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"A Long Day of Bloody Labors" - The 17th Kentucky at Fort Donelson

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

The following is a portion of a rather long piece found in The Louisville Daily Journal (This paper eventually became The Courier-Journal), written by one of their reporters while he was embedded with the 17th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. This Union regiment was mostly raised out of the Ohio/Green River area of western Kentucky, and found itself on the Federal right flank during the fighting at Fort Donelson. Though the fight for Fort Donelson occurred in February, this particular story was not published until March 26, 1862, This account has not been widely reproduced and offers some significant insights to the fighting at Fort Donelson

"I am for the present quartered with the brave officers of the noble Seventeenth Kentucky, and at last prepared to give their friends and your readers an account of the part taken by this regiment in the battle at Fort Donelson, this being the first I have seen of the regiment since the evening they marched on to the battle-field from the transports (being Friday before the surrender), they having been marched off to Ft. Henry immediately after the surrender, after fighting from morning until nightfall the day previous, having been in three different actions during the day. It is rather late in the day to offer an account of a portion of a battle that has been famous over the land for nearly a month, but it is never too late to render justice and honor to the brave.

"On Friday evening, the 14th, the regiment was marched on the field and placed in position to the left and rear of Schwartz's battery. In the morning they held their same position, with the 44th Indiana supporting their left, the 31st Indiana on their right, and the 25th Kentucky the extreme right. This brigade, commanded by Col. Cruft, was to the left and rear of Oglesby's brigade, between which and Cruft's brigade was a small hill or knoll. After the fight had commenced this brigade was moved along the ridge under a galling fire from the enemy, and took position to the right. When the regiments of Oglesby's brigade were driven back, they broke through the right of Cruft's brigade, where, for a short time, some confusion existed, but the regiments were speedily got in line again. The 17th then moved on to a ridge to the right and established themselves behind it, but was soon attacked by the enemy, who had gained the hollow just left of Oglesby's men. A desperate fight here ensued, the 17th and part of the 31st Indiana standing up bravely to the fearful fire of the superior numbers of the enemy. Finding them determined to force our men from their position, Colonel McHenry turned to his men and ordered them to fix bayonets for a charge, when, with his cap waving in one hand and his sword in the other, he gave the command, charge. The enemy, hearing the command given, fell back in confusion, and did not rally for some time. Finding here that the enemy had the advantage of the hill slope, the 17th took possession of another ridge to the right, and occupied it, which gave them an advantage over the enemy. Here a portion of the 31st Indiana rallied to the support of the 17th. A desperate fight of about one hour's duration took place at this point, in which the officers, without a single exception, greatly distinguished themselves. Our old friend, Captain Rob't Vaughan, exhibited remarkable skill and courage during the fight, his company, with that of Capt. Davidson's never getting out of line during the hottest of the fire. Capt. Preston Morton is said to have exhibited marked courage in his efforts to keep the men in line--and waving them on in the thickest of the action. While occupying this hill, an officer apparently from one of the Illinois regiments rode up to Maj. Calhoun and requested him to hae his men cease firing, as those men in the hollow were friends.

"Col. Cruft then ordered Lieut.-Col. Stout to proceed to the point indicated and ascertain if such was the case. He immediately rode down the hill until he came in range of the column referred to, who, upon seeing him, immediately opened a volley of musketry upon the daring Colonel, and shot holes in everything around him, and wounding his horse in the breast. At least fifty shots were fired at him, his escape from being riddled with bullets being the most miraculous of any during the day, as he was close on to the enemy's main column [ere?] he was aware of it. It was soon decided that no other mistake had been made than that of Col. Stout's riding up in the very face of the enemy. The explanation of one of our Illinois regiments having been fired into by the Kentucky regiments, is simply as follows: The 17th Kentucky and the 31st Indiana kept moving to the right to prevent the enemy from flanking them; whenever they attempted to do so, they (the enemy) had succeeded in effectually flanking the Illinois regiments, and as they did so, and got into the hollow below where McHenry's regiment was stationed, they kept playing upon the Illinois regiments, and they not being visible, and Col. McHenry in full view, nearly in the same direction, the Illinois regiments very naturally supposed that it was the Kentucky and Indiana regiments who had fired into them. I am convinced that there was not more than one man on our side killed, if even that, by our own regiments.

