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Road trip: Fort Donelson August 29, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, travel.
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Dover Hotel, where Buckner surrendered to Grant

For an account of the battle overall, go to a post I authored a couple of years ago titled “The battles of water, ice, and steam.” There you will find a brief  introduction to the incredible follies of two Confederate generals: John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow. The first was a “political general” and the second had a somewhat dubious record of service in the Mexican-American War. The exploits of these two gentlemen are described in more detail below.

After visiting Dolly Sods Wilderness, I spent the night in Charleston, WV, and drove across Kentucky to the Land Between the Lakes. This is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers shortly upstream of where they merge into the Ohio. The pattern of water flow has changed with the building of the Kentucky Dam, and the rivers are now called Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. They are not really lakes, though—they are flooded rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to drive the length of the Land Between the Lakes. I turned out to be wrong. I spent 45 minutes or so passing through a rather humdrum oak forest—as I should have realized, the whole point of going there is to make a turnoff to one of the lakes for boating or swimming. As I drove, I never saw the great bodies of water that lay just a short distance to either side. I discovered just one interesting feature: a couple of herds of bison. I don’t know how they came to be there, and since I have seen great herds of bison out West (and I wanted to get to the battlefield), I didn’t stop to investigate.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, fought in February 1862, were Grant’s first important victories. Fort Henry is now submerged in Kentucky Lake. As it happened, it had been constructed on low-lying land in the first place and was partially flooded when Grant’s gunboats arrived, which is part of the reason he achieved an easy victory there. The gunboats had already pummeled the fort into submission by the time the Federals marched in. Most of the Confederates escaped overland to Fort Donelson, where they had a much better defensive position.

River battery at Fort Donelson

I described in my earlier post how on February 14 the Confederate river batteries pounded the gunboats, this time inflicting much damage. However, with Union reinforcements coming in, the Southerners were in imminent danger of being surrounded. On February 15, the Confederates battled furiously in a breakout attempt. But just as they succeeded in cutting through the Union encirclement, General Floyd and General Pillow inexplicably ordered them back to their entrenchments. No one has ever been able to fully explain this decision. My personal theory is that Pillow, a man who invariably favored appearance over reality, felt that a victory had been achieved and that everyone would now take a polite pause while he and Floyd telegraphed the news of their glorious triumph to General Albert Sidney Johnston. Grant did not in fact pause; he promptly retook the lost ground and even gained new positions.

Many Confederate soldiers occupied these windowless log huts

Interior of hut

As night fell, it became clear that the Rebels were nearly trapped. At 1:00 a.m., Floyd called a conference of senior officers. Over the next hours, they heard dire reports from scouts (some of which turned out to be erroneous—a line of fencing at a distance had been mistaken for a line of Union infantry). The most competent man present, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, determined that he would take his cavalry out via Smith’s Ford, which he had learned was not more than “saddleskirt deep” despite warnings of flooded conditions. Meanwhile, the others dithered.

An informative and entertaining pamphlet by Edwin Bearss* details the story of Floyd’s and Pillow’s discussions with the third in command, Simon Bolivar Buckner. It is quite clear from the start that Floyd and Pillow had already determined to make their personal escape—regardless of whether any troops could accompany them—and were attempting to burden Buckner with the chore of actually surrendering.

Bearss recounts the conversation in the small hours of the morning.

Pillow stated, “Gentlemen, if we cannot cut our way out nor fight on there is no alternative left us but capitulation, and I am determined that I will never surrender the command nor will I ever surrender myself a prisoner. I will die first.” [He doesn’t actually mean that he will fight to the death. What he means is, he doesn’t care for the idea of being a prisoner.]

Gideon J. Pillow

Floyd chimed in, “Nor will I: I cannot and will not surrender, but I must confess personal reasons control me.” [The personal reasons are that he is afraid he will be charged with treason if captured, because he had transferred arms to southern arsenals while Secretary of War under Buchanan.]

John B. Floyd

General Buckner replied, “But such considerations should not control a general’s actions.”

Floyd acknowledged that personal considerations influenced his decision, “but nevertheless such was his determination.”

General Pillow spoke up, informing the officers that “he thought there were no two persons in the Confederacy whom the Yankees would prefer to capture than himself and General Floyd.” [In fact, Grant was later to say facetiously that Pillow need not have been so anxious to escape. “If I had captured him,” Grant said, “I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”]

Pillow then asked Floyd’s opinion as to the propriety of his accompanying him. To this inquiry, Floyd replied, “that it was a question for every man to decide for himself.” Next, Pillow addressed the same question to Buckner [who actually had a sense of responsibility]. The Kentuckian remarked he “could only reply as General Floyd had done, that it was a question for each officer to decide for himself, and that in his own case he regarded it as his duty to remain with his men and share their fate, whatever it might be.”

Simon Bolivar Buckner

[After a few more rounds of posturing, Floyd then says to Buckner] “General Buckner, I place you in command; will you permit me to draw out my brigade?” “Yes, provided you do so before the enemy act upon my communication,” Buckner remarked.

