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American Civil War: Battle of Fort Henry

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American Civil War: Battle of Fort Henry

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Fort Henry Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Fort Henry took place February 6, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederate

  • Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman
  • 3,000-3,400

Battle of Fort Henry - Background:

Tasked with defending the western portions of the Confederacy in 1861, General Albert Sidney Johnston was forced to cover a line which extended from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River. The center of this position was held by Forts Henry and Donelson which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. Constructed in 1861, the locations for the forts were determined by Brigadier General Daniel S. Donelson. While the placement for the fort bearing his name was sound, his choice for Fort Henry left much to be desired.

An area of low, swampy ground, the location of Fort Henry provided a clear field of fire for two miles down the river but was dominated by hills on the far shore. Though many officers opposed the location, construction on the five-sided fort began with slaves and the 10th Tennessee Infantry providing the labor. By July 1861, guns were being mounted in the fort's walls and it was named for Tennessee Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry Sr. In December, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman took command and the the fort's garrison was reinforced with a smaller fortification, Fort Heiman, constructed on the opposite bank.

Battle of Fort Henry - Taking the Fort:

In addition, efforts were made to place torpedoes (naval mines) in the shipping channel near the fort. As the Confederates worked to complete the forts, Union commanders in the west were under pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to take offensive action. While Brigadier General George H. Thomas won the Battle of Mills Springs in January 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant was able to secure permission for a thrust up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Advancing with around 15,000 men, Grant was supported by Flag Officer Andrew Foote's Western Flotilla of four ironclads and three "timberclads."

Pressing up the river, Grant and Foote elected to strike at Fort Henry first. Arriving in the vicinity on February 4, Union forces began going ashore with Brigadier General John McClernand's division landing north of Fort Henry while Brigadier General Charles F. Smith's men landed on the western shore to neutralize Fort Heiman. As Grant moved forward, Tilghman's position had become tenuous due to the fort's poor location. When the river was at normal levels, the fort's walls stood around twenty feet high, however heavy rains had led water levels to rise dramatically flooding the fort.

As a result, only nine of the fort's seventeen guns were usable. Realizing that the fort could not be held, Tilghman ordered the bulk of its garrison to head east to Fort Donelson and abandoned Fort Heiman. By February 5, only a party of gunners and Tilghman remained. Approaching Fort Henry the next day, Foote's gunboats advanced with the ironclads in the lead. Opening fire, they exchanged shots with the Confederates for around seventy-five minutes. In the fighting, only USS Essex suffered meaningful damage as the low trajectory of the Confederate fire played into the strength of the Union gunboats' armor.

Aftermath of the Battle of Fort Henry:

With the Union gunboats closing and his fire largely ineffective, Tilghman decided to surrender the fort. Due to the flooded nature of the fort, a boat from the fleet was able to row directly into the fort to take Tilghman to USS Cincinnati. A boost to Union morale, the capture of Fort Henry saw Grant capture 94 men. Confederate losses in the fighting numbered around 15 killed and 20 wounded. Union casualties totaled around 40, with the majority aboard USS Essex. The capture of the fort opened the Tennessee River to Union warships. Quickly taking advantage, Foote dispatched his three timberclads to raid upstream.

Gathering his forces, Grant began moving his army the twelve miles to Fort Donelson on February 12. Over the next several days, Grant won the Battle of Fort Donelson and capturing over 12,000 Confederates. The twin defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson knocked a gaping hole in Johnston's defensive line and opened Tennessee to Union invasion.

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