In early 1862, heartened by his troops’ performance at the Battle of Belmont, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had determined that he was capable of making inroads into the Confederacy. Securing the network of rivers feeding into the Mississippi River as well as the Mississippi itself would hinder the Confederacy’s mobility and economy, and accomplishing this objective would bring him into two states that did not officially join the Confederacy but parts of which were Confederate-controlled: Kentucky and Tennessee. Bordering those states, on the banks of the Tennessee River, Grant saw a Confederate fort ripe for the plucking: Fort Henry.
Albert Sidney Johnston was in command of the Western Department of the Confederate States of America, which comprised a boundary from eastern Kentucky to west of the Mississippi.[i] He had developed a reputation for being one of the finest generals prior to the outbreak of the Civil War: General Zachary Taylor called him “the finest soldier he ever commanded,” and Winfield Scott called him “a Godsend to the Army and to the country.”[ii] Nonetheless, when Texas seceded from the Union, he resigned his position in the United States army and made his way to Richmond to join the Confederacy.[iii] Under his command he had some of the best cavalrymen, Captain John Hunt Morgan and Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, as well as a former Vice President of the United States, John C. Breckinridge.[iv]
Within Johnston’s command was Fort Henry; a small fort that was so near the Tennessee River that it flooded and was surrounded by swamp. Brigadier General Charles F. Smith sent a dispatch to fellow Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant stating that he believed “two ironclad gunboats would make short work of Fort Henry,” which prompted Grant to notify General Henry Halleck on January 28, 1862 that, with permission, he would take Fort Henry and establish a camp there.[v] Grant agreed that Fort Henry stood at a weak point of Johnston’s line of defense and provided a point at which the Union army could make an advance.[vi] Halleck, reluctant at first to permit Grant to make a move on the fort with his approximately 20,000 troops, then received a wire from General-in-Chief George McClellan from Virginia indicating that Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was leaving Virginia and making his way to Kentucky with fifteen regiments of Confederate infantry.[vii] In an effort to act before Beauregard’s arrival, Halleck then wired Grant: “Make your preparations to take and hold Fort Henry. I will send you written instructions by mail.”[viii] Grant wired back to his commander, on February 3, 1862: “Will be off up the Tennessee at 6 o’clock. Command, twenty-three regiments in all.”[ix] Grant possessed all the instruction he needed to act.
Grant mobilized four ironclad gunboats, a new vessel that was a technological marvel at the time, with Commodore Andrew H. Foote of Connecticut—a man who equally resented whiskey and slavery—commanding the boats.[x] Unaware of the firing distance of the guns stationed at Fort Henry and thus unaware of where to land his troops, Grant ordered that three ironclads steam downriver with him aboard one.[xi] After the Confederate guns boomed and left a six-inch shell in the Essex ironclad, Grant was satisfied that he had found the maximum range and prepared the unloading of troops.[xii] After the first batch of men were on the ground and the transports were doing a 100-mile roundtrip journey to bring the second batch, Grant determined that the most prudent attack would require one group of soldiers to bring artillery to the heights on the left bank and a second group of soldiers to make an eastern advance and prevent any retreat that the Confederates may have from the fort.[xiii] The most likely destination for retreat, or reinforcement for that matter, was Fort Donelson; approximately 12 miles from Fort Henry.[xiv]
While the troops would split off and execute their respective plans, the gunboats would draw the fire of Confederate guns while being mindful that the Confederates had put “torpedoes” in the river: contact mines that the rebels had anchored to the river-bottom with cables and would explode once Union boats tripped their pronged rods extending to just below the water surface.[xv] Despite the Confederate traps, the two-pronged attack would provide long odds for the fort’s survival.
From inside Fort Henry, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman saw the Union men congregating and scheming, which was not a pleasing sight for the 3,400 Confederates under Tilghman’s command as they only had the benefit of “hunting rifles, shotguns, and 18-12 style flintlocks” to fight off Grant’s men.[xvi] He had called on Generals Leonidas Polk and Albert Sidney Johnston for reinforcements, but as he saw Grant’s reinforcements steaming downriver and being let off to join their comrades, he had a change of plans: while the infantry would evacuate from the fort, a handful of men would stay back and fire the artillery and hold the fort as long as possible in an effort to buy time for the evacuees to make the 12-mile journey to Fort Donelson.[xvii]
By 11:00 AM, Grant had received the second batch of soldiers and ordered the infantry forward.[xviii] The rain had yielded to sunshine and a light breeze; a breeze that would sufficiently clear gun smoke and permit Foote’s gunners a clear view of the target fort.[xix] The gunboats steamed downriver by noon and began unleashing volleys on the fort, which the fort’s guns answered. The shots from Fort Henry’s guns were effective: “men were deafened by the din of solid shot pounding and breaking the iron plates and splintering heavy timbers.”[xx] The Essex, the vessel that the Confederate gunners had struck the previous day, took another blow; a fatal one that destroyed its boiler, scalding dozens of men with steam, and left the vessel floating downstream and out of the battle.[xxi] Just as the Confederates had been heartened, however, its two biggest guns failed which had the effect of relegating the gunners to pieces that could do no more than leave a small dent in the Union ironclads.[xxii] The gunners had held out for two hours already, which was one more than Tilghman had hoped.[xxiii]
Tilghman, realizing that his men had bought sufficient time for the evacuees to travel to Fort Donelson, ordered the “flag struck,” ending the battle and ceasing the firing.[xxiv] A mere 12 Union men were killed, and 27 were wounded.[xxv] The Confederates had a total of 21 casualties.[xxvi] In a matter-of-fact tone, Grant wired Halleck: “Fort Henry is ours. I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”[xxvii] Halleck was eager to impress McClellan and added that the “flag of the Union is re-established on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed.”[xxviii]
Setting aside Halleck’s embellishments, Grant had demonstrated that he was a general with a “laconic, informal, commonsense manner” and one who was capable of fighting well.[xxix] Not only did he encourage his soldiers to achieve their potential: he showed that he was capable of preparing, organizing, and mounting incisive attacks on the enemy, a skill that could have also been used in the Eastern Theater at the beginning of 1862.
[i] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 168.
[ii] Id. at 169.
[iii] See id.
[iv] See id.
[v] See id. at 182.
[vi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 396.
[vii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 183.
[ix] See id.
[x] See id. at 184.
[xi] See id. at 185.
[xii] See id.
[xiii] See id. at 185-86.
[xiv] See id. at 186.
[xvi] See id. at 187.
[xvii] See id. at 188.
[xix] See id.
[xx] Id. at 189.
[xxi] See id.
[xxii] See id. at 189-90.
[xxiii] Id. at 190.
[xxiv] See id.
[xxvii] Id. at 191.
[xxix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 395.