Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fort Donelson Captured from Confederates 152 years ago today.

16 February 2014

Dear Uncle Trit,
Today we mark the 152nd anniversary of the Union victory at Fort Donelson. There were more difficult battles to come, so many of today's Americans are unaware that Ft. Donelson was the 10th bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Our family knows about your participation in the battle while with the First Nebraska Infantry because of the letters you wrote to your mother Lydia Hornell Clarke and sister Mary Elizabeth Clarke Newton, my 3rd and 2nd great grandmothers. Your letters have been lovingly preserved and passed from generation to generation.

First page of letter addressed "Dear Sister & and Mother"
Ft. Henry Tenn, Feb 23rd 62
This letter begins;
Dear Sister and Mother,
"You doubtless have heard before this of our great and glorious victory at Ft. Donaldson [sic] but I suppose you didn't know I was there as the newspaper correspondents don't mention names. I can of course give but a meager account of the affair in general but as far as concerns myself I will tell as far as possible."

Map of the Movement from the Battle of Fort Henry to the Battle of Ft. Donelson
I hope you don't mind my including a map to help you tell the story of the Battle. Ft. Donelson remains an out of the way area in Tennessee, somewhat infrequently visited. Back to your story...

"When I wrote last we were about to start from here to go round by the river, while one division of the army went across by land to hold the enemy at bay while the river division would come up with gun boats.
When we got down to Paducah we were joined by other regiments that were waiting on steamers and five gun boats making in all 17 boats and about 16,000 men. We then started up the Ohio for the Cumberland River and arrived at the point of debarkation on the night of the 12th. We landed in the morning and started for the scene of the action. When we got there the rebels were trying to make a break and get out as they were completely surrounded."
"The country around the Fort is very broken and covered with a dense growth of brush and timber so the place of egress from the place is very narrow with only room for two Regiments to form in line and the different Regiments were guarding the pass by turns supported by batteries of artillery. We lay on the ground all night with only one blanket a piece and about three inches of room between us and the Mother Earth waiting for our time to come."

Area near Ft. Donelson where the First Nebraska
spent the night as it looked in the summer of 2009.
Underbrush is cut back within the park

"At about 10 O'clock in the morning of the 15th the order came for us to fall in and go to relieve some Ind (Indiana) boys who had been fighting all the morning. One Reg(iment) of them, the 31st Ind had been repulsed twice with severe loss. We marched down the road that leads to the Ft. to where there was a Chicago battery posted and then filed to the right down through the thick brush and halted with our left resting on the road and an Ill (Illinois) Reg. in line on our right and an Ohio Reg for reserve in our rear. I had borrowed a gun from one of our sick men and went in with my Co[mpany]." (Note: Theodore "Trit" Clarke had enlisted in the First Nebraska as a fifer, assuring his very religious mother in earlier letters that he did not intend to fire a weapon). "We hardly got into line when here they come at double quick through the bushes."

Battle of Fort Donelson by Kurz and Allison 1887
from the Library of Congress Collection
"We learned afterwards that they came with two of their crack Regiments and 800 picked men from their whole force to make a last desperate effort to capture our battery and break out. Their whole weight came onto our Reg and the Chicago Battery. As they came in sight of the Battery, one of their officer[s] (a Lieut Col) who was riding a horse back at their right pointed to the Battery and said, 'There it is boys, now take it.' Those were his last words for at that instant our left Co opened fire and he fell pierced with eight mini bullets.

The fight now began in earnest as the whole Reg with the Battery opened a most deadly fire on them at about fifty paces distance which they were not slow in returning with interest but we had the advantage of them in position as there was a slight rise in the ground in front of us that we lay down sheltered us from their fire. They stood and took it like men for twenty minutes when finding our fire too hot and no sign of growing weaker they began to fall back and finally broke and ran for their entrenchments in perfect rout leaving their dead and wounded on the ground to the number of about 300. Our loss strange as it may seem runs only two killed and thirteen wounded.

When the enemy had retired, Gen. Wallace who commanded the Brigade rode in front of our Reg and said, "Nebraska will be long remembered for what you have done today. Three cheers for Nebraska! and they were given with a wild, "Our boys did it ably for though the bullets and shells flew around them like hail not a man flinched for a moment but stood up to their work as if they were about their ordinary duties at home.

I suppose you will ask how I felt, well I don't like to brag on my self but I must say I wasn't a bit scared. When we were marching into line I felt a kind of nervous trembling but when the first gun fired I felt as cool as I ever did at home and was very highly complemented by our Major for taking the most deliberate aim of any man that came under his notice.

The boys of the Chicago Battery can not have to[o] much praise for their bravery for they work their guns under the hottest fire with dreadful effect as the right Co of the rebels took only 12 men off the field.

There may be a page of the letter missing here for the next page begins;

...we lay in line all day and the next night waiting for them to try 'it again' but they didn't come. In the morning preparations were made for a general charge on the enemy in their entrenchments but there came the joyful news that they had hoisted the white flag and then arose such a shout as can only come from 30,000 of the bravest men the world has ever produced and we marched in with the bands playing Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia. We marched to the main Fort and planted the glorious old flag on the battlements while the band played the Star Spangled Banner with thrilling effect. One of the rebels, an old soldier who had fought in the Mexican War said, 'Boys that is the first time I have heard that tune for two years and it is the best tune I've ever heard.'

The rebels were very bitter against Floyd who took his body guard and ran off the night before the surrender which was one cause of their giving up as they did. It was a fine thing for us that they gave up just as they did for if we had stormed the works it would have been at a great loss and of doubtful results as they were very strongly posted. I asked a Mississippi man what they surrendered for as they had plenty [of] provisions and such a strong place. He said,'There is too darned many of you.'

Their officers had told them that we were a set of cowards and would run away if they showed a bold front but they said it was a mistake they found out to their cost. The rebels are a brave lot of men generally but they seem to be very discouraged and homesick. They were sent down the river to Cairo. I think there was about 10,000 or 12,000 taken with all their arms and stores and the strongest fortifications in the west except Columbus.

After the surrender our Reg. marched over to Ft. Henry where we're now quartered in the huts formerly occupied by the Chivalry of the sunny south. I can't tell when our next move will be but I will try and keep you posed as to our movements. I'm afraid I have tired you with my long letter so I will say good bye for this time. Write often and direct as heretofore. I remain your brother and son.


PS: I send some Jeff Davis Postage stamps I thought they would be a curiosity. I found them on an old letter in Donelson. Postage must be high for they were both on one letter from Va. I have quite a lot of trophies but they are most to[o] bulky to send in a letter. Do you get the St. Louis paper I subscribed for. I have been getting the Independent regularly. When I read them I turn them over to our chaplain he says they are quite a treasure to him."

(punctuation and spelling are as in the original letter with a few clarifications)
Theodore William 'Trit' Clarke
Reverse image from tintype in my personal collection.

Your letter tells us what the battle was like for you. It resonates through the ages. I wish we could talk to you now to know if the feelings expressed in your letter remain the same. The Battle of Fort Donelson opened the way to the capture of Nashville, the first confederate state capital to fall to the Union and paved the way for the eventual victory.

Cecily Cone Kelly

For family members, Trit was the brother of Mary Elizabeth Clarke who married Charles Shepard Newton.

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