Reenactors at Fort Donelson

Photo above: Reenactors and Visitors at Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Courtesy National Park Service. Right: Lithograph by Kurz and Allison of the Battle of Fort Donelson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson National Battlefield

It was a battle that started to cement, even though a shock to the Confederacy and a boon to the north. The cement would be the beginning of the Union taking Tennessee, of Ulysses S. Grant cementing his place as a powerful general not only capable in the western theatre, but by the end of the war, of saving the Union from coast to coast. It was the Battle of Fort Donelson from February 11 to 16, 1862, that would provide, at least, the start of the bond, the concrete proof that despite many years of war ahead, that a complete Union might just be possible again.

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Battle of Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson Then

The Confederate fort had taken seven months to build, begun in 1861, with soldiers and slaves preparing the fifteen acre earthen fort to protect this position along the Cumberland River from any possible Union attack. The vistas around the fort, with all trees felled within two hundred yards, would surely insure a victory against anything the Federal forces could provide. It would not be so in the end, although the first salvos of battle would inure the South into thinking that the fort would provide solace and victory, all this despite the fact that another fort, Fort Henry, had just succumbed to Union forces on February 6. However, Fort Donelson was larger, more impressive, and should be harder to defeat.

On February 14, the Union sent their ironclads and other vessels up the river to shell Fort Donelson under the command of General Andrew H. Foote. They would fight against the eleven large guns of the fort for one and one half hours, but be forced to retreat. However, while the Southern generals in command at the fort were pleased with this initial action and victory, it indicated a large problem brewing to their east. General Grant was getting reinforcement on his right flank, cutting off a possible route of retreat to Nashville for the Confederate forces and encircling the fort. On the morning of February 15, the South would try to break through while they still had the chance, and by the afternoon, had forced Grant to retreat. That retreat would not be the final bout, however, and a counterattack amidst the confusion of Confederate orders would close off the planned retreat route for most, although two thousand Rebel soldiers would make it out. For the others, over 12,000, they would become prisoners under the unconditional terms of surrender imposed by General Grant.

Fort Donelson would be the first major victory of the war for the Union Army. It would lead to Grant's elevation in stature, to the rank of Major-General, and later conquests. Kentucky and northern Tennessee would become a base for Union, not Confederate, operations. The war was beginning a slow turn.

Surrender Correspondence: From U.S. Grant

Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir: very respectfully
Your obt. sevt.
U.S. Grant
Brig. Gen.

Reponse from Confederate General Buckner

SIR: - The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

How important was the Battle of Fort Donelson and what would its outcome portend? Nashville and Clarksville would fall within a week, with Nashville being the first Confederate capital to be captured. The Confederacy would know that keeping hold of a bellweather state would be difficult, if not eventually, impossible. And it would unleash that Unconditional Surrender General with a confidence that would lead to more Union victories.

Image above: Storming of Fort Donelson, 1862, Currier and Ives. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Huts at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Carol Highsmith Colleciton. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Log huts at Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson Now

There are eleven stops on the tour road that take you to the important sites on the battlefield such as the Union batteries that overlook the Cumberland River, the site of Smith's attack, the Dover Hotel (Surrender House), and the National Cemetery. If you want to venture outside the park's main border, you can visit the site of Nathan Bedford Forest's retreat across Lick Creek.

Prior to taking out on your auto tour, stop in the Visitor Center, which includes new exhibits installed for the 150th Anniversary, a film, and bookstore. Check for the ranger scheduled walks for the day (usually available from mid-June to September).

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Lithograph of the Battle of Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson

Things You Should Not Miss

1. Take a ranger guided tour, when available. The mid-June to September summer schedule usually includes several different ranger walks per day, including the River Batteries and Dover Hotel. Learning the battle from the words of National Park Service rangers is one of the best ways to get to know about the places and events of the park. Don't miss one, if available.

2. Visit the Dover Hotel. One of only four buildings to survive the Civil War in the town of Dover (due to the skimish known as the Battle of Dover in February 1863, not the Battle of Fort Donelson), this hotel was the headquarters of Confederate General Buckner and site of the meeting for surrender details after the Fort Donelson fray. Yes, details, not terms. General U.S. Grant would only take unconditional surrender as the terms, not negotiable, and over 12,000 Confederate prisoners would be transported from the area to northern towns as far away as Boston.

3. Orient yourself at the Visitor Center by watching the park film. It will give you a background to the battle, as well as the relationship between U.S. Grant and his Confederate counterpark, General Simon B. Buckner.

Photo above: Lithograph of the Battle of Fort Donelson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Visitor FAQ

Living History Interpreters Fort Donelson

More Photos of the Park

Above: Living History interpreters at Fort Donelson. Courtesy National Park Service.