Tennessee Confederates constructed the earthen fort in the summer of 1861 to defend the river approach to Middle Tennessee and Nashville; the fort was named for Daniel S. Donelson, Tennessee's adjutant-general. Principally a commanding water battery with adjacent armed camp for garrison, Fort Donelson was expanded to defend against land assault following the Fort Henry debacle. In early February Confederate department commander Albert Sidney Johnston concentrated some 15,000 men to defend against Union General U. S. Grant's army of 17,000 to 21,000 men and Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote's six-vessel gunboat flotilla.
Within a week of Fort Henry's capture on the Tennessee River by the joint army-navy command of Grant on February 6, 1862, nearby Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River came under siege by the same Union force. The engagement at Fort Donelson (February 13-16, 1862) pitted the faulty command by Southern officers and the valor of common Confederate soldiers against Union numerical superiority, Grant's flexibility in crisis, and a crucial shift in fortunes from one combatant to the other. Johnston had dispatched four generals and their commands with vague instructions to defend the post, with eventual evacuation to save the force from capture. Grant marched unopposed from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. Three days of subsequent land fighting, plus successful defeat of Foote's flotilla in a pivotal battle with the fort's water batteries on Valentine's Day, gave the Confederates the upper hand for much of the time. Then, a decisive Confederate breakout attempt on February 15 fell prey to command confusion when John B. Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Simon Bolivar Buckner, and Bushrod Rust Johnson disagreed whether to evacuate or hold onto the Cumberland position after routing Grant's right wing in an early morning attack.
The impact of Grant's decision to successfully counterattack despite destruction of a major portion of his command, the arrival of reinforcements from Fort Henry under Brigadier General Lew Wallace, which stymied the momentum of the Confederate drive, and the equal display of pluck and resolution by the Union army heightened the effect of the Confederate indecision. Adding to the general discomfort, the onset of bitter winter weather further disoriented officers and men on both sides.
What transpired was one of the truly opera bouffe episodes of the war and the key to understanding Fort Donelson. Meeting in council of war at a hotel in the nearby Stewart County seat of Dover, Floyd, Pillow, Buckner, and Nathan Bedford Forrest assessed their situation. Pillow remained adamant about defending his native Tennessee soil; Buckner abandoned his usual combative demeanor and despaired of success against Grant's counterattacks; and Floyd, the nominal senior in command, dithered. When none of the generals could decide on a course of action, Forrest stormed out of the meeting, vowing to remove his cavalry command from Grant's entrapment. Eventually, Floyd and Pillow resolved to flee independently, while Buckner agreed to remain and surrender the remnants of the army. Forrest escaped with 1,500 horsemen and scattered infantry. Floyd and his personal 3,000-man brigade of Virginians, plus Pillow and his personal staff, similarly left the garrison to its fate.
The morning of February 16 dawned with both sides prepared to resume combat. When, instead, Grant and Buckner met to discuss surrender, Confederates were aghast and Federals jubilant. Grant demanded unconditional surrender, and the nonplussed Buckner complied. Although many escaped during the surrender proceedings, Grant telegraphed his superiors to report the capture of 12,000-15,000 prisoners, 20,000 stands of arms, 48 artillery pieces, 17 heavy guns, 2,000-4,000 horses, and a large quantity of commissary supplies.
Northern residents and Washington officials wildly celebrated the victory, but in the South, the unexpected news shocked Johnston. Nashvillians rioted and fled the advancing Federal troops. Forrest and his cavalry eventually reestablished law and order in the capital. Floyd and Pillow returned to Nashville, but suffered the ignominy of their actions and were officially censured for deserting their responsibilities. As the Fort Donelson prisoners traveled north for incarceration (they were exchanged six months later), Johnston concentrated the remnants of his forces in northern Mississippi.
Within weeks of the fall of the river forts, Tennessee's capital fell to Union troops, and the state government fled into exile. The deep wedge driven into Tennessee so early in the conflict subsequently introduced Union political and military reconstruction, as well as popular resistance, guaranteeing the Volunteer State's status as a battleground for the duration of the war. With the loss of a Confederate field force of corps strength, the Union reclaimed much of Middle Tennessee as well as Kentucky. Hopes of early European recognition of the Confederacy evaporated, while Johnston's reputation as the South's greatest warrior vanished in Fort Donelson's surrender. Despite several attempts in 1862 and 1863 to recapture the Cumberland position, the Confederacy never redeemed the losses. Above all, Fort Donelson vaulted an unknown Union general into prominence. The road to Appomattox and the presidency of the United States began for Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson.
Fort Donelson National Battlefield, initially established as Fort Donelson National Military Park in 1928, stands today as a monument to the starting point of these important events. A unit of the National Park Service, the park preserves the fort; associated earthworks; the Dover Hotel, where Buckner surrendered his army to Grant; and the Fort Donelson National Cemetery.
Thomas L. Connelly, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 (1967); Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Forts Henry and Donelson: The Key to the Confederate Heartland (1987) and Fort Donelsons Legacy: War and Society in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1862-1863 (1997)