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.
Today, Fort Donelson is a national battlefield in Stewart County. Admission is free and we suggest you come see the place. For the time being, we’re going to show you around.
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 click on this map on the left, 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 main fortress along the Tennessee River was called Fort Henry, and the one on the Cumberland River was called Fort Donelson.
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.
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, more than 150 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.
The battle for Fort Donelson 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–so great that a message was sent to Nashville informing the citizens of Tennessee’s state capital that the Confederacy had won the battle.
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 surrendered, and Grant’s nickname thus became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
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 meant to be a gravestone for all of them.
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.
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).