Updated: May 11, 2022
Benjamin Boring, a soldier in the 30th Illinois Infantry, wrote "From Cairo to Donelson" years after the war. His account of the fighting at Fort Donelson offers several unique particulars of the fighting there, as well as the general conditions before and after the battle.
"On the evening of Feb 3, as the sun sunk behind the wester hills, and a full moon simultaneously showed its face in the east, we again received marching orders for some unknown destination. Without any wages or baggage, excepts knapsacks containing blankets and overcoat, our brigade, consisting of the 8th, 30th, 31st and 45th Ill and a battery, I don't remember what one now, set out along an old blind road over the hills through a forest of large tall pines, to obey orders, and follow our file-leader, ask no questions, but await developments. I remember what a beautiful night it was; how the moon shone through the branches of the feathering pine trees, making it look like a Midsummers eve.
"About midnight, however, my reveries upon the beauties of nature around me were cut short and my nervous system badly shocked by several sharp volleys from our cavalry in the advance. We were immediately wheeled into lie-of-battle. But it was uphill business, altogether, to advance in this order after night with brush, and over hills, and acres of deep ravines etc. And seeing it was nothing but cavalry skirmishing, we halted in line, stacked arms, and lay down on the soft, bed-like leaves in the moonshine to sleep awhile and let the cavalry fight it out.
"We rested here a few hours, and began our different advance in line of battle. The cavalry beginning to fall back, we were ordered to lead and advance our skirmishers. As soon as the muskets instead of carbines began to open upon the rebel cavalry they fell back, knowing that a line of infantry was close at hand.
"It was so difficult for infantry to advance in line-of-battle through the woods, that as we were convinced that they had not fallen back, our cavalry was put in front again, and kept them going as long as they could, and until the infantry caught up again, our own battery would unlimber and give them a few shots of grape or fuse shells when they would fall back again.
"Thus we skirmished and 'monkeyed' through the woodland brush, over the hills, collars and ravines with Forrest's cavalry all day on the 10th. They would hold our cavalry level until the infantry and artillery would come up and ’poke it to them,’ then fall back.
”Shortly before sunset we came in sight of the sparkling waters of the Cumberland River, and soon a large encampment of tents, a town with a court-house, and a huge rebel flag floating in from another big fort, was ushered upon our gaze. But all was quiet. Not a gun was heard. Not a soldier in sight about the camp or fort in front of us. Boys bet knifes, tobacco, and some of them their months wages etc. that the place was evacuated, and that there would be no fight. My recollection is that there was considerable shooting from both muskets and cannon that evening, with no response from the enemy.
"About dark we changed from line -of-battle into line-of-march, and came down from the side of the ridge into an old road in the woods and halted as if awaiting orders, Being very tired we lay down on the leaves along side of the roadside, with our guns loaded and bayonets on, and of course fell asleep.
"Along in the forepart of the night a gun went off up towards the head of the regiment which was quickly followed by another. In a few second the whole regiment was a blaze. Some soldiers guns had accidentally discharged, and the half-asleep, half-conscience men, who hade been skirmishing with cavalry all day, and had rebel cavalry on the brain, supposing there was a charge, hopped up and commenced shooting. A regular regimental stampede was on for a few minutes until the men got awake and officers succeeded in calming them down, convincing them no enemy was about and that they were killing and wounding their own men. This stampede, I think, was confined to the 30th regiment. I don't remember the casualties from it, only that one man in my company named George Fultz wounded in the face (He was George Fultz age 19 rom New Hebron, Illinois).
"We slept or lay along the road that night, without blankets, as our knapsacks had been piled away back in the rear when we commenced with the cavalry. Neither were we allowed any fire, lest it would draw the fire of the enemy. Sometime during the fore-part of the night a heavy fatigue party from the rebel camp came out with axes and went to work cutting down the trees around their camp, and when morning dawned the whole forest in front of us was laid flat; tangled and pointed tree-tops bristled like the back of a porcupine with quills erect.
