Commemorate Fort Donelson’s 152nd Anniversary with historian Kendall Gott, interpreters & memorials
Fort Donelson has many stories to tell. (My fellow blogger Vernon Summerlin recaps some nicely here, but if you only have time for the headlines, know that the Battle of Fort Donelson marked the first major Civil War victory for the Union, ultimately leading to a surrender-between-friends of Confederate General Simon Buckner to one Ulysses S. Grant.)
Today, Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Tennessee, includes the battlefields, river batteries, a national cemetery and even the “surrender house.” And February 2014 marks the battle’s 152nd anniversary.
Doug Richardson is Fort Donelson’s interpretive ranger. Though his team has numerous events planned for the anniversary (view the full schedule here), he’s most looking forward to:
1. Memorial Service, Feb. 8 “In the middle of every annual commemoration, we want to take some time to commemorate the soldiers who were here. The local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will help us present a simple but important service,” Richardson reports. The service begins at 11 a.m.
2. Porter’s Battery Living History, Feb. 8 “At the time of the Battle of Fort Donelson, a key Confederate battery – Porter’s Battery – sat where the park’s visitor center sits today. It’s almost always news to someone,” Richardson laughs. A local history group dedicated to Porter’s Battery will be stationed at the site from 1-4 p.m. to share its significance.
3. Caravan Tour with Kendall Gott, Feb. 15 At 9 a.m., historian/author Kendall Gott, Richardson and General Grant (as portrayed by a park volunteer) will lead a tour around the battlefield on the anniversary of the “Confederate Breakout” (the ambition of Fort Donelson’s leadership to launch an assault against General Grant’s line).
4. Anniversary of the surrender, Feb. 16 Just as Buckner surrendered Fort Donelson to Grant on Feb. 16, 1862, interpreters will re-enact the surrender on Feb. 16, 2014 (at 1 p.m.). Even the location of this anniversary event is authentic: The Dover Hotel, now known as the “Surrender House” for the historic exchange it hosted between Buckner and Grant, was built between 1851 and 1853 on the banks of the Cumberland River. It was restored in the 1970s, and remains the only original existing structure where a Civil War surrender took place.
While you’re onsite, don’t miss:
1. New visitor center exhibits The original visitor center exhibits at Fort Donelson debuted with the site’s 100th anniversary in 1962. “Those original exhibits were beautiful in their simplicity,” Richardson explains, “but exhibits today are expected to be more.” As you might expect, the new exhibits are interactive, visually-driven and, in Richardson’s words, designed so that “all ages can make a connection. One of my goals was to remind [visitors] that the people who were part of this battle were every bit as human as we are, so the first thing you see is a wall of photos [culled from Fort Donelson’s collection and a social media call for the public to submit related personal photos]. We chose eight people out of the photo wall – from the Union and Confederate infantries, an enslaved man, a Clarksville, Tennessee, woman who heard the battle from her home – so when you come in, you pick a card and hear that person’s perspective.” (Cards for each personality include a bar code, so as a visitor, you can scan your card at each station and hear excerpts from the person’s diaries and letters via an audio wand.)
“The centerpiece is still the artifacts,” Richardson says, including Confederate and Union uniforms, soldiers’ playing cards, cannon balls, rifles and a map drawn by a member of Grant’s army after the battle.
2. Bald eagles When my family visited the park in summer, we noticed bald eagle nesting signs. Richardson reports: “We do have a pair of bald eagles that have built a new nest by the confederate river batteries (stop 4 on the audio tour).”
3. Amazing stories As Richardson tells it: “You had here in Dover one of the first major examples of Union occupation in the Civil War. And you had one of the first examples of real collateral damage. The United Methodist Church was caught in the middle of the fighting and the church was burned, but before it was a total loss, a bible was rescued by a soldier from Pennsylvania. Many generations removed, [the family of] that soldier presented the bible back to the church. 150 years seems like a long time, but in a way, it’s only a few generations removed and an interesting sign of how things have healed.”
Fort Donelson National Battlefield is open daily, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Admission, including the anniversary events, is free, though you may want to call for reservations for the caravan tour on the 15th (931-232-5706).
Have you visited Fort Donelson National Battlefield? What area within the park moves you most?