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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson

   

THE CAMPAIGN FOR FORT DONELSON

February 16, 1862, dawned clear and bright. A heavy snow covered the dead, the dying, and the cheerless living on the hills and in the ravines around the sleepy hamlet of Dover, Tennessee.

Nearby Confederate Fort Donelson, commanding the Cumberland River, had been the target in the first major battle in the western theater. Both sides—blue and gray—sensed victory. But three days of hard fighting had left a landscape of blood-spattered snow, wrecked buildings, shattered woodland, and one army about to be surrendered. Tennessee major and eyewitness Nathaniel Cheairs would later term it the most disgraceful, unnecessary and uncalled for surrender of the entire Civil War. How had this come to pass?

Ten days earlier another Confederate fort—Fort Henry, twelve miles away on the Tennessee River—had fallen to the Union army and navy. Both forts had been built to defend against Northern invasion via the Southern waterways. Lacking naval craft of their own to help in this mission, Confederate military and political leaders looked to young soldiers from Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas—even distant Virginia, as well as land fortifications—to protect the newborn Confederacy. But fate would be against them as equally youthful volunteers from the Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri—together with a newly constructed flotilla of Union gunboats mounted an unexpected midwinter offensive. It broke a Confederate defense line stretching from the Appalachian Mountains westward to the Mississippi River and beyond. Forts Henry and Donelson were key linchpins in this line.

A WATER BATTERY AT FORT DONELSON IN WINTER. (PHOTO BY JAMES P. BAGSBY)

AN 1887 PRINT OF THE BATTLE OF FORT DONELSON. (LC)

The Union army-navy expedition was led by an inconspicuous brigadier who would use success on the twin rivers as a stepping-stone to higher command and eventually to the presidency of the United States after the war. His name was Ulysses S. Grant. Virtually unknown at the start of the Civil War, Grant would soon become familiar to households across both North and South if only because of the appellation "Unconditional Surrender" which people attached to his initials following Fort Donelson. For Confederate arms, however, only disgrace, prison camps, and loss of vast amounts of territory and resources necessary to wage war and win independence attended the two battles. Additional combat and bloodshed, other generals, and further devastation and misery followed in the wake of this campaign. There would be other, more famous battles like Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Atlanta, as well as Franklin and Nashville. But the road leading south to ultimate Union victory began at Forts Henry and Donelson. Here was truly a turning point of the Civil War.

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