Sending Our Respects in the Form of a Broadside: The Lexington Saves Fort Donelson

    The gunboat U.S.S. Lexington had a lengthy and varied service during the Civil War, and seemed to play a role in all of the early western engagements including Belmont, Fort Henry, the Tennessee River expedition, Shiloh, then service on the Mississippi including the assault on Arkansas Post. February 1863 found the Lady Lex assigned to the Cumberland River, bolstering the naval presence on the Army of the Cumberland's major supply line. Confederate cavalry had played hob with the Army of the Cumberland's communications and supplies since the previous summer, and General William S. Rosecrans was determined to put a stop to their interference. Having frequent patrols by Union gunboats would help cut down on guerilla activity, or so it was thought.

    It is rather ironic that a year after the first Battle of Fort Donelson (which the Lexington missed), she would play an important role in concluding the Second Battle of Fort Donelson, also known as the Battle of Dover, Tennessee, which was fought February 3, 1863. The Lexington was on convoy duty escorting a fleet on downriver-bound transports when it received word of trouble at the fort. 

    As recalled by acting Master James Fitzpatrick, "we immediately put on all the steam the old boat would carry and left the fleet which we were at that time convoying and commenced preparing for a big fight. When within five miles of the fort, we met the steamer Duke with women and children from the fort and some cowards wearing soldiers’ uniforms on board. The men told us it was all over, but the women sung out to us “Go on, go on, they want you so bad, go on, the fort will hold out until you get there. Oh hurry!” You can imagine we lost no time. The steam gauge showed 180 lbs. pressure and we were working full stroke and the engineers raised the levers to assist her in taking steam. Everything was still- nothing to be heard except the laboring of the engines as they were forced to their utmost speed. The men were all at quarters, the shot in the racks all ready, shell up, magazines open, every man in his place, but no one has anything to say; everyone seems communing with himself. You might see determination depleted in every man’s countenance," he wrote.

    Fitzpatrick's letter was published in the February 21, 1863 edition of the Portsmouth Times in Ohio. 


The U.S.S. Lexington was built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1861 as a 448-ton Ohio River sidewheel steamer but was purchased by the U.S. Navy and converted at Cincinnati into a "timberclad," as opposed to an ironclad or tinclad. The lighter weight of its wooden armor gave the vessel a top speed of 7 knots and a shallower draft which allowed more flexibility in her deployment on the western rivers. The Lex boasted of six guns: four 8-inch Dahlgrens and two 32-pdrs. 


U.S. gunboat Lexington

Off Smithland, Kentucky

February 10, 1863

 

            We have not been idle since coming here. I suppose you have heard of our brush with the guerillas above Clarksville. They said we were the wrong boat but that is a mistake; we are the right boat in the right place, at least so the troops of Fort Donelson say. We happened to be there on time and not a minute to spare as the Rebels had the fort completely surrounded when we came up and commenced firing. The first intimation we had of an attack was from the towboat Wild Cat which we met 20 miles below the fort with orders from Colonel Harding to come to his assistance immediately as he could not hold out much longer, the enemy having him nearly surrounded and his ammunition getting short.

            We immediately put on all the steam the old boat would carry and left the fleet which we were at that time convoying and commenced preparing for a big fight. When within five miles of the fort, we met the steamer Duke with women and children from the fort and some cowards wearing soldiers’ uniforms on board. The men told us it was all over, but the women sung out to us “Go on, go on, they want you so bad, go on, the fort will hold out until you get there. Oh hurry!” You can imagine we lost no time. The steam gauge showed 180 lbs. pressure and we were working full stroke and the engineers raised the levers to assist her in taking steam. Everything was still- nothing to be heard except the laboring of the engines as they were forced to their utmost speed. The men were all at quarters, the shot in the racks all ready, shell up, magazines open, every man in his place, but no one has anything to say; everyone seems communing with himself. You might see determination depleted in every man’s countenance.

            When within sight of the old fort, we met some barges loaded with hay drifting down the stream and a short distance farther up one barge of hay and one of tents and wagons, all in flames. Then we began to think it was all over with our men at the fort as everything was still as death and no one to be seen and there were several large fires close to the fort where the Rebels had fired the army stores belonging to the fort. We now sent up some rockets and not receiving any answer, we then commenced firing shell close to the left of the fort and passed on up the river. When we came opposite the fort, we saw some cavalry on the point of the hill above the fort, but we were afraid to fire upon them thinking they were our own men. We then came to and hailed them and asked if the fort had surrendered. They said no and wanted us to land which we refused to do. (This was about 7 in the evening and the moon was just coming up.)

This watercolor map depicting the 1862 Battle of Fort Donelson also shows the orientation of the Fort to the Cumberland River and its proximity to the town of Dover. The Lexington steamed up river from the right of the map before coming abreast of the fort and loosing a broadside at the Confederate cavalry assembled near the shoreline. 


            While we were questioning the Rebels, not knowing who they were, one of our men slipped down from the fort close to the water and told us not to land as all the men which we saw were Rebels. He told us that our men were all in the fort and were surrounded and had scarcely any ammunition and for us to fire quick as the Rebels were preparing to charge on the fort. We immediately sent our respects in the shape of a broadside and in less time than I can tell you the enemy was scampering away over the hills to get out of the way of our Columbiads and rifled Parrotts. In a short time, the Fair Play and St. Clair came up and joined in, but they could not do much execution as their guns are only short range.

            In a short time afterward, our fleet of transports came up and so ended the second battle of Fort Donelson. The loss on our side was light with 14 killed and several wounded. The loss of the enemy was over 200 killed. Our men had buried over 200 before we left and were constantly bringing in more. The wounded I could get no account of as we could not tell anything about them, nearly all being carried off by their friends. Colonel McNary and another Rebel colonel were killed and a son of General Forrest badly wounded. The forces were those of Wheeler, Forrest, and Woodworth, in all something over 4,000 cavalry. Our effective force at the fort was 700-800 men. The enemy had 15 pieces of artillery with them and they captured one from the fort and took it off with them.

Source:

Letter from Acting Master James Fitzpatrick, Portsmouth Times (Ohio), February 21, 1863, pg. 2

 

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