Floyd, facing Pillow, stated, “General Pillow, I turn over my command.”

Pillow exclaimed, “I pass it.”

General Buckner said, “I assume it; bring on a bugler, pen, ink, and paper.” The general then sat down at the table and began to draft a message addressed to General Grant.

Floyd made his escape by commandeering a steamboat and ordering the raw Confederate troops it carried to go ashore, quite bewildering them. He then forced his way aboard with a brigade of fellow Virginians, unsheathing his saber to clear the way. Meanwhile, Pillow obtained access to a small flatboat and escaped across the river with a small contingent of his staff. He met up with Floyd’s group, and the two journeyed to Nashville together.

Buckner’s message to Grant read, “Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock today.”

Grant’s immediate response was: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

He was known thereafter as “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

* Edwin C. Bearss, “Unconditional Surrender: The Fall of Fort Donelson.” Reprinted from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. XXI, March, June, 1962, nos. 1 and 2. Reprinted 1995, 2000, 2004 by Eastern National.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Confederate Memorial at Fort Donelson

Road trip: Dolly Sods Wilderness August 25, 2011

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature.
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How many trailheads have signs like this?

Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia has a checkered past, as you may gather from the sign shown above. Its high-elevation meadows were used for grazing sheep and cattle in the early 1800s by the family of Johann Dahle, a German immigrant. Then came long periods of logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the large spruce, hemlock, and black cherry of the high plateau were fed to the sawmills. As seems to have happened with logging operations everywhere during that period, big fires were fueled by the logging slash. By the 1920s, the area was more or less logged out. However, the fires continued amidst the dried-out slash: there was a particularly devastating one in 1930.

In this roughly handled area, it must have seemed quite natural when the U.S. Army used the area during World War II as a practice artillery and mortar range and maneuver area.

However, key tracts of this unusual high-elevation (up to 4000′) rolling plateau have now been preserved, and it has become an important destination for people who want to experience an isolated pocket of  windswept meadows and “southern muskeg.” Anyone who is interested in plants should come here. Most striking are the glades of red spruce, but the sprawling meadows contain worlds of other plants. The main plant communities are heath barrens, grassy balds, cranberry bogs, and hardwood forests.

I had a serious handicap in exploring Dolly Sods: no guidebook and no maps. The day before, as I journeyed on my quest to climb the state high points of PA, MD, and WV, I had driven past one of the points shown as a trailhead in my large-scale road atlas, hoping to find an informational signboard that would give me some clues. I was in luck! The signboard offered detailed maps. I took pictures of the maps, segment by segment, figuring I could use the review function of my camera to look at the maps if need be.

Signboard map of northern portion of Dolly Sods

Looking at the signboard, I hand-drew a map that showed the forest roads linking the different areas.

My hand-drawn map

And I did have a printed-out page from a “Hiking Upward” website that described an interesting-sounding route in Dolly Sods North. However, as had happened when I tried to print out maps for Mt. Davis, the color printer in the Econolodge lobby had produced such a washed-out map that I couldn’t use it.

The drive in to Dolly Sods on Forest Road 19 was very slow over a pothole-riddled surface. At last I reached the north-south artery of FR 75, which was in better shape, and headed to the far north end to pick up the Bear Rocks trail. When I emerged at last from my car, I was greeted by chilly winds out of the west that swept over the open meadows. But I enjoyed the cool air after having suffered through a lot of mugginess over the previous week.

Scene at trailhead

It was easy to see the direction of the prevailing wind in the dense spruce, whose material is easily sculpted. Meadow lay behind meadow, running off to a remote horizon: foreground, middle ground, background, with changing light flowing over everything.

Asymmetrical spruces buffeted by winds, with densely interwoven vegetation in the foreground

I came to a small tree with fruit that grew on long stems like cherries but with a dull rather than a glossy surface. The color was a bright and cheerful pinkish red.

Can you help me identify this?

I had left behind the open meadows and entered a deep ferny glade.

Ferny glade

It amazed me how different it felt inside the glades than out in the windy meadows: they seemed oddly unrelated to each other.

I passed through a series of glades, somewhat like passing through the rooms of a house

A boardwalk led over a marshy area. Unfortunately, the boardwalk builders seem to have run out of steam before reaching the trail I followed at the end of my adventure: it was several straight miles of slogging through thigh-deep bogs.

I appreciated the boardwalk

I crossed the stepping stones over the aptly named Red Creek. The color of the water is simply beautiful.

Maybe a bit more amber than red, but glowing in the sunlight

By looking in the other direction, I saw a different play of light on water.

Light on Red Creek

I climbed up out of the stream valley and entered a meadow with a nicely shaped tree. It reminded me of England—utterly different in feel from the meadows of the trailhead.