"Along the inside edge of this clearing arose like a magic a substantial line of breastworks, from behind which batteries of both light and heavy artillery played upon us fellows out in the woods day and night, as fresh troops arrived from Ft. Henry or up the Cumberland, our brigade moved to the right.
"I remember one day while moving to the right, we passed a small dwelling, around which was a mother and a lot of children, little girls and boys, wringing their hands and crying. The mother was frantic with fear and apprehension. Cannon balls had already perforated her house in several places, and the air was blue with shell and bullets. I have often thought of her and her family since, and wondered what became of them.
"Ft. Henry was about 200 [Boring was way off on this estimate] miles up the Tenn and Fort Donelson the same distance up the Cumberland, but the two rivers approach each other so closely that these two forts were only eleven miles apart. Yet to get from Fort Henry over to Fort Donelson, the gunboats must descend the Tennessee and the Ohio to the mouth of the Cumberland, and ascend the Cumberland, making a voyage of over 400 miles, ]Again, Boring was way off on the river distance] to overcome the distance of 11 miles between them by land.
"It was rumored among the soldiers along the line encircling Fort Donelson
and the rebel encampment that the Cumberland River was obstructed with chains, torpedos, etc., so that our gunboats could not navigate it, and that we would have to take the fort ourselves, without the aide of the gunboats; and the average soldier was feeling somewhat blue about it."
"On the afternoon of St. Valentine's Day, while the little birds were busy choosing their mates for the coming spring and the girls at home were making pretty pictures to their sweet hearts in the army, we spied a heavy dark cloud of smoke down the Cumberland, which had the effect of dispelling our gloomy forebodings about taking the fort, as we began to "ketchin" right away that the gunboats were coming. Their surmises were soon developed into enthusiastic conviction when Commodore Foote, from his flagship, sent a huge shell skyward over our heads as a sign that he had made the round trip and was on deck. Stock in taking Fort Donelson immediately went up from some where below par to several hundred percent above.
"The fort itself stood back from the bend in the river a short distance, on a hill, but under the bank, near the water, was a line of heavy rifled cannon, called batteries. The gunboats made their appearance around the bend about 2 o'clock, and operated on the fort at long range.
"The commander of our brigade while sitting on his horse, near us, listened to the duel between the fort and the gunboats, a stray ball came singing from the gun of some rebel sharpshooter and struck in Gen. Oglesby's stirrup, wounding him in the foot. I heard someone said to him: "Are you wounded, General?" He replied, "I don't know; haven't had time to see" (Richard Oglesby would become Governor of Illinois after the war).
"We were far off to the right, and in the brush, so that the navel action could not be observed by eye, but it told by ear. The gunboats seemed to be closing in upon the fort, but were beaten off and injured by the low destructive fire of the water batteries, so that they were compelled to haul off, Commodore Foote himself being wounded, I've been told by a shell that entered his room, spun around his table, and exploded.
"Of what took place at the the fort the next day I have no personal knowledge. I remember that it commenced raining that evening, then turned intensely cold, and before midnight the face of nature was a glare of ice. Trees were coated and their limbs bending with sleet. I remember that the rebel sharpshooters and artillery had such good range of our position that we were not allowed any fire. Cannon balls and bullets from the sharpshooters crashed through the icy tree-tops, sending down limbs of trees and showers of ice every few minutes all night long, as we shivered on the ground covered with snow and ice, with no fires, no blankets, no beds. But I shall never forget how suddenly the storm changed after daylight Saturday morning February 15, from snow and sleet to cold lead and iron in the form of rebel bullets, grape and canister-shot, bomb shells, cannon-balls, so thick that the very air seemed to be blue with them.
"We were cold and numb, surprised and over powered, as it seemed the whole Southern Confederacy was turned loose upon us; and of course, they broke through our single line of battle and got out.
