African-Americans at Fort Donelson

Victory for the Slave

Not only a strategic military victory, the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson provided a welcomed victory for thousands of enslaved African-Americans. Slaves from surrounding areas in Tennessee and Kentucky came to the forts seeking protection and work. Other slaves were impressed into the Union Army to work as laborers.

"Impress slaves of the secessionists in vicinity [of Fort Henry] to work on fortifications."—Henry Halleck to U.S. Grant, February 8, 1862

"Slaves as were within the lines at the time of the capture of Fort Donelson, and such have been used by the enemy, in building the fortification, or in any way hostile to the Government, will not be released or permitted to return to their masters, but will be employed in the Quarter Masters Department, for the benefit of the Government."—General Order No. 14, U.S. Grant, February 26, 1862

"All the Negroes have [been] pressed to work on fortifications."—Sarah Kennedy, Tennessee slave master living near Clarksville, Tennessee, January 4, 1863

Wartime Politics

Grant faced a precarious situation after the surrender of Fort Donelson. He struggled with uncertain Federal policy concerning freedom-seeking slaves and criticism from the Northern press for his actions at Donelson. Angry slave owners searching for their runaway slaves compounded Grant's problems. Difficult decisions had to be made—protect the fugitive slaves or honor Tennessee and Kentucky state laws that legalized slavery. Grant realized the risk to his career—other Union commanders had been reprimanded for making improper decisions. Though he professed he had "no views of [his] own to carry out," Grant chose to protect the slaves within the Union lines and impressed other slaves in the surrounding area.

As the Union Army pushed farther south, more and more freedom-seeking slaves continued to seek refuge with the Army. Grant and other Union commanders finally received a bit more direction on how to handle the situation with the passage of the Second Confiscation Act (July 1862). This act permitted the confiscation and emancipation of secessionists' slaves that entered the Union lines.

"Links took Major, Alfred, Wyatt and Isham from my farm . . . Links left me three old negroes Harbest, Stephen and Anthony . . . Adaline and two children left for lincolndon"—" . .

" . . Phil and Fanny [have] left for Yankeedom . . . I do not think Aunt Lucy [will] leave or give me any trouble . . . They have all been turn[ed] to fools by the circumstances that surrounds them . . . "—Sarah Kennedy, August 19, 1863

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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