by Matthew Gailani
Have you ever heard of the historical figure Ulysses S. Grant? He is one of the most famous people in American History. What was he famous for? By the time the Civil War ended, he was at the head of the entire United States Army, or US Army. He later became the country’s 18th President. But, Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t always famous.
Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Grant was not in charge of the US Army. He was a lesser-known general. Grant had not yet won any of the battles that would make him famous. That didn’t begin to happen until 1862 when Grant came to Tennessee.
Photo of the Tennessee State Capitol during the Civil War, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
When the Civil War began, Tennessee was the last southern state to secede and join the Confederate States of America in June 1861. This meant that Tennessee was joining a war against the United States of America. The US Army knew it needed to control Tennessee’s rivers to win back the state and defeat the Confederacy. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were two rivers that were important in order to achieve these goals. Both rivers ran through Middle Tennessee and connected major cities. At the time, they were like highways for the armies. Both armies could send soldiers and supplies down them.
On the other side, the Confederate Army wanted to protect these rivers from the US Army and prevent them from controlling them. They built two forts to do this. The first fort was called Fort Henry. Fort Henry protected the Tennessee River and was in north central Tennessee. Fort Donelson was the second fort, and it protected the Cumberland River. These forts were very close and only a few miles apart. The Confederates forced enslaved African-Americans to work on building the forts. Both forts used soldiers and cannons, or artillery, to protect them.
The US Army sent soldiers to capture the two forts from the Confederates in early 1862. Who was leading these US soldiers? That’s right, General Ulysses S. Grant! His army reached Fort Henry first and captured it on February 6, 1862. Then Grant went to capture Fort Donelson. This was much more difficult. Fort Donelson was better protected than Fort Henry. Grant attacked the fort from the river with gunboats and from the land with soldiers. After five days of fighting, on February 16, the fort surrendered. When the fighting was over, there were close to 16,000 casualties. This included soldiers who were killed, wounded, missing, and captured.
With these successes, Grant had won his first major victories of the war. His army captured two important forts, which meant they could send soldiers and supplies down the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. This made Grant famous at the time. Because of these victories, Tennessee’s capital, Nashville, was soon captured as well. This helped changed the outcome of the Civil War in Tennessee and the whole country.
Postcard of Ft. Donelson National Battlefield, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Over 150 years later, you can still visit the Fort Donelson Battlefield! It is a National Park and free to visit. It is located in Dover, Tennessee. You can still imagine the soldiers fighting on land and by river. You can walk the same ground that made Ulysses S. Grant one of the most well-known men in our history.
Ulysses S Grant – (1822-1885) Ulysses S. Grant was the commanding U.S. General during the Battles of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson. He would go on to serve as the Commanding General for the U.S. Army and accepted Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865. He later served as the 18th President of the United States from 1869-1877.
Secede – To leave or break away from a country. During the Civil War, states left the United States to form the Confederate States.
Confederate States of America – The group of southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861 and attempted to form their own nation. Tennessee was one of those states.
Tennessee River – A river that runs mainly through Tennessee and into Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama. The cities of Knoxville and Chattanooga are located on the Tennessee River.
Cumberland River – A river that runs through Tennessee, as well as into Kentucky. The cities of Nashville and Clarksville are located on the Cumberland River.
Enslaved Person – Someone who has no freedom or choice.
Artillery – Large guns used in war. During the Civil War, cannons were called artillery.
Casualties – When referring to casualties in war time, it means soldiers who are killed, missing, captured, or wounded.
When were the Battles of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson?
Why were the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers important during the Civil War?
What other rivers do you think were important during the Civil War? Why?
Before airplanes, trucks, and interstates what were other ways to move soldiers and supplies besides on a river? What way do you think would have worked best? Why
Have students draw an outline of the State of Tennessee. Next, have students draw and label the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on their outline. After this, students can fill in cities and other landmarks.
Visit the Ft. Donelson National Battlefield and explore different walking trails. https://www.nps.gov/fodo/index.htm
Tennessee State Social Studies Standards:
4.32 - Describe the roles of major leaders during the Civil War, including Ulysses S Grant.
5.42 - Describe the significance of the following Civil War events and battles on Tennessee: Siege of Ft. Donelson.
8.62 - Describe the outbreak of the Civil War and the resulting sectional differences, including Military Strategies.
8.62 - Explain the significance of the following battles, events, and leaders during the Civil War, including Ulysses S Grant.
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.