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 Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s defensive line across Kentucky.
In late January, both Foote and Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had 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. A rumor that 15 regiments were coming from Virginia to reinforce the Confederates in Kentucky gave Halleck the final push to approve the operation.
This would be the largest Federal operation conducted in the Mississippi River Valley to date, consisting of about 17,000 troops in two divisions. One division was commanded by Brigadier General John A. McClernand, a Democratic politician who supported the Republican administration’s war effort. His force consisted of Federals around Cairo, Illinois. The other was led by Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, a former commandant of cadets at West Point whose students included Grant himself. Smith’s command consisted of troops around Paducah and Smithfield in Kentucky.
Grant initially instructed his division commanders to leave a skeleton force and most of their supplies back at their camps at Paducah and Cairo respectively. This was partly due to the rumors of Confederates coming 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.” Halleck also sent Lieutenant Colonel James B. McPherson to be Grant’s chief engineer. Halleck intended for McPherson to temper any rashness that Grant may exhibit, and also to ensure that Grant stayed sober.
Because winter rains made the roads unusable for marching, Grant would use river transports to move his men, horses, supplies, and equipment. The transports would be escorted by Foote’s gunboat flotilla of three timber-clad (wooden) 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…”
The expedition began on the February 2, as Federal troops began boarding the transports at Cairo. Since they could not convey all of Grant’s soldiers at once, McClernand’s men went first and then the vessels came back to Paducah to collect Smith’s division. Meanwhile, Foote sent his three timber-clads up the Tennessee to clear the way. He 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…”
From St. Louis, Halleck exchanged messages with Major General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio (responsible for eastern and central Kentucky and Tennessee). Buell had been reluctant to coordinate his movements with Halleck, but now that Halleck had launched an offensive, Buell scrambled to take part: “Do you consider active cooperation essential to your success because in that case it would be necessary for each to know what the other has to do. It would be several days before I could seriously engage the enemy, and your operation ought not to fail.”
Halleck quickly replied, “Co-operation at present not essential. Fort Henry has been reinforced, but where from I have not learned. The roads are in such horrible condition as to render movements almost impossible on land…” He explained that 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.”
The Lincoln administration had repeatedly urged Buell to send Federals into eastern Tennessee to aid the large Unionist population there, but he had resisted because he thought it was militarily inexpedient. But now that Halleck was on the move, Buell reconsidered. He wrote to Brigadier General George A. Thomas, commanding Federals near Bowling Green, “What now is the condition of roads? How soon could you march, and how long do you suppose it would take you to reach Knoxville?… Please answer at once.”
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.
Grant left Paducah aboard Foote’s flagship Cincinnati. He was tense when the vessel pulled out, fearful that a messenger might appear at the wharf with an order from Halleck recalling the mission. Once Paducah was out of sight, Grant relaxed and told his chief of staff, John Rawlins, “Now we seem to be safe, beyond recall. We will succeed, Rawlins. We must succeed.”
Fort Henry was defended by 3,400 Confederates under Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman. It had been ineptly built on low ground on the east bank of the Tennessee River, with hills overlooking it on the western bank. Confederates had begun building a second fort (named for Tilghman’s second-in-command Colonel Adolphus Heiman) on the west bank, but its works were incomplete and could do little to protect Henry. Most of the troops at Henry were armed only with shotguns or obsolete muskets from the War of 1812. The fort had just 12 guns.
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 landing point at 4:30 a.m. on the 4th. They debarked about eight miles north (i.e., downriver from) Fort Henry, just south of the Kentucky-Tennessee line on the east bank of the Tennessee River. Grant arrived and decided that since the roads were in such terrible condition, the troops needed to land closer to their objective. So he went to try 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’s 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, with Grant having learned what he needed. Federals also retrieved some of the torpedoes moored in the river and examined them.
Returning to Itra Landing, Grant directed the transports to take McClernand’s Federals farther upriver to Bailey’s Ferry, about three miles from Fort Henry. McClernand called this debarkation point Camp Halleck. C.F. Smith’s troops soon came up to join McClernand’s. Grant ordered that “Plundering and disturbing private property is positively prohibited.”
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. In the meantime, the press learned of Grant’s secret mission and reported from Paducah that troops “came straggling in here one at a time (from Cairo) all of last night and immediately proceeded up the Tennessee.”
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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