Information about The Battle of Fort Henry, a western theater Civil War Battle of the American Civil War

Fort Henry Facts
Location: Ft. Henry, Stewart County and Henry County, Tennessee
Dates: February 6, 1862
Generals/Commanders: Union: Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant (Army),
Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (Navy)
Confederate: Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman
Soldiers Engaged: Union Army: 15,000; Navy 1,000 | Confederate Army: 3,000
Important Events:
First combat with ironclad gunboats
Capture of Fort Heiman
Naval bombardment of Fort Henry
Outcome: Union Victory
Casualties: Union: 40 | Confederate: 80

Fort Henry Summary: The Battle of Fort Henry was the first significant Union victory of the American Civil War. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s success here, along with his victory at Fort Donelson, paved the way for the Union to capture Nashville, Tennessee near the end of February. The fighting at Fort Henry also marked the first combat involving ironclad gunboats during the Civil War.

While the Confederate leadership in the Western Theater was unified under General Albert S. Johnston, the Union command was divided under Major General Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri, and Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Department of the Ohio. Under pressure from Washington and his own subordinates (Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and the commander of the Western Flotilla, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foot), and desiring to outshine Buell—who was advancing overland through Kentucky toward the Tennessee capital of Nashville—on January 30 Halleck ordered the capture of Fort Henry.

Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and its counterpart on the Cumberland, Fort Donelson, were separated only by a narrow strip of land. Capturing the two forts would flank the Confederate forts in Kentucky at Bowling Green and Columbus and create a south-pointing Union wedge for the invasion of middle Tennessee that would prevent the Confederates from using the state as a breadbasket for their Western forces.

Commanded by Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, Fort Henry was strategically situated in a bend of the Tennessee River to control a straight stretch of water about three miles long and stop any unwanted south-bound traffic. But its location was on low ground. To provide additional defense, slaves were put to work constructing Fort Heiman on the heights of the west bank (Calloway County, Kentucky) in January 1862.

The five-sided earthwork parapet of Fort Henry occupied about three acres on the east bank in Stewart and Henry counties of Tennessee, with rifle pits extending to the river and about two miles to the east. Its 17 heavy guns were mounted with 12 facing the river and five securing the land approaches. Unfortunately, the fort had no ammunition for eight of those guns, the 42-pounders, so only nine were capable of defending against a river approach. In addition, the fort was undermanned, with less than 3,000 troops in two brigades, many of them fresh recruits.

The Union expedition left Cairo, Illinois, on February 2. Four ironclads led the flotilla: the Cincinnati (flagship), Carondelet, Essex, and St. Louis. The transports followed, with three timberclads bringing up the rear, the Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler. Two troop lifts were needed on February 4 and 5 to transport all of Grant’s men to a landing site three miles from the fort, just out of range of its guns.

The Confederates learned of the Union advance early on February 4. The Tennessee was flooding, putting parts of the fort under water. Tilghman departed Fort Donelson to manage Fort Henry’s defense and requested reinforcements, but none were sent. Late in the afternoon on February 5, three Union gunboats approached Fort Henry and fired, eliciting a six-shot Confederate response, after which the Union gunboats withdrew.

Grant ordered the advance, a simultaneous land and water attack, to begin at 11 a.m. on February 6, in order to strike quickly before the Confederates could be reinforced. To this end, he sent two brigades on the night of February 5 to seize Fort Heiman for an artillery emplacement and discovered it already abandoned by the Confederates, who were pessimistic about their chances against the massing Union force. At 10 a.m. on February 6, Tilghman ordered the withdrawal to Fort Donelson of all but the artillery company manning the batteries.

The Union flotilla got under way at 10:50, with the Essex, Cincinnati, Carondelet, and St. Louis forming a line abreast and the timberclads about a half mile behind them. At about 11:45, with no sign of Union troops, who were mired in the muddy roads and would not arrive until after the battle was over, Foote began the attack. The Cincinnati fired a signal shot and the other three ironclads opened fire at both close and long range.

The Confederate response from the nine guns facing the water was lively and accurate—all the Union gunboats were hit, although only the Essex sustained major damage, when a shell hit its middle boiler. The blast and resulting steam killed or wounded about 30 men. The only casualties on other ships were about 10 sailors on the Cincinnati.

The Union fire was also accurate. Crews could see the impact of their shells around the Confederate guns. Three Confederate guns were struck and another was spiked when a priming wire got stuck in it. With only four guns remaining to face the Union gunboats that were still sweeping the fort with shot and shell, Tilghman surrendered around 2:00 p.m. By the time Grant’s soldiers arrived, the fighting was over.

The Union had captured the fort, its guns, and the supplies and equipment left behind by the garrison, which had retreated hastily on foot to Fort Donelson. Immediately following the victory, Grant began discussing the capture of Fort Donelson. That would not be quite as easy a task as this had been.


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