Dueling with the Gunboats: With the Confederate Gunners at Fort Donelson

 Joseph Hinkle of the 30th Tennessee had scarcely arrived at Fort Donelson in early 1862 before the young infantryman came down with a case of the measles. He returned home, recovered, and arrived back at the fort just in time to participate in the battle against General Ulysses Grant’s army as Hinkle relays in the following letter. His company received orders to man the ten heavy guns that had been emplaced on the bluff defending the Cumberland River and here Hinkle begins his story of the Battle of Fort Donelson.


Private Hinkle's position from the water battery at Fort Donelson gives a commanding view of the Cumberland River. The Tennessean served these guns which repulsed the Federal gunboat attack on February 14, 1862 and eventually was captured when the fort surrendered two days later
(National Park Service) 

          My company [A] was detached from the regiment [30th Tennessee] and put in charge of the water batteries to fight the gunboats. The battery was composed of eight 32-lb guns, a 128-lb gun, and a rifled gun. Captain Dickson of Clarksville was commander of the batteries. After days of fort building, throwing up breastworks and fortifications, the day arrived when the battle began. We had to started to dinner and met Captain Dickson when he said, “Get back to your guns and get ready- don’t you see the smoke of the gunboats coming?” A gunboat came around the bend and fired one shot and dropped back behind the bend.

          The next day four or five gunboats came up in view of our works and opened on us and when they got near enough to us our commander ordered us to open up on them. This was the last command Captain Dickson gave us as he was killed soon afterwards. They dismounted the gun next to the big gun and the top of the axle hit Captain Dickson on the side of his head and covered the men up with dirt and the bombshell jumped on the parapet where the big gun was, but we threw it out before it exploded.

          Quite a curious incident occurred during this engagement- the ball of the big gun got lodged and we climbed up during the hottest of the engagement and with a rail we rammed it home. The gunner said, “Now watch me knock down a smokestack” and the shot knocked off both the smokestack and flag of one of the gunboats. I know we disabled one gunboat for other boats hitched on to it and tugged it back out of sight. It seemed, as far as I could see, we weren’t damaging the gunboats much. We could see the ball leave our gun and could hear it when it struck their gunboats. It was said we did great damage and that the balls would go through the portholes and kill the men as fast as they could put them there.

The Federal gunboats steamed in close to contest with the fort's batteries but took heavy losses in so doing and eventually drew off, leaving the Confederates in command of the Cumberland. 

          The Yankee gunboats came up near the landing and they would shoot over us and plow up the ground above our batteries and bombshells and were as thick as blackbirds flying through the air. The only damage they did us was to dismount this gun I have spoken of and kill the commander. They could not elevate their guns properly to do effective work, but we were throwing balls into the hulls of the boats. They finally dropped back and never did pass by us up the river.

          Each day the gunboats would open up on us, then came the infantry, cavalry, etc., resulting in a general engagement. We fought the great battle against great odds and it was reported in our campo that we had about 15,000 troops and, from the size of General Grant’s army as it marched in after the surrender, it seemed to me that he had at least 50,000 men.

          My company had orders to get with the regiment. We marched up to Dover and found everything in commotion. Generals Pillow and Floyd had loaded up their troops on their transports and pulled out for Nashville leaving General Buckner in command. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest was there and wanted to take us out. We were ordered back into the fort and found the white flags flying. Buckner had surrendered to Grant and as the river was out of its banks, we saw no chance for our escape so we retired back to our quarters and began to cook and eat. Everything was in commotion as a finely equipped army came in to take possession. While we were lined up- quite a number of kinfolk and old acquaintances met who went North when the war broke out and had joined the Union army.

          The next thing in order was to load us up for a Northern prison. The snow and wind and the cold weather was such that General Buckner appealed to General Grant to put us aboard the transports as soon as possible as we were freezing. Grant gave his consent. After everything was loaded, we pulled out for Alton, Illinois where we changed to cars that took about 3,000 of us to prison at Camp Butler near Springfield, Illinois. We had a rough voyage with the floating ice in the river. We talked of making our escape by capturing the boats and landing on the Missouri side of the river and making our way to Price’s army, but we abandoned the idea.

          After a prolonged trip by water and rail and much exposure we reached the prison. We were driven into the barracks like so many sheep and a certain number of men were allotted to each barrack, the barracks being built with bunks on each side. They had places for us to cook and eat in. We were not foundered with the fare we got but we had enough to keep body and soul together. We were allowed to buy anything we liked from hucksters in addition to what was dished out to us.

          On account of the exposure in the battle and our long trip to prison quite a number of our soldiers died daily in the prison. We had to sometimes dig a number of graves in advance to have them ready when our men died. Here is where I contracted the rheumatism which has followed me to this good day.


          Eventually, Hinkle would escape from Camp Butler and return home to Tennessee where he joined Colonel Woodard’s Kentucky cavalry, fighting in Tennessee and Kentucky, before his rheumatism grew so painful and disabling that he was discharged from the army.



Letter from Private Joseph A. Hinkle, Co. A, 30th Tennessee Infantry, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina


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