In the midst of observing the 145th anniversary of the Civil War’s first full year of combat, it is worth noting that during those first 12 months, the Confederacy was making a strong military statement to back up its bid for independence. The significant initial military victories—Fort Sumter, First Manassas and Wilson’s Creek—were Confederate. The Rebels were seizing Federal facilities in the South, blocking trade on the Mississippi, strengthening their defenses and undertaking offensive operations in the trans-Mississippi region. There was hope, or fear, that the war would end quickly and result in a split nation. In part, this early Confederate success was due to the Federals being too thinly spread. Union offensives were begun on several fronts by the U.S. Army and Navy with limited success. President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department were inundated with a number of plans from a cadre of newly commissioned volunteer generals.

Into this confusion an unassuming but determined Federal officer began his journey toward making a lasting mark on the war. Ulysses S. Grant, whose well-documented struggles in civilian life made him long to return to military duty, was swept into the war as an adviser to a new company of volunteers from Galena, Ill. His initial command opportunities were gained through the efforts of the governor and an influential U.S. congressman from that state. Then, in arguably the most important decision of John C. Frémont’s controversial Civil War career, he appointed Grant to head the Division of Southern Illinois and Southeastern Missouri.

From the vantage point of his Cairo headquarters, Grant could see the value in occupying a portion of Kentucky, a state in which a declaration of neutrality was already being tested by the Confederates. General Albert Sidney Johnston, a favorite of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a statuesque military professional with a lackluster past, was given charge of the Rebel fortunes in the West. Johnston was provided with very little in the way of men and materiel to defend this region. Southern recruiting attempts in Kentucky met with limited success. But he made the most of a small number of cavalry units and other forces in carrying out raids and movements designed to create the appearance of a large army defending the breadth of Kentucky and Tennessee with a central anchor at Bowling Green, Ky.

In reality, this line of defense was strong on the Western flank, where Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk seized Columbus, Ky., and packed the Mississippi River bluffs with artillery. Grant, unlike many on the Federal side, including his future right-hand man William T. Sherman, was suspicious of the merits of Johnston’s showy display and saw the value in opposing Polk’s position. He sent a force under his former West Point commandant, Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith, to occupy Paducah, Ky. The move prompted worry on the Southern side and although Paducah was not challenged, other Federal moves were. Maneuvering along the Mississippi River led to Grant’s first significant combat engagement, a feint at Belmont, Mo., on November 7, 1861. Employing his soon-to-be-legendary decisive leadership under fire, Grant prevented a dangerous situation from becoming a Union disaster.

In occupying Paducah, Grant was looking down the barrel of the route into the Confederacy’s heart: the two waterways that ran southward virtually side by side into Kentucky and Tennessee, with one also cutting into a corner of Alabama. The Cumberland River to the east and the longer Tennessee a short distance to the west emptied into the Ohio River near Paducah. Grant realized the rivers’ value in striking into the region and challenging Johnston’s line. He was not the only Federal commander who weighed this idea, but he was the most eager to put a plan into action. Grant was enthusiastically supported by the region’s naval commander, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, who would be instrumental in carrying out Grant’s plans. Foote’s river gunboats, comprising four new ironclad vessels and three adapted timberclad boats, would present a powerful and necessary partner to Grant’s army.

The stage was set for a campaign that would lead to bloody conflict at the two Confederate forts, one constructed on each river to oppose such a move. Those forts, Henry on the Tennessee River and Donelson on the Cumberland, are the subject of this tour. And while a scenic trip from the suggested starting point at Nashville to the lush region of northwest Tennessee where the forts are located can be accomplished within one day, visitors will benefit from spending more time here. Fort Henry is now under the waters of Kentucky Lake, the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority expansion of the Tennessee. However, there are still plenty of things to see there today, and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is a sportsman’s delight. Fort Donelson and much of the battlefield area surrounding it are wonderfully well preserved.

Take I-24 north from the Nashville area, then exit at U.S. 41A/Tennessee 76 or U.S. 79 farther north and travel west to Clarksville. Most of this approximately 52-minute ride is easy freeway driving. Historical sites in the Confederate iron-producing town of Clarksville will be mentioned later. Continue west on U.S. 79 to Dover. This 26-mile drive is more time-consuming because of ongoing construction to widen the two-lane road. The town of Dover is where you will find Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

In 1861 the Confederate leadership recognized the strategic importance of this area. The governor of Tennessee commissioned a West Point–trained Confederate, Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson, to site Rebel defenses along the river. The early-war neutrality of Kentucky denied Donelson prime locations within that state, so he opted for two points just inside the Tennessee border. Neither site was ideal. To compound the problem, construction of the forts proceeded slowly. Shortly after Johnston assumed command in the fall of 1861, he nominated Alexander P. Stewart to command the area, but Richmond overruled him and placed Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman in charge of the forts against Johnston’s wishes. The Kentuckian loathed the location of Fort Henry but did little to improve the Tennessee River defense. By January 1862, Federal gunboats began to probe upriver, and it was too late to abandon the low-lying Fort Henry and start over elsewhere. Johnston demanded that Tilghman fortify the heights west of the river, a position that would later be known as Fort Heiman. Fort Donelson was in better shape, though the awkward command structure Johnston left in place there would be problematic.

