Editor’s Note: This is a belated post from the early spring of 2019. We’ve been to many places that we are only just now getting around to writing about.
“No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”
-Ulysses S. Grant, February 16, 1862
Where is Fort Donelson National Battlefield and is it worth your visit?
In western Tennessee lies Fort Donelson National Battlefield and the historic Dover Hotel. This historic spot on the map, lying just south of the Land Between The Lakes Recreation Area which spans both Kentucky and Tennessee, is the location of a significant victory of the Union Army in the American Civil War. And if you are a history buff or get nerdy about rivers, you are going to love this place – so ‘yes’ it’s worth a visit!
We discovered Fort Donelson on a day trip while in the area seeing The Land Between The Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky. We had driven down to the southern end of the Recreation Area and noticed (on the map) that we were close to this National Battlefield. It was only that day that we became aware of its existence – either from looking at the map and seeing it was close to us, or (and I can’t recall, so maybe it happened this way) finding one of those pamphlets for it – the type they keep in hotel lobbies, welcome centers and rest areas – and wondering how far away it was from us. This is just one of many great reasons why traveling with a flexible agenda is preferable to us. We get to see cool things we hadn’t even planned on. It was still fairly early in the day so we decided to stop – and we’re glad we did.
First off, it should be noted that we learned all of this while there – on site. Again, we didn’t know anything about this place before we visited.
The significance of this battle over other Civil War battles is that this one gave the Union access to a highway into enemy territory, the Cumberland River. The importance of waterways in pre-industrial age timeline can’t be overlooked. Before man made highways came to be, rivers were the highways of the globe. Though this region of the country is now known as The Land Between The Lakes, back then the lakes weren’t there as the rivers hadn’t been dammed yet. So it was the land between the rivers. During the age of the Civil War, these two rivers (The Tennessee and the Cumberland) were a highway into the South.
In February 1862, the Union army successfully staged an assault against both of the adjacent Confederate forts in the area. Fort Henry, about 9 miles to the west on the Tennessee River, was the first to fall to the Union before they then trecked 9 miles east to surround Fort Donelson and blocking a land escape. Meanwhile, the Union was also sending warships down the river to give battle to the northern side of the fort.
I feel like I’m writing a book report with this, but in person it’s really interesting. And – when I learn about stuff like this, I always like to think about what the weather must have been like then and what it would have been like to be a soldier in those conditions. February is not a month I’d ever want to be fighting battles in. But I digress.
To keep this simple, I’m going to cut to the chase with the historical sum up, the Union won by surrounding the Confederates both by land and by the river and blasting them. The Confederates had in fact created a way to escape, but they didn’t. In the end, the Confederate Generals (who had almost won, but got nervous) more or less lost hope for the fort and chose to surrender, but passed the job of surrendering to a lower level general while they chickened out and made a cowardly escape to avoid what they had coming. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s how it all ended here and the result was that General Grant took more prisoners of war in this campaign than all previous Union Civil War generals had taken up to this point in the war – combined.
When we visited (spring of 2019), the visitors center had, years ago, been temporarily relocated to the Stewart County Visitor Center, on the south end of highway 79, due to renovations or construction on the original one. This probably affected our experience as the visitors center waw operating at a lower capacity then before. But, it was still cool as they had several artifacts on display, a store, and a National Park video (which we always love).
There are tables with information plaques that give a day by day summary of events for the 9 days involved in the battle and subsequent surrender. We walked around and learned quite a bit from the informative displays. If you are coming to visit the National Battlefield, make sure you visit the visitors center (even if it’s still in the temporary location), because it helps you get a feel for what you will see.
Self Guided Tour
We did about as much of the 6 mile, self-guided, tour as our young kids would allow. You get a pamphlet at the visitor center to orient you. We bounced around but we saw earthen fortifications, places where the Union army camped, the National Cemetery, and the Dover Hotel.
