Exploring Fort Donelson in Civil War Books and Games

Editor’s Note: I originally meant for this post to go out yesterday, the 150th anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Fort Donelson, but spending time with two very small boys and a busy work schedule caused me to post a day late.  I beg forgiveness and hope you still find this post useful.

Confederate Surrender at Fort Donelson

Ulysses S. Grant’s rapid ascent to the foremost Union general of the Civil War, and some would say the greatest United States general of all time, really picked up traction at Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862, 150 years ago yesterday.  Grant received the surrender of the Confederate garrison after a botched escape attempt and an almost comical abdication of responsibility by the Confederate leaders.  Credit Grant’s pre-war friend Simon B. Buckner, who had loaned Grant money when he was down on his luck, with finally taking responsibility.  Grant’s insistence on an unconditional surrender dovetailed nicely with the fortuitous coincidence of his “U.S.” initials and made him “Unconditional Surrender” Grant from that point forward.  Ironically, the cigars sent to him in congratulations of this achievement ultimately killed him several decades later.  Grant’s rapid push into Confederate Tennessee surprised A.S. Johnston and caused him to make the worst possible decision in leaving a portion of his army at Dover and Fort Donelson.  He really had two legitimate choices: reinforce his men at Fort Donelson and attempt to destroy Grant’s new army or evacuate the at risk portion before his troops became trapped.  Ultimately, he did neither.  The first of three Confederate armies to surrender to Grant during the war, a record unequaled, did so on February 16, 1862.


Interested in the basic premise of what happened at Fort Donelson?  Now let’s take a look at some books available for further reading on the topic.  I did a post similar to this last July on the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run and I hope to do so intermittently over the next four years for major (and sometimes minor) battles and campaigns.  Here are some of the more recent and readily available books on Forts Henry and Donelson, with covers where available along with my comments:

Struggle for the Heartland The Campaigns from Fort Henry to CorinthStephen D. Engle’s Struggle for the Heartland takes the latest scholarship on “the campaigns from Fort Henry to Corinth” and ties the military, political, and social issues faced during the campaign into an efficient and readable discussion of these events.  The book is an entry in the University of Nebraska Press‘ Great Campaigns of the Civil War series of books and covers the time frame of the military campaign from Fort Henry to Corinth, including the Battle of Shiloh.  Rather than focusing solely on military events, however, Engle provides a large amount of coverage to social and political considerations as well.  The result, then, is a balanced overview of a campaign in which there was a “struggle for the heartland” of the Confederacy.

251 pp., 8 maps

Read the full review HERE.

Forts Henry and Donelson The Key to the Confederate Heartland by Benjamin F. CoolingThis was a great book. The explanations of the campaign and the fighting were excellent. This is the book I was expecting Unconditional Surrender to be. The only shortcoming is the maps. They are adequate, but that’s it. They only go down to brigade level, which is not good enough for these small battles. More detail is desired. However, with that said, this book is a must have. It was the only really good book on this campaign out there until Kendall Gott’s book below was published. Until something with better maps comes along, this is the one to own.

354 pp., 7 maps

Note: I read this book in the days before I reviewed books online, so forgive the brevity of comments.  Cooling’s book is one of the two main books to focus solely on the campaign which you will want to make sure you buy.  The other follows.

Where the South Lost the War An Analysis of the Fort Henry Fort Donelson Campaign February 1862 GottGott’s book is a slightly revisionist view of the Henry-Donelson Campaign and was a very good read. It contains 346 pages, of which 280 are text, with the rest dedicated to two appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. This is a solid entry in the study of the early War in the West, and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more about this area. I thoroughly enjoyed Gott’s book. He presents his arguments in a clear-cut way, and touches on each in detail. His view is revisionist in that Buckner and Johnston are more to blame than Pillow or Floyd, but he presents his arguments in a thought-provoking way and has led me to change some of my previously held views on Henry and Donelson. The maps, 17 in all, 10 on Fort Donelson, are pretty good, going to Brigade level. Gott’s writing style is very readable and he kept my interest throughout. This book is at least the equal of Benjamin F. Cooling’s book on the same subject, and here I feel I owe it to prospective buyers to mention something I saw in some other review (if you know who said this let me know and I’ll credit them here). Gott’s title chapters are extremely similar in wording to Cooling’s. Whether this was some form of intentional tribute to Cooling, or was something else, is left up to readers to decide. The other reviewer mentioned that in addition to the titles, Gott also had some passages in the book that may have paraphrased Cooling too closely. I tend to believe that Gott is only guilty of slightly overusing Cooling as a source for his book. Regardless, Gott clearly draws some different conclusions from Cooling, and the result is an interesting read. I would even recommend reading the two books back to back to see the differences. 346 pp., 17 maps

