Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Booknotes: The River Batteries at Fort Donelson

New Arrival:
The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 by M. Todd Cathey & Ricky W. Robnett (McFarland, 2021).

The celebrated Union winter 1861-62 campaign up the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers that seized forts Henry and Donelson has received a number of full-length treatments, the latest and best authored by Timothy Smith, but The River Batteries at Fort Donelson: Construction, Armament and Battles, 1861-1862 is the first standalone study of the artillery defenses that did their job so well during the initial phase of the Union army and navy's combined assault on the fort.

From the description: "Unprepared for invasion, Tennessee joined the Confederacy in June 1861. The state's long border and three major rivers with northern access made defense difficult. Cutting through critical manufacturing centers, the Cumberland River led directly to the capital city of Nashville. To thwart Federal attack, engineers hastily constructed river batteries as part of the defenses that would come to be known as Fort Donelson, downstream near the town of Dover. Ulysses S. Grant began moving up the rivers in early 1862. In last-minute desperation, two companies of volunteer infantry and a company of light artillerymen were deployed to the hastily constructed batteries. On February 14, they slugged it out with four City-class ironclads and two timber-clads, driving off the gunboats with heavy casualties, while only losing one man."

Authors Todd Cathey and Ricky Robnett detail the construction of the Confederate batteries, the garrison units who manned them, and the military actions they participated in. The text is supported by numerous maps and illustrations. The appendix section offers a collection of biographies of men associated with the river batteries, casualty lists for both sides, and an ordnance inventory table for Jan-Feb 1862. A quick perusal of the bibliography reveals a wide selection of primary and secondary sources.


  1. $48 for a 188 page paperback? Good lord.

    1. I agree. Those maps had better be in full color. Some of these publishers should just be "up front" and admit that they're turning out books for institutional buyers.

  2. JF: Well, speaking as a publisher, I tell authors all the time to make sure you choose well, because each publisher has a different purpose/market/direction. Few authors, truly, have a vested interest in publishing a book with a cover price at least 2x "market" retail because they cannot sell them and make any profit at talks (50% off 48 = $24, and that is iffy for a 188pp. softcover) and sales to institutional buyers are limited in number and steadily falling.

    Knowing the cost of production for a short book like this, I find it difficult to swallow.

    1. Ted: That's a valid point about institutional buyers. My own anecdotal evidence is that it's a decreasing market. Putting out a slim paperback at $48 is therefore almost a "friends and family" product. It's unfortunate for good authors who turn out worthwhile books. Hopefully they shop their manuscripts widely and are willing to work with the publishers and editors. I think it's a safe assumption that books like this one won't end up in many libraries even if they should.


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