Fort Donelson Visitor Center
Those Confederates who died in the struggle for Fort Donelson were buried on the battlefield, yet today, their grave locations are unknown. Thus, in 1933 the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated this monument to their honor.
This is where the tour road through the park enters the historic confines of Fort Donelson. As one of the Park Rangers there explained to me, many visitors actually end up driving back to the Visitor Center to complain that they did the entire tour but never found the fort. Most who visit Fort Donelson expect a grand structure with fortifications of stone to still exist. However, Fort Donelson was never that type of fort. It consisted of earthworks and artillery placements along the Cumberland River. Those earthworks are still very well preserved today, as can be seen in the below pictures.
During the Battle of Fort Donelson from February 12-16, 1862, winter weather was brutal for both Federal and Confederate troops alike. On the evening of the 13th, temperatures dipped to 12 degrees, and over three inches of snow fell. For Union soldiers, campfires were largely prohibited due to their close proximity to Confederate lines. One advantages Confederate troops had were log cabins inside the walls of Fort Donelson, such as the one pictured above. While not ideal for keeping warm, these structures at least afforded Confederate troops some protection from the wind, snow, and cold elements plaguing their Northern counterparts.
The most famous part of Fort Donelson has to be its water batteries overlooking the historic Cumberland River. These batteries held the key to the fort's true importance. Whoever controlled the fort controlled the Cumberland River. As the Cumberland River could lead Federal forces directly into Nashville, this was a crucial strategic point for Confederate defenders.
Yours truly, sporting my usual Cleveland Indians gear and checking out Fort Donelson's water battery guns.
Seeing the water batteries was the most impressive part of Fort Donelson for me. They present a stunning visual, the kind that really leaves a lasting impression. On February 14, 1862, a Union fleet of ironclads led by Andrew Hull Foote came within a few hundred yards of these guns in a direct duel with the defenders of Fort Donelson. The toll of the guns was too much for Foote, who himself was wounded when a shell tore through his flagship, the USS St. Louis. The Federal gunboat attack on Fort Donelson did not fare nearly as well as it had at Fort Henry, leaving it to Grant to close the deal with Federal infantry the following day.
After leaving the fort, our next stop was the outer works of Donelson, where on February 15, 1862, Brigadier General C.F. Smith led his Union division in a gallant counter charge aimed at reclaiming the initiative and hitting the Confederate lines at their weakest point. Earlier that day, Confederates had made great gains by attacking the Federal right flank. In response, in addition to stabilizing his right, Grant ordered Smith to attack with the left, catching Confederate forces off guard. These earthworks represent the furthest gains made by Smith's men that day. After taking this position, Smith was able to fire into Fort Donelson itself, all but sealing the fate of the Confederate garrison encamped there.
On what was the Federal right, and what is now mostly private and residential land, a few markers remain to signify where the desperate Confederate breakout attacks occurred on the morning of February 15. Strangely enough, for being a site of a major Union Victory, the only two monuments we saw were both for Confederates. The above is from the state of Texas, and will be familiar to those who have seen Texas monuments at Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and countless other fields. It notes the service and sacrifice made by Confederates from Texas in the breakout attack of the 15th which ultimately failed to reach its goal of saving the Southern garrison at Fort Donelson.
On the evening of February 15, the Confederate commanders of Fort Donelson decided that the game was up. Grant had stymied their breakout attempt, and Smith's counterattack had closed the noose around Fort Donelson even tighter. Meeting in the nearby town of Dover, Confederate generals John Floyd and Gideon Pillow decided to flee rather than surrender. On the morning of February 16, the remaining Confederate commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner, met Ulysses S. Grant at the Dover Hotel, pictured above, to orchestrate the "unconditional surrender" of the garrison at Fort Donelson. Inside the Dover Hotel is a small museum outlining the various leaders who were involved in the battle at Fort Donelson, as well as a short video regarding the Confederate decision to surrender on the night of the 15th.
The last stop on our tour was the Fort Donelson National Cemetery. It is quite small when compared with Antietam or Gettysburg. It contains just over 600 Union soldiers who died during and after the fight for Fort Donelson. It also includes many who served in later wars of the 20th century. While a relatively small cemetery, it still reminds one of the cost of freedom.
One interesting aspect of the Fort Donelson National Cemetery is that some of the Civil War graves are arranged in circular formations. The circular formation of graves above (in the center of the photo, just past the tree) consists of soldiers from Illinois who were killed during the fighting around Fort Donelson on February 15.
If you ever get the chance to visit Fort Donelson, I highly recommend it. It is a small battlefield, yet the fort itself is very well preserved, and it offers beautiful scenery on the historic Cumberland River. While the battle for Fort Donelson was quite small in comparison with the larger and more famous engagements of the war, it had wide ranging implications that affected the rest of the war in the Western Theater. Because of what occurred at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862, two major avenues of invasion were opened for Union forces to sweep into Tennessee and eventually, to take control of the Mississippi River itself.