Detail of gate post at Alexandria (VA) National Cemetery; Rows of unknown graves at Memphis National Cemetery; Directional sign post to Fort Gibson National Cemetery
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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served

Fort Donelson National Cemetery

Dover, Tennessee

Fort Donelson National Cemetery
Fort Donelson National Cemetery
Courtesy of the National Park Service.
The Fort Donelson National Cemetery in Dover, Tennessee was established in 1867 as a burial ground for Union soldiers killed in a significant early Civil War battle.  Today, the cemetery contains the graves of veterans representing the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Fort Donelson National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service and is a part of the Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Through the cemetery, exhibits, and tours of the battlefield, the National Park Service site interprets the Battle of Fort Donelson, the 1862 Union victory that placed Tennessee in Union control and helped to advance the military career of General Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1861, Confederate strategists worked to create a defensive line to protect the Cumberland River, a potential water route for Union forces leading through neutral Kentucky into the heart of Tennessee.  Fort Donelson was established on a hill overlooking the river at Dover.  Located 12 miles south of the Kentucky border, the fort featured batteries and an extensive system of earthworks.

After an unsuccessful attack by Union gunboats on February 14, 1862, Union ground forces led a series of assaults on the fort. Commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant, Union soldiers repelled Confederate counterattacks. Outnumbered and cut off from reinforcements, fort commander General Simon Buckner asked Grant for his terms of surrender.  Grant replied that he would accept only an unconditional and immediate surrender. Buckner, fearing an imminent decimation of his forces, agreed to the terms on February 16, 1862.

The decisive Union win opened the Cumberland River as a route into Tennessee. Grant’s victory and his previous capture of Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, led to his promotion and nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” The Union took full advantage of the strategic gain, moving into Tennessee and using the region’s rivers and railroads as supply lines. 

Union forces abandoned the Confederate fort and constructed a new fortification between Fort Donelson and the town of Dover. In 1867, the U.S. government formally purchased the 15-acre property and established the Fort Donelson National Cemetery near the Union fort on the banks of the Cumberland River.  The military transferred the remains of 670 Union soldiers from the battlefield, local cemeteries, and nearby towns. Only 158 bodies could be identified; 512 remain unknown to this day.

Fort Donelson Site Map

1893 Site Plan of Fort Donelson National Cemetery.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
(click on image to enlarge)

The rocky terrain and steep slopes of the site severely limited the size and configuration of the cemetery.  Today the cemetery reflects a plan devised in 1867, which roughly resembles the shape of a kidney. Given the irregular shape, the landscaping departs from the formal and rigid geometric patterns of later national cemeteries. At the center of the cemetery is a circular earthen mound, once the site of commemorative cannons, which were removed in 1956.  To the east of the mound is the flagpole, which stands at the center of a heart-shaped burial section. The cemetery’s perimeter is marked by a limestone wall that curves around the burial sections.

The cemetery superintendent’s lodge is in the southwest section, just inside the cemetery’s main gate.  Built in 1876, the one-and-a-half story brick structure was constructed in the Second Empire style, identifiable by its mansard roof and dormer windows.  The lodge’s design is of the standard plan created by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, and is one of 17 remaining Second Empire-style Meigs lodges found at Civil War era national cemeteries. 

Plan your visit

Fort Donelson National Battlefield, which includes the Fort Donelson National Cemetery, is a unit of the National Park Service. It is located on Tennessee Route 79, approximately one mile west of Dover, TN. The cemetery, battlefield, and visitors center are open for visitation daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm. For more information visit the National Park Service Fort Donelson National Battlefield website or call the park’s visitors center at 931-232-5706.  While visiting, be mindful that our national cemeteries are hallowed ground and be respectful to all of our nation’s fallen soldiers and their families.  Additional cemetery policies may be posted on site.

The National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program provides a summary of the battle at Fort Donelson. Additional information on the battle is available from the Civil War Preservation Trust.

Fort Donelson National Cemetery lies within the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

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