Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Federal Military District of Southeastern Missouri within the Department of Missouri. Grant’s district included western Kentucky and Tennessee. In early January, Grant met with Major General Henry W. Halleck, his department commander, and proposed leading a joint army-navy expedition against Fort Henry, which stood on the Tennessee River and reinforced the tenuous Confederate defense line across Kentucky. Taking Fort Henry would not only break the line, but it could facilitate a drive on Nashville.
According to Grant, Halleck dismissed the idea “as if my plan were preposterous,” and he returned to his headquarters at Cairo, Illinois, “very much crestfallen.” In reality, Halleck was already exploring the possibility of moving in that direction. Federal gunboats steamed up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to probe for weaknesses, and Halleck wrote to General-in-Chief George B. McClellan that an advance up those waterways would move along “the great central line of the Western theater of war.” Halleck once called such a movement “madness,” but now he believed that it could be done if he had 60,000 troops.
A few days later, Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, one of Grant’s subordinates, reconnoitered Fort Henry aboard the gunboat U.S.S. Lexington. Smith observed the Lexington exchange fire with the fort batteries, and he reported that Henry could be taken with two gunboats. Around the same time, Halleck received word from McClellan that General P.G.T. Beauregard and 15 Confederate regiments were about to leave northern Virginia to reinforce the Confederate forces in Kentucky and Tennessee. This would later prove false, but it persuaded Halleck to break the Confederate line before it was reinforced.
Grant, hoping to avoid a second rejection, consulted with Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote on the feasibility of capturing Fort Henry. Foote agreed that it could be taken and notified Halleck on January 28, “Commanding General Grant and myself are of opinion that Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, can be carried with four iron-clad gun-boats and troops to permanently occupy. Have we your authority to move for the purpose when ready?” Grant followed up: “With permission, I will take Fort Henry on the Tennessee, and establish and hold a large camp there.”
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. Grant then sent Halleck a more detailed explanation of the proposed operation:
“In view of the large force now concentrating in this district and the present feasibility of the plan I would respectfully suggest the propriety of subduing Fort Henry, near the Kentucky and Tennessee line, and holding the position. If this is not done soon there is but little doubt but that the defenses on both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers will be materially strengthened. From Fort Henry it will be easy to operate either on the Cumberland, only 12 miles distant, Memphis, or Columbus. It will, besides, have a moral effect upon our troops to advance them toward the Rebel States. The advantages of this move are as perceptible to the general commanding as to myself, therefore further statements are unnecessary.”
On the 30th, Halleck responded to McClellan’s warning of Beauregard’s impending arrival: “Your telegraph respecting Beauregard is received. General Grant and Commodore Foote will be ordered to immediately advance and to reduce and hold Fort Henry, on the Tennessee river… I will send down every man I can spare.” Halleck notified Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio (responsible for central and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee: “I have ordered an advance of our troops on Fort Henry and Dover (on the Cumberland River). It will be made immediately.”
Halleck then telegraphed Grant: “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you written instructions by mail.” Grant would be reinforced by several infantry regiments and field batteries. According to his written instructions, “You will immediately prepare to send forward to Fort Henry, on the Tennessee river, all your available forces from Smithland, Paducah, Fort Holt, Bird’s Point, etc. Sufficient garrisons must be left to hold these places against an attack from Columbus.”
Because rains had made many roads impassable, Halleck directed Grant to move his men and supplies by naval transport. “Fort Henry must be taken and held at all hazards,” Halleck wrote, and it should be taken from behind to cut the Confederate line of retreat. In addition, the railroad bridges spanning the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers “should be rendered impassable but not destroyed.” 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.”
Buell, who had been reluctant to coordinate operations in his department with those of Halleck, quickly responded to Halleck’s notice that an offensive would soon begin: “Please let me know your plan and force and the time etc.” On the 31st, Halleck stated that the movement was already underway, and Buell would be notified when the attack on Fort Henry began. As the month ended, Grant told Halleck, “I am quietly making preparations for a move, without as yet having created a suspicion that a movement is to be made… I have not made definite plans as to my movements, but expect to start Sunday evening (February 2), taking 15,000 men.”
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McFeely, William S., Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.