Hickman Boys, The (The Downfall of Fort Donelson)
DESCRIPTION: "Oh Hickman boys, I'll say to you, Our fate is awful, but it's true." "On the banks of the Cumberland Lay the bodies of a thousand men." "We fought them up till Saturday night, At length the North did rain a shower." The singer hopes to live in peace
EARLIEST DATE: 1949 (collected from E. T. Brown by Boswell)
KEYWORDS: Civilwar death soldier river
Feb 12-16, 1862 - Siege and fall of Fort Donelson
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Boswell/Wolfe 55, pp. 92-94, "The Hickman Boys (The Downfall of Fort Donelson)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 267, "The Tennessee Boys" (1 text)
NOTES: Localizing this song is by no means easy. The Boswell/Wolfe text has only five specific references: The name "Hickman boys," a reference to a conflict between North and South (which tells us nothing except that it comes from the Civil War), and mentions of a fight on a Saturday night on the banks of the Cumberland leading to a thousand casualties.
The Cohen text, from a Wehman print, is no better; it refers to action in Tennessee, to a Thursday march, to a Saturday fight, to surrender, to North and South, to ten thousand casualties, and to the Cumberland.
The reference to the Cumberland is no help; since the Tennessee front was one of the most active of the entire war, the reference might be to almost anything from the siege of Fort Donelson at the beginning of 1862 to the Battle of Nashville at the end of 1864.
Wolfe did find another version of the song with a reference to "General Buckener," i.e. Simon Bolivar Buckner (1823-1914). This is not proof, but it is strong evidence that the battle involved is the Siege of Donelson.
Jefferson Davis in 1861 appointed Albert Sidney Johnston to defend the Confederate west, from the Appalachians to the Mississippi (with some authority beyond). Ideally he would have liked to have his line run along the Ohio River, but in practice -- given that he had only about 70,000 men and the Federals at least half again as many (McPherson, p. 394) -- he ended up with a line running around the Tennessee/Kentucky border. From the standpoint of defence, this had the disadvantage that two easily navigable rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, ran right through it (Anders, p. 80).
Johnston's response was logical: He built forts to stop any thrusts by Yankee river fleets: Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland.
Meanwhile, General Ulysses S. Grant was looking at those forts, and at his river ironclads, and he managed to gain permission to attack them (McPherson, p. 395).
Fort Henry was easy. It was unfinished, and the portions that had been completed were badly built (McPherson, p. 396). It flooded in early 1862. The Confederate commander, Lloyd Tilghmann (1816-1863), realizing that his position could not be held against a strong force, sent his infantry away to reinforce Fort Donelson (Anders, p. 81) and prepared to hold off the Union gunboats as long as possible with artillery alone. It wasn't long. Flag Officer Foote's riverboats forced its surrender on February 6, 1862 (Woodworth, pp. 76-77; Boatner, p. 394).
No one is quite sure why Johnston did what he did next. One hypothesis is that he felt that he needed to construct a new line south of the Cumberland, and tried to make sure Fort Donelson would hold until he could do so (this is the explanation in Boatner, p. 395). The other possibility is that he wanted to fight his big fight at Fort Donelson (an idea mentioned on p. 398 of McPherson).He ended up making an uneasy compromise, pulling back along most of his line -- but sending two divisions to Fort Donelson (Boatner, p. 395). These were the divisions of Buckner and Floyd; they joined the division sent by Tilghmann (now under Pillow, since Tilghmann had been taken prisoner at Fort Henry).
This proved a mistake, although the real mistake was putting the wrong officers in charge. Flag Officer Foote had taken his riverboats from Fort Henry on down the Tennessee and come up the Cumberland to Donelson -- which was, however, much stronger and better-sited than Henry. it easily fought off the gunboats (Anders, pp. 84-85), giving Foote a wound from which he never recovered (Boatner, p. 287). If Donelson was to be taken, it would have to be done by Grant's infantry.
The troops arrived on February 12, 1862 (Boatner, p. 395). The Confederates, who were at least as numerous as the Yankees around them, decided to attack. They had every advantage. Grant had left the field to confer with Foote without leaving anyone else in charge (Woodworth, p. 94), and the Federals were hit by snowy weather (possibly mentioned in the song) for which they were mostly unprepared -- they had thrown away their blankets in the previous days' heat (McPherson, p. 400; Boatner, p. 396). The Confederate attack easily swept the Union forces aside; the Confederate way of escape was open (Anders, p. 85) -- indeed, they might have been able to destroy Grant's army (Boatner, p. 396). But the bemused General Floyd, who was in charge, halted the attack, and when Grant returned, he restored the situation.
The estimate in the song is about right: Nearly 1000 men, Yankee and Rebel, had been killed, with three times that many wounded (McPherson, p. 401).
There wasn't much left for the Confederates to do but to surrender. Except that General Floyd, the senior Confederate commander, and General Pillow, his #2, were both afraid of what would happen to them if they were captured. So Floyd turned his command over to Pillow and escaped by steamboat. General Pillow then turned command over to Buckner, and also made his escape. More usefully, Nathan Bedford Forrest got out with his troops. General Buckner, unlike his superiors, was willing to face the consequences of his actions (McPherson, p. 401). He didn't like Grant's demand for unconditional surrender (Woodworth, p. 117) -- but he made the deal.
The Confederates never really recovered their position in the west (Woodworth, p. 119). Albert Sidney Johnston would go on to die at Shiloh (Boatner, p. 440), and it is quite possible that the Federals could have won the war in the summer of 1862 if their generals had not thrown away all their advantages due to excessive caution.
Boswell/Wolfe suggests that "Hickman Boys" is not a reference to a family named Hickman but to residents of Hickman County, Tennessee, many of whose residents were at Fort Donelson. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.7
- Anders: Curt Anders, Hearts in Conflict:a One-Volume History of the Civil War, 1994 (I use the 1999 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Boatner: Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary, 1959 (there are many editions of this very popular work; mine is a Knopf hardcover)
- McPherson: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era), Oxford, 1988
- Woodworth: Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865, Vintage Civil War Library, 2005
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