In February 1862, the Battle of Fort Donelson yielded the North’s first major victory of the war and sent the military career of General Ulysses S. Grant into sharp ascendancy. Today you can visit Fort Donelson National Battlefield, which celebrated its 23rd anniversary August 9, and see where the Union’s greatest military hero earned the moniker “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
When the Civil War began, the Confederacy understood full and well that the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers would, if not controlled by rebel forces, provide the North with handy invasion routes and lines of communication deep into the heart of the South. It was a forgone conclusion that the South would defend these riverways, and an equally sure thing that the North would vigorously attack the fortifications.
To better understand the strategic significance of these riverine corridors, look at this map of the war’s Western Theater of the Civil War and note the orientation of the solid blue lines, which track the major advances of Union forces in the war’s Western Theater. Also note the short blue arrow labeled “Henry/Donelson 1862” near the Tennessee/Kentucky border. The tiny dark-colored rectangle to the right of the arrowhead is the site of Fort Donelson. The square nearly covered by the arrowhead is the site of Fort Henry.
In 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, the Confederates constructed and garrisoned Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The two rivers were so close at the chosen sites that the forts were only a dozen miles apart.
Both forts were constructed northwest of Nashville just inside the state of Tennessee. The Confederacy would have dearly loved to build both forts in Kentucky, where the Tennessee and the Cumberland both entered the Ohio River, but that was not feasible. Kentucky declared neutrality in the war, and to build Confederate forts in that state would have angered locals and left lines of communication dangerously exposed.
By early February 1862 a large federal force under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant was positioned to attack the two vital forts. Grant started with Fort Henry. After taking several days to land two divisions just downstream from the fort, he began moving his federals into position to attack it. This proved unnecessary, as the rebels surrendered the fort before Grant’s army even arrived on the scene. It’s true that accurate fire from Union gunboats played a key role in the Battle of Fort Henry, but the rebels’ selection of a low lying site for the fort was even more telling. At the time of the battle, Fort Henry was nearly inundated by flood waters from the rising river.
The capture of Fort Henry was the first major Union victory of the war in the Western Theater. Union gunships (“timberclads”) promptly demonstrated the worth of the prize by steaming up the Tennessee all the way into Alabama, destroying bridges, boats, and barges in raids conducted during the week following Fort Henry’s surrender.
With Fort Henry in the bag, Grant took his army 12 miles east to attack Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. Taking this second fort would prove to be a much more difficult and bloody task.
After a few probing attacks by Grant’s soldiers, the first heavy attack on the fort was conducted on February 14 (Valentines Day) by Navy gunboats. These were the same warships – ironclads St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Corondolet – that had visited misery on Fort Henry only a little over a week ago.
They didn’t fare so well this time around. Accurate fire from Confederate batteries heavily damaged the gunboats, forcing them to withdraw after a 90-minute slugfest.
The next day, Confederate troops under the command of Brig. Gen. John Floyd launched an attack on the Union right that caught Grant’s army by surprise (Grant himself was away at the time) and held some promise for opening an avenue of escape to Nashville for the fort’s defenders. But after the federals rallied and counterattacked, most of the Confederates retreated to the fort. (Several thousand Confederates did escape to Nashville, including the fort’s commander and his second in command.)
Historians have pointed out that it was primarily confusion and indecision, “the fog of battle,” that caused the main body of rebels to retreat to the fort when they might very well have escaped to Nashville. But historians benefit from the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, and these men could not.
This was now a very grim situation for the more than 12,000 Confederate defenders trapped in the fort. Not being stupid, they all understood the implications of being surrounded, as they very nearly were already. Bereft of hope for resupply and reinforcement from Nashville, the garrison was bound to be starved into submission if it weren’t first taken by storm.
The following day, February 16, the fort’s brand new commander, Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, asked Grant what terms of surrender he would consider. Grant’s history-enshrined answer was short and right straight to the point: "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." Buckner (who knew Grant well enough to lend him money in 1854) promptly surrendered Fort Donelson and its garrison unconditionally. It was in this way that Gen. U. S. Grant acquired the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, received a prompt promotion to Major General, and became a larger-than-life figure in the eyese of the public.
The northern press, delighted to have a major victory and a genuine military hero to celebrate, trumpeted Grant’s success to an eager audience in the North. The Confederacy, for its part, was left to soberly reflect on the fact that the heartland of the South now lay open to invasion.
The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson forced the Confederacy to give up, except for occasional raiding, nearly all of Kentucky and most of central and western Tennessee. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers (as well as the railroads that ran through their valleys) became Federal supply lines and the city of Nashville soon became a huge supply depot for the Union Army of the Tennessee. In April, Grant took his Army of the Tennessee up the Tennessee River and disembarked it at Pittsburgh Landing near the Tennessee/Alabama border. The Battle of Shiloh that was fought there, a Union victory, was the war’s first horrifically bloody battle (nearly 24,000 killed, wounded, or missing) and a harbinger of things to come.
The Fort Donelson battlefield site was initially established as Fort Donelson National Military Park and placed under War Department administration on March 26, 1928. The national military park and the Fort Donelson National Cemetery (established in 1867) were subsequently transferred to the National Park Service August 10, 1933. The military park was redesignated Fort Donelson National Battlefield on August 9, 1985.
Today people can visit Fort Donelson National Battlefield, view the 10-minute AV program at the visitor center, spend some time in the museum, take the six-mile self-guided battlefield tour, and try to get some feel for what it must have been like to be at this place during those February days 146 years ago.
Among the park’s historic attractions are the remains of the fort and associated rifle pits and artillery batteries, some historic buildings (the prime one being the Dover Hotel “Surrender House”) and a decent share of the battlefield.
Interestingly, dam construction on the Cumberland River has raised the level of the water in the river to approximately the level of the flood waters present at the time of the battle.
Alas, nearly all of the ground that was fought over during the bloody Confederate breakout attempt on February 15 is now occupied by residential development and related private land uses.