The Battle of Fort Henry was fought on February 6, 1862, in western Tennessee, during the American Civil War. It was the first important victory for the Union and Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater.
On February 4 and February 5, Grant landed two divisions just north of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. His plan was to advance upon the fort on February 6 while it was being simultaneously attacked by United States Navy gunboats commanded by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. A combination of effective naval gunfire and poor siting of the fort, almost completely inundated by rising river waters, caused its commander, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, to surrender to Foote before the Army arrived.
The surrender of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River to Union traffic past the Alabama border, which was demonstrated by a "timberclad" raid of wooden ships from February 6 through February 12, which destroyed Confederate shipping and railroad bridges. Grant's army proceeded overland to the bloody Battle of Fort Donelson.
By early 1862, on the Confederate side, a single general, Albert Sidney Johnston, commanded all forces from Arkansas to the Cumberland Gap. But his forces were spread too thinly over a wide defensive line: his left flank was Polk in Columbus with 12,000 men; his right flank was Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with 4,000; the center consisted of two forts under the command of Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, also with 4,000. Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were the sole positions to defend the important Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively. If these rivers were opened to Union military traffic, two direct invasion paths would lead into Tennessee and beyond.
The Union military command in the West suffered from a lack of unified command, organized into three separate departments: the Department of Kansas, under Maj. Gen. David Hunter, the Department of Missouri, under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, and the Department of the Ohio, under Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell. By January 1862, this disunity of command was apparent because no strategy for operations in the Western theater could be agreed upon. Buell, under political pressure to invade and hold pro-Union eastern Tennessee, moved slowly in the direction of Nashville. In Halleck's department, Grant demonstrated up the Tennessee River to divert attention from Buell's intended advance, which did not occur. Halleck and the other generals in the West were coming under political pressure from President Abraham Lincoln to participate in a general offensive by Washington's Birthday. Despite his traditional caution, Halleck eventually reacted positively to Grant's proposal that he move against Fort Henry. He hoped that this would improve his standing in relation to his rival, Buell. But he and Grant were also concerned about rumors that Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard would soon arrive in the theater with large numbers of reinforcements, so celerity was warranted. On January 30, 1862, Halleck authorized Grant to take Fort Henry.
Grant wasted no time, leaving Cairo on February 2. His invasion force consisted of 15–17,000 men in two divisions, commanded by Brig. Gens. John A. McClernand and Charles F. Smith, and the Western Flotilla, commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. Foote had four ironclad gunboats (flagship USS Cincinnati, USS Carondelet, USS St. Louis, and USS Essex) under his direct command, and three wooden ("timberclad") gunboats (USS Conestoga, USS Tyler, and USS Lexington) under Lt. Seth Ledyard Phelps. There were insufficient transport ships this early in the war to deliver all of the army troops in a single operation, so two trips upriver were required to reach the fort.
In May 1861, the governor of Tennessee appointed the state's attorney, Daniel S. Donelson, as a brigadier general and directed him to build fortifications on the rivers of Middle Tennessee. Donelson found suitable sites, but they were within the borders of Kentucky, then still neutral. Moving upriver to just inside the Tennessee border, he selected the site of the fort that would bear his name on the Cumberland River. Colonel Bushrod Johnson of the Tennessee Corps of Engineers approved of the site.
As construction of Fort Donelson began, Donelson moved west to the Tennessee River and selected the site of Fort Henry, naming it after Tennessee Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry Sr.. Since Fort Donelson was on the west bank of the Cumberland, he selected the east bank of the Tennessee for the second fort so that one garrison could travel between them and be used to defend both positions, which he deemed unlikely to be attacked simultaneously. Unlike its counterpart on the Cumberland, Fort Henry was situated on low, swampy ground, dominated by hills across the river. On the plus side, it had an unobstructed field of fire two miles (3 km) downriver. The surveying team employed by Donelson, Adna Anderson, a civil engineer, and Major William F. Foster from the 1st Tennessee Infantry, objected strongly to the site and appealed to Colonel Johnson, who inexplicably approved it.
The design of the fort was meant to stop traffic on the river, not to withstand infantry assaults, certainly not at the scale that armies would achieve during the war. Construction began in mid-June, using men from the 10th Tennessee Infantry and slaves, and the first cannon was test fired on July 12, 1861. After this flurry of activity, however, the remainder of 1861 saw little more because forts on the Mississippi River had a higher priority for receiving men and artillery. In late December, additional men from the 27th Alabama Infantry arrived along with 500 slaves. They constructed a small fortification across the river on Stewart's Hill, within artillery range of Fort Henry, naming it Fort Heiman. At about the same time, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman assumed command of both Forts Henry and Donelson. At Fort Henry were approximately 2,800–3,400 men, two brigades commanded by Colonels Adolphus Heiman and Joseph Drake. They were armed primarily with antique flintlock rifles from the War of 1812.
