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

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