"It was at length discovered that the enemy in fearful numbers was fast flanking our little force who had for several hours, with only a portion of the 31st Indiana, fought the enemy in large numbers without any other assistance, and our hospital, which was in a little valley to the rear and right of our force, was in great danger. Perceiving this move of the rebels, Colonel McHenry "right faced" his men and marched them over on another ridge to the rear of the hospital, where the two regiments (17th Kentucky and 31st Indiana) made a firm and determined stand. The Seventeenth had, by their perseverance and unflinching resistance to the foe, won the post of honor by gaining the extreme right of the investing army. The kept their position on the last mentioned ridge. About one o'clock Colonel Cruft in company with Major Calhoun, went in search of General Wallace, to whose division they were attached, and found him occupying the ground a short distance to the right of that occupied by Col. Cruft's brigade that morning. Upon explaining to him the position that their regiments occupied, he was greatly surprised, and remarked that he had been unable to learn of their whereabouts, General McClernand having informed him that he supposed they had been cut to pieces.

"Gen. Wallace then went with the Colonel and Major to where their regiments were posted, and upon arriving there and finding their position to be such an admirable one he complimented the officers for their judgement in gaining possession of such a point. Gen. Wallace then despatched a messenger to order up to their support the 11th Indiana and the 8th Missouri. The enemy was in full view upon the hill last held by Cruft's and McHenry's regiments. Upon the arrival of reinforcements (of 8th Missouri and 11th Indiana), which supported the left of the Kentucky and Indiana regiments, General Wallace ordered a charge upon the enemy, which was obeyed with the promptness of veterans. As our men, led by their officers, poured down the hill they sent volley after volley into the enemy's ranks, which was vigorously returned from the now advantageous position he held. As our men attempted to drive them from the opposite hill the 17th suffered its heaviest loss; but on and up they pushed, before the raking fire of the rebels, until finding the intrepid sons of Kentucky, Indiana, and Missouri resistless, their columns shook, wavered, and faltered, and finally parted when they broke and fled before their brave vanquishers, and kept up a precipitate retreat until they h ad regained their entrenchments, our boys pursuing until they came within short range of their guns, where they rested from the long, long day of bloody labors. Our own brave 17th still held with honor and credit the extreme right of the victorious army. Here all lay on their arms in the slush and snow, without blankets, ready at the signal of the morning dawn to carry the works of the enemy or perish in the attempt.

"In moving from the position last held by the 17th Kentucky, before charging up the hill, the regiment, which was then marching in file, was right-about-faced, which gave the left wing to Captain Morton, whose position had been on the right during the day. The gentlemanly little Captain here showed, by his daring and reckless courage, that he was more than equal to the confidence reposed in him; he behaved like a hero during the day, and added new laurels to those he had already won. Captain Robert Vaughn, of Louisville, it is universally acknowledged, proved himself nothing less than a hero by his valorous conduct under a raking fire form the enemy. His company occupied the centre, and bore themselves nobly in the fight. His Second Lieutenant, Thomas R. Brown, also of Louisville, has been promoted for his bravery on the field. As for the field officers, Colonel McHenry, Lieutenant Colonel Stout, Major Calhoun, and Adjutant Starling, to say they did their duty would be offering them an unmerited slight. They fought and led their men through the thickest of the contest, never once regarding their safety, but ever foremost in the van. As all the officers of the 17th are spoken of so highly by those who co-operated with them on the field, and the regiment complimented by their division commander, it is difficult to discriminate as to who acted the bravest; and although I was a the first unable to reach those who were associated with them in the contest, since I have succeeded in getting among those who fought at their side on the field, I have heard nothing but encomiums heaped upon them.

Colonel John H. McHenry

"On Sunday morning of the surrender Colonel McHenry, with his regiment, was the first to enter the fort on the right, and received the surrender of the 2d rebel Kentucky regiment, but was immediately afterwards ordered to Fort Henry; hence no report of the part they had taken in the fight.

"Colonel McHenry's military skill and genius is highly spoken of by General Wallace, and no officer on the field during the entire day is said to have behaved more gallantly than Colonel McHenry. Major Calhoun is also spoken of very highly in official circles, as well as by those who saw him on the field. Kentucky may well be proud of her noble sons. I regret sincerely that this regiment has been slighted until this late day, but the circumstances in which they have been placed since the battle have been such that it could not be avoided. It is to be hoped that such may not occur in the future."


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 2023. 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.

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Gregory Schuller
Gregory Schuller
Nov 20, 2021

I enjoyed this post tremendously. My g-g-grandfather's brother, James Lee, was with the 17th Kentucky Infantry.

Derrick Lindow
Derrick Lindow
Nov 20, 2021
Replying to

I have several cousins in the 17th, so it is one of my favorite regiments to research. Along with this one and the Shiloh piece, I have another one on them coming soon on Chickamauga!

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