Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Where is it?

Fort Donelson National Battlefield is located near Dover, Tennessee.

The park features:

  • Visitor center and gift shop
  • Self-guided auto tour
  • Hiking trails
  • Picnic area
  • Camping is available nearby at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and at Paris Landing State Park

Click here for the park’s website link: Fort Donelson

Confederate Monument, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Why is Fort Donelson significant?

The battle was one of the first major victories of the Civil War for the Union and for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. More importantly, the Union’s victory at Fort Donelson gave them control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the southern half of Kentucky, and middle Tennessee which included Nashville. With railroads and river access, Nashville became an important supply depot for the Union Army. The battle, which took place on February 11-16, 1862, ended upon the Confederates’ surrender at the Dover Hotel. General Simon Bolivar Buckner was the first Confederate general to surrender during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to Major General after this successful campaign. Buckner, on the other hand, was sent north to spend five months in a Massachusetts prisoner of war camp.

The Dover Hotel

The Dover Hotel also known as Surrender House sits on the bank of the Cumberland River

An excerpt from a National Park Service wayside information board:

“On February 16, 1862, the Battle of Fort Donelson ended when Union forces captured the fort after five days of conflict. The Union and Confederate generals met at the Dover Hotel to conduct the final surrender terms. The Confederates relinquished the fort, which allowed the North access to the Cumberland River. This changed the course of the Civil War by giving the Union a way to invade the rest of the South.” 

Trivia: The Dover Hotel is the only existing original structure where a Civil War surrender took place.

The “unconditional and immediate” surrender

Grant and Buckner were friends, having attended the United States Military Academy at West Point together. The two men also served together in the Mexican-American War. They were unfortunately forced into opposing each other on Fort Donelson’s battlefield. During the signing of the surrender documents, Grant reportedly offered to lend Buckner money to tide him over until his release from the prison camp. It was a generous offer, but one that Buckner politely declined. After the war, Grant was elected President of the United States (1869-1877) and Buckner was elected Governor of Kentucky (1877-1891). The two men remained friends until Grant died poverty-stricken in 1885, after having lost his fortune to a swindling business partner of his son. Buckner graciously paid for Grant’s funeral as well as served as a pallbearer. He also provided Grant’s widow with a monthly stipend to help support her financially.

Inside the Dover Hotel

Meanwhile along the banks of the Cumberland River

An excerpt from a National Park Service wayside information board:

“Thirteen thousand dejected Confederate defenders of Fort Donelson huddled here [on the bank of the Cumberland River] against the cold on February 16, 1862. They had fought long and hard against Grant’s forces and did not consider themselves defeated. They had been surrendered against their will and now waited to be transported north. Never before in the Civil War had so many prisoners been taken, and the poorly clad Confederates could only guess what awaited them. After being issued two days’ rations and allowed to keep “their clothing, blankets, and such personal property as may be carried about the person,” the prisoners were shipped 120 miles to Cairo, Illinois. From there, trains carried them to prison camps in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Massachusetts. In September 1862 most of the prisoners were exchanged for Union soldiers being held in Confederate prison camps.”

Camp Douglas Prison Grounds Chicago.png
Library of Congress image of Camp Douglas Prison Grounds, Chicago, Illinois

The camps that housed the Fort Donelson prisoners were:

  • Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois – housed enlisted men and no longer exists.
  • Camp Butler, Springfield, Illinois – housed enlisted men and exists as Camp Butler National Cemetery today.
  • Camp Morton, Indianapolis, Indiana – housed enlisted men and no longer exists.
  • Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio – housed officers and a portion exists today as Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery.
  • Johnson’s Island, Sandusky, Ohio – housed officers and a portion exists as a Confederate cemetery.
  • Fort Warren, Boston, Massachusetts – housed officers and is now a National Historic Landmark and tourist site.
Rebel prisoners, Camp Morton, Indianapolis | Library of Congress
Rebel prisoners, Camp Morton, Indianapolis – Library of Congress

Fort Donelson National Cemetery

Fort Donelson National Cemetery was established in 1867 as a final resting place for Union troops who had been buried elsewhere around the area. In all, 670 of the graves here are Civil War burials. More than 900 additional graves are the final resting places of veterans of other American wars and their family members. Sadly, 519 of the burials here are of unknowns from the Civil War. Confederate soldiers were buried in other cemeteries because their loyalties were not to the United States (Union).

