Monday, February 27, 2012

A Visit to Fort Donelson

I had the good fortune to be able to share my research on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid with a Teaching American History grant group in western Kentucky last Thursday evening. Since I was in that part of the state I took the opportunity to make a short drive down to Fort Donelson National Battlefield to look around.

My first stop was at the visitor center where I watched a short video that summarized the battle and highlighted the friendship between Ulysses S. Grant and Simon Bolivar Buckner. Also in the visitor center is a small museum that has a number of displays with artifacts from the battle. Many of the displays were outdated in their design (probably from the 1960s) but some new signage has been added for the Sesquicentennial, which I missed by only about a week as the battle happened on February 14 and 15, and surrender was on February 16, 1862.

This map from the Civil War Trust provides a great view of how the opposing troops were positioned and how the battle unfolded.

A cannon and earthworks near the park entrance and visitor center (Union left). Many of the earthworks throughout the park are very well preserved.

The Confederate Monument at Fort Donelson was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1933. The Confederate soldiers killed in the battle were hastily buried in unmarked graves in unknown locations, so the monument is dedicated to their memory.

A close up of the Confederate soldier on the monument.

An interpretive sign and artist's depiction shows a bird's eye view of the Confederate encampment at Fort Donelson. The fort was named for Daniel Donelson, a native Tennessean, nephew of Andrew Jackson and Confederate general. The 15-acre earthen fort was constructed by Confederate soldiers and slaves and took about seven months to build.

The purpose of the fort was to protect the important Cumberland River and the capital of Tennessee, Nashville, further upstream. When the nearby fort on the Tennessee River, Fort Henry, was bombed into submission on February 6 by Union gunboats, the Confederates there fled to Fort Donelson, only about 15 miles away. Bad weather slowed Grant's pursuit to Fort Donelson, but his force arrived there on February 13. The step earthen walls and deep ditch shown above are on the south side of Fort Donelson proper and reminded me of many of the earthworks at Petersburg, Virginia.

In the park is a reconstructed soldier's hut that provides visitors a better understanding of the conditions that Confederates faced during the winter of 1862. I was there on a cool and windy day, but I could only imagine the sharpness of the wind coming off the snow covered ground and nearly frozen Cumberland River 150 years ago. Over 400 of these huts dotted the interior of the garrison. The huts were burned by the Union troops after the battle due to a measles outbreak.

This view of the lower river battery shows the excellent position that the Confederates had as they battled the Union gunboats. Fort Donelson was in much better position to fight off the gunboats than Fort Henry, which has a much lower elevation. Union Flag Officer Andrew Foote's flotilla was defeated on February 14 through the efficient work of these guns.

Another look at the lower river battery. It was called the lower battery because it was slightly down river from the upper battery. However, the upper battery had a lower elevation position than the lower battery. Confused yet?

An artist's depiction of the lower battery (left) and upper battery (right) as it engaged the Union gunboats on the Cumberland River on February 14.

This view provides an artilleryman's eye view of the river. The Union gunboat's smokestacks were first visible over the trees in the far bend of the river and then they steamed upstream toward this position.

One of the big guns that defeated the Union gunboats on February 14.

The upper river battery.

After the Union gunboats were beaten back on February 14, Grant attacked the Confederate right with Gen. Charles F. Smith's troops on February 15 and captured the outer Confederate earthworks. Earlier on the 15th the Confederates had attacked the Union right and opened up an escape route out of the fort, but Gen. Pillow withdrew back into the fort's defenses. Now basically surrounded, the Confederates decided it would be best to surrender. While Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest's troops made their way out of the fort and escaped, commanding general John Floyd and Pillow transferred command to subordinate general Simon Bolivar Buckner, who surrendered to his pre-war friend Grant on February 16. Floyd and Pillow escaped capture by cowardly fleeing on a steamboat.

Buckner's surrender happened at the Dover Hotel. It was built between 1851 and 1853 and originally accommodated riverboat travelers before the war. Buckner used it during the battle as his headquarters, and after the battle it served as a hospital for Union soldiers.

An estimated 13,000 Confederate soldiers were surrendered at Fort Donelson. Most waited here on the riverbank below the Dover Hotel as they were loaded on steamboats for transfer to Union prison camps in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Boston, Massachusetts. Most of the Fort Donelson prisoners were exchanged in the fall of 1862. The Dover Hotel was one of the few structures in town that survived a Confederate attack a year later. The hotel remained in operation until the 1930s.

Also in Dover is the Fort Donelson National Cemetery, where over 650 Union soldiers were reinterred. Today the cemetery also contains veterans that have served in the U.S. military since the Civil War. In the cemetery I spotted several United States Colored Troops graves.

Over 500 of the Union soldiers are unknown. This is largely due to the hurry to clean up the battlefield, the reinterrment of remains from other cemeteries and the fact that Civil War soldiers were not issued government identifications.

For more information on check out the Civil War Trust's Fort Donelson page at:

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