Grant and Foote decided to go after Fort Henry. The expedition that departed Paducah on February 2 included a force of 17,000 men and seven gunboats. The swollen Tennessee River played havoc with both sides. The water level began to rise at Fort Henry, and the anchored Union vessels were challenged by a strong current and debris. Inside the fort, already partially submerged, General Tilghman on February 5 ordered most of the garrison to march 12 miles east to Fort Donelson. He left 54 men under Captain Jesse Taylor to delay the Federals while about 2,500 Rebels withdrew. Tilghman and his staff started the withdrawal, then returned to the fort to aid in the defense.

On the morning of February 6, Grant’s army landed downstream to advance up the banks, while Foote’s ironclads, the iron-reinforced steamboat USS Essex, and the newly constructed Carondelet, St. Louis and flagship Cincinnati, tested the range of their guns. Then, advancing four abreast, the gunboats unleashed a furious cannonade. Fort Henry answered back with its largest guns as the ironclads advanced, causing some damage as the vessels moved into point-blank range. The most serious hit caused a boiler to explode on Essex. Although the Confederate artillerists fought gamely, with many guns submerged or knocked out of action, the surrender flag was run up after more than two hours. The Federal infantry, battling muddy terrain, missed the action.

To get to the location of Fort Henry from Dover, continue west on U.S. 79 and turn right on a road called The Trace. Proceed north for 3.4 miles to the Land Between the Lakes South Welcome Station. Turn left on Fort Henry Road and continue about four miles to a fork in the road. There will be a state historical marker indicating Fort Henry. Continue in the same direction (west), and in just over four-tenths of a mile you’ll see depressions in the earth, indicating some of the outer rifle pits that never saw action in the battle. At the next fork take the unimproved road to the left to reach the parking area for the Fort Henry hiking trails to the lake’s edge. The right fork leads to the Boswell Landing lake access area. A buoy that can be seen from the edge of the lake indicates the location of the submerged fort. Spend time boating, camping or fishing at the recreation center, or continue the tour and return to the expansive natural habitat later.

Return to the historical marker and turn right on the continuation of Fort Henry Road to U.S. 79. Turn right and cross the bridge, then turn right on Tennessee 119 and proceed north, where the road becomes Kentucky 121 after crossing the state line. At the intersection of Cypress Trail, turn right and follow the road east toward the river. Turn onto Fort Heiman Road and continue southeast. Heiman, a unit of the national park, is at the end of the road. Return east on U.S. 79 to the entrance of Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

Not content to simply fortify Fort Henry and wait, as his immediate superior Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck wished, Grant elected to move his army overland to Fort Donelson. Leaving a garrison at Fort Henry under Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace, Grant marched 15,000 men to a position west of Fort Donelson beginning on February 11. Meanwhile, Federal gunboats ranged up the Tennessee River, even reaching Alabama before returning to base. By this time, Johnston and the man sent by Richmond to assist him, General P.G.T. Beauregard, were fretting over the consequences of losing Fort Henry. The Louisiana general was given no troops to accompany him. Although Beauregard wanted to throw everything the Rebels had against Grant at Fort Donelson, Johnston decided to consolidate his army behind the Tennessee in Alabama and left to supervise the withdrawal of forces from Bowling Green, Ky., while Beauregard headed to Columbus to help Polk evacuate that position.

Considering his plan to fight the Federals at a later time under better circumstances, it is curious that Johnston also sent reinforcements to Fort Donelson. He should have gone himself. The commander of the fort was Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, who had already been unsuccessful in western Virginia. Under Floyd was Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow, a Tennessee attorney whose forces had clashed with Grant’s at Belmont. The only professional soldier there, Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, was subordinate to Floyd and Pillow.

Grant waited for Foote’s gunboats to return to Paducah, make repairs and then start up the Cumberland River. Halleck also promised him 10,000 reinforcements. In the meantime, springlike conditions on the 12th turned to bitter cold on the 13th as pickets from the two sides exchanged shots. Grant placed a division under Smith on his left flank and men under a lawyer from Illinois, Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand, on the right. On the 13th, McClernand made an unauthorized foray against a Rebel artillery position and was beaten back. Some wounded soldiers not burned alive in brush fires started by gunfire froze to death in the cold night air. Grant was furious at the maverick attack. He ordered Wallace to march from Fort Henry to occupy the center and planned to hold his position while Foote’s recently arrived gunboats went to work on the fort.

