Fort Donelson National Battlefield kicks off week long Civil War sesquicentennial events
Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012 5:00 pm
By SANDY KOCH
Special to The Messenger
With every ounce of interpretative strength they could muster, about 50 Civil War re-enactors from all over the southeast, a number of park rangers and higher officials from the National Park Service, a vice chairman of the Civil War Trust and an author of a Civil War history, tried their hardest on Saturday to make a case for the pivotal importance of an oft-ignored early battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.
The battle, which took place around present-day Dover on Valentine’s Day 150 years ago, saw the early use of ironclad gun ships and introduced the likes of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest to the controversial pantheon of Civil War stars.
But it also was a turning point in the Civil War, argued Kendall Gott, author of “Where the South Lost the War.” Giving his argument national play, C-Span cameras and mikes recorded the talk at the Fort Donelson Visitor’s Center before a thawing audience that had recently braved cold temperatures and winds to see Civil War re-enactors demonstrate mid-19th century firepower and march up the long road into the Fort Donelson National Battlefield.
“This battle is not remembered as well as it should be. I challenge you to name a more decisive campaign in the whole war,” said Gott, who argued that this was the battle that opened up the South to Federal forces.
He said once the Tennessee River, lost days earlier at Fort Henry, and the Cumberland Rivers were open to Union gunboats, Nashville was an easy capture and soon after most of the rest of the state. The abundant crops and strategic ironworks of Middle Tennessee were gone and a whole army of 16,000 was captured intact, taking them out of the field
That morning, a representative from the Civil War Trust, Michael Grainger, presented an additional 15 acres to the park that the Trust had purchased. Over a 20-year period, the Trust which combines private donations with matching federal and state grants, has donated 300 acres to the park, adding to its scope. Visitors can drive through an extensive battlefield tour that encompasses 700 acres of sites on both sides of a highway.
Superintendent Steven McCoy was ecstatic about this latest tract. “This is huge,” he said. “This is the corner where Porter’s Battery stood. This is the place where Grant mounted his counterattack.”
Soon after, George F McCanless Jr. and his family made a different kind of donation to the park, a cherished old portrait of “Jake,” a rooster that had stood on top of the earthen works and inspired the Confederate troops with his defiant “cock-a doodle do.” Later when prisoners of war marched into Chicago, Jake picked up the spirits of the demoralized soldiers from his perch on a backpack. The rooster had belonged to the great-great uncle of McCanless and had been buried with full military honors.
“This is part of the legacy,” said McCoy, who pointed out it was important to realize that these were real men who fought the war; having a pet just made them more real.
At that point, visitors rushed out of the center to greet the 50 Confederate re-enactors who were marching up the road into the park, led by a small cavalry force. This weekend, the park will host Federal re-enactors showing what life was like during the occupation of the fort after the battle.
The Confederate re-enactors who came from as far as Florida had spent the past two days camping out and marching along the 10-12 miles of trails that connected Fort Henry to Fort Donelson. They were re-enacting the hurried “break out” made by the some 3,000 Confederate troops that Gen. Lloyd Tilghman had sent on their way when it looked like the collapse of Fort Henry was imminent. Ironclads were thundering on the little flooded fort from the Tennessee River below.
At that time, this Land Between the Lakes was known as the Land Between the Rivers.
“Sgt.” Terry Hughes from Nashville explained that the original group, the 48th Tennessee, had made the march in 14 hours, arriving before dawn at Fort Donelson. But the re-enactors had taken a little longer. Following the original route, they camped out on the road in below freezing temperatures for two nights.. At one point, the cavalry had changed sides to perform as an Illinois cavalry unit, “harassing” the confederates on their journey.
Hughes and his commander “Captain” Brian Hicks, also from Nashville said they both had numerous uniforms and could change back and forth from Confederate to Federal, according to the personnel needs of the re-enactment.
Hicks explained that the re-enactors try and be as historically accurate as possible. That meant no flashlights. At their campsites, they had eaten period stew of potatoes, onions and rice, but it was so cold their canteens had frozen.
But they also try to be safe, said Hicks, a retired Marine, identifying early the paramedics and other medical professionals in the group.
“It was cold and wet,” said Craig Courtney, a Montgomery County resident from the “Kentucky Company” who participated with his son Galen. “But it must have been a lot harder on them (the original soldiers).”
The 48th Tennessee showed visitors to the park how the many kinds of muskets and rifles were fired. Park historian Jim Jobes said that early in the Civil War, a typical unit would have had many kinds of weapons requiring different kinds of ammunition. There were rifle muskets, smooth bores, flint locks, shot guns and a hodge podge of civilian rifles.
The re-enactors fired off into the distance, which is all they are allowed to do in a national park. Because in national parks opposing forces cannot line up against each other as they would do in a real battle, full re-enactments of Civil War battles take place off park land. The Fort Donelson re-enactment will take place near Erin the weekend of March 2-4.
The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson saw the use of many new technologies in the war — the telegraph, the ironclad, the use of the steamboat and railroad to move men and supplies.
Despite the importance of Fort Donelson in the Civil War, Kendall Gott argued that one of the reasons it may have been forgotten is that it was an embarrassment to the South. “Why would the South like to remember this? The south lost both rivers; it was traumatic.”
But it must be remembered, said Gott, that these were novice armies; “people were making mistakes” in areas like command and control, supply and ammo
Particularly damaging was the command of the competing and conflicting Confederate generals, four in all, in charge of the fort. Buckner, Floyd, Pillow and Bushrod Johnson did not surface as major players in the war years to come.
But Nathan Bedford Forrest who escaped with a few hundred on horseback before the Ft. Donelson surrender, was to prove to be a major “harassment” to Federal forces later.
Today the guns mounted on the battery overlooking the Cumberland River are an imposing sight glistening in the sun. It’s difficult to imagine that they once inflicted major damage on Federal ironclads below; it took Grant’s army to clinch the victory.
Now the site on the river is a place where eagles have chosen to nest and there are signs posted not to disturb them.
As they soar over the cannons today, its hard to miss the symbolism of the national bird flying over a now peaceful battlefield where once Americans came to deadly blows.
Sandy Koch is an adjunct instructor of political science at UT Martin. Before that she was a journalist and editor for about 20 years writing mostly about international topics.