1862

February

The Battle of Fort Henry

On January 30, 1862, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at last received the reluctant permission of Gen. Henry W. Halleck to attempt to capture Fort Henry, a Confederate earthwork fort on the Tennessee River just south of Kentucky that was one of a string of outposts built to protect
Confederate territory. Grant was to be assisted by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's flotilla of seven gunboats in this first attempt to penetrate the western Confederacy by using the major rivers as lines of operations.

Note: Click on the images to see a high resolution version for close examination of details.

Fort Henry was doomed because it had been built in a low, swampy site chosen because its guns could cover a straight, two-mile stretch of the river. Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman had 17 pieces of artillery inside the fort, some of large caliber, and 3,000 to 3,400 men camped outside its walls. 

Heavy rains swelled the Tennessee River, and its rising waters were flooding the fort. By the time Grant sent a gunboat on Feb. 4 to test the range of the fort’s artillery so that he could begin safely landing his men, only nine of the fort’s guns were still above water.

Tilghman was determined not to give up his position without a fight, but he wisely decided not to sacrifice his men in the effort. Holding back 100 artillerymen, he sent the rest of the garrison to Fort Donelson, 10 miles away on the Cumberland River. With 11 of the fort's 17 guns placed where they commanded a three mile stretch of the main channel, Tilghman and his brave gunners gamely defended their post.

The expected attack came the next day, on Feb. 6. Slowed by the torrential rains and heavy mud, Grant’s men arrived too late to participate in the battle—the Union attack was exclusively a naval affair. Foote’s seven gunboats and the courageous skeletal crew still inside the fort furiously blasted away at each other for an hour and fifteen minutes. 

One chance shot from the Confederate gunners struck a boiler on the Union gunboat Essex, sending scalding steam racing through the ship, killing and wounding 32 of it crew. One of the Confederate guns imploded, killing a sergeant and wounding the rest of the gun’s crew. In all, the Federals suffered 40 casualties in the battle, the Confederates 79. The garrison lowered the fort’s flag, and the battle was over.

Four days after the battle the mood of the Southern press was still somber and realized the seriousness of the situation they faced. This article was reprinted by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Feb. 10, 1862:

"The Enemy Gaining on Us

The Atlanta Confederacy, in commenting upon “the situation” in Kentucky and Tennessee, remarks:

Take a map of Tennessee and Kentucky. It will be seen that the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers come near each other as they approach the lines between these two States, and flow on thus through Kentucky till they empty into the Ohio River. Fort Donelson is on the Cumberland River and Fort Henry is on the Tennessee, at the points where the line between the two States crosses these streams.

The Yankees have brought their gunboats and forces from Paducah, down the Tennessee River across the entire State of Kentucky, in the most populous and wealthy portion of it, to the Tennessee line, and captured a fortification which our people considered strong, and which was intended to keep them out of the State of Tennessee and protect the Railroad bridge across the Tennessee River on the route from Nashville to Memphis.

If they should succeed in taking Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland, they would have Bowling Green flanked on both sides, and be in position to attack Nashville…thus surrounding and cutting off Bowling Green entirely. As it is, Columbus, Ky., is flanked, and there is nothing to hinder them from coming down the River, through the heart of Tennessee into Alabama as far as Florence, which is within six miles of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad; and the Muscle Shoals alone prevents steamboats from reaching Chattanooga and Knoxville."