Question of the Week: 2/15-2/21/21

Historian Jack Hurst has called Fort Donelson (underway on this date in 1862) “the campaign that decided the war.” Do you agree or not? Why?

18 Responses to Question of the Week: 2/15-2/21/21

  1. Based on what? That every campaign and battle after it was preordained to follow the same pattern? That’s like saying Dunkirk decided WWII .

  2. Hurst in Men of Fire argues the war in the east was a tie and the war was won in the west. In regards to Donelson he writes that the campaign split the Confederacy open led directly to the fall of Nashville as well as the emergence of Grant. I think he looks at Donelson like the first domino to fall. Donelson is certainly important, but it does not make Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, etc all a fore-gone conclusion in my mind. So while I see Donelson as very important, and often overlooked, I still see Vicksburg as more important. I’m sure opinions will vary on a question like this though.

  3. Grant might have thought so, and until Shiloh still believed that. After that, he knew that the South would have to be beaten in to submission, and only fighting would do that. so no, Donelson was the start of the Confederacy unraveling, but as an old adage says “the path to 50% leads thru 0%”

    1. Grant in his 1862 letters thought Shiloh and the fall of Corinth were death blows to the Confederacy and war would be over within a few months. Only in writing his memoirs did he conclude that Shiloh convinced him the South had to be conquered.

  4. Calling one battle or campaign the event that won a war is low-hanging fruit for those who like oversimplification and hyperbole – especially when the statement is about an event that occurred more than 3 full years before the war actually ended. Midway was the battle that won the war in the Pacific. Tell that to the Marines, sailors and soldiers who fought and died for 3 more years.

  5. I agree with earlier comments; to say that a campaign in early 1862 “won” the war is going way too far. If we believe, and I do, that the war was indeed won in the Western Theatre, there were several campaigns that led to ultimate victory: Henry/Donelson, Shiloh/Corinth, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. Henry/Donelson was the first major step in that string of campaigns that did indeed bring about victory, but a lot had to happen after Henry and Donelson for the war to be won.

  6. Everyone likes to say their battle was “decisive” unless they are writing about something more peripheral like Olustee or Jenkin’s Ferry. But even those battles are important, and indeed many lesser discussed battles were quite important. A Union victory at Secessionville (see this for more: would have led to the fall of Charleston in June 1862 for instance.

    Yet, Fort Donelson was clearly among the most important. While Fort Henry split Johnston’s department in two, Fort Donelson robbed him at least 12,000 soldiers, men who could have been better used at Shiloh. Those men were also demoralized, and the units they were a part of became desertion prone (four of my ancestors skipped out after they were exchanged). It also made Grant, among the war’s best commanders, a hero. It is my favorite of Grant’s victories.

    There was still plenty of war to be fought, but the South could ill afford at Fort Donelson, not the least because as the war progressed they proved generally unable to regain lost ground, particularly fortified cities. Such a disaster, when the war was not even a year old, was ominous. Combined with Mill Springs and Fort Henry, it was among the crucial offensives.

    Clearly an overreach, but the Fort Donelson was a major victory, easily on par with Vicksburg, Gettysburg, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

  7. It’s decisive only in that if it’s a loss, Grant gets sacked. And would the war have come to a successful conclusion for the Union had Grant not eventually risen to overall command? Hard so say. But we know at least that Grant’s rise to overall command did win the war for the Union.

    That scenario also only works if all the other dominos fall into place: Grant has to win Shiloh, has to capture Vicksburg, has to lift the siege of Chattanooga, has to get push onward through the Overland Campaign, etc. None of that would’ve happened had Grant lost at Donelson. But Grant would’ve never won the war had any of those other dominos not fallen. In the context of that chain of events, each one becomes “decisive.”

    I liked Hurst’s book, though!

  8. I think Tim Smith’s argument that Fort Henry proved the more far-ranging strategic victory is correct. that said, I think Hurst’s argument is basically an overreach – the fact that Braxton Bragg led a Rebel army deep into Kentucky a mere 6 months later is strong evidence to the contrary.

  9. While the surrender of a large Confederate force was big in 1862, it wasn’t decisive. Using hindsight, we see that it lead to this, that and the other thing in a chain reaction. No one in 1862 saw it as anything close to decisive. I agree saying so is overreach.

  10. While resisting the attempt to condense the War in the West to a single battle, this author will concede there were significant outcomes from the Federal Victory at Fort Donelson:
    1. Albert Sidney Johnston, the South’s most acclaimed General (at that time) suffered defeat so humiliating that the public called for his removal;
    2. Victory at Fort Donelson amassed a giddy disparity in casualties: 2700 Union versus over 14,000 Rebels;
    3. Federal success at Fort Donelson directly resulted in Rebel evacuation of Nashville and the turning of impregnable Fort Columbus; and indirectly initiated the opening of the Mississippi River from its southern end, below New Orleans;
    4. There was widespread expectation in the North that the Victory at Fort Donelson would result in imminent Crushing out of Rebellion in the West;
    5. Lew Wallace, Charles Ferguson Smith and “Unconditional Surrender” Grant became household names;
    6. The promotion of U.S. Grant to Major General, with date of rank 16 FEB 1862, set that man up to become Senior Commander in the West (when both John Pope and Henry Halleck were called east in Summer of 1862.)
    What is ignored by this attempt to distil history to its essence: the earlier (Naval) Victory at Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River to Muscle Shoals, Alabama; the even earlier occupation of Paducah Kentucky (by U.S. Grant) actually initiated the ultimate Federal success in the West; the “black eyes” suffered by the Union at Shiloh, and the missed opportunity of Farragut at Vicksburg are reduced in emphasis.

    1. Johnston’s biographer, Charles P. Roland has an excellent discussion of the General’s actions regarding Forts Henry and Donelson. Johnston never expected to hold the line from Columbus to Bowling Green, but it was unfortunate that he did not take charge at Fort Donelson. He could have possibly saved much of the army stationed there. But Johnston also knew that “Buell was on his way to reinforce Grant and seize the Tennessee capitol.” Johnston sensed that even if Grant were beaten, the weakened Confederate army would have been no match for Buell.

  11. Donelson was the top of the wedge. The riverine / land force partnership Grant forged was exactly the right tool for splitting the Confederacy into pieces. Just like splitting firewood, the Mississippi Valley & Middle Tennessee wedges drove for the Gulf & to The Sea.

  12. It was ONE battle. Period. Certainly it was significant but there would be plenty of other significant engagements before and after Donelson. Lots of ups and downs would be experienced by both sides in the East and the West. Fort Donelson did facilitate what I refer to as ‘logical next steps’ as far as the implementation of “The Anaconda Plan” along the Mississippi and other waterways in the Western theater. But when it is all said and done, it is still just ONE battle.

  13. Shiloh. Grant loses and he and Sherman are off fighting the Indians and the north loses it’s best two generals.

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