Fort Donelson National Battlefield | PARK AT A GLANCE

Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Fort Donelson National Battlefield


Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Tennessee, preserves the grounds of Fort Donelson, a Confederate fort that was the site of an early Civil War battle fought on February 13-16, 1862. It was the first major Union victory of the war, coming after defeats at Manassas and Wilson’s Creek. The fort was constructed in early 1862 and named for General Daniel Donelson, one of the men in charge of surveying the land and choosing the site of Fort Donelson and the neighboring forts Henry and Heiman. All of these were earthen forts with trenches and dirt walls reinforced with lumber, stone, and other natural materials.

Fort Donelson guarded the Cumberland River, a waterway that leads to Nashville and into the heart of the South. Twelve miles to the west, Fort Henry and Fort Heiman, which was under construction at the time of the fighting, guarded the Tennessee River, another vital conduit into the deep South. The two rivers run parallel to each other north to south from the Ohio River (the Kentucky-Illinois border) until the Cumberland turns east towards Nashville at Fort Donelson (both rivers flow into the Ohio River).

On February 4, 1862, Union general Ulysses S. Grant’s army landed near Paducah, Kentucky. From there, Grant’s plan was to march south and attack forts Henry and Heiman. On February 6th, while they were in route, four Union ironclad gunboats, a new and untested weapon, under the command of Flag Officer Andrew Foote bombarded the forts to weaken them in preparation for the land attack. However, the ironclads were so effective that the roughly 2,500 Confederates abandoned the forts and fled east to Fort Donelson to join 15,000 reinforcements who were preparing for a last stand against Grant on the Cumberland River. Less than a hundred stayed behind at Fort Henry and were eventually captured by the Union army.

On February 11th, Grant began a march with 15,000 troops towards Fort Donelson but was slowed by rain, muddy roads, and eventually snow. An additional 12,000 men joined him on the way. Foote and his ironclads traveled north down the Tennessee to the Ohio River, then connected to the Cumberland and headed south to attack Fort Donelson just as he had done at Fort Henry. Minor land skirmishes were fought as early as the 13th. The naval attack began on the 14th. Unlike the results at forts Henry and Heiman, this time around the Confederate cannon at Fort Donelson did so much damage that Foote, who was wounded, and his ironclads had to retreat, leaving the brunt of the attack to Grant and his land forces.

With his 27,000 men, Grant was able to completely surround Fort Donelson. The Confederates realized they could simply be starved into surrendering during a long siege, so on February 15th they made a surprise attack at dawn on the Union right flank near the town of Dover in an attempt to break out and retreat to Nashville. The Confederates successfully pushed back the Union line and opened an escape route, but the inept General Gideon Pillow, one of three Confederate generals at the fort (Pillow, John Floyd, and Simon Buckner), for some reason recalled the men back to the trenches. The Union troops were then able to regain all the ground they had lost earlier, once again cutting off the evacuation route.

While nearly 2,000 Confederates did manage to escape across the river, those that remained were forced to surrender on the 16th. Though not a particularly bloody battle as compared to those that came later in the war, roughly 1,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were now dead. With the victory, the Union gained control over southern Kentucky and middle and western Tennessee, including Nashville. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, along with captured railroads, provided a supply line that enabled the Union to penetrate deeper into the South.

Visitors to Fort Donelson National Battlefield should first stop at the Visitor Center to speak with a Ranger about what there is to see and do at the park and to pick up a map. Afterwards, take a driving tour of the fort and battlefield that stops at eleven points of interest including the Confederate river batteries, the Dover Hotel where the Confederate surrender took place, and the Fort Donelson National Cemetery. A network of hiking trails passes some of the tour stops, giving hikers a chance to learn about the battle while getting some exercise. A picnic area is also available.


The grounds of Fort Donelson National Battlefield are open to foot traffic from sunrise to sunset. Vehicles, however, are only allowed on the tour road from 8 AM to closing time, which varies per season. The park road is gated, but the Visitor Center is outside the gate, so park there if you want to walk the trails or bike the roads after hours.

  • Mid-March to Memorial Day: 8 AM to 6 PM
  • Memorial Day to Labor Day: 8 AM to 8 PM
  • Labor Day to Mid-October: 8 AM to 6 PM
  • Mid-October to Mid-March: 8 AM to 4:30 PM

The Visitor Center and the Dover Hotel are open daily from 9 AM to 4 PM except when closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Fort Donelson National Cemetery is open daily from 7 AM to 5 PM.

Times can always change, so before heading to the park, be sure to get the latest schedule on the National Park Service’s official Operating Hours and Seasons web page for Fort Donelson National Battlefield.


There is no entrance fee at Fort Donelson National Battlefield.


Visitor Center
allow 30 minutes

Battlefield Driving Tour
allow 3-4 hours

Hiking Trails
roughly seven miles of trails

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Last updated on February 27, 2023
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