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John Paul Strain - Historical Artist
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A WAY OUT

Fort Donelson, Tennessee
February 15, 1862

A Way Out

In September 1861 Southern forces occupied a defensive line that stretched from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Columbus on the Mississippi River, through Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. General Albert Sydney Johnston established this line of defense to bar all approaches to middle and western Tennessee, as well as to serve as bases for later invasions of the North.

General Ulysses S. Grant decided not to attack the flanks of the Confederate defenses, but chose a direct thrust to the center of the line. On the 6th of February 1862 Grant successfully marched on Fort Henry and then turned his attention to the defenses at Fort Donelson. Fort Donelson was garrisoned with 18,000 men including Lt. Colonel Forrest and his command. In weather below freezing on February 13, General Grant opened fire on the defenses of the fort. Union gunboats moved up the Cumberland River and began shelling the Confederates. It was perhaps on that day that Forrest developed his contempt for gunboats. Grant surrounded the fort and pressed the defenses. The Combination of vague orders from Johnston and uninspired leadership of the five Southern general officers was a recipe for disaster. Soon there was talk of surrender.

Lt. Colonel Forrest said, "these people are talking about surrendering, and I am goin' out of this place before they do, or bust hell wide open." Surrendering was not part of Forrest's character.

Only Lt. Colonel Forrest in command of the garrison's cavalry and men from Kentucky infantry regiments contested Grant's march on the fort. Invaded from the land and attacked by the river flotilla, the only course seemingly left open was a break out to the north. Forrest coordinated the attack with Col. Roger W. Hanson, nick-named "Old Bench Leg," of the 2nd Kentucky infantry regiment.

By mid-morning Forrest was acting on his own without orders. With support of "Old Bench Leg" and the Kentuckians, he attacked. Hanson had instructed his men to hold their fire until at "close quarters." Fifty Kentuckians fell in crossing the open field without firing a rifle. As the Kentuckians began their fire from close range, Forrest and his cavalry charged and took a Federal six-gun battery, the first of many guns to be taken by his command during the war. As the cavalry fought hand to hand for the Federal battery, Rice E. Graves brought his Kentucky battery forward in support. This combined force of Forrest's cavalry and Kentucky "Orphans" opened "A Way Out" for the surrounded Rebels.

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