The Fall of Fort Henry

February 6, 1862 – Federals captured a key point on the Tennessee River that opened a path to invade Tennessee.

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

On the 5th, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s 17,000 Federal troops began landing at Camp Halleck, about three miles north (or downstream) from Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, commanding just 3,400 Confederates inside the fort, wired his superior, General Albert Sidney Johnston: “If you can reinforce strongly and quickly we have a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.” However, no reinforcements would be coming, and the Federal force was much stronger than Tilghman had anticipated.

At a council of war that evening, Tilghman announced to his officers that Fort Henry could not be held. As such, part of the garrison would stay in the fort to stall the Federal advance while the bulk of Tilghman’s force would escape to Fort Donelson, a stronger work 12 miles east on the Cumberland River.

Grant resolved to attack Fort Henry at 11 a.m. on the 6th, even though his entire force had not yet landed. Grant wanted to hurry the action because he had received a report (later proved wrong) that the Confederates were rushing to reinforce the fort.

Meanwhile Grant’s superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, asked Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell to send some Federals from the Department of the Ohio against Bowling Green, Kentucky. This would create a diversion to ensure that Fort Henry would not be reinforced. However, Buell responded that it would take over a week to conduct such an operation. Ultimately, Buell’s help would not be needed, as Tilghman’s call for Confederates from both Bowling Green and Columbus went unanswered.

The Federal movement began that evening, as a brigade from Brigadier General Charles F. Smith’s division captured Fort Heiman, across the Tennessee from Fort Henry. The Confederates had abandoned this fort, which was never completed, and crossed the river to Henry. Meanwhile, Brigadier General John A. McClernand’s division was to march up the east side of the Tennessee, but heavy rain had turned the roads to mud. This not only hampered the Federal march, but it also partly flooded Fort Henry, thus demoralizing the Confederate defenders.

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

The next morning, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Federal gunboat fleet advanced with the four ironclads leading and the three timber-clads behind. Foote’s flagship Cincinnati, along with the Carondelet, Essex, and St. Louis, began firing on Fort Henry from within 600 yards around 11 a.m. Meanwhile, the Federal troops struggled in the mud to take up positions along the Confederate escape routes.

Tilghman directed Battery B of the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery to maintain an “honorable” defense using just 11 obsolete guns, while he led most of his men to Fort Donelson. Tilghman asked his artillerists to delay the Federals for an hour, but they did much better than that, holding off the fleet for several hours while scoring 59 hits. The Cincinnati sustained 32 hits that disabled two guns and damaged her stacks and after-cabin. A Confederate round exploded a boiler on the Essex, scalding 28 men (some to death) and putting her out of action.

Despite some Confederate success, the Federal firepower slowly took its toll. The gunboats finally found their range and began disabling the enemy cannon. When Tilghman returned from Fort Donelson, he saw that ammunition was running low and the Federal fleet was now within 300 yards. He manned one of the artillery crews himself, but just before 2 p.m., he conceded defeat and ordered the white flag raised. Tilghman said that “it is vain to fight longer; our gunners are disabled; our guns dismounted; we can’t hold out five minutes longer.”

The Federals on the gunboats cheered when they saw the Confederate flag replaced by a white flag. The Cincinnati lowered a launch, on which Federal naval officers rowed into Fort Henry’s flooded sally port and onto the parade grounds. They ferried Tilghman back to the flagship, where he and Foote agreed on an unconditional surrender of the fort’s remaining defenders.

Tilghman sustained 21 casualties (five killed, 11 wounded, and five missing), and surrendered 94 (12 officers, 66 men, and 16 patients). Foote’s naval crews lost 47 (11 killed, 31 wounded, and five missing). Grant’s troops arrived around 3 p.m., too late to play any role in the fort’s surrender. They also could not block the escape routes as hoped, with only a pursuing Federal cavalry detachment capturing some stragglers and cannon.

Meanwhile, the Federal timber-clads continued up the Tennessee as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They destroyed a bridge linking the Confederates between Bowling Green and Columbus, and placed themselves directly between A.S. Johnston’s two main armies. This, along with the fall of Fort Henry, permanently broke Johnston’s fragile Confederate line across Kentucky. He noted:

“The capture of that Fort by the enemy gives them the control of the navigation of the Tennessee River, and their gunboats are now ascending the river to Florence (Alabama)… Should Ft. Donelson be taken it will open the route to the enemy to Nashville, giving them the means of breaking the bridges and destroying the ferryboats on the river as far as navigable.”

This was the first significant Federal victory on the western rivers, and it boosted the morale of northerners starving for any kind of victory. Capturing Fort Henry and opening the Tennessee gave the Federals options to attack Columbus from the rear, capture Fort Donelson and open the path to Nashville, or attack Bowling Green in concert with Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

The same day that Fort Henry fell, Grant had already decided his next move. He wired Halleck at St. Louis: “Fort Henry is ours… the gunboats silenced the batteries before the investment was completed. I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”



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