Our Whole Line Seemed to be on Fire: McClernand’s Failed Assault at Fort Donelson

Francis Jordan “Frank” Burrows enlisted from Salem, Illinois as a sergeant of Co. D of the 49th Illinois Volunteer Infantry on October 19, 1861. Sergeant Burrows arrived in the western theater when his regiment arrived at Fort Holt, Kentucky on February 4, 1862 and in less than two weeks saw combat at the Battle of Fort Donelson as is described in his letter to the Salem Weekly Advocate. The 49th Illinois formed a part of The Third Brigade (Colonels William R. Morrison and Isham N. Haynie) of General John McClernand’s First Division of the District of Cairo.


Burrows’ account describes the regiment’s departure from Illinois, arrival at Fort Henry, and winter march that culminated in the assault on Fort Donelson. The ambitious McClernand, despite orders to avoid a general engagement, ordered Morrison’s brigade to charge the Confederate lines and take a battery on the morning of February 13, 1862. The two regiments of the brigade (the 17th and 49th Illinois) lined up shoulder to shoulder and prepared to pitch in. “Colonel Morrison then addressed us thus: “Boys, march slow and steady for the last hundred you may have to run.” Of course, they all knew that this meant a charge and with fixed bayonets we marched forward. When within a hundred yards of the breastworks our whole line seemed to be on fire. The Rebels had opened upon us a tremendous fire with their muskets, shot guns, rifles, and artillery,” Burrows wrote.   In the see-saw battle which ensued, the 49th Illinois was repulsed with heavy losses, among them Burrow’s company commander Captain John W. Brokaw. Colonel William R. Morrison, brigade commander and commander of the 49th Illinois, was wounded in the hip during this assault which cost 49th Illinois 14 killed and 37 wounded.


          Sergeant Burrows traveled with his regiment to Pittsburg Landing and took part in the Battle of Shiloh where the regiment lost 116 men, Burrows being promoted to regimental sergeant major on April 8, 1862. He was later commissioned adjutant and was absent on detached service when the regiment mustered out in September 1865. After the war, Lieutenant Burrows went into the grocery business in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, became a postmaster, and commander of the local G.A.R. post. He died March 9, 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at age 73.


Fort Donelson, Tennessee

February 26, 1862[1]


We left Camp Butler on the 3rd inst., and after traveling all night arrived at Cairo at 8 o’clock the next morning and immediately transferred ourselves and baggage on board the boats and proceeded across the river to Fort Holt where we remained until the 7th. We again received orders to be ready to march the next morning at 8 o’clock. We accordingly went to work packing knapsacks, cooking rations, striking tents, etc., and at the appointed time we were on the steamers Alps and Lake Erie en route for Fort Henry. Nothing happened to mar the tenor of our way until midnight and we were within four miles of Paducah when the alarm was given that the Lake Erie was in a sinking condition. As many of the boys were awakened out of a sound slumber, a scene of considerable confusion followed but fortunately all were safely transferred to the Alps except a few knapsacks and guns.


The Alps then proceeded to Paducah where we remained until daylight Sunday morning when she again cast loose her fastenings and wended her way up the Tennessee River, the banks of which are thickly covered with timber with many hills looming up in the background. We arrived at Fort Henry (now Fort Foote) in the afternoon, marched out into the woods without tents and with a billet of wood for a billow and the broad canopy of heaven for a covering, passing a middling comfortable night. Next morning, we went to work carrying our baggage from the boats to the camping ground and after a hard day’s work succeeded in getting our tents pitched about dark and turned in for the night.


We had been at work the next morning for about two hours clearing off the camping ground when orders were issued for us to be ready to march in the afternoon. As the men had only received their arms at Fort Holt, they were immediately formed into line and for two hours were severely drilled in loading and firing. Forty rounds of cartridges were distributed to each man, two days’ rations were prepared, and at 5 p.m. we started for the attack on Fort Donelson. We marched six miles with the bright smiles of fair Cynthia beaming upon us and bivouacked for the night.