On February 14, after a half-day of preparation, Foote’s four ironclads— Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Carondelet—and three wooden gunboats began their assault at 3:30 p.m. Fort Donelson’s two water batteries, mounting 12 guns, were the fort’s most powerful feature. The tables were turned this time, and the Federal ships were battered, beaten and forced back down the river without a casualty among the Confederate gunners.

Despite that success, Floyd ordered a breakout attempt that night to the south, where Grant’s unreinforced line did not reach to the river. Early on the morning of February 15, Pillow’s men started a successful escape, overrunning McClernand’s men who, due to hunger and cold weather, were already awake. The Federals fought bravely but could not hold. Grant was aboard Foote’s flagship at the time. It appeared that the Confederates might achieve their goal; however, rapidly developing events soon changed their fortunes. Wallace sent a brigade to reinforce McClernand. Eve though Pillow had bent back the Union line with the help of cavalry under a rising star, Lt. Col. Nathan B. Forrest, and Buckner’s force (minus one regiment left in the fort) had opened a road to the south, Pillow ordered his men back into the fort to regroup, much to Buckner’s dismay. By this time, Grant had arrived to consult with his engaged generals and, correctly sensing that the Confederates were attempting a breakout, ordered McClernand and Wallace to retake their original positions.

Grant then asked Foote to demonstrate against the fort’s big guns and read indications that the right flank of the Confederate line must have been weakened to concentrate the forces farther south. He ordered Smith to take the fort, and Smith led the attack with the 2nd Iowa in the vanguard. By late afternoon, the single regiment Buckner had left on the Confederate right was driven off, and the Federals had regained most of the ground they had lost earlier on their own right flank. The reinforcements sent by Halleck were beginning to arrive downstream from the fort. With no follow-through on the daylight breakout, Floyd and Pillow made a night escape by boat with a handful of troops. Forrest, disgusted with the conduct of his superiors, led his cavalry and some infantry out of the fort on a partially flooded road to Nashville and escaped without loss. It was left to Buckner to surrender the remaining garrison.

When Buckner’s note asking for commissioners to meet for the purpose of discussing terms of surrender reached Grant at his farmhouse headquarters on the night of the 15th, he replied that the only terms he had to offer would be unconditional. The next morning Grant met Buckner, his old army friend, at the Dover Hotel. The surrender was completed the following day aboard the steamer New Uncle Sam. Then the job of processing some 12,000 prisoners and captured guns and supplies began. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, as the newspapers began to call him, had brought the North its first real victory of the war. And though the struggle over Tennessee and Kentucky would continue for more than two years, in no small part due to Forrest, this meaningful incursion into the South would have long-lasting implications.

The main entrance to Fort Donelson National Battlefield is just a short distance to the west of Dover on U.S. 79. There, a visitor center has exhibits and information. Just past the visitor center is the Confederate Monument, honoring Southern soldiers who were buried in various locations at Fort Donelson after the battle. Park roads run along a number of the Confederate outer works, where the infantry fighting took place, and an interpretive trail runs throughout the park. Another park road leads to the 15-acre earthen fort and reconstructed log huts, representing the type used by the Confederate garrison of the fort. A loop at the end of this road leads to the upper and lower water batteries, which have been reconstructed to show the power of the Confederate guns. Several types of artillery are on display, and the view of the river, now called Lake Barkley, is spectacular.

Less than a mile to the west of the main entrance, on a loop called Buckner Road, is a marker for the site of Widow Crisp’s farmhouse, which served as Grant’s headquarters. Fort Donelson National Cemetery, containing the remains of Federal soldiers killed in the battle, is on Church Street a bit to the east of the main entrance. Returning toward Dover, turn right on Cedar Street. At Forge Road, a tour stop marks the place where the initial Confederate breakthrough on February 15 began. At the end of Petty Street is the Dover Hotel, built in the early 1850s and site of the surrender of Fort Donelson. A short distance south of the hotel on Tenessee 49 is where Forrest and his cavalry crossed Lick Creek during their nighttime escape.

Return east on U.S. 79 to Clarksville. An early war manufacturing hub for the South, it served as a Confederate hospital center immediately after the battle and was later occupied by the Federals. Numerous small skirmishes were fought here. There are two cemeteries where Confederate dead were buried, museums containing Civil War exhibits and a Rebel earthwork at the confluence of the Red and Cumberland rivers. Spend time in this area or return to Nashville and continue to explore Tennessee’s rich Civil War history.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here