Cemetery Lodge

Cemetery lodge, built in 1877, served as the office and living quarters for the cemetery keeper until 1931. The Second Empire (French) style structure now houses the park’s administrative offices. 

Interestingly, the original late 1800s version of this cemetery featured wooden headstones. Today the headstones appear to be made of engraved marble or granite and many are arranged in swirl and circle patterns. Fort Donelson National Cemetery covers 15 acres and is surrounded by a limestone retaining wall with wrought iron gates.

Trivia: Several national cemeteries were established during the Civil War; however, more were sanctioned by the passage of the National Cemeteries Act in 1867. The act tasked the U.S. Army with overseeing all aspects of building additional national cemeteries. Functions included: acquisition of land, cemetery design, reinterring the dead from battlefield burials or other cemeteries, construction of roads, keepers’ lodges and other buildings, planting trees and plants, and installing permanent headstones.

Carriage House, now used as an information center for the cemetery
So young…

Thank you for joining us on our visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield! Our goal is to learn about our country’s hallowed grounds and to pass along that knowledge so that the men who died upon them will never be forgotten.

Looking for more historical road trip destinations? Click on these amazing sites:

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine

Antietam National Battlefield

Gettysburg National Military Park

 

Travel safely, and we will see you on the road!

Mike & Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) 

©2022

 

 

 

 

32 thoughts on “Fort Donelson National Battlefield

  1. This is an excellent post. I enjoyed reading about Fort Donelson and learning more about Missouri’s General Grant. I was not aware of the friendship between Grant and Buckner. We are traveling through that area next Spring. I will keep this place on my radar. I enjoy visiting an historic site like this and learning some history.

      1. Ken Schmidt

        Good intro for those wanting to visit. If I remember correctly, the nearby river hosted the largest navy battle of the civil.

  2. Thanks for guiding me through this chapter of The Civil War, I learned a lot as always Kellye. I found the story of the friendship between Grant and Buckner quite touching. Both the Dover Hotel and Cemetery Lodge ooze a quiet charm, the latter being a thoroughly decent home indeed for the keepers of the day. Poor old Christian Fox, such a great name and such a waste.

  3. Interesting piece of the Civil War story. These national battlefields are so powerful to walk through. The longer I live here in Tennessee the more I’m learning about the Civil War and I realize just how little I know about it. You do an amazing job with telling the history and giving it a whole new perspective.

    1. Thanks so much, Meg! I appreciate your comment more than you know. Until we started trying to visit all the national park sites, we didn’t know much about the Civil War either. I’m not sure they teach much about it anymore, but the history is there, so why not learn about it instead of trying to pretend it didn’t happen.

      1. Whole heartedly agree! We shouldn’t be tearing it down or pretending it didn’t happen, we need to be teaching it and learning from it. I think how you learned about the Civil War also depends a lot on what part of the country you’re from. I’m like you, I seem to be learning a lot that I didn’t know from visiting these national sites.

  4. What wonderful surprises in this post. First being the vintage photo of Camp Morton in Indy. (Named after Indiana Civil War Gov. Oliver Morton,) Second, of course, is the first quatrain of O’Hara’s haunting “Bivouac of the Dead” poem displayed on the typical style plaque at the cemetery. If we all get together we’d share non-stop for hours maybe days…

  5. I don’t travel, except a few hours away to the beach and it is soooo lovely to be able to see different places! You provide excellent photos and information. You two are my own personal travel guides! I love your work!

  6. Very interesting Kellye well written. It’s always good to read about the ordinary people in history and you would only find that on blogs like yours. Great story about the president

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