Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant led a force of about 17,000 Federals in an effort to capture Fort Henry, a key Confederate installation on the Tennessee River near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Grant was supported by naval transports and a gunboat armada commanded by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. The troops landed at Camp Halleck, about three miles north (i.e., downriver from) from Fort Henry, on same (east) bank of the Tennessee. The plan called for Foote’s gunboats to bombard the fort while Grant’s troops attacked from the rear to prevent escape.
Grant’s army belonged to Major General Henry W. Halleck’s Department of Missouri, and Halleck spent much of February communicating with Major General Don Carlos Buell, heading the Department of the Ohio, and General-in-Chief George B. McClellan. Halleck and Buell had been urged to coordinate their efforts, but Halleck had told Buell that his help would not be needed. Now this changed, and Halleck asked Buell, “Can’t you make a diversion in our favor by threatening Bowling Green?”
Buell’s annoyance at suddenly being asked to help showed in his response: “My position does not admit of diversion. My moves must be real ones… It will probably be twelve days before we can be in front of Bowling Green.” McClellan asked Buell the same question and got the same response. Halleck told McClellan of rumors that Fort Henry was being reinforced, adding, “Unless I get more forces I may fail to take it, but the attack must help General Buell to move forces forward.”
When Buell complained that Halleck had launched an offensive without even consulting with him, Halleck shifted blame to McClellan, who had warned that 15 Confederate regiments under General P.G.T. Beauregard were on their way west from Virginia. Halleck wrote, “I had no idea of commencing the movement before the 15th or 20th instant till I received General McClellan’s telegram about the reinforcement sent to Tennessee or Kentucky with Beauregard.”
Meanwhile, the Confederates at Fort Henry were growing apprehensive. Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman had just 3,400 troops in the fort, and they could not be expected to hold against the force approaching. Tilghman optimistically appealed to General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Western Theater: “If you can reinforce strongly and quickly we have a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.” But no reinforcements would be coming, and the Federal force was much stronger than Tilghman had anticipated. Tilghman informed his officers that Fort Henry could not be held, and therefore part of the garrison would stay to stall the Federal advance while the bulk of the garrison would escape to Fort Donelson, a stronger work on the Cumberland River, 12 miles east.
Grant resolved to attack Fort Henry on the morning of February 6, even though his entire force had not yet landed. Grant wanted to hurry because Halleck had sent him the false report that the Confederates were rushing to reinforce the fort. Preliminary movements began on the night of the 5th, when a brigade from Brigadier General Charles F. Smith’s division occupied Fort Heiman, across the Tennessee from Fort Henry. The Confederates had abandoned this fort, which was never completed, and crossed the river to Henry. Grant’s second division, led by Brigadier General John A. McClernand, 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, further demoralizing the Confederate defenders.
The rain and mud delayed the Federal advance until around 11 a.m. Flag Office Foote saw the troops struggling and told Grant, “General, I shall have the fort in my possession before you get into your position.” Foote’s 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 noon. Foote stressed accuracy to his gunners, telling them that “every charge you fire from one of these guns costs the government about eight dollars.”
Tilghman had no delusions of victory. He noted that Fort Henry had been so ineptly built that “the history of military engineering affords no parallel to this case.” He directed a battery to maintain an “honorable” defense and delay the Federals for an hour with just 11 obsolete guns while he led the rest of the Confederates to Fort Donelson. The artillerists did much better than expected, 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), killing her quartermaster and pilot, 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). Foote reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I made a bold dash at Fort Henry to inspire terror, & it succeeded.” 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. An on-site reporter noted that “Gen. Grant evidently did not understand that Commodore Foote… believes in energetic action at close quarters.”
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 General Albert Sidney 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 a relatively easy Federal victory, the first of its kind on the western rivers. It greatly boosted the morale of northerners starving for any kind of victory. Capturing Fort Henry and opening the Tennessee gave Grant’s 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.
Grant reported to Halleck, “Fort Henry is ours. The gunboats silenced the batteries before the investment was completed. I think the garrison must have commended the retreat last night. Our cavalry followed, finding two guns abandoned in the retreat.” Then, almost as an afterthought and without orders, he added, “I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”
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