Left at the Landing: A Confederate View of Fort Donelson

     On February 21, 1862, the 450 men of the 20th Mississippi regiment arrived at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois as prisoners of war. “They are a dare-devil set of fellows and still full of fight,” the Chicago Tribune reported. The Mississippians, sullen and determined to fight it out to the end, didn’t like being prisoners of war but had another grudge that really rankled them. It was their former brigade commander General John B. Floyd. One soldier grumped to the Tribune reporter that “he would be perfectly content to remain forever a prisoner of the North if he could but have the pleasure of seeing Floyd strung as high as Haman.”

The former Secretary of War had earned their ire through an act of perfidy during the last hours of Confederate resistance at Fort Donelson. “The 20th Mississippi was detailed to guard the rear of Floyd’s brigade in their hegira from Fort Donelson, it being agreed that the Mississippians were to join them,” it was reported. “As soon, however, as the redoubtable Virginians were safely on board the boat, which was to bear them up the river, Floyd turned to Major William Brown and coolly told him there was no room for him and left him to fight it out as best he could. This and other incidents in Floyd’s career doubtless caused the many hard imprecations which we heard showered upon his head by the prisoners,” the Tribune stated.

Among the witnesses to this event was Corporal Marcellus L. Vesey of the 14th Mississippi. Vesey had left his regiment and had fallen in with the 20th Mississippi after learning that they were aiming to leave the fort and was at the boat landing when Floyd’s boat shoved off. After watching the vessel move out towards the opposite shore, it turned upriver and steamed off towards Clarksville, leaving the 20th Mississippi behind with the rest of the garrison. “The officer was the maddest man I ever saw and threatened to kill General Floyd if he ever saw him again,” he remembered of Major Brown. Vesey’s account was published in the October 1929 edition of Confederate Veteran.

 

This image depicting a group of Confederate prisoners of war was taken at Camp Douglas and gives a good depiction of the dress of a western Confederate. The men all have gray overcoats but sport quite the variety of headgear. 

          I was at Fort Donelson. I belonged to Co. I, 14th Mississippi Regiment, Captain S.J. Gholson, Colonel W.E. Baldwin, General Simon B. Buckner’s command. We had been sent there from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Fort Donelson was a mud fort on the bank of the Cumberland River. The river there makes a bend, and the Confederate army was placed in a semicircle enclosing the town of Dover and the fort on its western suburbs. The Federal army also extended from the river on the west to the river on the east of the town. The Confederates had light rifle pits all along their line except where a battery was to be stationed and at such places there was a skip in breastworks of some 20 or 30 feet. This looks very much like some of General Pillow’s planning for, it is said, in Mexico he had breastworks dug and the dirt banked in the rear of the ditch instead of in front.

          However, this may be, I know that Porter’s Battery which the 14th Mississippi supported lost very heavily from sharpshooters who had plain view of them. John W. Morton was a lieutenant of this battery and was one of the bravest and most efficient officers I ever saw in action. As many of his gunners were shot down, he took charge of one gun and fought it until the battle was over. This was on Wednesday when the Federals made a general attack all along our lines and were handsomely repulsed at all points. On Thursday, the Federals made an attempt with six gunboats to pass our water batteries and reach the town of Dover. The fort was defended by one 10-lb smoothbore gun, two 65-lb rifle guns, and several smaller pieces. The 65-lb rifled pieces were the most effective and the gunboats were handsomely repulsed. Two were so badly damaged that they had to be towed out of danger.

          On Friday there was but little action, but it was rumored that the Federals had been largely reinforced; our generals became much alarmed and after consultation had concluded to cut our way out and leave by way of the Furnace Road up the river in the direction of Clarksville, Tennessee. The Cumberland River here runs almost due north. On Friday evening, each company received orders to be ready to move at daylight Saturday morning with three days cooked rations in our barracks and with out knapsacks on our backs.

