Fort Donelson National Battlefield | FORT DONELSON

Earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

TOUR STOP 2:  FORT DONELSON

The second stop on a tour of Fort Donelson National Battlefield is Fort Donelson itself. Stone columns on either side of the park road let you know when you are within the original fort walls. Once parked at the stop, you can see the road continuing on in the distance. The road follows the western wall, and it’s quite far away. Fort Donelson was a massive fort, 15 acres in size. It served to protect the water batteries down below on the Cumberland River (now Lake Barkley due to damming).

Lower water battery below Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Lower water battery below Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Fort Donelson was built in seven months between June and December of 1861 with soldier and slave labor. Its quick construction was due to the fact that it was not a masonry fort like Fort Sumter or Pulaski but an earthen fort comprised of dirt walls 10 feet tall that were reinforced on the interior side with natural materials such as logs or planks. Earth actually offers better protection from incoming cannonballs than masonry forts, for the metal balls are absorbed into the dirt upon impact instead of shattering the stone or brick. The earthen part of the walls still exist, though 160-plus years of erosion has whittled them down to less than half their original size.

Remnants of the earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Remnants of the earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Notice in the photos of the earthen walls that there is a ditch in front of them. The way they were built, dirt was dug and piled high to form a wall. The ditch where the dirt came from formed a natural dry moat. Enemy troops storming the fort walls had to first deal with the ditches, which were often filled with obstacles such as rain water or sharpened logs called abatis.

Trench in front of the earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Trench in front of the earthen walls of Fort Donelson, Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Though no longer in existence at Fort Donelson, the interior walls were reinforced with logs, planks, rocks, or sand bags. A platform of some type allowed soldiers to get high enough to shoot over the wall, and gaps were cut to allow cannon fire. The first two photos below are from a fort reconstruction at Vicksburg National Military Park and the third from Fort Stevens, part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Fort Donelson may not have looked exactly like these forts, but the design is typical of the Civil War-era.

Exterior view of a Civil War-era earthen fort at Vicksburg National Military Park

Exterior view of a Civil War-era earthen fort at Vicksburg National Military Park

Protective interior walls of a Civil War-era earthen fort

Protective interior walls of a Civil War-era earthen fort

Reconstructed interior of Fort Stevens in Washington, D. C.

Reconstructed interior of Fort Stevens in Washington, D. C.

Trenches dug far outside the Fort Donelson walls served as a first line of defense. You can see remnants of these earthworks at Stops 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 on the battlefield tour. No fighting ever took place at the actual fort, as attacking Union soldiers never got past the outer defenses, and the Union Navy ironclads bombarded the water batteries before turning back in defeat. The Confederates only surrendered because they knew they were surrounded and would eventually run out of ammunition, food, and supplies.


Stop 3:  Log Huts | Stop 1: Confederate Monument | Battlefield Tour Home Page


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Last updated on June 29, 2023
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