Fort Donelson - Feb. 14, 1862 - 3:00pm - Gunboat Battle

Fort Donelson National Battlefield, TN

The conquest of Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862 marked the first major Union victory of the Civil War. Up until early that year everything seemed to be going the Confederates way. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had chased the Federal Army out of Virginia and in the Western Theater little had been done to break the Southern defensive line stretching from Arkansas across Kentucky. To Union planners the soft spot along that line, however, seemed to be along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, two waterways that would provide an open highway into the interior south if only they could be brought under U.S. control.

Protecting these waterways were two newly constructed Confederate forts, situated a dozen or so miles apart. Fort Henry was built to protect the Tennessee River while to the east the much more imposing Fort Donelson protected the Cumberland. In early 1862 a joint army/navy task force was sent out down the Tennessee to capture Fort Henry. Commanding the naval squadron was Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote while the Army expedition would be led by a new-to-command and relatively unknown Brigadier General by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. Due to it's poor location, the reduction of Fort Henry was a relative cake-walk. While Grant was approaching with his army on February 6th, Foote attacked the fort with four of his ironclads. In a ferocious artillery battle which lasted about an hour, the Confederate commander at Henry determined he couldn't hold out against the oncoming force and abandoned the stronghold before Grant even arrived. Over 2,500 soldiers from Fort Henry escaped towards the next objective on Grant's list, Fort Donelson.

In contrast to Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was very well-planned and situated amongst high hills which dominated the Cumberland River. The fort itself was some 15-acres in size and was surrounded by 10-foot earthen walls and abatis. Facing the river were three batteries containing over a dozen heavy guns. In addition, with the expectation of a land attack, nearly 3-miles of earthworks were constructed in a ring a half mile to a mile outside the fort. To man these defenses were nearly 17,000 determined Confederate soldiers under the combined commands of Generals John B. Floyd, Gideon J. Pillow, and Simon B. Buckner. Pleased with the ease at which Fort Henry was reduced Grant's plan for the bigger prize of Donelson was initially the same as his earlier victory. He would approach with his army by land and surround the fort while Foote and his gunboats approached via the Cumberland. Foote's ships would pummel the fort's heavy guns and force the then all-but-defenseless fort to capitulate. As it turned out Fort Donelson would be a bit tougher nut to crack.

In the following album I take a tour around the National Battlefield as it is today. As with other albums I tried, at least in part, to arrange this album as events took place at Donelson. Because the landscape (particularly the thick forest) has changed so much since the time of the battle it was quite hard at times to keep myself oriented to how different positions correlated to one another. Otherwise, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to walk amongst the earthworks and gun emplacements where a relatively unknown general became "Unconditional Surrender" Grant and the tide was irreversibly turned in the Western Theater of the war...


Battle Statistics


United States of America

Armies Engaged: District of Cairo, Western Flotilla

Commanding Officer: Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant

Strength: 24,531

Casualties: 2,691 or 11.0% (507 killed, 1,976 wounded, 208 captured/missing)


Confederate States

Armies Engaged: Fort Donelson Garrison

Commanding Officer: Brigadier General John B. Floyd, Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner

Strength: 16,171

Casualties: 13,846 or 85.6% (327 killed, 1,127 wounded, 12,392 captured/missing)


  • kw

    on August 28, 2014

    Another victory for the union; another battle filled with suffering and death, in the history of our country...... thanks for putting this album together so clearly...... may we never take our freedom or these United States for granted.... not ever.....