For a full and lengthy review and summary, click HERE. The review will be available at TOCWOC in typical review format this coming Monday, February 20, 2012.

The Campaign for Fort Donelson National Park Service CoolingThis is one of the books in the National Park Service’s “Civil War Series”. It is most likely only available at Civil War related National Park Service bookstores. Even though I live in southern Illinois, I actually picked up my copy in Fredericksburg, Virginia for $5.95. This would be a great book to pick up before you head to Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

51 pp., 5 maps

Note: This is another short blurb from my “early days” of posting online about Civil War books.  The bottom line is that the National Park Service booklets are a nice introduction to the topic for someone just learning about Fort Donelson.  It’s also great for helping children start to learn the basics.  And you can’t beat the price.  Even today you can pick up gently used copies for under $5.

I was very disappointed with this book. It is aimed mainly at children of the upper elementary school level, so it is very simplistic. Buy Cooling’s book (not the pamphlet above but the actual book he wrote) and/or Gott’s book on the campaign instead. This one is an introduction only and should be classed with the National Park Service booklet above.

136 pp., 7 maps

Gott and Cooling have so far produced the best books on the campaign, but I should also mention the History Press’ book in their Civil War Sesquicentennial Series.  The Battle of Fort Donelson: No Terms but Unconditional Surrender by James R. Knight was published in March of 2011, but I do not yet own the book to give you any useful knowledge of its contents.  I’d appreciate comments from anyone who has read it in the comments section below.

War Games

Fort Donelson has also appeared in Civil War war games, but the list is short.  I’m going to recommend one game for now, HPS Simulations’ Campaign Shiloh.  The model doesn’t exactly represent Civil War combat well, especially combined land and river operations like you see at Forts Henry and Donelson, but the game does allow you to get a better idea of the lay of the land as well as what actually happened in February 1862 along the banks of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.  If you know of any board games or miniatures scenarios depicting the action at Fort Donelson, I would love to hear from you below.

Look for more posts of this type in the upcoming months on or near the 150th anniversary of major battles.


4 responses to “Exploring Fort Donelson in Civil War Books and Games”

  1. Drew Avatar

    I was disturbed by Gott’s lifting of Cooling’s chapter titles, as well. I am surprised it didn’t raise a bigger stink, especially considering Gott’s book is generally well regarded. I can recall no explanation for it on the part of the author, either. If it was an homage, he certainly should have disclosed it.

  2. Brett Schulte Avatar


    Thanks for the comment. It’s definitely odd. Did you ever review Gott’s book? I would have sworn you would have been the one to point this out, but I couldn’t find anything specific to link to.


  3. LetUsHavePeace Avatar

    “Unconditional surrender” was a novel term for the journalists who followed Grant up river in 1862, but it was hardly a new one for anyone – like Grant – who knew American history. Those were the same terms that Clinton demanded of Lincoln at Charleston.
    What should remove any doubt about Grant’s being our greatest general is his integration of combined arms and logistics. We are still trying to catch up to USG’s understanding of how wars are actually won.
    Buckner’s story about lending Grant money in 1854 has reached the same mythical proportions that apply to Grant’s “drinking” (sic). It too late to hope that the truth will overcome the fiction; but let us try. Grant was stuck without funds in New York because no one would take his note (what these days would be a credit card). He was not “down on his luck” except in the sense that he was in the same position many of us have been when the rental car company decides it won’t take our plastic. Buckner gave Hamlin Garland a full account of what happened. It is worth reading, especially for Buckner’s recollection that Grant’s last words to him were: “The trouble is now made by men who did not go into the war at all, or who did not get mad till the war was over.”

  4. Drew Avatar

    I don’t think so. I might have mentioned it on a messageboard somewhere.

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