top of page

A Kentucky Diary at Fort Donelson

In February 1862, Sam Cox was a young non-commissioned officer in Company A of the 17th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. He enlisted the previous fall, and spent the winter at Camp Calhoun on the Green River in Calhoun, Kentucky. There are not any entries in his diary until February 9th, 1862, the day they leave the camp to join Grant's army. Cox eventually rose to the rank of captain and provided a detailed record of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and the day-to-day experiences up to the Kentucky Campaign. After that, there is a massive gap in his writing which means we do not have the luxury of seeing his thoughts on the Battle of Chickamauga or much of 1863. However, Cox returned to writing, albeit with very brief entries, during the Atlanta Campaign.

Regimental Colors of the 17th Kentucky Infantry (Housed at the Kentucky Historical Society)

9 Feb, 1862

Left Calhoun, KY, on board the Steamer Storm, and met the Steamer Thomas E. Fritt above Spottsville, KY where we transferred.

10 Feb 

Reached Evansville, Ind, at sundown and remained but a short time.

11 Feb

Landed at Paducah, Ky, this morning, and remained about two hours when we started up the Tennessee River. The troops are the 13th Brigade, consisting of the 44th Indiana, 31st Indiana, 17th and 25th Kentucky Regiments. The 31st is commanded by General (Colonel) Craft (Cruft) on board the Ben. J. Adams; 44th on Steamer Baltic; 25th Kentucky on Steamer E H Fairchild; and, 17th Kentucky on Steamer Thomas E. Fritt, commanded by Colonel John. H. McHenry.

The troops are in high spirits, how long they will remain so will be seen in the future.

Arrived at Fort Henry at eight o’clock p.m. There were about 40,000 troops there so they had no use for us. We turned around and started back around twelve o’clock at night.

12 Feb

We arrived at Paducah, Ky, about six o’clock this morning and remained there all day awaiting the arrival of gunboats. The gunboats came up in the evening (5 in number) and we proceeded up the Cumberland River to attack Fort Donelson, which we will do tomorrow. There are 13 transportation boats and 5 gunboats in this expedition. The different regiments are from Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri.

13 Feb

This is Thursday and a more delightful day never opened under a canopy of Heaven. We left Smithland Ky last night and are now gliding up the Cumberland River. Nothing worth relating occurred until within 15 miles of the Fort, when we received orders to push forward as the fight had commenced at nine o’clock; the troops from Fort Henry having attacked it. We, however, landed a few miles below the Fort after night.

Water Battery at Fort Donelson that repelled the Union flotilla.

14 Feb

This morning, bright and early, we went ashore and took up our line of march for the scene of battle, which we reached about noon. Soon after we left the gunboats opened on the Fort with shot and shell doing little or no damage save keeping the enemy engaged while our light artillery and infantry played on them in the rear. Up to the time we formed our line, I counted 667 shots from the gunboats and fort, and there were a great many fired afterward. The Fort replied to the boats slowly but with deadly aim, as they were considerably damaged. When we reached the top of the hill on which we were to fight, there was a continual volley of musketry for miles around. I then began to think of the danger I was in, and wished a thousand times that I was a home guard. I consoled myself with the idea that I was not the only “great man” in the war, and that they were liable to be killed as myself. We remained on the hill all day without firing a shot but I was fully satisfied in my own mind that we would have to fight before the Fort surrendered.

NPS Marker for Cruft's Brigade southeast of Fort Donelson.

