Union Navy, River Cause Surrender of Fort Henry

Posted on February 5, 2012 

Facing a rising Tennessee River as well as the Union navy and army approaching, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman chose to sacrifice a few men to evacuate the rest of his force from Fort Henry. On Feb. 6, 1862, Tilghman led 2,500 soldiers to nearby Fort Donelson and returned to Fort Henry to make a stand with his sacrificial company.

Since assuming command of Confederate forces in the western theater, General Albert Sidney Johnston was tasked with holding a defensive line stretching from Arkansas to the Cumberland Gap with an undermanned, ill-equipped army.

The weak point in Johnston’s line was the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers which snaked through Tennessee. In 1862, rivers were like interstate highways of the 19th century. Whoever controlled the rivers could affect trade, possession of land and military operations.

The Union held the upper hand with a growing river fleet of wooden transports, paddle wheelers and newly-built ironclads. The Confederacy, lacking a substantial river fleet, chose to select formidable positions at strategic locations to control river passage.

Months before, Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris ordered Brigadier General Daniel Donelson to plan a defense of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Donelson was told not to select locations in Kentucky because of the state’s neutrality. Donelson chose a location on bluffs just south of the Kentucky border in Tennessee to defend the Cumberland River. That fort would bear Donelson’s name.

Donelson chose land on the east side of the Tennessee River just 12 miles west of Fort Donelson for Fort Henry. By choosing the east side of the river, soldiers could march to each fort without needing to cross a river. The area chosen for Fort Henry was not a good one.

Although located at a bend in the river, the fort was too low and subjected to flooding. High bluffs on the west side of the river would have provided a better location. If Federals gained the bluffs west of the Tennessee River, they could lob shells into Fort Henry.

By Jan. 28, 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew Foote implored Major General Henry Halleck to let them attack Fort Henry. Brigadier General Charles Smith took a Union gunboat up the Tennessee River to get a look at Fort Henry. Smith returned, saying the fort could be captured with just two ironclads.

Grant valued Smith’s qualities as a soldier and pushed for an attack. Halleck refused because the Tennessee River was flooding which hampered the ability of land attack. Foote maintained that the high water was a good reason for his fleet to attack. Initially, Halleck did not let them attack, fearful that wet roads would slow Grant’s land approach.

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln was getting impatient with generals who would not attack. Halleck finally relented as Smith’s report had reached his desk. News from the east also reported that General P. G. T. Beauregard, who had won First Manassas, was coming west along with rumored Confederate reinforcements. Halleck wired Grant and Foote to take Fort Henry.

On Feb. 2, 1862, Grant loaded 17,000 men on transports and was escorted south by Foote’s gunboats. A day later, Grant’s forces disembarked just north of Fort Henry out of range of the fort’s guns. While the Confederates in the fort could see the various smokestacks north of the fort, their main concern was the flood waters of the Tennessee.

By Feb. 5, the flood waters were two feet deep at the flagpole inside Fort Henry. If the waters continued to rise, Tilghman realized that his guns on the lowest level of the fort would be flooded. Tilghman realized that Fort Henry was beyond saving.

Tilghman ordered Fort Henry evacuated by all Confederate personnel except for a few artillerymen and the sick. Tilghman asked the remaining soldiers to hold for an hour as he got the rest of the 2,500 men of Fort Henry marching east to Fort Donelson. Once his men were safely heading to Fort Donelson, Tilghman returned to Fort Henry.

On Feb. 6, Grant marched his army on both sides of the river. Smith’s column was tasked with seizing the bluffs west of Fort Henry while Brigadier General John McClernand attempted to block the fort’s escape route. Meanwhile, Foote’s four ironclads attacked Fort Henry head on.

The gunboat attack was supposed to coincide with the infantry attack. The floodwaters that threatened Fort Henry also made the roads almost impassable, delaying Grant’s attack.

At the time of Foote’s attack, many of Tilghman’s lower guns were already under water. The ironclads closed to within 300 yards of the fort as both sides traded fire at point blank range. Slowly, Tilghman’s guns were being silenced as one after another were lost. Still, the Confederates hit Foote’s ironclads with 59 shots. The USS Essex was greatly damaged when a Confederate shot entered the port casemate and exploded near the boiler. Steam raced through most of the vessel, scalding many of the Essex’s men. Commander William Porter was killed and 31 other men were killed or wounded in the incident.

Tilghman, who had returned to Fort Henry while the attack was underway, ordered the colors stricken as he prepared to surrender. Federals in a launch were able to paddle inside the fort past cannon now underwater. Tilghman boarded the launch which took him to the USS Cincinnati where he formerly surrendered to Foote. Grant’s infantry failed to participate in the fight, still stuck in the mud.

Two days after Foote captured Fort Henry, the Tennessee River consumed the whole area. Fort Henry was under water. The capture of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River to the Union river fleet. Immediately after Tilghman’s surrender, three timberclad boats advanced as far as the shoals near Florence, Ala.

Tilghman was a prisoner of war until August 1862 when he was exchanged for Union Brigadier General John Reynolds. Tilghman and Reynolds returned to their respective armies but each met a tragic end. In May 1863, Tilghman was killed while holding the Confederate escape route at the battle of Champion Hill during the Vicksburg campaign. Reynolds was killed during the first day of fighting at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

Today, Fort Henry is no more. When the Tennessee River was dammed in the 1930s, Kentucky Lake was created. The remains of Fort Henry now rest under water.

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