rivers, and the strategic decisions led to lasting failures and successes are covered in The Battle of Fort Donelson: No Terms But Unconditional Surrender. Professional competencies, geographic terrain, and regional politics are reviewed and set with the context of early 1862 during the Civil War. Succinctly, Knight covers the pasts, 1861-1862 war activities and post events in a host of decision makers. The stories of 14 military leaders who won and lost at Fort Donelson enliven the story of the campaign.

The Battle of Fort Henry, fought on February 6, 1862 on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, was the first major victory for the Union and Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater. Hand in hand with the new brown water navy, On February 4 and February 5, Grant landed two divisions just north of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. While it was being simultaneously attacked by USN timberclad and ironclad gunboats commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, Grant's troops began their assault on the fort. Due to Kentucky's neutrality, the fort was poorly situated across the border in Tennessee. Naval gunfire and rising river waters, caused Fort Henry's commander, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, to surrender to Foote before the infantry arrived. Knight recounts how the surrender of Fort Henry opened for Federal ships the Tennessee River to past the Alabama border. From February 6 through February 12, raiding timberclad vessels destroyed Confederate shipping and railroad bridges as Grant's army marched overland 12 miles to Fort Donelson.

The battle at Fort Donelson was haltingly fought from February 11 to February 16, 1862. On February 14, USN timberclad and ironclad gunboats attempted to reduce the fort with naval gunfire, but sustained significant damage from Donelson's water batteries. On February 15, with their fort nearly surrounded by the Union army on the west and the Cumberland River on the east, the Confederates launched a dawn attack against Grant's army. The attempt was to open an avenue of escape. Due the indecisiveness of the Rebel generals and Grant's decisiveness in rallying his army and forging a counterattack, the escape route that was open for several hours, became closed. On the morning of February 16, two Confederate generals past the situation to a third who agreed to unconditional surrender terms from Grant.

Knight sets the campaign well within the contingencies of the situation. Personalities play as large a part in the campaign as do the strategic, tactical, geographic and weather constraints. Within 135 pages, Knight offers an insightful description of a campaign that in many ways set the tone of the Union's victory in the war. Marshaling resources, building leadership, devising amphibious operations, and overcoming its own deficits the Union won the war. Well paced, exciting and even at times suspenseful The Battle of Fort Donelson: No Terms But Unconditional Surrender is a fine addition to The History Press' fine Civil War Sesquecentennial Series.

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