Fort Donelson National Battlefield Dover, Tenn. Visited: February 11, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 150 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? The first major Union victory of the Civil War, one that saw the emergence of two of the War’s greatest heroes, U.S. Grant from the North and Confederate cavalry hero, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
BEAUTY (5/10) The Park is located along a pleasant bend in Lake Barkley p/k/a the Cumberland River. Two looped hiking trails weave their way along the former river and through the now peaceful woodland forest. Fort Donelson has its share of monuments but is not nearly as cluttered as the more famous Civil War battlefields. There are not thousands of cannons and not every troop movement has been marked with a placard.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) The Land Between the Lakes in northwestern Tennessee was a vital strategic location. In February of 1862 they were not yet man-made lakes, they were the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers; two of the three rivers that allowed easy access into the entire western potion of the South, the other river being the Mississippi. Control of the rivers meant control of the War.
On February 8, U.S. Grant captured Fort Henry, along the Tennessee, and proceeded to march 12 miles east to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland. Vicious fighting ensued but by February 16, Grant’s army emerged victorious and the Federals had control of both rivers. Through tough negotiations, the Brigadier General earned his nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant” here.
Union control of the rivers marked the beginning of the end of Confederate hopes in the War’s western theater. It is not a preposterous leap to say that the South lost the War at Fort Donelson. In fact, we just did.
Every Civil War site we have visited claims to be the turning point and the most important Battle ever and at every place we buy the line until we travel on. So until the Shiloh, Corinth and Vicksburg reviews, Fort Donelson was the War’s preeminent fight.
CROWDS (6/10) We arrived on the Battle’s 143-year anniversary to few other tourists, just a handful of re-enactors preparing tents for a mock encampment.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Fort Donelson NB is located approximately 35 miles west of Interstate 24 and the charming town of Clarksville, Tennessee. Take U.S. Route 79 the entire way from Clarksville to Dover where there will be signs leading you to the Battlefield. We ventured into town before going to the Site, lost track of Route 79 and found ourselves driving the wrong way. So be alert, Route 79 is not that easy to find.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) Smaller than most Civil War stores, but still well-stocked. Most books are dedicated to Fort Donelson and its relevance to the war. The usual regimental histories are here. Those new to Tennessee can pick up guide books and state-specific resources. Copies of personal effects, such as flutes, metal pipes, and toothbrushes made of bone are all for sale.
We spent more at least ten minutes staring at a huge U.S. topographical map, complete with raised mountain ranges, behind the Ranger’s Desk. It’s a good thing it wasn't for sale in the bookstore; we’d never be able to get it home.
COSTS (4/5) The Site is free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) Two rangers were stationed at the Visitor Center. Two costumed interpreters inhabited the Dover Hotel. Several other staff could be heard via the Ranger’s walkie talkies, assisting the re-enactors and preparing for the big weekend.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) Fort Donelson NB was the sixth Civil War we visited and the first not to have a newly remodeled Visitor Center and film. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the old displays and film. There are no regularly scheduled Ranger talks or tours.
We were lucky enough to be at Fort Donelson during anniversary weekend and enjoyed a talk with some living history re-enactors dressed as nurse Mary “Mother” Bickerdyke and her assistant who were holding court in the Dover Hotel. Once we got over the fact that these ladies were speaking in the first person about events which occurred over 100 years ago, it was a pretty nice conversation, even though Gab stumped Mother with one of her first questions, forcing the older woman out of character to consult with her assistant. Sorry!
FUN (6/10) Our plan was to sneak into the Dover Hotel, get a few snapshots of the site where Grant accepted the Confederate surrender, then leave. We were glad that Mother Bickerdyke’s assistant engaged us in conversation. Our reluctant one word responses turned into a ten-minute discussion on the role of women, particularly nurses, on the battlefield and in post-War society. This was a refreshing change of pace.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) Only under two circumstances: if you are vacationing at the Tennessee Valley Authority-created Land Between the Lakes or if you are a Civil War buff. An understanding of Fort Donelson as perhaps the most important strategic battle of the War Between the States is sufficient; you do not need to venture into rural northwestern Tennessee.
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