Remembering the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson 150 Years Later

May 26th, 2012 § 2 comments

The Battles of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) were the first two major battles fought in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.  After the summer of 1861, there was very little fighting (most of which were skirmishes rather than full-scale battles), as both the Union and Confederate forces sought to consolidate their positions before being major battle operations in 1862.  The key to the fighting in the Western Theater was the control of the major rivers, as they constituted the main means of mass transport in the South during the mid-19th century.  The commanding Confederate general, Albert Sidney Johnston (who later died at Shiloh; pictures of that battle can be found here), had his Army of Tennessee forces spread in a wide arc from Columbus, Kentucky through northern Middle Tennessee up to Bowling Green, Kentucky.  In Paducah, Kentucky, the commanding Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, had established his winter headquarters at the mouth of the important Tennessee River.  Whoever could control the Tennessee and nearby Cumberland Rivers would not only seize control of the Tennessee capital of Nashville, but shipping and troop movements from southern Kentucky down into northern Alabama and Mississippi would be in peril.

Back in late April, my dad and I went to visit the Fort Donelson site (ever since the Tennessee River was dammed in the 1930s, Fort Henry has been submerged under water; we did not cross over to visit Fort Heiman) just outside the town of Dover, Tennessee, an hour’s drive away from my hometown.  The Battle of Fort Donelson has a very important part in my family’s history; it was here that my two-times great-grandfather first saw combat duty, when he came upon the surrendering Confederate forces and sneaked into the Union camp to rescue his first cousin (this deed was later published in a state history book from the turn of the twentieth century).  It is odd, walking along ground where my ancestor likely witnessed the bloody aftermath of this first major battle (hundreds were killed on both sides, a prelude to Shiloh’s carnage).  Seeing the remains of the earthworks dug hastily by commanding general Pillow’s forces just a scant time before Grant’s forces marched over from Fort Henry.  Viewing the replica cannon batteries placed along a bend in the Cumberland River, not too far from Clarksville’s Fort Defiance and where two generations of my dad’s side had already lived before the battle.  The pictures below can only hint at what made my dad and I pensive at times (at other times, I probably talked his ear off, as I am wont to do).  We stopped first at the federal cemetery, only to learn that very few soldiers buried there actually fought in the battle.  Then as we traced the road back toward the main battlesite a couple of miles away, we saw traces here and there of the earthworks that protected the perimeter of the fort.  Stopping next at the visitor’s center, where we bought books on the battle and watched a 15 minute documentary on the battle (including the fierce snowstorm that preceded the actual fighting and the pre-war ties between Grant and the Confederate general, Simon Bolivar Buckner, who surrendered to him, as Pillow and his second-in-command escaped the night before down the river), we then drove along the automobile trail, stopping to take pictures of monuments to the fallen, of the eagles’ nest (home to the endangered American Bald Eagle for the past dozen year or so), of the riverside batteries, and the trenches dug by the soldiers.  It was a gray and overcast day, colder than the days before.  Perfect weather to reflect the somberness of the site:

Battlesite Map

Union regiments and casualties

Confederate regiments and casualties

Map of the region, found in the Visitor’s Center

More on the battle’s importance in the prosecution of the war

Monument to the fallen soldiers

Remains of some of the earthworks, with replica cannons

View of the Cumberland River, near one of the batteries

More on the riverside fighting, where the Confederates drove off the Union gunboats

View of the riverside batteries at the bend of the river

Plaque dedicated to the Confederate river batteries

Plaque describing the Union counterattack on February 15

After the Fall of Fort Donelson, there were, of course, many other battles fought inside Tennessee (only Virginia had more battles fought within its borders), but in a real sense, it was the beginning of the end:  the center could not hold.  Later, there will be descriptors of other battles and pictures, such as Parker’s Crossroads in December 1862 (visited along the way to Shiloh) and likely the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro (its sesquicentennial is just before New Year’s Day), and possibly even a short bit on the largest Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi River, the Battle of Westport (October 1864), which is in the Kansas City area.  But regardless of how many other sites my dad and I will visit in the near future, it is difficult to imagine any being more personally meaningful than the Fort Donelson site.


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