4 local regiments fought in Tennessee early in the Civil War; the 66th Illinois Infantry, the 48th Illinois Infantry, the 18th Illinois Infantry and the 30th Illinois Infantry. Most regiments did not see action prior to this time; they were training and it was winter. Winter was not a good time to go to war in the era before paved roads and mechanized vehicles; so most generals waited through the winter and planned strategy. Seven ironclads used in the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers campaign were built in the 5 months through the fall and winter of 1861-1862 and two steamboats were converted to military use. All were under the command of Admiral Andrew H. Foote and would work closely with the U.S. Army commanded by Ulysses S. Grant.
On February 4, the 30th Illinois Regiment was part of a much larger force which moved up the Tennessee River approaching Ft. Henry. Ft. Henry was a Confederate earth works on low ground on the east bank of the Tennessee River not far from the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The Confederate strategy was to hold the Mississippi River and generals had heavily fortified Columbus, Kentucky with very large cannon and a giant chain stretching across the Mississippi. They failed to see a threat from the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers until it was too late to complete their fortifications. Grant saw the weakness in the Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys and recognized the potential to move into the south on these waterways which were not well reinforced. Ft. Henry was commanded by Brigadier General Tilghman. On February 6, 1862 he sent 3,000 of his troops overland to nearby Ft. Donelson only 12 miles east on the Cumberland River. This nearly emptied the fort. Tilghman stayed behind with only artillery and wounded men on a hospital ship. Federal gunboats were proceeding south up the Tennessee River and approaching the fort. They had entered the mouth of the Tennessee near Cairo, IL and planned to attack Ft. Henry on February 7. Federal troops had landed north of the fort. Tilghman knew things did not look good so he sent his troops away overland and used the artillery to delay Federal troops to give his retreating men time to get to Ft. Donelson.
At around 11 a.m. on February 6 four ironclads and 3 wooden gunboats fired on Ft. Henry. Artillery in the fort returned fire. The fort surrendered at 2 p.m. 88 Confederate troops and 16 patients aboard the hospital ship were taken captive along with Gen. Tilghman.
15,000 Federal troops under Grant arrived late, due to very wet conditions. They occupied the Ft. for a brief time before marching on to Ft. Donelson. Illinois 30th Regiment was part of the attack on the fort. The Illinois 18th Regiment entered Ft. Henry on February 6 after the surrender. The Illinois 66th Regiment reported they occupied Ft. Henry on February 9. The gunboats returned to the Ohio River to proceed up the Cumberland River with its mouth at Smithland, KY.
Ft. Donelson was commanded by Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson. He had succeeded Tilghman and he called for reinforcements. General A. S. Johnson sent troops from Kentucky. Gen. Gideon Pillow from Clarksville, TN and Gen John B. Floyd from Russellville, KY were ordered to Ft. Donelson. By the time Federal troops arrived at Ft. Donelson, Confederate strength was 12,000 men under the command of 3 Brigadier Generals. On February 12, U. S. General Grant marched 12,000 men to Ft. Donelson in spring-like weather conditions. Many of the men abandoned their overcoats and bedrolls along the route of the march because it was so warm. They surrounded Ft. Donelson on the 13th and that night the weather turned deadly cold with temperatures dropping to 10 degrees with wind, rain and sleet. The union troops were caught off guard. They had no food and could not build campfires for fear of drawing fire from the Confederates defending the fort. Many froze to death because of their folly.
On February 14 Federal boats arrived carrying 10,000 more troops. In mid afternoon 4 gunboats attached Ft. Donelson at 2,000 yards. They drew no fire and moved in to 1,000 yards. Two guns fired from the fort. When the federal gunboats moved to 400 yards, 12 Confederate cannon opened fire ripping into the boats and disabling them one by one.
On the ground, Ft. Donelson was surrounded. The river was on the northeast and Federal troops were on the southwest. The Confederates attempted to move east and break out. They captured a vital road but did not take the chance to escape, believing that Federal troops were being reinforced. The Illinois 18th Infantry regimental records reports they were in the fierce fighting for this road. The attack to the east left the west side of the Confederate line weak. This was where Grant ordered a bayonet charge. The Confederate generals could not agree on a strategy, their men were outnumbered 4 to 1 and they had no food and not enough ammunition. Grant demanded unconditional surrender on February 16 after 3 days of fighting. The Illinois 48th regimental history reports they charged the enemy on Feb 13, were under fierce fire on Feb 14 and were fiercely engaged on Feb 15. The Illinois 30th took part in the battle Feb 13, 14 and 15. The Illinois 66th Regiment reports skirmishing at the front of the battle on February 13.
The capture of Fts. Henry and Donelson opened up a vital river route through the south which was important to the Union strategy and dealt a severe blow to the Confederates.
Today if one wants to visit the site of these battles, “The Trace” through Land Between the Lakes takes a route to Ft. Donelson National Military Park approximately 40 miles west of Clarksville, TN. Sounds like a fun weekend drive. The park will be commemorating the 150 anniversary of the campaign throughout 2012 with a variety of encampments, living history program, films, author visits and more.