Ironclads Fight Fort Donelson : Ironclads Were The Battleships Of Their Day

Ironclads Fight Fort Donelson : Ironclads Were The Battleships Of Their Day At Fort Donelson, just northwest of the town of Dover, Tennessee, Valentine’s Day was anything but “loving.”

The intensity and ferocity of combat and war was on full display as Confederate river batteries and heavily armored ironclad gunboats of the Federal flotilla exchanged on that day what would be called, “Iron Valentines.”

The day before, Thursday, February 13, 1862, the same Confederate defenses were twice engaged in heavy battle with a lone-ironclad, the “Carondelet,”. She was sent to create a distraction at the request of senior campaign officer, Brigadier General Ulysses Grant. 

The Carondelet attacks Fort Donelson

On the 14th, it was a flotilla of four city-class ironclads – the “St. Louis,” “Louisville,” “Pittsburgh,” and the aforementioned “Carondelet,” that slowly approached the heavily fortified and armed rebel batteries mounted on a bluff some hundred feet above the Cumberland River.

These now tested vessels were accompanied by two timberclads, the “Tyler” and the “Conestoga.” 

Sherman’s March To The Sea

The gunboat attack on 14 February

It was only eight days before, at Fort Henry, that the flotilla initiated the first modern inland naval engagement of thickly armored and heavily gunned boats against a fortified and heavily armed enemy. The victory was to the flotilla and its partnering Union army, but it was not accomplished without significant damage to the vessels and a significant number of casualties to the crews.

But it was Valentine’s Day and the group approached Fort Donelson hoping for the same success, as well as hoping for less damage to both vessels and sailors.

CSS Arkansas Vs The Union Navy

Flag Officer Foote, commander of the naval fleet, expertly maneuvered his gunboats up river to within close proximity of the fort, in order to shell the batteries into submission. 

Andrew H. Foote (1806 – 1863), U.S. Navy admiral. Photographer and date unknown. Original print in possession of National Archives. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote

However, the slow, heavy and poor-handling ironclad vessels moved slowly against the river current, proving excellent targets for the Confederate artillerymen that had identified at Fort Henry the vulnerabilities of these gunboats.

On board his U.S.S. Carondelet, Commander Henry Walke, was engaging the Confederate batteries for the second day in a row, where his ship and crew ended the day unscathed. Valentine’s Day was not as accommodating.

According to Walke:

“We heard the deafening crack of the bursting shells, the crash of the solid shot, and the whizzing of fragments of shell and wood as they sped through the vessel. Soon a 128-pounder struck our anchor, smashed it into flying bolts, and bounded over the vessel, taking away a part of our smoke-stack; then another cut away the iron boat-davits as if they were pipe-stems, whereupon the boat dropped into the water.
Another ripped up the iron plating and glanced over; another went through the plating and lodged in the heavy casemate; another struck the pilot-house, knocked the plating to pieces, sending fragments of iron and splinters into the pilots, one of whom fell mortally wounded, and was taken below; another shot took away the remaining boat-davits and the boat with them. Still they came, harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smoke-stacks, tearing off the side armor as lightning tears the bark from a tree. Our men fought desperately, but, under the excitement of the occasion, loaded too hastily, and the port rifled gun exploded.”

A total of 363 shells were launched from the rebel river batteries, hitting their target 180 times (49.6%).

The northern flotilla fired between 350-400 rounds, all well over both the batteries and the fort. As the boats drifted uncontrollably down river and out of range, the hills and hollows of Fort Donelson were said to echo from the cheers of the Confederates winning this fierce engagement on the river. 

With the flotilla out of commission, the taking of Fort Donelson was now in Brigadier General Ulysses Grant’s hands.

Part of the lower river battery at Fort Donelson, overlooking the Cumberland River

Union regiments that had remained at Fort Henry, under the command of General Lew Wallace, were ordered to march to Fort Donelson. Grant’s force increased significantly as units from General Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived on transport boats, landing out of range of the now victorious river batteries. These combined, newly arrived Federal troops would form into the Third Division, with Wallace in charge, providing Grant with close to 25,000 men against an enemy of less than 14,000.

The Union siege upon Fort Donelson had begun.

Eric Foner on the Civil War : Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor on the Civil War

Ironclads Fight Fort Donelson : Ironclads Were The Battleships Of Their Day