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Austin Peay history students conduct staff ride to historic Fort Donelson Civil War battlefield

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — If you can picture a nation as a living body with cities serving as vital organs and transportation paths such as roads, railways and rivers filling the roles of the arteries that provide life-sustaining blood to those major settlements, then it becomes easy to understand the significance of the Battle of Fort Donelson during the American Civil War.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — If you can picture a nation as a living body with cities serving as vital organs and transportation paths such as roads, railways and rivers filling the roles of the arteries that provide life-sustaining blood to those major settlements, then it becomes easy to understand the significance of the Battle of Fort Donelson during the American Civil War.

Waged between Feb. 11-16, 1862, the Union’s capture of the Confederate fort near the Tennessee-Kentucky border accomplished a number of important tasks for its army. For one, it opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, providing important avenues to its invasion of the South. Just as important, the Union victory boosted support in the North and elevated a previously unknown leader, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, to the rank of major general – and provided his army a hero with which its solders could rally around en route to victory.

Austin Peay State University associate professor of history Antonio Thompson and his American Military History to 1919 class recently took a staff ride to the historic battlefield, located in Dover, to gain a better understanding of the battle and its role in the broader picture of American Civil War.

Staff rides allow students the opportunity to visit historic sites and role-play the experiences of the people involved in that conflict. Seeing things previously only described in print allows students to gain a better understanding of the decisions made during the conflict.

“Talking about the Civil War in class is just us talking about the war in the abstract,” Thompson said. “You can learn about the conflict that way, but you gain a different understanding of things when you are able to see the battlefield for yourself.

“When we discuss World War II, we can’t go to famous European sites, but we can visit an important battlefield in the Civil War that is right in our backyard,” Thompson added.

Austin Peay students visited a number of important landmarks on the site, including the Lower River Battery — hills on the Cumberland River where Confederate gunners defeated a Union flotilla of gunboats — as well as many recreated Confederate trenches dug to defend the fort from advancing Union forces. Students also toured a reconstructed Confederate log hut — designed to recreate the winter quarters designed for soldiers garrisoning and working on the fort — and visited the Dover Hotel, the site of the unconditional Confederate surrender to Grant and his Union forces.

Austin Peay student Ivan Murdock served as active duty in the U.S. Army for 35 years and has lived in the Clarksville area for over three decades and said that the staff ride “refined” his already knowledgeable view of the battle.

“I’ve been out there before, but never after reading the text and hearing a couple of great lectures to lay out the battlefield (before the visit),” Murdock said. “(After the staff ride) I gained a new appreciation, because you could get a sense of the hopelessness of the Confederates and the size of what they were initially trying to defend.

“(The Battle of Fort Donelson) was truly a turning point in our history, and it was great to get out there and refine what I thought I knew,” Murdock added.

Katelynn DiStefano, a graduate student in the Austin Peay Department of History and Philosophy, specializes in the history of medical treatment during war, and she said the staff ride allowed her a better understanding of the human element of the Civil War.

“Seeing the Fort really put into perspective what the wounded men would have been put through,” DiStefano said. “Seeing the Fort brought the wounds the men suffered, and the many deaths to light. Learning that the graves of the Confederate soldiers (killed during the battle) are not located spurred me, and I hope to one day use my knowledge and experience in archaeology to help located them.

“The trip was an amazing experience and truly helpful to getting the scope of the battle,” DiStefano said.

Excursions like this staff ride help to empower students and serve as an example of the kinds of high-impact practices (HIP) defined in the Austin Peay Quality Enhancement Plan. (QEP). QEP HIPs are experiences that transform student perspective through reflection, helping them to apply learning in a variety of settings, both academic and non-academic.

“We are training the students in our classes to be the next generation of historians,” Thompson said. “When you’re training to be a professional historian, it’s important that you keep learning, because you’re not just teaching classes. Having an opportunity to see these sites in person is a valuable learning experience, and something these students needed to see.”

For more information about Austin Peay’s Department of History and Philosophy, visit www.apsu.edu/history.