Saturday, October 7, 2017

Fort Donelson ACW Site

The Confederate view of the Cumberland River from one of the river batteries. The Union ironclad gunboats sailed right down the middle of the river and got hammered by the Confederate shore batteries.

This week I was had the opportunity to visit Fort Donelson National Military Battlefield located in Dover, Tennessee. I was visiting my daughter in nearby Carbondale, Illinois for her birthday and decided to take advantage of the site's proximity to pay it a visit.

Entrance to Fort Donelson National Battlefield Park.
It was about a two hour drive from Carbondale and I had to be back by 2PM, so I hit the road by 8AM so that I would have time to make the round trip and hopefully spend at least an hour at the battlefield site.

I spent about fifteen minutes at the visitors' center, which currently shares space with the local county tourist office while a new visitors' center is being constructed. There is not much to see here, but the bookshop is decent with plenty of books available for the campaign and the eventual battle.

An overview of the campaign, as provided by one of the park brochure handouts that are available to visitors:

Winter 1862 marked a turning point in the Civil War. The North finally achieved its first major victory and gained an unlikely hero nicknamed "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The Confederacy lost control  of major rivers (the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers) and supply lines, territory in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, and over 13,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned in Northern prison camps.

Today, Fort Donelson National Battlefield interprets the story and the legacy of the 1862 campaign between Union forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate forces commanded by John Floyd and others. The National Park Service preserves the earthen fort and outer defenses, surrender site, and National Cemetary.

The Campaign -Winter of 1862

Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, a relatively unknown commander in the backwater districts of the Western Theater under the overall command of Major General Henry ('Old Brains') Halleck, endeavored to attack both Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Both forts were within a dozen miles of each other and they commanded key points of these two rivers, both of which flowed into the heartland of the Confederacy.

Fort Henry was ill-situated on low ground that was subject to flooding and surrounded by higher ground. The Confederates had begun construction of a supporting fort, Fort Heiman, on the opposite side of the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River flows southward into the heart of the Confederacy as far as Alabama, so that gives one an idea of that river's importance in the Western Theater campaigns of the Civil War. On February 6, 1862, ironclad gunboats commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Foote approached Fort Henry and opened fire with a bombardment that lasted for an hour. Foote's gunboats moved into point blank range and pounded the fort into submission. About 2,500 Confederate soldiers escaped to nearby Fort Donelson just before General Lloyd Tilghman surrendered the fort to Foote. The action was so quick that Grant's infantry were still approaching Fort Henry from the land side prior to its surrender.

Fort Donelson was located on high ground overlooking a bend in the Cumberland River, which flowed southward to Nashville, TN.  It contained two river batteries having 12 heavy guns that effectively controlled the river. An outer defensive line protected the land side from attack. Grant took about a week to build up and consolidate his infantry force and allow time for Foote to sail his gunboats back up the Tennessee River to Paducah, Kentucky on the Ohio River, and then sail south on the Cumberland River to Fort Donelson. The idea was to stage a combined river and land assault of the fort.

On February 13, 1862, the Union army of 15,000 men began to invest the perimeter of Fort Donelson. Nightfall arrived along with bitter cold temperatures and the men on neither side could afford to build fires, given the proximity of the two lines.

On February 14th, Foote's gunboats commenced a bombardment that lasted 90 minutes, but the Confederate shore batteries were so dominant that Foote suffered much damage and had to retire back down the Cumberland River. The Confederates rejoiced at their victory, but soon it became evident that the greater danger was being starved out by the encircling Union army.

On February 15th, the Confederates organized an attack on the Union right flank with the objective of clearing an escape rout to Nashville for the Confederate army. The attack was so successful that the Union flank was bent all the way back to the middle. The rout to Nashville was now clear. Except that indecision by the Conferate high command threw away the victory when the army was ordered to return to its entrenchments rather than to execute the planned escape. Grant's counter-attack late in the afternoon restored the Union lines to their original positions and gained a lodgement in the trenches on the Confederate right flank. This would compromise the entire forward line of trenches on the following day as the Union forces could roll up the Confederate lines from an enfilading attack.