"The historian and journalist have, of course, given a faithful and correct outline of this as of all other battles of the war, so that the average reader, as well as the surviving participants, know the movements of combatants and general results at Fort Donelson, and as I only aim at personal reminiscences, it would be out of my line, and superfluous, to attempt anything like a historical or descriptive account of the battle. The field or opportunities for observation are too small for the soldier in the ranks to take in much in a battle in a general way.
"I remember when I first caught sight of the crowd, with their slouch hats and shaggy beards, coming over the ridge en masse, loading and firing, something like the advance of a skirmish line, that my fingers were so numb useless from the cold, and I was so chilled and nervous from cold and excitement together, that I thought I would never get a cap on my gun-tube, as every one I would take from cap-box would slip through my fingers and drop in the deep snow. And after I began to warm up and get caps on my gun, I noticed that my gun barrel was filling; I couldn't get a ball down more than halfway. I suppose I had put a cartridge down ball foremost, and in the racket and excitement had not noticed that my gun had not be going off. But I soon had an opportunity to throw my musket down and pick up another that was in running order.
"Our line was badly demoralized, and before getting in many shots at the passing throng our regiment was relieved by the 25th Ky. I remember how fierce and military the 25th looked as they advanced in line-of-battle, with their big black hats with feathers in the and brass bugles on them. The Johnnies were soon all out and gone, and quiet reigned over our part of the field, now promiscuously and thickly strewn with the dead and wounded of both armies. But in a few moments sharp firing and heavy cannonading sprang up in another quarter. Our Left had swung around to the rear and head off the escaping foe. The battle reopened with great fury. Lew Wallace was holding then level. The fragments of our disorganized and demoralized lines were reorganized, gotten together, and about noon, or a little after, reenforced Wallace.
"Shortly after this the enemy began to give back and returned, what there was left of them, to their fortifications with a rush. We followed upon their heels, and by dark they were back inside again from whence they had escaped in the morning. We rested on our arms that night just outside of their breastworks, awaiting the dawn of the day to 'beard the lion in his den.'
"During the night Gens. Floyd and Pillow, with Forrest's cavalry, made their escape up or across the Cumberland, and Floyd thus cheated the gallows out of his life. Gen. Buckner was left with the bag to hold. And it was during this night, while soldiers were shivering on the frozen ground, hugging the outside of the rebel breastworks, that the immortal, unconditional surrender negotiations took place between Gens. Grant and Buckner. But the soldier had no knowledge of what was going on in that line, as it does come within the scope of this article. I only remember that all was quiet on the Cumberland that night.
"And as soon as the day began to dawn on that bright Sunday morning, handkerchiefs or rags, elevated on ramrods along the line of the rebel earthworks, tablecloths and sheets flung out of windows down in the town of Dover, white flags on the courthouse and the fort all asked for truce or cessation of hostilities.
"The boys soon began to understand that the "butternuts," as the rebels were then and there first timed called, on account of the color of their homespun uniforms, had shown the white feather and 'were our meat.'
"We were ordered to fall in, and scaled the breastworks across the turnpike road, and entered four a breast, right-shoulder shift, gun loaded, capped, and bayonets on, ready for any emergency.
"Our eyes fell upon a large park of artillery corralled on a knoll off to the right, which from the dirty, sloppy mouths of the cannon, together with certain other earmarks, indicated very active and recent service under the rebel flag, and had, by no means carried off first prize.
"At this stage of the war regimental band were still in vogue, and almost every regiment was headed by a fine brass band. There must have been more than one musician that day without a horn, however, as I remember of seeing a great many brass horns scattered over the battlefield the day before. The bands, as they entered, all opened out full blast with stirring airs of National and martial music. Soldiers yelled and cheered, and then threw their hats high in the air. The gunboats dropped down and woke the echoes with a National salute from their big guns, firing a gun for each state, not omitting those in secession.
