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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson



The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson gave Union forces the first major success toward accomplishment of their grand strategy. This strategy called for splitting the Confederacy from north to south via the Mississippi River valley, then turning and splitting it again from east to west. Confederate authorities countered this strategy with one of their own—a defense line with strategic strong points such as earthen forts and water batteries to protect the crucial waterways. They also concentrated forces to protect major rail lines and roads entering the frontier of their territory. But lacking resources to construct a river navy and uncertain of the precise axis of Union invasion, Southern leaders could only await developments by their opponents.

The rivers of the antebellum South were the key to unlocking the Confederate heartland. They served as the great interstate highways of the period. Railroads were in their infancy, and good roads depended on weather and local support for their maintenance. Commercial development of the region required steamboats conveying cotton, tobacco, iron, meat, and grain to market. In return, these craft carried manufactured products back to farms and plantations. Rivers and steamboats linked major cities such as Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Nashville, Clarksville, Paducah, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. The river-steamboat combination also aided the flow of culture and social intercourse in the hinterland. Yet these strategic assets also held promise for war as well as peace.


Confederate political and military leaders at all levels realized too late that Northern steamboat owners had quickly withdrawn most of their craft to home ports at the first signs of war. Lost then to the young Confederacy were vital means for transporting men and materiél and forming the nucleus of a river defense navy. True, some heavy ordnance was secured from captured Union arsenals and navy yards in the South. But generally, while state and local officials turned to the central government in Richmond for relief. President Jefferson Davis and his administration countered that it was mainly the responsibility of western Confederate states themselves to provide for their common defense. So local manpower fed the newly formed armies while local industry and farms provided food and equipment for these troops. Local slave owners supplied the labor for farm and factory—and to construct the earthworks defending the rivers.

Tennessee became the Confederate frontier in the West. Memphis and Nasvhille assumed a role in mobilization, and the state capital also served as the production and communications nerve center for the entire region.

Tennessee became the Confederate frontier in the West. Memphis and Nashville assumed a role in mobilization, and the state capital also served as the production and communications nerve center for the entire region. Yet frontier defense could be pushed no farther than the boundary with neutral Kentucky. Indeed, the state's neutrality hampered Confederate commanders like General Albert Sidney Johnston, sent by Richmond to defend the vast Department Number 2 of the Confederacy that included all the area stretching from the mountains of East Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma. He could not advance his army to the Ohio River, a natural boundary between North and South, because of the neutral Bluegrass State. Had he been able to do so, the Confederacy also could have acquired the agriculturally rich midstate region of Kentucky as well as iron-rich western barrens between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, indispensable for fighting a long war.



Kentucky's neutrality forced Tennessee governor Isham G. Harris and his Volunteer State advisers to develop defensive positions even before Johnston's arrival. Despite topographically superior locations in Kentucky, Tennessee military leaders chose the locations of Forts Henry and Donelson solely for political reasons. Hence Fort Henry was sited on the low eastern bank of the Tennessee River immediately south of the Kentucky line. Fort Donelson would occupy a better position on a hill beside the Cumberland near the sleepy Stewart County seat of Dover—farther inside Tennessee territory. Construction of the forts began in the summer of 1861, and their locations subsequently locked in both state and Confederate authorities by default, even when both combatants consciously violated Kentucky's neutrality early in September.

Confederate authorities eventually advanced their forces to armed camps at Bowling Green on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the high bluffs above the Mississippi at Columbus, Kentucky. But Forts Henry and Donelson remained in place, some twelve miles apart and about seventy-five miles downstream (or northwest) of Nashville. No effort was made to take advantage of better sites on Kentucky soil along the rivers. True, both forts screened the lateral rail connection between Bowling Green and Memphis through Clarksville. In fact, the north-south railroad and Mississippi River axes of advance soon mesmerized Johnston and his subordinates to the detriment of concern for the twin rivers sector. It was left to Tennessee volunteers such as the Nashville-raised 10th Tennessee, the 49th and 50th Tennessee from neighborhoods closer to the forts, and later the 27th Alabama, reflecting the northern part of that state's concern for defense of the lower Tennessee River, to prepare the forts. Eventually some 600 slaves were procured from the neighborhood to expedite the work. Under Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, a Paducah, Kentucky, native, they literally hacked Forts Henry and Donelson out of a wilderness.

Fort Henry was of the class known as a full-bastioned earthwork, standing directly on the bank of the river. It enclosed about two acres and was named for Gustavus A. Henry, the senior Confederate senator (styled "the Eagle Orator of Tennessee") and native of nearby Montgomery County. It mounted seventeen heavy guns, mostly mounted on seacoast artillery carriages, including one ten-inch Columbiad, throwing a round shot of 128 pounds in weight and another ostensibly capable of firing a 60-pound elongated shot. The other guns included twelve 32-pounders, one 24-pounder rifle, and two 12-pounder siege guns. Nearly all the guns were pivoted and capable of being turned in any desired direction although their main strength focused on the river. Outer entrenchments suitable for infantry were designed to defend the land approach. The major drawback was that the fort was located on the floodplain and could easily be inundated by high water.


