The Fall of Fort Donelson Led to the Capture of Nashville
James Jobe, left, Park Historian at Fort Donelson National Battlefield, spoke about the fall of the river fort and the subsequent capture of Nashville. He is pictured with BONPS President Doug Jones.
“You cannot overstate the advantage the Union gained with the capture of Nashville,” said James Jobe, Park Historian at Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

And the Confederate defeat at Fort Donelson in February 1862, along with the fall of Forts Heiman and Henry, led directly to the surrender of Tennessee’s capital city.

The Federal authorities then used Nashville as the major supply center in the Western Theater, supporting invasions against Chattanooga in 1863 and Atlanta in 1864.

Jobe spoke to the BONPS membership and public January 15th at historic Belmont Mansion in the first of many special events planned this year, the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville. (See Calendar of Events)

At the beginning of the war, Tennessee faced the daunting task of defending its lengthy east-west border. The Confederacy placed more emphasis on holding and defending Bowling Green, Ky. and the Mississippi River than it did in defending the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.

The fall of the river forts in February 1862 led to the abandonment of Confederate positions at Paducah and Bowling Green. While the Union army swept southward, the “invincible” ironclad gunboats roamed the rivers at will. Fearing Nashville would be reduced to ruins, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston abandoned the city without a fight. The major bloodbath at Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) would come a month later.

The first fort to fall was Fort Henry on the east bank of the Tennessee River, just south of the Kentucky border. The fort had been poorly situated, and was partially flooded when the Union gunboats approached on Feb. 6 and opened fire at nearly point-blank range. By the time the Union army arrived at the scene, Fort Henry had been captured, along with its commander.

The Confederates had built a fort on the west bank of the Tennessee River called Fort Heiman, directly across from Fort Henry, but apparently no big guns had been positioned there and the fort served little use.

Men fleeing from Fort Henry, along with reinforcements, had swelled the Confederate forces at nearby Fort Donelson from 3,000 to approximately 15,000 men.

On Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day, the Union gunboat flotilla, now on the Cumberland River, approached to within 400 yards of Fort Donelson’s river batteries. Flag-Officer Andrew Foote believed that victory would come as easily as at Fort Henry. He was wrong. The Confederate gunners, firing from a lofty elevation, severely damaged many of the gunboats, which were forced to withdraw.

The next day, however, a breakdown in the Confederate high command led to the failure of an attempt to break out of the encircling Union forces, which now numbered about 27,000 men. A little-known Confederate colonel, Nathan Bedford Forrest, did manage to escape and lead his men to Nashville.

Gens. Floyd and Pillow fled the scene, and it was left to Gen. Simon B. Buckner to surrender Fort Donelson to Gen. U.S. Grant, who demanded “unconditional surrender.”

Grant was promoted to a two-star general and became a hero in the North. Thousands of Confederate soldiers became prisoners of war and were transported by river to Northern POW camps. Later in the year, most were “paroled” in exchange for Union prisoners.

The fall of Fort Donelson threw Nashville officials and citizens into a panic, fearing the destruction of the Union ironclad gunboats. Fort Zollicoffer, located west of Nashville on the Cumberland River, was abandoned and did not contest the gunboats. Within ten days, Union troops entered the city and held it for the remainder of the war.

The river batteries at Fort Donelson National Battlefield (931-232-5706), and many of the large cannons, can be seen today by visitors to the park, located near Dover, Tenn. The location of Fort Henry now lies beneath the waters of Kentucky Lake (Tennessee River).

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