Remembering Iron Valentines at Fort Donelson National Battlefield
Simon Bolivar Buckner and U.S. Grant met while students at West Point. They met again in New York during 1854 when Grant was down on his luck and out of money. His old friend, Buckner, vouched for his debts and helped Grant make his way home to Ohio.
When they met eight years later at Fort Donelson on the shores of the Cumberland River it was a cold gray February day. They were sworn enemies, their friendship one of the many casualties of the Civil War.
I visited Fort Donelson National Battlefield on the western outskirts of Dover, Tenn. last week. It was an unusually warm sunny January afternoon sandwiched between rainy days. Joggers, bicyclists and hikers were enjoying the peaceful day and the spectacular setting. Many, like me, were hoping to see the pair of nesting bald eagles near the river.
First thing, I stopped by the visitor center, looked through exhibits, chronology of the fort and battles, and watched a 15-minute orientation film. It’s an excellent short program giving viewers a feel for the battles that took place here. You can visit the center from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and admission is free. I suggest this be your first stop to see the film and pick up the brochure that directs you on the driving tour and includes brief descriptions of the important sites.
In addition to a paved drive that leads past the Confederate Monument to the site of upper and lower river batteries on the Cumberland River (Lake Barkley), the tour includes Graves’ and French’s Batteries, Dover Hotel and Fort Donelson National Cemetery.
Two hiking trails of three and four-mile lengths begin and end at the visitor center. A spur leads to the National Cemetery. A third trail across U.S. 79 connects Graves’, Maney’s and French’s Batteries.
Union forces believed Confederate Forts Henry and Heiman, both on the Tennessee River, were vulnerable to attack. A joint army/navy operation was developed to be led by Naval Flag Officer Andrew Foote and Army Brigadier General Ulysses Grant.
On February 6, 1862, Union gunboats began the bombardment of Fort Henry. Confederate commander Tilghman ordered most of the 2,500 soldiers to Fort Donelson, 12 miles distant and the sole defense of the Cumberland River approach to Middle Tennessee and Nashville.
Tilghman and fewer than 100 men surrendered Fort Henry.
The Rebs at Fort Donelson knew the Yankees were coming. To make matters worse, on February 13 a blizzard struck. Just before 3 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, Union gunboats began the exchange of “iron valentines” with the big guns at Fort Donelson. The Confederates initially believed they would triumph.
But it was not to be.
On February 15, a hard fought day ended badly for the Confederates. That evening Confederate leaders met and made the decision to surrender. Generals John Bell Floyd and Gideon Pillow escaped to Nashville with about 2,000 men. Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest refused to surrender and led 700 soldiers through enemy lines that night. General Buckner was placed in command of the estimated 13,000 remaining soldiers.
The official surrender of Fort Donelson took place February 16 at the Dover Hotel. Grant won his first major victory of the war. The Union occupation of Nashville followed within weeks.
February events scheduled at Fort Donelson Visitor Center on this year include author Jack Hurst speaking about Nathan Bedford Forrest and a commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the lesser known Battle of Dover on Feb. 3; a caravan tour to Fort Heiman on Feb. 6; remembrance of Parker’s Battery on Feb. 9; noted military historian Kendall Gott speaks on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, the 151st Anniversary of the Naval Battle at Fort Donelson; a caravan tour of Fort Donelson will be on Feb. 15; and living history of Union encampments by the 9th Kentucky Infantry on Feb. 16 and 17.
I want to thank Doug Richardson, Chief of Resource Education for his help. He brought this spectacular park alive.
For more information http://www.nps.gov/fodo or 931-232-5706.