First Kentucky "Orphan" Brigade 


 

DIARY ACCOUNT OF FORT DONELSON

(Lt. Selden Spencer, Graves’ Battery)

 

   Maj. Selden Spencer, son of Horatio Nelson Spencer, was born in Port Gibson, Miss., March 23, 1837. He graduated with distinction at Yale College in 1857. At the outbreak of the war he entered heartily and ardently into the service of the South. He raised a company of artillery and uniformed it at his own expense. He tendered his company, in August of 1861, to Gen. Buckner, with the request that he assign an officer to take the chief command. Capt. Graves (afterwards major and chief of artillery on Gen. Breckinridge's staff) accepted the appointment, and directed the affairs of the battery up to the time of the battle and surrender of Fort Donelson. Maj. Spencer was a planter in Issaquena County, Miss. He died June 3, 1878.

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Lt. Selden Spencer, Graves' Battery
USAMHI (Alice Sage Collection) USAMHI (Alice Sage Collection)

The following graphic account of the incidents of those memorable days is taken from the private diary of Maj. Spencer:

   The battle of Fort Donelson began on Wednesday, February 12, 1862, about 11 A.M. I arrived at Fort Donelson from Nashville about an hour before the action commenced, and found the battery encamped about half a mile back from the town of Dover. Soon after I arrived our pickets engaged those of the enemy. Capt. Graves and two of our lieutenants had ridden to the fort to see its strength, and also around what would be our probable line of defense. Before Capt. Graves returned a courier came in with the report that the enemy were advancing, driving in our pickets. I immediately had the assembly sounded, and had the battery in marching order when Capt. Graves rode in, taking command.

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Capt. Rice E. Graves
seen as Major & Chief of Artillery
(Thompson, "History of the Orphan Brigade")

   He received orders to move about half a mile northeast of his old position and there await further orders. We stopped in a valley running from the river back between the town and the fort. In this dangerous and exposed situation we remained an hour or so. The cavalry had already passed us, bringing in their wounded. We at length received orders to ascend the hill upon which the fort was situated. We went down the valley and ascended the hill near the fort, and then went back from the river until we met our line of battle near the extreme right wing, where we unlimbered and went into action, supported by Col. Cook's Thirty-second Tennessee and the _____ Tennessee. Next on our right came Col. Palmer's Eighteenth Tennessee, Col. Brown's Third Tennessee, Col. Baldwin's Fourteenth Mississippi, Col. Hanson's Second Kentucky. Col. Hanson rested on the back-water, which made up from the river below the fort, and was the extreme right of our line. Capt. Porter's light battery of six guns was posted about half-way between us and the backwater, about the middle of the right wing. To our left the hill declined abruptly to a valley and again rose on the opposite side. There was no force immediately in the valley as our battery swept it, and the two regiments on the hillsides could throw a converging fire into it. Commencing at the foot of the hill, across the valley to our left, came Col. Abernethy's Fifty-third Tennessee and Col. Heiman's Tenth Tennessee. Capt. Maney's light battery of six guns was posted on the hillside near the top. The top of this hill was near the center of our line. Gen. Buckner commanded the right wing; Gen. Bushrod Johnson, the center; and Gen. Floyd, the left. Gen. Floyd's left was composed of the First Mississippi, Fifty-sixth Virginia, Fiftieth Virginia, Seventh Texas, and Eighth Kentucky. The First Mississippi was on the extreme left, resting on the backwater, which made back from the river above the town. From this point it was about a mile and a half straight down the river to where the Second Kentucky, our extreme right, rested.

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Fort Donelson and surrounding area   --  the 2nd Kentucky Infantry and Graves' Battery were stationed near the center of the outer line of works, then they were moved to the extreme right, where they repulsed Federal attacks on 12 February.  Both units were then moved to the extreme left, where they made a successful attack on 14 February.  On 15 February the 2nd Kentucky, along with two of Graves' guns, were moved back to their old works on the extreme right, where they were unsuccessful in holding the advanced line, but stopped the Federal attack on top of the hill just above the fort.  (Map from Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1862, p. 150)

