Federals Target Fort Henry

February 1, 1862 – The Federal invasion of Tennessee began with a joint army-navy operation against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org
Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Federal gunboat flotilla had been observing Confederates building Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers respectively since the previous fall. Foote became convinced that his vessels could, with army help, subdue these forts and threaten the rear of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate defensive line across Kentucky.

In late January, both Foote and Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant requested permission to launch a joint operation against Fort Henry from Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri. Halleck had considered a move against Fort Henry as a first step to a drive on Nashville, but he was reluctant to put Grant in charge of army operations due to his past reputation for drunkenness. Halleck finally went along with it on Foote’s recommendation.

Grant assembled about 17,000 troops for the mission, but he soon learned that winter rains had made the roads unusable for marching. Therefore, Grant planned to use river transports to move his men, horses, supplies, and equipment. The transports would be escorted by Foote’s gunboat flotilla of three wooden (timber-clad) vessels (U.S.S. Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler), and four ironclads (U.S.S. Carondelet, Cincinnati, Essex, and St. Louis).

The Conestoga had previously steamed up the Tennessee to remove obstructions and explosive mines known as “torpedoes” that Confederates had placed in the river. Foote telegraphed Halleck on the 1st: “I leave early to-morrow with four armored gunboats on an expedition cooperating with the Army. Senior officer will telegraph you during my absence…”

Grant initially instructed his division commanders, Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith and John A. McClernand, to leave a skeleton force and most of their supplies back at their camps at Paducah, Kentucky, and Cairo, Illinois, respectively. This was partly due to rumors that Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was leading 15 regiments westward from Virginia. However, Halleck instructed Grant, “Make your force as large as possible. I will send more regiments from here (St. Louis) in a few days.”

The expedition began on the 2nd, as Federal troops began boarding the transports at Cairo. Since they could not accommodate all Grant’s soldiers at once, McClernand’s men went first and then the vessels came back to Paducah and collected Smith’s division. Meanwhile, Foote sent his three timber-clads up the Tennessee to clear the way and issued instructions to the gunboat crews:

“Let it be also distinctly impressed upon the mind of every man firing a gun that, while the first shot may be either of too much elevation or too little, there is no excuse for a second wild fire, as the first will indicate the inaccuracy of the aim of the gun, which must be elevated or depressed, or trained, as circumstances require. Let it be reiterated that random firing is not only a mere waste of ammunition, but, what is far worse, it encourages the enemy when he sees shot and shell falling harmlessly about and beyond him…”

In St. Louis, Halleck exchanged messages with General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio. Halleck and Buell had found it difficult to coordinate their efforts, but when Buell learned that one of Halleck’s armies was targeting Fort Henry, which was technically within Buell’s department, he quickly offered assistance.

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

Halleck responded that “co-operation at present not essential” because it was “only proposed to take and occupy Fort Henry and Dover (Fort Donelson), and, if possible, cut the railroad from Columbus to Bowling Green.” Halleck continued:

“If we take Fort Henry and concentrate all available forces there, (Confederate) troops must be withdrawn either from Bowling Green (under Buell’s department) or Columbus (under Halleck’s) to protect the railroads. If the former, you can advance, if the latter, we can take New Madrid (in Missouri) and cut off the (Mississippi) river communication with Columbus.”

Grant reported to Halleck on the 3rd: “Will be off up the Tennessee at 6 o’clock. Command, twenty-three regiments in all.” McClernand’s Federals reached the Tennessee aboard nine transports, escorted by the U.S.S. Essex and St. Louis. Among those participating in the expedition, only Grant and Foote knew that capturing Fort Henry was the mission. The Federals were to disembark several miles below the fort, beyond Confederate artillery range. They would then march overland and, with gunboat assistance, attack and capture the fort.

Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman commanded Fort Henry. The fort stood across the Tennessee from Fort Heiman, named for Colonel Adolphus Heiman, Tilghman’s second-in-command. Fort Heiman stood on higher, more defensible ground, but its works were incomplete. Thus most of the Confederate garrison was stationed at Henry. Tilghman had about 3,400 Confederates in Henry, most of whom were armed only with shotguns or obsolete flintlock muskets. The fort had just 12 cannon.

Tilghman observed the advancing Federal gunboats and telegraphed A.S. Johnston that if he received reinforcements immediately, he had “a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.” But no reinforcements were on the way, and the river began rising into the fort’s lower tier due to the heavy rains. Tilghman left Colonel Heiman in charge and went to inspect defenses at Fort Donelson, 12 miles east on the Cumberland River.

McClernand’s Federals reached their debarkation point at 4:30 a.m. on the 4th. They landed about eight miles north of (or downriver from) Fort Henry, just south of the Kentucky-Tennessee line on the east bank of the Tennessee River. Considering the terrible roads, Grant considered this too far for an overland advance and tried to find a closer landing.

Grant personally reconnoitered Fort Henry from Foote’s flagship Cincinnati, flanked by two other gunboats. The Federals sought to test the enemy artillery range, and the Confederates obliged by opening fire. Nearly every shot missed except one that struck the cabin of the U.S.S. Essex. The vessels pulled back, Grant having learned what he needed. Federals also retrieved some of the torpedoes moored in the river and examined them.

Returning to his men, Grant directed the transports to take them further upriver to about three miles within Fort Henry. McClernand called this debarkation point Camp Halleck. C.F. Smith’s troops soon came up to join McClernand’s. Grant and Foote developed a plan of attack by which the gunboats would bombard the fort while the troops attacked from the rear to prevent escape. However, the operation was delayed by heavy rain and deep mud.

Meanwhile, with Tilghman still at Fort Donelson, Colonel Heiman received word that a large Federal force had landed five miles away. He called on General Leonidas Polk, commanding all Confederates in the region, for reinforcements but soon realized that they would probably not arrive in time. Heiman began pulling all available nearby troops to take up the defense of Fort Henry.



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