Friday, February 17, 2012

Fort Donelson Retrospective

The fall of Fort Donelson and the surrender of Fort Henry 10 days prior forced the Confederate States to relinquish hopes of controlling middle and western Tennessee by contributing to the Union victory at Nashville.  The Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, along with the key roads and railways in the area, became vital supply routes that opened the heartland of the Confederacy to Union attacks.

Perhaps as important was the success of the young Brig. General U.S. Grant which was wildly acclaimed throughout the Union newspapers.  It is said that Grant, who was an avid pipe smoker, received 10,000 victory cigars from admiring citizens and elected to give up his pipe in favor of the cigar that became a part of his image.  When pressed for terms of surrender by his long time friend Gen. Buckner, Grant said that only an unconditional and immediate surrender would be accepted, thus providing another aspect of his public persona- the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

Grant's victories did not, however, receive universal commendation.  Lincoln's commander in the western theatre, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, was fighting the war from his hotel suite in St. Louis, MO and became frustrated at delays in the receipt of Grants reports.  Historic lore blames a Confederate sympathizer in the Cairo, IL telegraph office, but Halleck intended to relieve Grant of his command responsibilities. Grant was ordered to return to Fort Henry to await resupply.  The 17th made that journey with Grant and were camped at Fort Henry until deployed to a patchwork of small farms in southern Tennessee on the western bank of the Tennessee River.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fort Donelson, Feb 16, 1862

"I awoke this morning bright and early half frozen having slept on the cold ground without cover...and I was almost sorry that I was not wounded on Saturday for I was confident that it was my last day."
-Samuel Cox, 17th Kentucky*

The 17th and other Union troops under Gen. Wallace were unaware of the Confederates' surrender during the night as they formed for an attack on the enemy lines near Dover, TN.  Forrest and his cavalry had quietly escaped toward Nashville, leaving nearly 13,000 troops to be surrendered by Gen. Buckner (CS).  Among them were many acquaintances of the Union troops.  Some prisoners handed letters to their friends, asking that they be delivered "back home" as their fate was uncertain.

For a better appreciation of this battle visit the Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

*  Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Fort Donelson, 1998
Compiled and edited by David  R Logsdon

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fort Donelson, Feb 15, 1862

"The life of a soldier is a preparation for movement into battle.  All the training, the drilling, the marching, and other phases of military life are but incidental to the closing of opposing forces in mortal combat." -John Blackburn,  17th Kentucky Infantry historian*

The 17th Kentucky had been training and drilling at their camps in Hartford and then Calhoun, KY for nearly four months.  Only a handful of Col. McHenry's men were involved in the skirmish at Morgantown, KY (Oct 29, 1861).  The rest "saw the elephant"* on this day after awakening on the frozen ground blanketed by a fresh 3" snowfall.  They were formed along a hilltop opposite the main strength of the Confederate Army with only a lightly wooded ravine separating the two lines.  The armies were at equal strength with approximately 15,000 rifles aimed in each direction.  The Confederates were dug in behind mounds of dirt and felled trees along the top of their ridge while the Union had only small trees and shrubs for protection.

Under tremendous fire from the rifle lines on the opposing ridge, the 17th and others advanced quickly down their hill and prepared to assault the Confederate entrenchments.  In the course of the day they took the hillside with great costs, but were unable to break the line of defenses.  The terrain was littered with the dead and the dying, but very little medical help was forthcoming.  While some men fled toward the river under the intense fire, the vast majority held their positions until a blistering sally from the top of the hill forced them back down into the ravine.  This sally was led by Col. Roger W. Hanson commanding the Second Regiment Kentucky Infantry (CS) of the Orphan Brigade which was raised in neighboring counties of western Kentucky. Many of these men were friends, neighbors and brothers of the volunteers in the 17th.  Approximately 50 men from the 17th became detached and found themselves alongside the 25th KY which was also formed at the camp in Calhoun.  They fought with the 25th for the rest of the day.  McHenry quickly re-formed his remaining troops and, with a few units from Indiana, was able to retake the hillside in a bold counter attack.**

The positions defended so valiantly throughout the day were finally breached that evening.  Some Confederate troops were ordered back into the fort to prepare for another onslaught of cannon fire from the riverboats while others withdrew toward Dover to protect the last possible route of escape.  While the Confederate generals met through the night to determine their course of action, the volunteers from Kentucky bivouaked for another bitterly cold night on the frozen ground.  Some cut evergreen branches to make cover and use for bedding but again, no campfires were allowed.  Many of the men regretted leaving their overcoats, knapsacks and blankets behind when they had formed the line of battle that morning.  The temperature fell to 10 degrees.

*  This was the expression commonly used at the time to describe a soldier's first battle experience.  It is presumably derived from the old parable about six blindfolded men, each allowed to touch only one part of an elephant and describe what they are touching- like a soldier trained in only one aspect of battle.  It is not until the blindfolds are removed and the men "see the elephant" that they understand what there part is.

