The Battle of Fort Donelson: Summary & Consequences

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  • 0:03 The Civil War in 1862
  • 0:56 The Battle of Fort Donelson
  • 2:32 Consequences of the Battle
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

As the Civil War began, the Confederacy seemed to be winning most of the major battles. This started to change with the Battle of Fort Donelson, under the leadership of the relatively inexperienced Ulysses S. Grant.

The Civil War in 1862

In 1861, several Southern states formally left the Union and started their own nation, called the Confederate States of America. At least, that's what they thought. The Union refused to recognize the independence of the seceding states, and so the nation broke into the Civil War. If the Confederates won, they would become their own country. Most Northerners believed this little rebellion would be over soon. The only problem was that the Confederates kept winning the major battles. For the few year of the Civil War, the Confederacy was generally victorious, much to the shock of Northerners and Union generals. But, while the East coast was essentially a stalemate with the Union unable to penetrate Confederate lands, a little ways West things started to change. One of the places where the tide began to turn was on the Tennessee-Kentucky border in February of 1862, at the Battle of Fort Donelson.

The Battle of Fort Donelson

A section of the Union Army under the command of the relatively unknown Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry in Tennessee and marched towards Fort Donelson, a Confederate post on the Tennessee-Kentucky border that could open up important transportation routes into the South. Grant began by launching small attacks at the fort to test for strengths and weaknesses, while Union ironclad gunboats bombed the fort from the river. Eventually, the gunboats were forced to retreat due to the heavy damage they took, as the Confederate soldiers cheered. However, Grant had received enough reinforcements to essentially surround Fort Donelson. If the Confederates wanted to escape, this was their last chance.

On February 15, the Confederate commander Brigadier General John B. Floyd launched a surprise attack, leading his men out of the fort to attack Grant's troops. The Union Army was caught off guard, but soon rallied as Grant arrived on the scene. He reorganized his troops and the real battle began. If Floyd pushed hard enough he may have been able to break through and open up an escape route to Nashville, but instead he ordered his men back inside the fort. Grant's troops surrounded the fort, and the next morning Floyd escaped, leaving the next-in-command to ask Grant for the terms of surrender. Grant responded by stating that 'No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.' On February 16, 1862, Fort Donelson surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant: the North had won its first substantial victory.

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