          At daylight Saturday morning, we left our breastworks, leaving a few men in the trenches to walk about and fire occasionally and keep up a semblance of an occupation. The rest of us marched to our extreme left and made a sudden attack on the Federals. We must have taken them by surprise as many were captured and other retreated only partially dressed. We drove them through acres of tents, and they left the ground strewn with drums, horns, knapsacks, and guns. We captured several batteries of artillery, several hundred prisoners, commissary and quartermaster wagons, and ambulances. We kept driving them back for hours until there was not a Yankee within five or six miles of the Furnace Road, our original line of retreat. About noon, our wounded and prisoners were sent to Clarksville by boat.

Major General John Buchanan Floyd may have been a statesman but he was no soldier. Northern papers vilified the former Secretary of War, accusing him of sending thousands of muskets into Southern arsenals in the months leading up to the secession crisis. After Fort Donelson, the Confederate government didn't have much use for the Virginian, either. Regardless, he was given a major general's commission of Virginia troops but saw little more service before dying in 1863 at age 57. 

          Late in the afternoon, the Federals made a stand at a high ridge running north and south defended by many batteries of artillery and from which we were unable to dislodge them. Thereupon, to our utter astonishment, we were ordered to return and take our former position in line. When the 14th Mississippi had reached our former position, it was between sundown and dark and we found our former breastworks filled with Yankee soldiers. After exchanging a few shots, we fell back out of range and stacked arms for a good rest.

          Shortly after this our generals held a consultation and decided to surrender the fort. When I saw what was taking place, I commenced to look for a means to escape and started for the boat landing. On the way I saw Harvey Murphy, a young lawyer who belonged to the same company as myself, walking down the street toward the Furnace Road. I asked him where he was going. He said he was going out on the road where we whipped the Yankees in the morning. I saw him about a year afterwards and he told me that he was not molested and that the whole army could have gone out with little or no danger. Going on, I met up with Pompey Vassar, the adjutant of our regiment, who was also seeking a means to escape. As we reached the river bank a short distance west of the boat landing, we saw a man building a raft from lumber on the bank. He said if we would hand down the planks to finish the raft, we could cross the river with him. This we did until he said that it was ready and to get on. The raft began to sink, and the man said one of us would have to get off. I told Vassar I would get off as I thought I could get away on the boat with the 20th Mississippi, part of General Floyd’s command. Vassar handed me his beautiful sword, telling me to take care of it if I got away and if not to throw it into the river.

          I watched them until they landed on the opposite side of the river then I went down to the boat landing where I found the 20th Mississippi in a semicircle guarding the embarkation of Floyd’s command, consisting of four Virginia regiments and the 20th Mississippi. I went up to Captain Rhoren, one of the captains of the 20th Mississippi who I knew well, and asked permission to attach myself to his company. He said, “why certainly, I will be glad to have you.” In a short while the four Virginia regiments were aboard the boat whereupon General Floyd came on the lower deck and ordered the gangplank pulled in whereupon the officer commanding the 20th Mississippi [Major William N. Brown] drew his pistol and called to Floyd saying, “I’ll kill you if you attempt to leave my regiment after standing guard here all night.” To this, General Floyd said “I am surprised at you. I am going across the river and put off part of the men and then will come back and get you.” To this the officer said all right.

The gangplank was pulled in and the boat went across the river until it got near the opposite side when it turned and left up the river towards Clarksville, leaving the 20th Mississippi at the landing. The officer was the maddest man I ever saw and threatened to kill General Floyd if he ever saw him again. It was now about daylight. I threw Pompey Vassar’s sword in the river then went back to my command to surrender.

         

Sources:

“Why Fort Donelson Was Surrendered,” Corporal Marcellus L. Vesey, Co. I, 14th Mississippi Infantry, Confederate Veteran, October 1929, pgs. 369-70

“The Confederate Prisoners: Their Arrival in the City,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 22, 1862, pg. 2

“The Rebel Prisoners,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 24, 1862, pg. 4

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