15 Feb

This morning I was aroused from my sweet slumber by the bursting of those damned bomb shells, and in a few minutes the musketry opened up on the right and left wings of the fort. Our Brigade was then called on to reinforce some regiments on the right wing that had been fighting for two days without a moment's sleep. We, therefore, filled knapsacks started for the scene of action, which was about a quarter mile distant. We arrived in a few minutes and, oh God! my eyes had never before beheld such a sight. The dead were laying around in every direction and many poor wounded soldiers crying for water and to be carried away. It was enough to soften the hardest heart and moisten the driest eye. There was a continual war of musketry. I am certain that the missiles of death came through our column thicker and faster than raindrops ever descended from Heaven. The[re] came a time to think of departing this life, but we had very little time to reflect, for i t was "load boys and shoot as fast as possible," which the 17th Kentucky did with a will. We were exposed to a raging fire from the front and the right, the enemy having flanked us by 150 yards. We stood there under that galling fire until the 31st Indiana retreated and ran through our columns which caused some confusion. Had the retreated caused the enemy to cease firing I would have been glad of it, but they seemed to come, (and I believe they did) thicker and faster than ever. It came near to being a general stampede throughout our Brigade, but was prevented, to a great extend, by the skill and experience of our officers. Some were carried off, however, and were soon lost in the woods. Our company was being run through and over; some of our men were scattered to the extent that Captain (Preston) Morton (Company A) directed me to go around the hill and collect his men; which I obeyed. I was, however, soon cut off and came near being captured by the enemy's Cavalry but got out all right an in making my eternal escape through the bushes, I was soon lost. I, therefore, wandered through the woods but that did not prevent the bullets from flying around me for it seemed the further I went the faster the missiles came. Finding it impossible to get to my regiment, I fell win with the 25th Kentucky, and remained until the next morning, when I found Company A all right, with the exception of one killed and six wounded. The 17th that evening, however, had a hard fight in which they distinguished themselves by making three desperate charges with the bayonet, the third one being successful. They met and defeated Col Roger Hanson's Regiment (Second Kentucky Infantry, CSA) from Kentucky after a hard, hard fight. The fight finally closed at dark and General Grant, finding or believing it impossible to take the Fort, ordered us to storm it the next morning, which thank Heaven, we did not do.

Dudley Hill area of the Fort Donelson Battlefield, the right flank of the Union army was overrun in the opening stages of the battle in this location.

16 Feb

I awoke this morning bright and early, half frozen, having slept on the cold ground without any cover save that of the Heavens, and I was almost sorry that I was not wounded on Saturday, for I felt confident that it was my last day, and I am sure that it would have been had we stormed the Fort. At sunup we received the joyful information that the Fort had surrendered. I supposed we had about 50,000 troops, and one can imagine the noise we made, for cheer after cheer was sent up for miles around. We then marched into the Fort and there was s general stacking of arms. I talked with a greaty many Southerners and they seemed to think that we had whipped them fairly and were willing to surrender. I met several old acquaintances from Hartford, Ky, who appeared to be glad to see me and expressed a wish that I might get through safely. (I say: ditto)

We captured from thirteen to twenty thousand prisoners and a great many more made their escape through the night. General Floyd Pillow and Johnston among the rest. General Buckner said he would not go unless he could take his men with them, for they had stood by him and he intended to remain a prisoner with them. (Manly of him) There was an immense amount of army stores and many large guns, the number I do not know. We remained in the Fort but a few hours when we were ordered to move. We traveled some two miles and camped for the night (The spot we selected being six inches in mud.)

I have not given, and cannot give, a satisfactory account of the battle, for my pen is inadequate to the task. It would take a Clay or a Webster to picture it as it occurred. Nor can anyone who has not seen the horrors of war imagine the scenes presented in that great battle. The groans of the dying and wounded were everywhere. men were killed in every imaginable way, some with legs blown off, and a number with their heads shot off by cannon balls. It was horrible to behold.

The number of killed and wounded I am as yet ignorant of, but will say at a rough guess, 2,000 killed and as many wounded.

17 Feb

This morning, we started across the country for Fort Henry, the roads being in an awful condition; distance 12 miles. We, however, pulled through and arrived here at sunset.

We selected a beautiful spot of ground in the woods outside the entrenchments, where we pitched what few tents we had, and made ourselves as comfortable as possible, although we were compelled to lie down on the cold ground without anything to eat or drink.

"Three Hours Later" by Andy Thomas
A published version of this diary can be found at the Daviess County Public Library in the Kentucky Room.

Need some more on Fort Donelson? Check out some of these other posts from WTCW:


Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2024. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.

132 views2 comments

2 commentaires

Great diary but if you indicated where you found it (the diary), I missed it. Is the diary yours or was it found in some archive?

En réponse à

I've never seen the original, but the Daviess County Public Library has a typed version, which is where I got this. Supposedly Cox had some other writings, or at least I've seen allusions to them. He did submit something to his local newspaper when they started putting in the tablets at Chickamauga, and he wrote about his recent visit there. That was fascinating.

bottom of page