   The line of battle was a half-circle about four miles long, and included both the fort and the town of Dover, and was well selected, both wings being flanked by water and being located on a chain of hills. The country was very hilly, and covered with a thick growth of small black-jack and oak. From the top of the hills on which we were posted the timber had been cut down to the bottom of the hill, and in some cases up to the top of the opposite hill. The hills were very precipitous, and in some cases separated by ravines. We gained our position on the left of the right wing about one o'clock. The enemy had driven in our pickets, but were advancing very cautiously. They soon placed a battery in position a little to our left, and sent a few shots to feel our position and provoke a reply. We did not answer. In about an hour they tried us again, sending some six-pound pills over our heads, but still we did not answer. Their battery was hidden from us by the undergrowth, and we did not intend that they should find us out until they were within good range and were visible. The enemy made no further demonstration that evening than to feel our position and to make preparation for the next day. In the afternoon an engineer, mounted upon a white horse, rode coolly down the valley to within six hundred yards of our line, and surveyed us with his field glass. A sharpshooter, having obtained permission, crept down the hillside to within three or four hundred yards of him and tried several shots at him without effect. He bowed gracefully, wheeled his horse, and rejoined his escort. Wednesday night the entire line was busied digging a trench and throwing up a parapet of logs, Gens. Pillow and Floyd having determined to await the attack. Those who could snatch a little rest slept, with the blue sky for a covering.

   The next morning (Thursday) the battle began soon after daylight. The rattle of musketry was first heard along the left. A battery which had been placed in position during the night opened on us. Our battery replied, and Capt. Porter also opened on it. We soon silenced it, dismounting one of their guns and a caisson. About ten o'clock the enemy made a vigorous charge on our extreme right, but were repulsed by the Second Kentucky. They formed and charged again, and were again routed. About twelve o'clock a brigade charged our center. They were met by Cols. Heiman and Abernethy, and Capt. Maney's Battery. We opened an enfilading fire with shell and shrapnel, when they wavered, then rallied, but were again repulsed, falling back in disorder. A portion of the time the combatants were not forty yards apart. Capt. Maney did great execution with canister. In the evening they again charged our left, and were again repulsed. The battery that we had silenced early in the morning again opened upon us, and we fought it for a number of hours. Thursday evening about dusk a gentle rain began to fall, but it grew cold very fast, and before nine o’clock it was snowing furiously. It snowed nearly all night, but, the weather gradually growing colder, daylight broke upon us clear. The wounded on the battle-field suffered beyond the power of words to tell. One poor wretch had strength enough left to crawl up to the breastworks on our left this morning, and was helped over the logs and laid on a blanket by a fire, but death soon relieved him.

   Friday morning the enemy showed no disposition to attack; their lesson of yesterday had evidently taught them the strength of our position. From my place I could see heavy masses of troops passing around to their right. They were evidently determined to surround us. There was no attack made during the day, except by artillery. During the night a battery had been placed on the hill opposite us, and somewhat to our right, but not so near to Capt. Porter as it was yesterday, but still within his range. When it opened fire we replied, and a heavy cannonading was kept up for an hour or so, Capt. Porter's Battery joining us in our fire, and we silenced it. The cannonading was general along the whole line throughout the day. Capt. Jackson had supported the extreme right yesterday (Thursday) evening, and his battery was to-day employed in that position with the Second Kentucky. It was extremely cold, and the troops suffered very much from exposure, being compelled to remain in action.

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Overcoat of Pvt. D.F.C. Weller, 2nd Kentucky Infantry
In the winter of 1861-62, the 2nd Kentucky had been furnished with hooded overcoats, privately purchased for the regiment by Maj. James W. Hewitt.  These overcoats came in very handy at Fort Donelson, where Pvt. Weller reportedly wore his coat (although it does not show the marks of the wounds he suffered there).  (Kentucky Military History Museum)

   Friday about noon the Federal gunboats came up and attacked the fort, and for more than an hour the thunder of heavy artillery deadened the air. The gunboats were repulsed with loss, two or three being completely disabled. The cheer that went along our line soon informed the enemy of the fact.