If you go on the self guided tour, we highly recommend using your phone (or I suppose you could haul a laptop around) and visit this site which hosts a stop by stop interactive audio explanation of what you are seeing. We love interactive supplements like these though our kids don’t always stay quiet enough for us to get everything out of them. Even if you don’t have a smartphone (or if you watch your mobile data use like a hawk), you can pull up the site before to orient you when you get there.
Fort Donelson National Cemetery
The Cemetery is hallowed ground as the final resting place of many soldiers and is not an active cemetery. The battle of Fort Donelson resulted in fatal casualties on both sides, but this cemetery is primarily a combined cemetery for Union Soldiers throughout the Civil War (though those from the battle of Fort Donelson are interred here too). The grounds are sectioned off into three main segments (with some additional rows).
The Cemetery is also the resting place of several soldiers, as one of the plaques states, “from the United States Colored Troops”. I found this one small detail very significant given our nations timeline with colonization, slavery, war, emancipation, segregation, and eventual equal rights. These soldiers were interred here, only 2 years after the war ended, in a location that had been a Confederate States fortification. To me the inclusion of them here, in the wake of a war over slavery fought so strongly on both sides resulting in so much bloodshed, is sobering and something for every American to be deeply proud of. That though society had been conditioned otherwise for over a century, skin color was not a discriminating factor for burial in a national cemetery.
Another really cool thing about this cemetery is its connection to Memorial Day. Back in May of 1868, “Decoration Day” was declared by the national commander of a Union veterans organization. General John A. Logan was wounded in the battle of Fort Donelson 6 years and 3 months before he, as the commander of the veterans organization, designated May 30th as a day to honor fallen comrades. The holiday was later renamed Memorial Day and changed to honor all fallen soldiers.
Dover Hotel – Surrender House
At the end of it all, it came down to a surrender by Confederate General Buckner to Union General Grant. Buckner thought his former pre-war personal dealings with Grant would ensure he could secure favorable terms for surrender and sent word anticipating as much from this hotel. He was rebuffed and told that if they didn’t surrender unconditionally and immediately that the Union army would advance.
Visiting this historic site doesn’t take too long, but we enjoyed it. The bottom floor of the hotel is open to visitors to walk around. There are great exhibits to see, but my favorite was an “in their own words” type of book that had printed journal entries from the soldiers, the local townspeople of Dover, and from post battle escaped slaves seeking protection from the Union army. In front of the hotel is a spot where the river boats would dock to give supplies and pick up prisoners of war. We stood there soaking it in, looking at the river and imagining the place with river boats and the commotion of a post battle activities and it helped us understand what happened here and why it was important for the eventual outcome of the war.
“There never was a greater surprise in any camp than in that of the Forty-second Tennessee, when it began to be whispered early Sunday morning that the trooops that had fought so bravely were to ‘pass under the yoke’ not whipped, but surrendered.”
-Private Thomas A. Turner
42nd Tennessee Infantry
Confederate States Army
The Cannons – No Battlefield Is Complete Without Cannons.
Our son, Oliver, loves everything about war history. He knows so many facts about so many different wars and if you asked him for some obscure battle, he’d go on and on. But before we went here, he didn’t know about this one (though now he could talk your ear off because he commits this stuff to memory so well). We knew we’d one day hit up the more famous locations like Gettysburg, but Fort Donelson was the first Civil War historical location that Oliver had ever been and he was LOVING it!
By the river (in the exact place the battle raged) there are now fixed cannons pointed at the river as they were when the Confederates were defending the fort against the assault that came from the gunboats on the river. There are several types of cannons here (some for closer shots and some for further away) and Oliver (and the others, but most passionately Oliver) ran around between each of them and pretended to be shooting them out on the river.
The kids then pretended that they each owned a cannon (that are lined up in a row) and pretended that they were firing the cannons and that the cannons were taken out and they had to then defend with (imaginary) rifles. It was a lot of fun, and a great way to end our visit to Fort Donelson.
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