Where Is Pillow? – Grant and Buckner at Donelson

161 years ago today, the Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson surrendered to U.S. forces under General U.S. Grant. This was the first major Confederate army to surrender, and first of three Grant would capture during the war.

Fort Donelson’s commander was Simon Bolivar Buckner, a prewar friend of Grant’s who had been handed command when his two superiors, John Floyd and Gideon Pillow, left the fort and escaped with some troops downriver. Famously, Grant demanded unconditional surrender of the 16,000 defenders; Buckner accepted but commented they were “ungenerous and unchivalrous terms.”

This exchange is often interpreted as example of Grant’s ability to rise above personal relationships. But there is evidence Grant didn’t know he was talking to Buckner as senior Confederate officer. He learned the truth when the two commanders met in Dover afterward. “Where is Pillow?” Grant asked Buckner when they met, as the latter later recalled.  Buckner told Grant that Pillow “thought you were too anxious to capture him personally.” At this, Grant smiled and joked he’d have turned Pillow loose, as “I’d rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.” Grant also explained that he thought Buckner was conducting the correspondence on behalf of Pillow.

Grant again admitted his misunderstanding, most explicitly in 1885 when Buckner and his second wife Delia visited General Grant shortly before Grant’s death.  “General Grant told General Buckner,” Delia recalled, “that he thought General Pillow commanded, intimating but not saying so, that if he had known that General Buckner was in command, the articles of surrender would have been different.”

This information is revealing, and adds more nuance to the situation. More can be found in Arndt M. Stickles’ book Simon Bolivar Buckner: Borderland Knight published in 1940

4 Responses to Where Is Pillow? – Grant and Buckner at Donelson

  1. I seem to remember reading that Grant met Buckner in New York, pre-war and was broke. He asked Buckner for a loan to pay his hotel bill and Buckner paid it for him.

  2. I have always felt that much to much was read into the surrender procedures there and this helps to explain what some historians did not know, or ignored, in order to build a desired reputation for Grant. All historians seem to take the previous works done on their project as uncontested and repeat incorrect concepts. We, as readers, must sort out the truth from the fiction.

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