Selected by Colonel Bushrod Johnson, a transplanted Ohioan, West Pointer, and Nashville professor loyal to his adopted state of Tennessee as well as the new Confederacy, and affirmed by one of the renowned engineers of the region, Adna Anderson, Fort Henry's position quickly became the subject of much derision. In the opinion of another engineer, Captain J. A. Haydon, and others, on no point on this river "could a less favorable place have been chosen." Begun about the first of July 1861, Fort Henry was finished in August, and none of the subordinates such as Haydon felt that they had either rank or prestige to question the siting decisions of their superiors. Eventually, another fort was laid out across the Tennessee River on higher ground and named by the 10th Tennessee's soldiers for their beloved commander, Colonel Adolphus Heiman. Although it was designed to function with Fort Henry, little was ever accomplished on the site and no guns were ever mounted. Once more, everyone appeared to believe that there would be plenty of time before any enemy appeared on the scene.

Fort Donelson, named for senior Tennessee militia general Daniel S. Donelson, was situated more favorably on the Cumberland. Although defense of that river also languished because so much attention was given to Fort Henry's construction, eventually an irregular hilltop fort was built encompassing one hundred acres overlooking the river near the tiny Stewart County seat of Dover, about seventy-five miles downriver from Nashville. At first the Confederates relied on the reputedly low water in the river and a sunken line of stone-laden barges across the stream but eventually realized the need for more substantial shore works. Fort Donelson would become the sole defense for the state capital.

Two formidable water batteries, situated partway up the slopes of the one-hundred-foot hill, mounted twelve guns to command the river. The principal or lower battery boasted one ten-inch Columbiad as well as thirty-two pounders. The upper battery contained a rifled sixty-four-pounder Columbiad and two sixty-four-pounder howitzers. All the guns were protected by thick breastworks surmounted by earth-filled coffee sacks that also stabilized the gun embrasures. There would be no question of floodplain or location of this position. Even several small howitzers situated directly in the main fort could provide plunging fire on any attacker from the land side. At first, however, there were no outer infantry entrenchments similar to those at Fort Henry.

Far from the lively atmosphere of the major cities or even towns of the area, the river fort construction sites were shunned by engineers and senior officers responsible for their prompt completion. These were frontier forts, and no socially conscious young scions of Southern families wanted such an assignment. With winter coming on, the soldiers slowly built drafty log huts, suffered homesickness as well as the camp fevers attending field duty, and struggled to drill, mount cannon, and finish digging the forts' parapets. Overall, the war projected a rather leisurely air in late 1861 as both sides struggled to organize and train their fledgling armies. The threat of confrontation seemed distant to all concerned. Yet in engineer Haydon's words, from the very moment Tilghman took command, "an energy, confidence and work" took the place of inactivity, blind faith, and general distaste for effort that had been infused into the men by lesser officers at the sites. But as Haydon also noted perceptively, the key to defending the twin river forts in time of need lay with the accession of forces from Bowling Green and from Columbus via the railroad, which crossed the Tennessee about twenty miles above Fort Henry and "inched" up on the Cumberland about fourteen miles above Fort Donelson.




The Confederate story in this period was one of inexperienced yet patriotic young citizen-soldiers straining to learn the ways of army life and become a fighting force. Logistical nightmares and strategic uncertainty, independent state's-rights spirit among western state politicians, and insufficient men and resources rendered General Johnston's task very difficult. Physical distances helped negate coordination along the long defense line. From the Episcopal bishop turned major general Leonidus Polk commanding at Columbus on the Mississippi to Major General George B. Crittenden far to the east in the Kentucky foothills as well as the isolated garrison commanders on the Tennessee and the Cumberland like Lloyd Tilghman, each leader acted on his own. Johnston deployed his 55,000 to 60,000 men as best he could and awaited spring. Making his own headquarters with the principal maneuver force at Bowling Green (Major General William J. Hardee's Central Army of Kentucky), the theater commander constantly telegraphed Richmond for help. Thinking the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was his most threatened sector, he neglected everything else. Aides and subordinates occasionally inspected the river forts' progress, but Johnston never once visited them in person to see their status or condition.

It is easy to criticize Johnston in retrospect. People expected too much of him. Jefferson Davis's personal friend (he was the greatest soldier and ablest man then living, declared the Confederate president), Johnston too had been born in Kentucky but had adopted Texas as home. A well-respected senior figure in the old United States Army at the onset of the Civil War, Johnston had made a well-publicized trek across country from California to join the Confederacy only to find that Davis and the War Department proved more generous with promises and soothing phrases than hard resources like guns, supplies, and manpower for Department Number 2. Consistently lacking these war resources Johnston also battled rickety railroads, cranky states'-rights governors, and an indifferent populace. His major problem, in the view of postwar observers such as Colonel E. W. Munford, was simply that he "had no army."



