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Fort Donelson

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Fort Donelson Cemetery

The Battle of Fort Donelson

(Feb. 13-16, 1862)

Begun in the East, the war was spreading to the West, even beyond the Mississippi where the fate of the important border state of Missouri and the chief city of the West in those days, St. Louis, hung in the balance between slaveholding and non -slaveholding elements. This, from the days of the Kansas-Nebraska troubles in the fifties, had been "dark and bloody ground" Both sides claimed Missouri and both sides needed her. In August 1861, a Union army was defeated at Wilson's Creek in southwestern Missouri and the casualties amounted to over 23 per cent of all engaged, among them the stalwart Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon. The following March came the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas. This was the first clear and decisive victory gained by the North in a pitched battle west of the Mississippi River, and until 1864 the last effort of the South to carry the war into Missouri except by abortive raids. More importantly perhaps, its result made it possible for veterans of a long series of minor engagements west of the Mississippi to reinforce the armies in the mid South under Buell, Rosecrans, Sherman, and Grant.

In this area the object of the Federal armies was, of course, to cut the Confederacy in half by clearing the Mississippi from St. Louis all the way to the Gulf and to stab at the heart of the Confederacy via the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. If successful, these maneuvers would cut Texas off from the main body of the South, hold Kentucky firmly in the Union, and make it difficult for Tennessee to cooperate with her sister states.

In February 1862, Fort Henry, commanding the Tennessee River, was captured with support from gunboats on the river by a taciturn, rumpled, cigar smoking (some said whisky-drinking) character named Ulysses Simpson Grant of Illinois. Ten days later, Fort Donelson, eleven miles away on the Cumberland River and a very much stronger position for the Confederates, followed suit. The North was beside itself, reveling in the victory and in Grant's memorable answer to Buckner, the Confederate commander who had asked for terms. "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted, " said Grant. "I propose to move immediately upon your works." Apparently Mr. Lincoln had at last found a fighting general in Unconditional Surrender Grant.

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