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Guns in the Confederate Water Battery, which repulsed the Federal gunboats
(Harper's Weekly, March 22, 1862, p. 188)

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Similar view today, showing reconstructed 32-pounder gun in the Water Battery
(author's photo)

Night closed in, and pickets were thrown out a few hundred yards, and we slept on our guns in the snow and sleet, or rather all that could sleep for the intense cold. About two o'clock we were roused by marching orders. The horses were soon geared to the guns. We marched back through the town to our left wing, and took up our position there. The distance was about three miles, and we accomplished it in three hours. Down the hill we went, on across the little valley, and up the hill leading to the town, the hills slippery with ice, requiring all the strength of the cannoneers at the wheels and the drivers’ spurs to get the battery up one hill in an hour. From the town we went down another long hill and up the steep side of the opposite one, and at daylight found ourselves there on our left wing. It then appeared that we were to be the attacking party in the next day's fight. Gen. Floyd had taken his division, a part of Buckner's Division, and B. Johnson's Brigade, and Saturday at daylight we attacked the enemy on our extreme left. The battle had opened when we gained position. The Seventh Texas was next to us on the right wing of this new line of battle, next to it the Eighth Kentucky, the First Mississippi, Third Tennessee, Twentieth Mississippi, Fifty-sixth Virginia, etc. The enemy fought gallantly, contesting the ground inch by inch, but we were not to be cool spectators of the scene. As soon as we gained our position the enemy opened on us from a battery about eight hundred yards to our right with rifled ten-pound Parrott and James rifled guns and well handled, while we had to fight them with smoothbores, except one rifled ten-pound Parrott gun in our battery. I immediately devoted myself as exclusively as possible to the rifled piece, trusting more to its accuracy. The sharpshooters of the enemy were, as usual, very annoying, creeping among logs and timber to within four or five hundred yards of our line, and the whistle of their bullets rang merrily (?) and continuously. Early in the morning a shell wounded five of our men, one of them mortally. Their rifled shot and shells tore up the ground around us, cut off saplings and limbs around and above us, killing some of our horses and knocking off the end of a caisson.

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10-pounder Parrott Rifle
(author's photo) (author's photo)

   Gen. Buckner stood by my position for some time, watching the progress of the battle. He at length ordered a portion of Capt. Porter's Battery to take up position about four hundred yards to our right and assist us. Our united efforts soon began to tell. We were supported by the Second Kentucky, Fourteenth Mississippi, and several Tennessee regiments of Gen. Buckner's Division. Posted as we were on the extreme right of our new line, we were the pivot on which the line was moving. Fighting had been steady along the line all the morning. At times the musketry would be steady, continuous, and severe, telling of the stubborn stand the enemy were making, and then the scattering discharges told of their falling back. Gen. Floyd had been thus driving the enemy all the morning until about half past ten o'clock, when Gen. Buckner ordered the Fourteenth Mississippi to charge the enemy in front of us, and they were supported by some Tennessee regiments. Under cover of our fire they advanced and began the attack; but were forced back, and the two regiments fell back behind us. The enemy now appeared on the hillside about four hundred yards from us. They formed beautifully in the shape of an open V, the point toward us. We showered shell and canister upon them, breaking their line, and they fell back behind the hill. The Second Kentucky was now ordered to the charge. They formed on the hillside, charged up the hill in gallant style, and Col. Brown, of the Third Tennessee, supported them. The Fourteenth Mississippi was again led out to the charge. Col. Forrest drew up his cavalry on the hillside. When the Second Kentucky marched to the hilltop the contest was sharp and decisive. A squadron of Forrest's Cavalry charged the enemy a little to the right, and the Fourteenth Mississippi to the left. The enemy gave ground, still fighting as they retreated.

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Flag of Company C, 2nd Kentucky Infantry, carried at Fort Donelson
(Kentucky Historical Society / Military History Museum) (Kentucky Historical Society / Military History Museum)

   The rattle of Floyd's musketry was growing sharper and nearer. He had been driving the enemy all morning, but it was now evident that he had them under good headway. The battery that we had been fighting gave way, leaving behind a dismounted gun and caisson. The enemy were now in full retreat. Gen. Buckner pursued them heartily on the right and Gen. Floyd on the left. Gen. Buckner ordered out a section of our battery to support and follow up the pursuit. Capt. Graves and Lieut. S. M. Spencer went in command. After retreating about a mile, the enemy fell back on their reserve, and here, where they had constructed temporary breastworks, they again made a stand, but were soon routed, and Forrest's Cavalry pursued them for some distance.