Yet part of the problem may have been Johnston himself. Johnston was hamstrung by the traditional military avoidance of campaigning in winter and his hope of building his own forces for any anticipated Union onslaught in the spring. His preoccupation with the north-south railroad line through Bowling Green was questionable because he had wide-ranging responsibilities elsewhere. Moreover, he lacked personal knowledge of many of his subordinates charged with defense of the theater and their individual requirements that might have been better gained through personal inspection. He acquiesced to Polk's independence and localized his focus on affairs at Columbus and on the Mississippi. Johnston sought to coordinate his subordinates via telegraph and apparently overlooked the fact that steamboats hauling an invasion force could navigate rivers in midwinter as well as warmer weather and thus breach his defense line. Perhaps his years in the American West simply had not prepared him adequately for modern warfare in the geography of the eastern half of the country.

Meanwhile, in northern Kentucky and across the Ohio River, Johnston's Union counterparts faced similar problems and issues.

Northern generals seemed just as overwhelmed by having to organize large citizen armies, surmount munitions and equipment shortages, and deal with politicians at the state and national levels. Like the Confederates, they overestimated the enemy's strength and capabilities. The administration of President Abraham Lincoln in Washington badgered them constantly to rescue East Tennessee Unionists in the mountains. Yet for all those problems, Federal authorities controlled the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and could readily secure river and rail transport for military operations.

The most immediate problems confronting Union generals in the western theater seemed to be the divided command and how to formulate an offensive to restore the seceded states to the Union while reopening the great Mississippi waterway to commerce. Major Generals John C. Fremont (the great pathbreaking explorer) and his successor, the scholarly Henry W. Halleck, commanded upward of the 70,000 to 80,000 men from the St. Louis headquarters of the Department of the Missouri. Major General Don Carlos Buell commander of the Louisville-based Department of the Ohio, mustered some 50,000 more. The boundary between their jurisdictions as it entered Confederate territory was the Cumberland River. Once again, waterways were all-important.


Simultaneous river and overland movement by Union armies offered multiple opportunities to breach Confederate defenses.

Offensive operations require more preparations than defending territory, and so it was in 1861-62. Exploitation of the water highways provided a major challenge to the Union government. Simultaneous river and overland movement by Union armies offered multiple opportunities to breach Confederate defenses. Yet how to organize the requisite riverine force of gunboats and transports proved most challenging. Notwithstanding the navy's preference for war at sea, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sent officers to the western rivers to construct and organize a gunboat flotilla. This "brown-water navy," as it was called, was fundamental to reopening the Mississippi and its tributaries including the Tennessee and Cumberland. But it would take months of patient preparation and coordination between the armed services as well as cooperation with local industries to produce the requisite force. The army was jealous and distrustful of intrusion into its affairs and tried to construct its own fleet. But veteran sailors such as John Rodgers, Andrew Hull Foote, and Henry Walke persevered. They developed close ties with Halleck and the soldiers and engaged shipbuilding interests from Cairo, DeKalb, Mound City, and other river towns to build new or convert available river craft for combat. Inventor-engineer James B. Fads of St. Louis contracted to fabricate what would be called the "Western Flotilla" of ironclad gunboats. Army camps were scoured for gunboat volunteers. National arsenals dispatched heavy ship board ordnance, and shore-based service and supply facilities were created to support the navy on inland waters. All of this preparation took time, however, and delayed Halleck and Buell from launching their great advance southward.

The unlikely combination of the obscure Grant and his crusty, Calvinist sailor counterpart, Foote, brought action to the plans for this great offensive. Halleck and his subordinates were stymied by the formidable Confederate bastion at Columbus, which firmly blocked passage of the Mississippi. Buell and his commanders were overawed by Johnston and Hardee sitting squarely athwart the Louisville-Nashville rail line at Bowling Green. A way was needed to overcome both obstacles expeditiously and economically. Indeed, Halleck, Buell, William T. Sherman, various Washington armchair strategists, even a woman—the controversial activist daughter of an old, influential Maryland family, Anna Ella Carroll, all claimed authorship of what appeared to be the most viable alternative—the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. One winter evening while chatting over cigars with Sherman and chief of staff G. W. Cullum in St. Louis, Halleck supposedly turned to a wall map and circled the Confederate forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland, "That's the true line of operations, gentlemen," he said. Random gunboat reconnaissance and other scouting reports from the area had been suggesting this solution all fall. Anyone could recognize the weak chinks in Sidney Johnston's armor by simply looking at such a map, observed Carroll. But looking and doing something about it were two different matters. The way was prepared for Foote and Grant.

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