Grant at Fort Donelson

Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in battle at Fort Donelson.
Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in battle at Fort Donelson.

Library of Congress

by Frank Kohl

On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers attacked Union troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, forcing the nation into the throes of the Civil War. Later that month, Ulysses S. Grant enlisted as an aide in the Illinois militia, a Union force. By 1862, Grant was a brigadier-general commanding over 27,000 troops. Grant decided to attack Fort Donelson to achieve his goal of capturing the Confederate stronghold of Nashville. To do this, Grant pushed for attacks against Fort Heiman and Fort Henry, which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. After Union forces captured these forts, Grant marched toward Fort Donelson. At first, the Union was overwhelmed by the power of the fort’s defending forces and the Confederates were able to advance. Refusing to give up, Grant pressed the need for a success to Brigadier General C.F. Smith.

“General Smith, all has failed on our right, you must take Fort Donelson.”
“I will do it,” replied Smith.

The next day, Union forces regrouped and eventually forced the Confederates to retreat into the safety of the fort.

Fort Donelson Falls

That night, General Simon Bolivar Buckner offered to stay and negotiate a surrender while the other Generals escaped. Buckner and Grant were friends at West Point and served together during the U.S.-Mexican War. Now, these two friends were on opposite sides of the war. Expecting to negotiate a surrender, Buckner was shocked when Grant declared "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” This statement went against the common standards of chivalry and etiquette and left Buckner with no choice but to surrender. The victory made Grant a national hero. He was praised by President Lincoln, who was frustrated by the relative inaction of other Union generals. The fall of Fort Donelson opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, gave the Union a key foothold in the region, and allowed the Union to push deeper into the heart of the Confederacy.

Two story beige building with a front porch on the first and second floor with two red brick chimneys on the side of the building.
Grant accepted surrender of Confederate General Buckner at the Dover Hotel.

NPS photo

Fort Donelson Today

Visitors to Fort Donelson National Battlefield can stop in the Visitor Center and walk the park trails to explore preserved earthworks and Confederate river batteries. Nearby, a monument and the Fort Donelson National Cemetery commemorate the fallen soldiers of the battle and the Dover Hotel preserves the site where Grant accepted the surrender of General Buckner.

The Odyssey of Ulysses explores the saga of U. S. Grant from his first battle to his final resting place. For information on this Article Series project, contact us.

Part of a series of articles titled The Odyssey of Ulysses.

Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Last updated: August 4, 2022