"Presently two lines of butternut soldiers drawn up, on each side of the pike, with their guns stacked in front of them, flags laid on them, and arms folded across the breast, who had the day before done all in their power to defeat and destroy us, met our gaze face to face. We filed into the open ranks along the pike between the two lines of prisoners assembled there to the tune of 'Hail Columbia' and gave a free matinee to about 15,000 curious spectators. As soon as one approached within speaking distance a spirited exchange or fuselage of words, jokes, questioning, etc. ensued. Men from both sides would halloo out, 'Hello there, Bill,' 'What rate you doing there, Jim?' 'How are you Bob?' etc., as they recognized friends or relatives.
"After the 'blow fest' was over, my regiment went into camp over on the hillside, near a little village graveyard, where we soon received our tents and baggage. The cold snap blew over and we had pleasant and comfortable quarters until we embarked on board steamers for another unknown destination down the Cumberland up the Ohio and Tennessee to Pittsburg Landing.
"I remember as soon as we broke ranks and before guards had been detailed and placed over captured stores, that the boys made a raid on the rebel commissary and carried out to camp a large amount of bacon, flour, sugar, molasses, rice, etc. It was not uncommon to see the soldier's tent containing a barrel of molasses, several sides of bacon, a sack of rice or sugar, a barrel of flour. and so on. But the high life was nipped in the bud one evening by an read to us on dress parade, that all the goods taken from Confederate commissary must be immediately returned or charged up to the company commanders. An invoice was taken of all found in tents, and, of course, company commanders were interested in having it hustled out and returned.
"This for the soldiers was an uphill business, as the barrels of flour and molasses had had their heads caved in, rice and sugar sacks had been ripped open, and the sides of greasy bacon seemed much heavier and harder to carry. Our surgeon said we had a worse dose from the commissary, if we had been let alone, than we received in battle.
"In as much as the Fort Donelson was somewhat close and convenient to home, and many persons from the north were arriving constantly for their friends who were among
the dead or wounded, and as it was cold weather and the dead froze solid as soon as life was extinct, and there was no smell or stench from them, they were not buried immediately but lay on the field for several days or a week.
"I remember seeing the rebels hauling their dead from the battlefield in large army wagons. I remember noticing how the stiff arms or legs stuck up in all directions as they went along with the wagons piled full of dead men. I therefore don't think they even buried their dead on the battlefield.
"After a week or so citizens were prohibited from coming after the bodies of their dead, and a detail was made from the various regiments and all the Union dead were buried, usually by the regiments to which they belonged, and the dead from each regiment were put in a grave or trench to themselves, generally two layers deep. with a covering of blankets and overcoats spread on before putting on the dirt, so that the top layer of men would be a foot and a half or two feet below the surface, then the grave finished up with a good high mound on top.
"The Fort Donelson battlefield covers a large area of ground for the number of troops engaged; but for brevity, as well as a distaste for such scenes as pertain to it, I decline to attempt a description. I will, however, make a mention of one, out of several similar acts, which I remember noticing a day or so after the battle. A dead rebel, who I imagine was a sharpshooter that sent many bullets crashing through the icy treetops the night of the battle, who had fallen dead and had frozen hands and stiff as he fell, had been gathered up by some of the mischievous boys and propped up behind a stump, with a musket lying across the top of the stump in front of him, a hat on one side of his head, and his head inclined to one side as though looking through the sights and along the gun barrel, looking as if he were still sharpshooting. This old fellow, however, was soon taken down and relieved from duty by his comrades, who are out burying their dead.
"I cannot say by observation or personal knowledge what took place at or about the fort itself, as I was away off to the right of the fort, and don't know how whether the fort and gunboats were engaged on the 15th, the day of the battle or not. I never was in or at the fort, either before or after the battle. I met up that way with some comrades the next day after the fight, but the guards refused to admit anyone without a pass from Headquarters."
The author of this piece, Ben Boring, enlisted at Hutsonville, Illinois as a musician in the 30th Illinois Volunteer Regiment, Company D at the age of 21.