The guns at Fort Donelson
It wasn't one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, but it was one of the most important. On February 16, 1862, a Union force under Ulysses S. Grant captured a Confederate fortress here. With the fall of Fort Donelson, Union forces captured the city of Nashville without firing a shot, setting the stage for the invasion of Nashville.
The visitor's center
Today, Fort Donelson is a national battlefield in Stewart County. Admission is free. We suggest you come see the place. For the time being, we're going to show you around.
When you arrive at Fort Donelson, we suggest you stop at the visitor's center. There's a short film you can see that is quite interesting (which was recently updated). There are also some informative displays through the place that tell you why Fort Donelson was important and what happened here.
The visitor's center
Ask a lot of questions at the visitor's center. We can't emphasize this enough. The park rangers know all about Fort Donelson, what happened there, and why. And they also know a lot about what it would have been like to have been a soldier way back then. For instance, they have a whole collection of things that a soldier would have carried, such as soap, a pipe, and a wallet. And believe us when we tell you that the food that they carried -- hardtack, beans, and rice -- won't make your mouth water!
Source: Harper's magazine
Now we're going to tell you about the battle itself. Back in the Civil War, roads weren't very good, and many parts of the South didn't have railroads. So rivers were much more important than they are today in terms of travel and commerce.
If you look at a map of this part of Tennessee, you can see that there are two large rivers that lead southward into the state -- those being the Tennessee and the Cumberland. As the South prepared for war, it knew that these rivers were like arrows pointing straight into its heart, which is why it quickly tried to build forts on those rivers to guard against invasion. The fortress along the Tennessee River was called Fort Henry, and the one on the Cumberland River was called Fort Donelson.
Library of Congress photo
In early February 1862 Union forces came up the Tennessee River. Its gunboats were led by Flag Officer Andrew Foote and its army was led by General Ulysses S. Grant.
On February 6 the Union gunboats started firing on Fort Henry, and within a few hours it fell. Most of the Confederate soldiers got away, though. They retreated east to Fort Donelson, anticipating that this would be General Grant's next target.
Trenches surrounding the fort
During the next few days the Confederate forces tried desperately to strengthen their defenses at Ft. Donelson. As you can see from driving or walking around Fort Donelson National Battlefield, this meant that they were digging trenches and building fortifications meant to protect them from cannon and gun fire. Today, 144 years after the battle, you can still see these trenches all over the place. Don't walk on them, because they get damaged when people do.
This is the way that the Union gunboats were greeted
The battle for Fort Donelson actually took place on two days. On Feb. 14, Union gunboats approached the fort from the river and started firing. The huge guns in the fort fired back. And after an hour and a half the Confederate guns had inflicted so much damage that the Union boats retreated. It was a great day for the Confederacy!
A map of Ft. Donelson
National Park Service brochure
But, as often happened in the Civil War, a Confederate victory on the first day became a Confederate loss on the next. Even before the gun battle along the river had taken place, General Grant's army of 27,000 men had mostly surrounded the fort. On the morning of Feb. 15 the Confederate army, knowing that they were trapped, attacked from land. The Confederate troops fought as hard as they could, but soon it was obvious that they were about to be overtaken.
Confederate Generals John Floyd and Gideon Pillow slipped out with about 2,000 men, heading along the Tennessee River toward Nashville. Also escaping was a cavalry Colonel named Nathan Bedford Forrest, who led about 700 men and horses across flooded Lick Creek. The Union Army would greatly regret Forrest's escape; for the rest of the Civil War he and his men would harass Union forces all over Tennessee.
Confederate General Simon Buckner finally asked General Grant for surrender terms. Grant's response: "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner thus surrendered, and Grant's nickname thus became "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
The Confederate monument
So now you know what happened at Fort Donelson. Here are a few of the things to check out when you visit the place:
First of all, there is a beautiful Confederate monument. One of the reasons that it was built here is that, after they took over the fort, Union soldiers buried the dead Confederate soldiers that they found here... but no one knows exactly where. So this is sort of meant to be a gravestone for all of them.
The river batteries
There is a wonderful view from the river batteries.
There are trenches and fortifications all over the place to study.
For those of you with a lot of energy, there are some hiking trails.
The Dover Hotel
Finally, there is something important that requires that you leave the park and drive into nearby Dover. Here you will find the Dover Hotel, where General Buckner surrendered to General Grant. (By the way, it hasn't been a working hotel for many years, but is restored to look very much the way it looked during the Civil War).
to be taken to the Fort Donelson National Military Park's official web page.