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Fort Donelson Tennessee guarding the Cumberland River became the site of the first major Confederate defeat in the Civil War Victory at Donelson started Brigadier General Ulysses S Grant on his road to Appomattox and the White House His cool judgment under pressure saved the day after the Confederates threatened to break his troop lines yet errors by his opponents handed him a victory that he did not fully earn on his own Possession of the better part of two states vital to the South depended on the outcome of the battle at Fort Donelson When war began in April 1861 Kentucky declared its neutrality in response to deep conflicts of opinion among its citizens Considering neutrality impossible to maintain North and South maneuvered for position once Kentucky was opened to military operations The Confederates constructed fortifications on both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers just south of the Kentucky line They built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on ground susceptible to flooding but chose higher ground for Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River Both sides wanted Kentucky but recognized that the first to cross its borders risked losing popular support Confederate Brigadier General Gideon J Pillow rashly seized Columbus Kentucky on the Mississippi River bluffs a move that appalled President Jefferson Davis who first ordered Pillow to withdraw then allowed him to stay when he realized that the deed could not be reversed Grant commanding at Cairo Illinois then occupied Paducah at the mouth of the Tennessee and Smithland at the mouth of the Cumberland strategic points neglected by General Gideon Pillow In November Grant tested Confederate strength at Columbus by landing troops across the Mississippi River at Belmont Missouri The drawn battle that followed sent him back to Cairo still eager to advance but not necessarily along the Mississippi River Knowing of the poor location of Fort Henry he wanted to use Union gunboats to advantage and foresaw that the fall of Fort
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