The Confederates were now completely demoralized and the army surrendered to General Grant on the morning of February 16th. A small force of Confederates, including General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, escaped during the early hours of the morning.

The Fort
Fort Donelson basically had two defensive positions. First there was the fort proper which stood guard, with 12 heavy cannon, over the bend in the Cumberland River. Since the river flows south to Nashville, Tennessee (the capital of the state of Tennessee), control of the fort gave its owner control of the river and its easy access to Nashville. The loss of Fort Donelson and Nashville was a crippling blow to Confederate control of Tennessee during the Civil War.

Confederate river battery overlooks the Cumberland River.

The fort was protected on the land side by long series of trenches and rifle pits. The trenches seen in the pictures below are those of the fort only. The forward trenches and rifle pits are on private property and thus not part of the national battlefield site. The outer works were manned by 12,000 Confederate troops under the triumvirate command of generals John Floyd, Gideon Pillow and Simon Bolivar Buckner.

Inside entrenchments of the main fort area

Confederate Command and Final Surrender
The Confederate command was rather comical, with three generals and none of them willing to step up and take charge of the situation. John Floyd was a politician turned general, who took the initial command of the fort. When the situation grew worse, he basically turned command over to Brigadier General Gideon Pillow. Pillow wanted nothing to do with the responsibility of surrendering to Grant, so he turned over the command to Simon B. Buckner. Both Floyd and Pillow legged it out of the fort and eventually escaped upriver to Nashville and left poor Brigadier General Simon Buckner holding the bag and the dishonor of surrendering the fort to  the Union general, Ulysses S. Grant. 

When Buckner asked Grant for surrender terms, he received the terse and now famous reply:

Yours of this date proposing armistace 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.

After the surrender, Grant telegraphed his superior, General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, that:

We have taken Fort Donelson and from 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners including Generals Buckner and Bushrod Johnson, also about 20,000 stand of arms, 48 pieces of artillery, 17 heavy guns, from 2,000 to 4,000 horses and large quantities of commissary stores.

Fort Donelson marked the first of three Confederate armies that surrendered to Grant during the Civil War (the others being Pemberton's army at Vicksburg, MS in 1863 and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in 1865).

12 pound Napoleon behind the Confederate trenches
Close-up view of the Napoleon

A view down the length of one of the Confederate trenches provides and idea of the height and protection provided.

One of the Confederate batteries in the main area of Fort Donelson

Another view of the fort trenches.

This looks like a 10-pound Parrot cannon to me. You can get some perspective of the height of the trenches from this angle.

One of the large Columbiad rifled cannon in the river battery. Some old coot photo bombed the picture.

The Confederate Lower Battery overlooking the Cumberland River.

A big gun.

Some more big guns!

One of the Columbiad rifled cannon. This is allegedly the one that put the USS Carondolet out of action.

The battlefield site is interesting and well worth the visit. I had read a book titled "Grant Invades Tennessee - The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson" by Timothy B. Smith, which I highly recommend if you have any interest in the American Civil War. The book was well written, easy to follow with some great maps, and an overall joy to read.

I only had an hour's time to visit the battlefield and limited my visit to the Confederate works. I would like to return for a visit to the surrender site at the Dover Hotel in Dover, TN and to explore some of the outer works on the Confederate left flank (Union right flank). Most of the Union lines are on private property outside of the National Park boundaries, but organizations such as the Civil War Trust have been buying up some of the property to save the ground from development. The work of the Civil War Trust is a boon to ACW history buffs and to future students of the battle going forward.



  1. A fascinating way to spend a few hours. Used to love visiting old ACW (and AWI) sites as a child and young person with my parents and grandparents.

    Best Regards,


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Jim,

    Great photos. Thank you for sharing. The gun with the reinforced breech is a 12 pound Confederate siege gun made by Quinby & Robinson of Memphis. There are two at the Fort Donelson NMP, and I’ve seen one anywhere else.