The temperature was down to almost freezing when I started out this morning to head for Fort Donaldson National Battlefield in middle Tennessee. I hadn’t put my car scraper away, and it was a good thing too since my windows needed a good working over.
Early in the war, the Confederates built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland outside of Dover to prevent a Union invasion of Tennessee. Ford Donelson, named after Confederate general and politician Daniel S. Donelson, was a fortress built by the Confederacy to control the Cumberland River leading to the heart of Tennessee. The capture of Fort Donelson was the first significant victory for the Union. It not only opened up the heartland of the Confederacy to Federal forces but it propelled Ulysses S. Grant to hero status. Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, who was left to negotiate a surrender with Grant, didn’t do too badly either, as he became Governor of Kentucky after the Civil War.
The visitor center film features more than just the battles. Buckner and Grant were friends at West Point and Buckner even lent Grant some money. In 1885, Buckner visited Grant on his deathbed, as an act of reconciliation.
I always wonder about the small things I learn at a visitor center. A display says that war was 99% boredom and one percent terror. What did soldiers do to entertain themselves when they weren’t fighting or attending to personal chores? They wrote letters, played cards, gambled, whittled, and participated in cock fighting. Cock fighting? “Where did they get the roosters?” I ask the ranger on duty. “Well, it’s illegal, now,” she says “but probably from local farms.”
In some national parks, I feel like I’m the only person here and that they’ve opened up the place just for me. But I’m never alone in a Civil War site. Today, in addition to a couple of Civil War enthusiasts, two busloads of High School ROTC students from Dixon County, an hour away, swarm the visitor center.
I start the drive through the battlefield. I forgot to ask how long the tour is and if it’s reasonable to walk it. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a Confederate monument in 1933 to remember the Confederate soldiers who fought and died here. Though there’s a national cemetery at Fort Donelson, Confederate soldiers couldn’t be buried here because they had fought against the United States. The monument is a tall spire, with a soldier holding a rifle. A stone confederate flag flies above him. An inscription reads, “There is no holier spot of ground than where defeated valor lies”
I expected to see a brick and mortar fort like the old Spanish forts in Florida but this fort was built of earthworks. I must have read right over the word, earthworks. Soldiers and slaves built the fort with walls made of logs and earth that could be put up a lot faster than more substantial forts. But today, the earthworks look so inconsequential. I catch up with the school buses here, as Ranger D.J. Richardson explains that this was the first major winter confrontation, February 12 through 16, 1862, with the big battle on Valentine’s Day.
But I still can’t picture the protection of an earthworks fort.
“Do the earthworks make a closed loop?” I ask the ranger.
“Yes. It’s a challenge to preserve earthworks. In addition, the Army planted oak trees in the 1920s and the trees are coming to the end of their lives.” Some have toppled over. At the time, the earthworks would have been much higher but they’ve sunk over the years.
Bald eagles have nested in the middle of the battlefield. An eagle flying above us interrupts Richardson’s talk about cannons on the riverbanks. The girls in the group, who looked so bored, perk up “Did you name the birds?”
“No,” Ranger Richardson says. “But I understand that at Shiloh, they’ve named a pair Hiram and Julia.” Hiram was Ulysses S Grant’s original first name but it got changed when he entered the army. Julia was Grant’s wife. The ranger confesses to be fascinated by Grant.
Several highschoolers are just wearing a T-shirt and must be freezing, standing still while the ranger speaks. Today, it’s cold and rainy, the same weather that soldiers had in Feb. 12-16, 1862 while soldiers camped here. But I’m not camping. When I get back to the visitor center, I take the Donelson Trail and get caught in a sleet downpour.
Some claim that the rebel yell, a battle cry used to intimidate the enemy, originated here, when a Confederate cannon hit a gunboat. But the feeling of success was short lived. The Confederates were so busy strengthening their position that they didn’t notice that Grant’s army to march and encircle the fort’s earthworks. After more fighting and confusion on the part of Confederate commanders, the Union surrounded the fort.
I drive to the Dover Hotel, built between 1851 and 1853, in downtown Dover. It stands on the banks of the Cumberland River, an attractive stop during the heydays of riverboat travel.
During the battle, the hotel became General Buckner’s headquarters, where he met Grant to discuss surrender terms on February 16, 1862. Dover Hotel reopened after the war and stayed in business until the 1930s.
Although this was one of the first battles of the Civil War, this is my last Civil War park in the Southeast:
Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain, Brices Cross Roads and Tupelo.
“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.”