**A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, John Blackburn, 1972,  pp.46-48   Library of Congress Catalog Number 72-93774

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fort Donelson, Feb 14, 1862

From Civil War Diary of Samuel K Cox, 17th Kentucky USA  /  Feb 14, 1862:
"When we reached the top of the hill on which we were to fight there was one continual volley of musketry for miles around.  I then began to think of the danger I was in and wished a thousand times that I was a home guard but consoled myself...that I was not the only great man in the fight and that they were as likely to be killed as myself.  We remained on the hill all day without firing a shot."
"I counted 667 shots from the Boats & Fort."*

This is the best description of the 17th's first day of action, being deployed under General Grant and his Army of the Tennessee.  After the Union gunboats were forced to withdraw from the impact of the fort's 12 heavy guns the Confederates declared a premature victory, but Grant was repositioning his men to the enemy's left to seal off their possible retreat.  The 17th was in the middle of this new right flank under command of Brig.Gen. Wallace (Cruft's Division) alongside the 25th KY, 31st IN and 44th IN from Calhoun.  They spent that night on the ground in the sleet and snow.  A "No Fires" order was in effect.

Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Fort Donelson, 1998
Compiled and edited by David R. Logsdon, Kettle Mills Press  ISBN 0-9626018-4-5

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Col. John H. McHenry, Jr. & the 17th Kentucky: Genesis

When President Lincoln called upon the states to form volunteer militia in 1861, men of various backgrounds became colonels by appointment and were charged with the task of forming regiments.  Some appointees had military backgrounds, but most were political favorite sons.  Col. John Hardin McHenry, Jr.  met both qualifications.

By all accounts Col. McHenry was well respected by the men he led into battle and the officers he served.  His father had represented Ohio County in the 29th Congress as a member of the Whig Party before moving to Owensboro to practice law.  After completing three years at the US Military Academy (West Point)  McHenry, Jr. had transferred to the University of Louisville and acquired a degree in law.  He then returned to Owensboro where he practiced until the summer of 1861.

When called upon by the Kentucky State Legislature, he gathered a handful of volunteers from Owensboro and was presented with the colors that were to be carried throughout the regiment's history.  The flag was hand stitched by loyal ladies of Owensboro and featured the state seal on a field of blue with "17th REGT. KY. VOLS." in a gold scroll beneath the seal. It had the traditional gold fringe along it's borders which designates military colors. This fledgling regiment then traveled to the McHenry family farm at Hartford, Ohio County, KY and established Camp Calloway which he named for Chesley Calloway, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War.**

In September of 1861, Gen. S.B. Buckner (CS) occupied Bowling Green Kentucky which lies about 70 miles north of Nashville.  This provided a great stimulus for volunteers from both sides in the neutral state of Kentucky and regiments began forming throughout the central and western portions of the state.  Many stories were told of men banding together to seek the camps of their choice, sometimes skirmishing in the woods along their way. There is little documentary support for these tales but they would not have been a part of the official record.

With this incursion by Gen. Buckner, a small band of volunteers under the command of Col. Pierce  B. Hawkins (later to become the nucleus of the 11th Regiment, Kentucky Infantry) joined McHenry at Camp Calloway where their ranks began to swell.  Outgrowing their present location and in the interest of force consolidation, the two fledgling regiments marched to  Calhoun, McLean County, Kentucky in November 1861.  There the 11th and 17th regiments joined several units under the command of Brig. General Thomas L. Crittendon.  Other units at Calhoun were the 25th Kentucky Infantry under Col. James Shackleford, Burbidge's 26th Kentucky Infantry,  the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry under Col. James Jackson, four regiments of Indiana infantry (31st, 42nd, 43rd & 44th) and a battery of artillery.   No one anticipated the action these troops would see over the next three years as they were assigned to the Armies of the Ohio, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, frequently fighting shoulder to shoulder, side by side.

On January 4, 1862 Capt. John E. Edwards, Third United States Cavalry, Regular Army served as mustering officer for the 692 men (including Field and Staff) of the 17th and they became a part of the United States Army.*

*  Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972. Self Published
Library of Congress 72-93774

**Helen McKeown (Ohio County Genealogical Society & Ohio County Museum Board), personal communication, April,2012

Friday, February 10, 2012


Having only recently discovered the military history of my great grandfather, Samuel Thomas Brown,  I have decided to chronicle the experiences of his regiment. It is not my intent to provide overly detailed or analytical accounts of the several major battles in which they were engaged nor to provide an historical fiction of a composite character, but simply to celebrate the three years of service volunteered by the men from Ohio County Kentucky and nearby locales that formed the 17th and 25th Kentucky Volunteer Infantries, USA.

Being granted the convenience of timing, these posts will generally be in the "150 Years Ago, Today" format, with some historical reflections and background posts to provide continuity.  The hope is to allow the reader to appreciate not only the gallantry and savagery of battle, but also give a general impression of the pace and duration of the conflict for an active regiment in the cultural upheaval known as The American Civil War.

For S.T. Brown, the upheaval was very real and would last beyond his lifetime.  His participation created a rift in the family that was never healed.  His grandchildren only recall him speaking of Jared, his eldest brother, and never any mention of his other siblings or the time spent in service of his country.  Unlike his brothers, he was not granted any portion of the family farm upon the death of his father although no unkind words were ever heard by his descendants.  He was remembered as a serious and quiet man by his grandchildren.  

Three years after the unit was mustered out of service, he would marry Charlotte, the sister of William P. Render, Co.B, 17th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry.  Both Samuel and his brother Jared Brown are buried in the Render family cemetery at West Providence Church., Rosine, KY.  His father Isaac, and other family members are interred in the Brown family cemetery near the Hopewell community. 

There was a sense in the family that unheralded service equated with insignificant service. Nothing could be further from the truth.  As the Sesquicentennial Anniversaries are celebrated over the course of the next three years, please return to this blog and check in on the brave men of the 17th KY.