The Fort Henry Campaign

January 29, 1862 – Major General Henry W. Halleck received intelligence that convinced him to allow Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote to move against Fort Henry, Tennessee.

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit:
Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit:

Fort Henry stood on the Tennessee River, across from the uncompleted Fort Heiman near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Halleck, commanding Federals west of the Cumberland River, had considered seizing this fort to break General Albert Sidney Johnston’s tenuous Confederate line across Kentucky from behind. Taking Fort Henry would also facilitate a drive on Nashville.

Grant, commanding Federals at Cairo, Illinois, and Paducah, Kentucky, within Halleck’s department, telegraphed his superior on the 28th: “With permission, I will take Fort Henry on the Tennessee, and establish and hold a large camp there.”

This was not the first time that Grant had asked to take this fort. Previously Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, one of Grant’s subordinates, had reconnoitered the fort aboard the U.S.S. Lexington and reported that it could be taken with two gunboats. Grant went to Halleck’s headquarters at St. Louis to explain this to him. Halleck, wary of Grant’s past reputation for drunkenness, did not want to give him such an important assignment and rejected his plan.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:
Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant then consulted with Foote, who deemed the plan solid and explained to Halleck that Fort Henry could “be carried with four iron-clad gunboats and troops to permanently occupy.” Halleck stated that he would not authorize a movement without investigating the condition of the roads. Foote countered that the movement needed to happen now, before the water levels on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers receded. Foote and Grant awaited Halleck’s reply.

The next day, General-in-Chief George B. McClellan notified Halleck that a Confederate deserter claimed that General P.G.T. Beauregard was about to leave northern Virginia for Kentucky with 15 regiments to reinforce A.S. Johnston’s Western Theater department. Halleck also received a message from Grant repeating the reasons why Fort Henry should be taken immediately. This convinced Halleck to approve the proposed operation.

Halleck telegraphed Grant on the 30th: “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you written instructions by mail.” Halleck then wrote thorough directives in which Grant would leave behind a force to threaten the Confederates at Columbus, Kentucky, while sending the rest of his men up the Tennessee River (the impassable roads made marching untenable). Halleck declared, “Fort Henry must be taken and held at all hazards.”

Grant was to divide his force into divisions and brigades, avoiding “political influences” while doing so. Halleck wrote, “Don’t let any political applications about brigades and divisions trouble you a particle. All such applications and arrangements are sheer nonsense and will not be regarded.”

Halleck informed both McClellan and Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio, of the movement against Fort Henry. Since Grant would be operating near Buell’s department, Buell requested details about the plan, including the strength of the force and the launch date. Halleck provided the information as Grant quickly organized his men and put them into motion.


References (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 118-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 182-83; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 102-03; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 147; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 165; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-61

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