Pastoral scene

Soon, as Dolly Sods continued with its kaleidoscopic changes, the grass underfoot changed over to heath barren. It was as if the mixes of plants were thought up by some giant creative genius: “I’ll do a meadow of goldenrod here, a heath barren there—throw in some club moss—ferns here— a spattering of gentians over there—” Here in the heath I saw every variety of acid-loving plant: blueberry, cranberry, dwarf azalea and rhododendron, laurel, and wintergreen.

Heath closeup

I saw a yellow wildflower with woody stems that looked like something in the potentilla family.

Meadow scene

Water was everywhere, at or just below the surface.

Water, water everywhere

I passed from the Bear Rocks trail to the Raven Ridge trail and then the Rocky Ridge trail. I started to see fascinating rock formations.

This rock was created by someone with a sense of humor

The rocks seemed to lurk in the background, like observing presences of sorts.

More weird rock

Eventually I had run the gauntlet of the lurking rock shapes, and I turned down the Dobbin Grade trail to make a circle that would total 11 miles. I don’t recommend the lower Dobbin Grade trail—it was an endless quagmire.

But I do recommend a walk in Dolly Sods North. There is no other place quite like it.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Cattails along Dobbin Grade trail

Left fork of Styx Branch August 20, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Dave climbs the staircase of the stream

For more photos and another perspective on the outing, go to Dave’s trip report.

A year ago, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club set off to climb the left fork of Styx to the top of LeConte but accidentally climbed the right fork instead. Yesterday three of us succeeded in climbing the left fork. It does involve paying close attention at the junction, which is located not by looking at separating watercourses in this complicated, braided stream, but by observing the shape of the valleys.

So I returned to the area on the south slopes of LeConte known as Huggins Hell and to the appropriately named stream that runs through it.

"Crossing the Styx" by Gustave Dore

My companions were Seth O’Shields and Dave Landreth, who proved to have the right combination of determination, strength, and insanity to pursue this quest.



The first time I saw Seth’s orange shirt, I said, “But it’s not hunting season!” However, Seth just likes that shirt, and Dave points out that it makes him easy to spot in the underbrush and also makes him stand out clearly in photos.

We relied on my altimeter to identify the elevation (4750′) where we should look for the junction. The going in the lower part of the stream was easy, as the streambed held very little water and we were able to rockhop along at good speed. After a brief false move going up a dead-end side draw, we rejoined the main stream and recognized the junction. The lower Left Fork was clogged with rhodo, which made it even more obscure, but we wrestled our way through this section and emerged onto a nifty stone staircase. The rock seemed like a combination of sandstone and Anakeesta—fairly large solid blocks mixed with the sharp-edged slaty pieces that make for great handholds.

Studying the situation

The rock got slimier as we got higher, making for some tricky spots.

Slimy climb

It was a beautiful, wild place, a ribbon of rock and trickling water that led into the steep, mysterious, sometimes dangerous fastnesses below Myrtle Point.

Wild place

Eventually, around 5800′, the stream disappeared and we found ourselves working through worlds of lush vegetation: wildflowers of all kinds, blackberries, and cushions of deep moss so plush you could kneel comfortably in it and feel yourself sinking in without any discernable bottom.

The underbrush was so thick here that even Seth's orange shirt disappeared

Dappled light

We weren’t sure exactly where we were going to come out—we hoped somewhere in the vicinity of Myrtle Point. As we approached the top, we ran into steep cliff bands. I reached a spot where I could not manage to go straight up, so I did an interesting traverse making use of some good handholds. Dave took this picture of me—what it doesn’t show is the dropoff below my feet. He called it “the crux.”

"The crux." Photo by Dave Landreth.

On the far side of the traverse stood a tangled mess of rhodo and laurel, incredibly dense. I fought for a few minutes and got nowhere, but then noticed a little slot through the growth that led to the right. I crawled through it and found myself on a narrow ridgecrest with a view down to the Boulevard. We were just a short distance east of Myrtle Point. We’d expected to encounter a large slide, but it turned out we came up a little to the right of it.

Bears had traveled back and forth on this ridge, making for a decent path where you could almost stand up straight. There was just one point where the bears, probably chuckling to themselves, led the way up a steep outcrop that could only be descended by crawling down a blowdown. Before long we came out on a herd path made by curious humans investigating out from Myrtle Point.

Herd path leading to Myrtle Point

I love the interwoven vegetation there, the mounded cushions of myrtle mixed with ferns and dense masses of wind-sculpted Rhododendron minus with its aromatic leaves. From this understory rise scattered mountain ash and spruce. In the distance, a crazed jumble of jagged green ridges. Two peregrines soared high above as we watched, seemingly playing with each other.

We stopped at the lodge and met some of the friends Seth has there—he has frequently stayed there for a few days at a time, doing chores in exchange for room and board. After relaxing for a while, we wended our way down the Alum Cave trail. We saw beautiful flowers.


Grass of Parnassus

This was one of those journeys that touches my imagination in a certain way and makes me long to return quickly to those difficult, hidden, beautiful places.

View from Foothills Parkway---taken on the drive over