Seventeen guns were mounted in Fort Henry by the time of the battle, eleven covering the river and the other six positioned to defend against a land attack. There were two heavy guns, a Columbiad and a 24-pounder rifled cannon, with the remainder being 32-pounder smoothbores. There were two 42-pounders, but no ammunition of that caliber was available. When the river was at normal levels, the walls of the fort rose about it and were thick at the base, sloping upward to about thick at the parapet. But in February 1862, heavy rains caused the river to rise and most of the fort was underwater, including the powder magazine.
The Confederates deployed one additional defensive measure, which was then unique in the history of warfare: several torpedoes (in modern terminology, a naval minefield) were anchored below the surface in the main shipping channel, rigged to explode when touched by a passing ship. (This measure turned out to be ineffective, due to high water levels and the leaking metal containers of the torpedoes.)
On February 4 and February 5, Grant landed his divisions in two different locations, McClernand's three miles (5 km) north on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the garrison's escape and C.F. Smith's to occupy Fort Heiman on the Kentucky side, which would ensure the fort’s fall. But the battle would turn out to be primarily naval and would conclude before the infantry saw action.
Tilghman realized that it was only a matter of time before Fort Henry fell. Only nine guns remained above the water to mount a defense. While leaving artillery in the fort to hold off the Union fleet, he escorted the rest of his force out of the area and sent them off on the overland route to Fort Donelson, twelve miles (19 km) away. Fort Heiman was abandoned on February 4, and all but a handful of artillerymen left Fort Henry on February 5. (Union cavalry pursued the retreating Confederates, but the poor conditions of the roads prevented any serious confrontation and only a few captures occurred.)
Foote's seven gunboats began bombarding the fort on February 6. This was the first engagement for the Western Flotilla, using newly designed and hastily constructed ironclads. Foote deployed the four ironclads in a line abreast, followed by the three wooden ships, which held back for long-range, but less effective, fire against the fort. It was primarily the low elevation of Fort Henry's guns that allowed Foote's fleet to escape serious destruction; the Confederate fire was able to hit the ships only where their thin armor was strongest. One ship was a serious casualty, however. A chance 32-pound shot penetrated USS Essex and hit her middle boiler, sending scalding steam throughout half of the ship. Thirty-two men were killed or wounded, including her commander, William D. Porter, and she was out of action for the remainder of the campaign.
Tilghman wrote bitterly in his report that Fort Henry was in a "wretched military position. ... The history of military engineering records no parallel to this case." Grant sent a brief dispatch to Halleck: "Fort Henry is ours. ... I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry." Halleck wired to Washington: "Fort Henry is ours. The flag is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed.
The ironic fact is that if Grant had been as cautious as other generals in the Union Army and had delayed his departure by two days, the battle would have never occurred, since by February 8, Fort Henry was completely underwater. Nevertheless, the population of the Union treated Fort Henry as a glorious victory. On February 7, the gunboats Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Essex returned to Cairo with whistles blowing, flying Confederate flags upside down. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the battle was "one of the most complete and signal victories in the annals of the world's warfare.
Fort Henry's fall opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and shipping past the Alabama border. This was quickly demonstrated. Immediately after the surrender, Foote sent Lieutenant Phelps with the three timberclads, the Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington, on a mission up river to destroy installations and supplies of military value. (The ironclads of the flotilla had sustained damage in the bombardment and were slower and less maneuverable for the mission at hand, which would include pursuit of Confederate ships.) The raid reached as far as Muscle Shoals, just past Florence, Alabama, the limit of navigability. The Union ships and their raiding parties destroyed numerous supplies and the important bridge of the Memphis & Ohio Railroad, upriver. They also captured a variety of Southern ships, including the Sallie Wood, the Muscle, and an ironclad under construction, the Eastport. The Union ships returned safely to Fort Henry on February 12. However, Phelps made a major blunder during his otherwise successful raid. The citizens of the town of Florence asked him to spare their town and its railroad bridge, of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Phelps told them that he would, seeing no military importance to the bridge. Yet the loss of the bridge would have essentially split the Confederate theater in half. It was this bridge that Johnston's army would ride across on their journey to Corinth, Mississippi, in preparation for the Battle of Shiloh.
After the fall of Fort Donelson to Grant's army on February 16, the two major water transportation routes in the Confederate west became Union highways for movement of troops and material. And as Grant suspected, this action flanked the Confederate forces at Columbus, causing them to withdraw from that city and Western Kentucky soon thereafter.