   By a review of this statement it will be seen that the enemy first advanced to the attack on Wednesday, making a reconnoissance in force; that on Thursday they attacked our right and center in force, and were repulsed; that their reenforcements Thursday and Thursday night enabled them on Friday to strengthen and extend their line on our left until it inclosed us and cut us off from retreat, except by transports up the river. . . . Our generals knew, too, that it would be easy for the enemy to post a battery of field guns on the river bank and cut off our communication with Nashville and our retreat by river. The enemy were also receiving reenforcements on Friday and Friday night, and had heavy masses of troops supporting their left near the fort. Under these circumstances it would have been easy for them to have tired us out. We had but about fourteen thousand men; they had near sixty thousand. By bringing up fresh commands to the attack every day they could have exhausted our little band, which had no relief and had already been employed three days up to Friday night without rest, sleeping in the trenches by night, fighting by day in the snow and sleet, poorly clad and poorly fed. It was accordingly determined Friday night to make the attack on Saturday morning, to withdraw nearly all our forces from our right wing, and with our right and left wings to advance on the enemy's right flank, turn it, drive them back past our center, and then hold them in check with our artillery for the army to pass out and retreat up the river. Gen. Buckner wished the attack to be made on Friday, and Gen. Grant, commanding the Yankees, acknowledged that if the attack had been made on Friday, before he received Friday's reenforcements, he could have been driven back to his transports; but Gen. Buckner's plan was overruled, and the attack was made Saturday. As has been seen, it was eminently successful. Gen. Floyd had but eight regiments, in all about four thousand men, when he made the attack. Gen. Buckner supported him with not quite four thousand men, making in all about eight thousand we had engaged Saturday. The enemy had opposed to Floyd about twenty-two regiments, containing about fourteen thousand men, and two field-batteries. Both of their batteries were taken. When Gen. Buckner charged their left and joined Floyd the enemy fell back on their reserve. They had nearly thirty thousand men engaged to our eight thousand, yet they were driven back on their reserve. When the enemy was at last repulsed and Forrest's Cavalry was pursuing, Gen. Buckner, in pursuance of the plan agreed upon, ordered the remainder of our battery out to support our two guns already in the advance; also ordered Porter's and Greene's Batteries to assist us, so that we could hold the enemy in check if they rallied and came back, while our army should pass and retreat up the river. I was in command of the battery at the time, and before I could execute the order Gen. Pillow recalled the pursuit, countermanded the order, and ordered the different commands back to their old positions.

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Trench line defended by the 2nd Kentucky Infantry on February 15, 1862
(author's photo)

   He telegraphed to Nashville that he had gained a great victory and dispersed the enemy. He was doomed to be made wiser by experience before he was twelve hours older. We, as ordered, started back to our position, but had not made half the distance up and down those ice-covered hills when we heard heavy firing on our right wing. It appeared that the enemy, finding themselves unexpectedly attacked and routed on the right wing, had determined to attack our right wing, having learned that nearly all our troops on the right had been drawn off for the attack on their right. They made the attack about four o'clock. All of our right wing had retaken their old positions, except the extreme right, held by the Second Kentucky. The enemy accordingly made easy work of the few companies left there to guard the temporary breastworks. They were advancing uphill to the breastworks when they met the Second Kentucky, which regiment had charged and driven them back down the hill and over the breast-works, but could not dislodge them, and were in turn forced back up the hill.

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Attack of the 2nd Iowa Infantry and Lauman's Brigade on the works held by the 2nd Kentucky Infantry
on the Confederate right, February 15, 1862
(Harper's Weekly, March 15, 1862, p. 161)

In the meantime Porter's Battery had gotten into position, and was raking them with an enfilading fire. We hurried up as fast as possible, and soon got two guns to bear on them. The battle raged fiercely until dark without advantage on either side, the loss on both sides being heavy. It was evident that there was now no hope for us. All Saturday evening the smoke of the enemy's transports below the fort showed that they were still landing reenforcements. They had again extended their right wing around our left, and had strengthened it heavily. We were completely worn out with four days' hard fighting and four nights without sleep, exposed to the rain and sleet. It remained to resist the enemy Sunday morning and be slaughtered or to surrender. A council of war was held. Gen. Pillow went on a boat to Nashville. Gen. Floyd got the most of his brigade on the few transports that we had, and, passing the command to Gen. Buckner, senior brigadier, escaped to Nashville. . . . Before daylight on Sunday morning the white flag was raised, and our bugles played "Truce." Gen. Grant refused any terms but unconditional surrender, which were agreed to.

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Gen. Simon B. Buckner, in an early-war uniform designed by himself
(collection of Tim Bowman; used by permission)

Confederate Veteran, Vol. 5, June 1897, pp. 282-285 (copy courtesy Porter Harned)

 

For another account of the Orphans at Fort Donelson, see the Payne Reminiscences.

 

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