The Battle of Fort Donelson was the first great Union victory of the Civil War, and one of the most important battles in American history. Today, much of the public has forgotten the Fort Donelson campaign. Even among students of the Civil War, the fighting at Fort Donelson does not receive the attention it deserves. The larger, bloodier battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, and Atlanta have surpassed Fort Donelson in importance in the imagination of the American public, and many historians. But it was the Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson that first shattered the Confederate defensive lines in the Western Theater, a disaster from which the South never recovered. The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson created a huge shift in the strategic situation in the Western Theater. To reverse the losses suffered by the Southern forces in northern Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston mobilized all available resources from Louisiana to Florida for a counterattack. Johnston s attempt to restore the strategic situation in Tennessee resulted in the Battle of Shiloh, less than two months after the fall of Fort Donelson. Shiloh proved to be another disaster for the South, and cost General Johnston his life.1 Missing from the Shiloh campaign were the 15,000 Confederate soldiers captured at Fort Donelson. Those soldiers could have turned a Confederate defeat into a victory at Shiloh, if they had not instead been languishing in Northern prison camps. Victory along the Twin Rivers brought Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to public attention for the first time, starting him on a journey that would lead to Appomattox, and eventually the White House. Without success early in the war at Fort Donelson to bring him out of obscurity, Grant s rise to high command would have been doubtful. Without Grant in command in the West in 1862-1863, and in Virginia in 1864, it is uncertain whether the Union would have achieved final victory in the Civil War. Thousands of people visit Fort Donelson National Battlefield each year. Most are content to tour the museum and take the park s driving tour. Most visitors never bother to explore beyond the designated tour stops, and many leave without a thorough understanding of what happened on the ground they just visited. This guide offers the reader an opportunity for a much greater learning experience: Explore all the major sites associated with the battle of Fort Donelson, including many sites that are not part of the National Battlefield; view and discuss the terrain that was such an important factor in shaping the fighting around Fort Donelson; examine the plans made by leaders on both sides, and see how commanders implemented those plans in the stress of combat; examine the battlefield decisions of field commanders, and see how those decisions lead ultimately to victory, or defeat. Fort Donelson is one of the country s most endangered Civil War battlefields. The National Battlefield currently owns only the remains of Fort Donelson proper, most of the Confederate outer defenses, some land between the outer defenses and the fort, and the Dover Hotel. Most of the land where ground combat occurred during the battles for Fort Donelson is in private hands. Urban sprawl from the town of Dover now covers much of the original battlefield. However, a great deal of the original road network is still recognizable, and enough of the battlefield remains in the public domain or in possession of preservation groups to make Fort Donelson a fascinating battlefield tour. Winter is the best time to visit Fort Donelson, when the lack of vegetation allows for more unobstructed views, although a trip to Fort Donelson National Battlefield is rewarding at any time of year.
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Major (Retired) Douglas L. Gifford is the author of five Civil War battlefield tour guides. He is an experienced tour guide, leading tours to Civil War battlefields in Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Over the years he has conducted tours for military organizations, school groups, scout troops, and private groups. During a twenty-seven year career Major Gifford led troops conducting operations in Panama, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Egypt. He also commanded a Military History Detachment for three years and served for two years as a senior instructor teaching Army officer candidates. Doug holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College with an emphasis in history and political science. He is also a graduate of the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College. This unique set of experiences; military commander and staff officer leading soldiers conducting real operations, formal civilian and military education, and extensive research experience, gives Major Gifford a unique set of skills and qualifications which he has used to create his Civil War battlefield tour guide series. After writing five successful battlefield tour guides, Doug has recently published his first book-length history book. Where Valor and Devotion Met: The Battle of Pilot Knob. This book is the first scholarly work on the battle to be published in the last thirty years, and the definitive work on the Battle of Pilot Knob.
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