Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Location: Dover, Tennessee

Webpage: National Park

General Description: By the first winter of the Civil War, both sides still believed the war could be quickly won.  The Union had yet to have any significant victories with the Confederacy winning multiple battles in the east.  Thus the Union generals, especially in the western theater were cautious.  At the beginning of the war, the Confederacy had a thin defensive line running from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains along southern Kentucky with major concentration of forces at Columbus, Kentucky (12,000) and Bowling Green, Kentucky (22,000).  Another strong point were Forts Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River which were just 12 miles apart in northwest Tennessee with a combined force of about 5,000 soldiers.  Unfortunately, Fort Henry was poorly located along the banks of the Tennessee River being prone to flooding.  To compensate, the Confederacy was in the process of constructing Fort Heiman on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee.   The Union believed this was their best opportunity to break the Confederate line in the west, opening up access to the heart of the Confederacy, but only if they took both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson before the completion of Fort Heiman.  In February, 1862, General Grant led 15,000 men from Cairo, Illinois to the Tennessee River by February 4.  In addition, the Western Gunboat Flotilla under the command of Flag Officer Andrew Foote steamed up the Tennessee from Paducah.  This flotilla consisted of four new ironclad gunboats and three timberclad gunboats.  On February 4 and 5, Grant landed his forces to follow the naval bombardment of Fort Henry.  At this point Fort Henry was mostly underwater and had only 9 cannon remaining above the water, so it was just a matter of time.  On the early afternoon of February 6, Foote’s flotilla began an hour long barrage of the fort, after which the Confederates surrendered the fort, all before Grant’s troops saw any action.  Nearly all of the minimal Confederate forces made their way to Fort Donelson, 12 miles away on the Cumberland River.  Due to the wretched condition of the roads, Grant took over a week to move his ground forces towards Fort Donelson, by which time Foote had moved his flotilla back to the Mississippi and up the Cumberland River.  By this point, the Union forces had grown to over 25,000 soldiers and the Confederates had bolstered their number to approximately 17,000 under the command of General Floyd.  By February 12, most of the Union forces had moved to encircle Fort Donelson up against the river with brief skirmishes between the forces as they established their offensive line.  Although the weather had been rainy up to this point in the battle, it was unseasonably warm and many of the Union forces had ditched their winter gear.  However, a blizzard struck the area on the night of February 13 with 3 inches of snow, catching the Union army ill prepared.  On February 14, Foote’s flotilla attempted to repeat their success at Fort Henry by slowly approaching Fort Donelson.  However, unlike Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was better located commanding a position on the bluffs with clear fire down the river and were manned with large sea cannons that would be firing down onto the relatively unprotected wooden decks of the ironclad gunboats.  After 1.5 hours, 3 of the 4 ironclad gunboats were disabled or sunk and had to withdraw without doing any serious damage to the water batteries of the fort.  However, by this point, General Floyd was convinced that any siege would quickly starve his troops and he ordered General Pillow and General Buckner to organize a breakout attempt.  On the morning of February 15, General Pillow led a surprise attack on the Union right flank to open up the escape route to the east.  The attack was a resounding success pushing and nearly routing the Union right flank.  However, instead of consolidating their position, General Pillow ordered his men back to their trenches to resupply for the evacuation, leaving their newly won position lightly defended.  By this point General Buckner had also withdrawn most of his men from the Confederate right in preparation for the evacuation.  However, Grant rightly figured that if the Confederates made such a large attack on his right flank, that this must mean they weakened their defenses on their own right flank and ordered an attack on this position.  The Union quickly overran the outer defensive trenches and began moving on the fort.  General Buckner had to quickly redirect his men to shore up the right flank, which they were able to do.  However, this left the breakout position lightly defended and the Union regrouped and by the end of the day had once again cut off their line of evacuation.  General Floyd believed they had no choice now but to surrender and turned over command to General Pillow while he crossed the Cumberland River with his personal battalion of 2000 men to escape.  General Pillow also turned over to the third in command, General Buckner, who was the only commander with actual military experience and training.  In fact, General Floyd had only given command of Fort Donelson just two days prior, without any previous experience.  Except for Lt. Col Forrest, who escaped with over 700 cavalry soldiers across swollen Lick Creek during the night, all of the soldiers defending Fort Donelson surrendered on February 16, over 12,000 Confederate soldiers.  It was in reply to Buckner’s request for surrender terms on the morning of February 16, that Grant earned the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.  This was to his long time friend and West Point classmate, General Buckner.  By taking and holding these forts, the Union gained its first great victory and opened up the heart of the Confederacy to attack.  The Confederacy was forced to give up southern Kentucky and much of middle and western Tennessee.  The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, along with the railroads in the area, became vital Federal supply lines and Nashville became a huge supply depot for the western Union armies.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) As of the creation of Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River, Fort Henry is completely submerged, with its location marked by a buoy and Fort Heiman was never completed and its exact location lost.  Therefore, the only battlefield that remains is that surrounding Fort Donelson.  The original Visitor Center for the battlefield is currently under rennovation, so the temporary Visitor Center is a part of the Stewart County Visitor Center in Dover.  They only have room for a couple of small exhibits and a nice video about the battle.

