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100 Years Ago

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Fort Donelson

The first months of the war were spent drilling and on guard duty. Just as spring was coming to the Tennessee mountains in February of 1862, the green Union troops were ready for action. The 20th Ohio took a steamboat down the Cumberland River to the vicinity of Fort Donelson. Sgt. Dwight recalled from the deck of his boat, the Dr. Kane: "The fleet was under our eyes bombarding the fort! The rebels were just beyond! We were at the front at last! Broken timbers, mattresses, and a mangled corpse floated by...At last we were soldiers..."

Fort Donelson was the first combat experience for most of the Shelby County, Ohio soldiers. General Grant ordered his men to take the fort, which was held by the rebels. The charge was led by General Charles Smith, who shouted at his men: "Come on, you volunteers, come on! This is your chance. You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be. You are only damned volunteers. I am only a soldier and don't want to be killed, but you came to be killed and now you can be."

As Dwight and his men prepared for the attack, they looked at the ammunition that had just been handed to them. They had never fired a shot at camp and were now supposed to kill the enemy. Dwight later recalled: "My lips began to be very dry...It is the unknown that terrifies and our feeling our way into this battle in the way that we did was to all of us one of the most trying experiences of the whole war."

The 20th was placed in reserve, and never got into the fight. The men, however, observed firsthand the panic that sets in when untrained soldiers are sent into battle. The wounded came back from the front, each accompanied by four or five stragglers, who acted under the pretense of helping them. "Boys it is no use, they are driving us all the time," was a refrain that Dwight often heard repeated. Despite these problems, Fort Donelson was a victory for the Union.  That night the troops slept in the snow. It was bitterly cold. It would be a harbinger of the cruel conditions of life as a soldier that would follow.

battleoffortdonelson.gif (50710 bytes)

Above is a decisive bayonet charge of the second Iowa regiment on the confederate entrenchment
at Fort Donelson, February 15, 1862.  From a  sketch by H. Lovie. 

'Civil War' segment written in July, 1998 by Rich Wallace


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