First ordered to active duty in Bowling Green, Ky., Joseph B. Palmer's regiment was largely inactive until one of the first major conflicts in the Western theater of the Civil War – the siege of Fort Donelson early in 1862.
The batteries at Fort Donelson had a commanding view of the Cumberland River
Palmer's regiment was assigned to a Confederate division commanded by Maj. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was a West Point classmate of U.S. Grant. In 1854, he helped the downtrodden Grant by providing him with money to return home. Buckner taught military tactics at West Point until he resigned in protest over mandatory attendance at chapel. He was wounded during the Mexican War.
At the start of the Civil War, Buckner was a major general in the Kentucky Militia. He then received a commission in the Confederate army and was placed in command of a division in the Army of Central Kentucky, under Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, at Bowling Green.
Following the fall of Fort Henry in February 1962, Buckner and his division was ordered to reinforce Fort Donelson near Dover on the Cumberland River. The fort had been built to defend Nashville from attack, but Confederate strategy was flawed. The command structure at the Confederate fortification was a mess with four brigadier generals on the premise – Buckner, Gideon Pillow, John B. Floyd and Bushrod Johnson.
Floyd, a military novice, was in command. A native Virginian, he had been U.S. Secretary of War during the Buchanan administration and was under investigation by Federal authorities for embezzlement.
Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace had some pointed observations about the Confederate commanders:
"The second officer (Pillow) had a genuine military record; but it is said of him that he was of a jealous nature, insubordinate, and quarrelsome. His bold attempt to supersede General Scott in Mexico was green in the memories of living men. To give pertinency to the remark, there is reason to believe that a personal misunderstanding between him and General Buckner, older than the rebellion, was yet unsettled when the two met at Donelson," Wallace wrote.
The Union division commander, after all, had quite a way with words. After the war, Wallace penned one of the most famous novels in the English language, "Ben Hur." While his command skills were later criticized by Grant, Wallace did serve on the military commission that investigated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as well as participating in the military trial of Henry Wirz, the commander of the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville.
During his post war years, he was territorial governor of New Mexico where he was faced with the unrest of the Lincoln County War. Wallace offered William Bonney (Billy the Kid) amnesty if he would act as an informant. When Bonney reneged, the pardon was withdrawn.
At Fort Donelson, Wallace was witness to the emergence of an aggressive, fighting general who was to win the war for the Union. Ulysses S. Grant proved he was the general Lincoln had been seeking since the beginning of the conflict.
But the situation among the Confederates defending Fort Donelson made victory easy for Grant.
In addition to the command difficulties, the fortification was undermanned and in terrible condition.
The Rutherford countians arrived on Feb. 8, 1862 as part of Buckner's division.
Upon his arrival Buckner expressed dismay at the unready condition of the earthen fort on the banks of the Cumberland.
"The defenses were in very imperfect condition," Buckner wrote. Not more than a third of the lines had been completed.
Buckner's troops were assigned the portion of the Confederate line that covered land approaches to Fort Donelson's artillery batteries … not that the emplacements were in great shape either.
Lt. Col. Milton A. Haynes had been ordered Jan. 15 to help organize the artillery at both Forts Henry and Donelson. Upon arrival at Fort Henry, Haynes was immediately dispatched to Fort Donelson.
"That post was then under the command of Col. J. W. Head, Tennessee volunteers, with a force of three newly-raised regiments and one company of light artillery. Two companies of volunteer infantry were detailed to act as artillerists, under Captains Beaumont and Bidwell," Haynes reported.
The raw recruits were drilled and trained daily in the management of heavy artillery, while the other troops were used to work on the fortifications.
The entire armament of the fort at that time was ten 32-pounder guns, one 8-inch howitzer, two nondescript 9 pounders, one 10-inch columbiad, and one rifled gun throwing a conical shell of 128 pounds. The large columbiad had been incorrectly mounted and was useless until repairs were made the day before the battle.
"In my opinion the site itself was most unfortunate – first, because the space enclosed by the trenches formed a cul-de-sac, cut in the middle by an impassable backwater, thus rendering communication between the wings of our army difficult and hazardous; second, because the whole position was surrounded by hills at the distance of from 800 to 1,500 yards higher than those occupied by us, thus giving commanding positions for the enemy's rifled field guns, from which every point in our lines could be reached," Haynes wrote after the battle.
As work continued on the batteries, Buckner and his men put their backs into completing their lines.
"The work on my lines was prosecuted with energy and urged forward as rapidly as the limited number of tools would permit, so that by the morning of the 13th my position was in a respectable state of defense," Buckner said.
Palmer's men were placed in the extreme right in reserve of Gen. R.W. Hanson's Brigade in the bitter winter weather.
The Union Army was on the move following a new strategy to cut the South in half.
"The Mississippi River was a central object; if opened from Cairo to Fort Jackson (New Orleans), the Confederacy would be broken into halves, and good strategy required it to be broken," Wallace explained.
Grant's strategy at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River had been simple. He landed his troops in two different spots: The high ground across the river and then on the east bank to block Confederate troops from escape. Then the Union fleet, under the command of Flag Officer A.W. Foote, bombarded the fort into submission Feb. 6, 1862.
As Grant's troops moved overland to Fort Donelson, the Navy flotilla moved in to bombard the fortification which loomed some 30 to 50 feet over the Cumberland. Soon the fort was "invested" … under siege.
Palmer's Rutherford countians were already exhausted before the battle began.
"The men and officers of my company underwent an astonishing amount of hard labor and toil – suffering greatly from the want of rest, from terrible exposure and fatigue, and in the absence of nearly all the comforts of even camp life," Palmer wrote in his official report of the battle.
"But every demand upon their strength and energy was promptly met. Every order was unhesitatingly obeyed, and every hardship and suffering bravely and patiently endured."
On the morning of Feb. 13, Palmer's men went into action repulsing a heavy attack from Union troops. There was more fighting on the 14th, leaving the Confederates in what Buckner called desperate straits.
"The troops had been worn down with watching, with labor, with fighting. Many of them were frosted by the intensity of the cold; all of them were suffering an exhausted by their incessant labors. There had been no regular issue of rations for a number of days and scarcely any means of cooking. Their ammunition was nearly expended," Buckner said.
The federal gunboats attacked the fort on the 14th and were turned back to the cheers of the Confederates. The following morning, the Confederates attempted a breakout against the Union right. Just as the Federals began to fall back, the confused Confederates were ordered back to the fort by the ineffective Pillow and Floyd, who turned over command of Fort Donelson to Buckner and slipped away to Nashville with about 2,000 men. Others followed cavalryman Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest across swollen Lick Creek.
On Feb. 16, 1862, Buckner asked his former friend Grant for terms. Grant's response became famous.
"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted," Grant wrote.
Thus the little known Union brigadier had new name … U.S. "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
Palmer and his Rutherford countians became prisoners of war. Palmer was imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor where he stayed until the summer of 1862 when he was exchanged for a Union prisoner.
He was held separately from the other men of the 18th Regiment. The unit's privates and non-commissioned officers were confined at Camp Butler, Ill. The other ranking officers were held at Johnson's Island, Ohio.
After their release, the Rutherford countians were reorganized at Jackson, Miss. just in time to rejoin the Army of Tennessee for a little battle in their hometown of Murfreesboro.