2) There is a 11 stop driving tour of the battlefield, of which the first stop is the Confederate Memorial.  This obelisk commemorates the Confederate men that died during the battle, which are still buried in unmarked mass graves.  It is suspected that they used the Confederate trenches for this purpose, but this has never been proven.

ConfederateMemorial

3) The next stop is just within the remains of Fort Donelson.  Unlike the brick and mortar Civil War forts along the coast, this was just a large earthen fort.  The fort’s main purpose was to protect the water batteries from a land attack and since earthen forts were more resilient to cannon fire, they were much preferred.  Since the Confederates also created two defensive lines of trenches out in front of the fort, the fort itself was never attacked.  Consequently, for an earthen fort, it is in amazingly good condition.  You can easily see the remains of the walls and dry moat.

FortDonelson

4) The next stop within the fort was at a reconstruction of the log huts the Confederates would have used to protect the soldiers from the winter conditions.  While the huts were crude with canvas roofs, they would have been infinitely better than the canvas tents of the Union, when they even had that.  Remember that there was a blizzard the night before the major battle in February.

ConfederateHut

5) The river batteries overlooking the Cumberland River were the main reason for the fort.  Both the lower and upper river batteries were armed with seacoast artillery to defend the water approach, which effectively defeated the ironclad flotilla of Flag Officer Foote.  The have rebuilt the two water batteries and manned them with similar cannons from the time of the battle.  However, with Barkley Lake it is difficult to imagine the condition of the river at the time.  It is interesting to note that since the naval attack occurred on February 14, the exchange became known as “Iron Valentines”.

WaterBattery

6) The driving tour then proceeds over to the Confederate right flank where General Smith’s attempt to capture Fort Donelson after General Buckner had pulled out most of his troops to support the breakout attempt on the other flank.  This stop is along the outer Confederate trenches, which are in surprising good shape.  This was the initial position taken by General Smith and also the position he was forced back to during the night of February 15.

OuterDefensiveTrench

7) Following Smith’s successful attack, General Grant used this area for his headquarters in preparation for renewing the attack the following morning.  However, morning dawned with white flags of surrender from the fort.

8) This stop along the tour is to commemorate the location of Graves’ Battery which saw action earlier in the week as the Union army attempted to encircle the Confederate positions.  This battery guarded the entrance to the Indian Creek Valley.

GravesBattery

9) This is another location of a Confederate Battery, French’s Battery, that guarded the approach up Erin Hollow, along with Maney’s Battery to the west.

10) This stop on the driving tour is all about the breakout attempt by the Confederates on the morning of February 15.  The location is along Forge Road, which was to be the escape route.  However, due to indecision and poor command, the Union troops were able to reoccupy the area by the end of the day.

11) This stop is at the Dover Hotel, the only surviving location of surrender from the Civil War.  Built between 1851 and 1853, the Dover Hotel served the riverboat travel before and after the Civil War.  During the battle, General Buckner and his staff used the hotel for their headquarters, with General Floyd across the street at the Rose House, which did not survive subsequent attempts by the Confederacy to retake Dover.  It was here that Generals Grant and Buckner met to work out the details of the surrender.  It should be noted that although the surrender was unconditional, Grant agreed not to taunt the captured soldiers, who were allowed to keep all their personal items.  After the battle it also served as a hospital, along with many other buildings in Dover.

DoverHotel1

12) The final stop on the driving tour is the National Cemetery which was also the location of the fortifications constructed by the Union to protect Dover rather than Fort Donelson, which was abandoned.  Unfortunately, these fortifications are long gone once the area was leveled for the National Cemetery following the war.  It should also be noted that nearby freedman camps sprang up during the war where escaped slaves could raise their families and find work for the army where they were paid for the first time in their lives.

NationalCemetery