Early the next morning, we were again on the march. Our route lay over high and partially cleared lands, the weather was just suitable for the occasion and as far as the eye could reach, the glorious star-spangled banner could be seen waving over regiments of infantry, trains of artillery, the red and white banner of cavalry, and trains of provision wagons. It was in fact a noble sight and would have thrilled the hearts of any loyal citizen with pride to have witnessed it. We arrived within two miles of the fort about where for the first time we formed in battle line with fixed bayonets. We kept changing position until the Rebel camp with their tall round tents, heavy earth, and log breastworks extending over the hills, met our view. After marching and countermarching over the hills and through the brush, we at last lay down within hearing of the music of the spade and axe as the Rebels applied them in strengthening their position. Had they known we were there, they could have cut us all to pieces.

Colonel William R. Morrison, 49th Illinois


Early on the morning of February 13th, we moved from this position followed by cavalry. The Rebels seeing us sent a morning salute in the shape of shot and shell but doing little injury. By this time our artillery was discoursing music from different points and new ones were constantly being opened and apparently doing good execution. The play by this time was getting exciting and our minds were busily engaged if our hands were not. From this position we again received orders to march. Left all our knapsacks and extra baggage under guard and formed in line of battle on the road opposite a Rebel battery, the 17th Illinois Infantry formed on our left. Colonel Morrison then addressed us thus: “Boys, march slow and steady for the last hundred you may have to run.” Of course, they all knew that this meant a charge and with fixed bayonets we marched forward.


When within a hundred yards of the breastworks our whole line seemed to be on fire. The Rebels had opened upon us a tremendous fire with their muskets, shot guns, rifles, and artillery. We rushed up within 30 yards of the entrenchments and opened our fire on them. In a few moments, the battle was raging fiercely and many of our brave boys falling, when we were ordered to fall back, which we did, drawing the Rebels out of their works after us. We charged again and made the Rebels skedaddled double quick behind their works and again the battle raged. As we went forward the second time, our brave and gallant Captain [John W.] Brokaw waved his sword at the head of his men and exclaimed ‘come on boys, over the breastworks!’ Every man of his company who was able came up with a rush, yelling like so many fiends, but as the Captain was going forward, a fatal ball directed by the hands of a Rebel struck him near the heart, killing him almost instantly. As he fell back, he exclaimed, ‘Howard I’m killed,” and called to Oscar [his eldest son who was a sergeant in Co. D][2] who with the assistance of some others carried the dead body off the field.[3]


After fighting one hour and 20 minutes our troops fell back. Besides Captain Brokaw, we had eight men disabled. Captain Brokaw was loved and honored by his whole company and many shed bitter tears when they saw him clasped in death’s embrace. After the Captain fell, the enemy’s fire became very severe and our boys were falling thick and fast when we fell back and rested for the night, being exposed to a severe storm of rain and snow. During Friday and Saturday were constantly exposed to the shot and shell from the enemy’s batteries and had several killed and wounded. Saturday evening, we retired out of range of the enemy’s guns and rested for the night.


Captain John W. Brokaw, Co. D, 49th Illinois
(Shiloh Discussion Group)

Sunday morning, we were again in the ranks moving forward and had not gone far when we received the news of the surrender; immediately a shot of joy, loud and long, went up from many thousand throats, making the welkin ring again. With colors flying and bands discoursing ‘Dixie,’ we marched into the fort. We have won a great victory although it has cost the lives of many of freedom’s brave sons. Fort Donelson is situated near Dover, the county seat of Steward County and twelve miles from Kentucky. Dover was deserted by its former inhabitants and is now occupied as hospitals and business offices by our troops. Many who entered into the late battle with high hopes and aspirations now fill a soldier’s grave. Peace to their ashes.

[1] Salem Weekly Advocate (Illinois), March 11, 1862, pg. 2

[2] Oscar would not survive the war, dying in the service January 8, 1865 at Paducah, Kentucky.

[3] In an interesting side note, Captain Brokaw’s granddaughter Elizabeth Louise Brokaw was the wife of Nebraska governor Charles Wayland Bryan; Governor Bryan was the younger brother of Congressman William Jennings Bryan who ran for President as a Democrat three times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


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