Ironclads Blast Flooded Defenders in Battle of Fort Henry
Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman faced an impossible task in February 1862. In charge of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, he had the vital responsibility of preventing Union forces from coming up the river and penetrating Tennessee and Alabama. Inside the fort he had 17 pieces of artillery, some of large caliber, and about 3,400 soldiers camped outside. Coming against him was General Grant’s 15,000-man army and Flag Officer Foote’s flotilla of seven gunboats, four of them ironclads.
General Tilghman had an even stronger foe opposing him, however, against which he had no defense: torrential rains swelled the Tennessee River, and the floodwaters were submerging his fort.
Fort Henry was built on a floodplain, in a low swampy site chosen because the river was straight for two miles below the fort, providing ample opportunity to bombard opposing ships. Placing a fort in a floodplain on the banks of a might river is foolhardy, however, as the February rains and rising waters were making abundantly clear.
While Grant was landing his army a few miles below the fort on February 4 and 5, Tilghman made the decision to evacuate his soldiers. On February 5 he ordered his men to march 12 miles east to Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River. Then, with less than 100 men, the brave general remained in the fort, determined to give the Federals as much of a fight as possible before surrendering. By the time the expected attack came the next day, Feb. 6, 1862, the Confederates only had nine cannons still above water.
Slowed by the torrential rains and heavy mud, Grant’s men arrived too late to participate in the battle—the Union attack was exclusively a naval affair. Foote’s seven gunboats and the courageous skeletal crew inside the fort furiously blasted away at each other for an hour and fifteen minutes. One chance shot from the Confederate gunners struck a boiler on the Union gunboat Essex, sending scalding steam racing through the ship, killing and wounding 32 of its crew. One of the Confederate guns imploded, killing a sergeant and wounding the rest of the gun’s crew. In all, the Federals suffered 40 casualties in the battle, the Confederates 79. The garrison lowered the fort’s flag, and the Battle of Fort Henry was over.
The Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) published the news of the important Union victory on Feb. 8, 1862, including an exciting description of the naval engagement:
Capture of Fort Henry
“Fort Henry is ours. The flag of the Union is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed.” These are the cheering words of a dispatch from General Halleck, under yesterday’s date. The fort is on the Tennessee river, and its possession cuts off Columbus from communication with Bowling Green, and is doubtless only a prelude to further triumphs of the greatest importance.
…The Cincinnati papers have some further account, by way of Cairo [Kentucky], of the bombardment and capture of Fort Henry.
At 12:30 p.m. the gunboats Cincinnati, St. Louis, Carondelet and Essex, with the Tyler, Conestoga and Lexington, bringing up the rear, advanced boldly against the rebel works, going to the right of Painter Creek Island, immediately above where, on the east shore of the river, stands the fortifications, and keeping out of range until at the head of the island, and within a mile of the enemy, passing the island in full view of the rebel guns. We steadily advanced, every man at quarters, every ear strained to catch the flag officer’s signal gun for the commencement of the action.
Our line of battle was on the left, the St. Louis next, the Carondelet next, the Cincinnati (for the time being the flagship, having on board Flag Officer Foote), and next the Essex. We advanced in line, the Cincinnati a boat’s length ahead, when at 1:30 the Cincinnati opened the ball, and immediately the three accompanying boats followed suit. The enemy was not backward and gave an admirable response, and the fight raged furiously for half an hour. We steadily advanced, receiving and returning the storms of shot and shell, when, getting within three hundred yards of the enemy’s works, we came to a stand and poured into him right and left. In the meantime the Essex had been crippled and drifted away from the scene of action, leaving the Cincinnati, Carondelet and St. Louis alone engaged.
At precisely 40 minutes past two the enemy struck his colors, and such cheering, such wild excitement as seized the throats, arms and caps of the 400 or 500 sailors of the gunboats can be imagined and not described. After the surrender, which was made to Flag Officer Foote by Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, who defended his fort in a most determined manner, we found that the rebel infantry, encamped outside the fort, numbering 4000 or 5000, had cut and run, leaving the rebel artillery company in command of the fort. The fort mounted 17 guns, most of them 32 and 34-pounders, and one being a magnificent 10-inch columbiad. Our shots dismounted two of their guns, driving the enemy into the embrasures. One of their rifled 32-pounders burst during the engagement, wounding one of their gunners. The rebels claimed to have but 11 effective guns, worked by 54 men, the number, all told, of our prisoners. They lost five killed and ten badly wounded.
In their precipitate flight the enemy left a great deal of valuable stores and ordnance. In surrendering to Flag Officer Foote, Tilghman said, “I am glad to surrender to so gallant an officer.” The reply was, “You do perfect right, sir, in surrendering, but you should have blown my boat out of the water before I would have surrendered to you.”
In the engagement the flag ship Cincinnati was in the lead, and received thirty-one shots, some of them going completely through her. The Essex was badly crippled when about half through the fight, and crowding steadily against the enemy. A ball went into her side, forward part, through her heavy bulkhead and squarely through one of her boilers, the escaping steam scalding and killing several of the crew. Capt. Porter, his aid S. P. Britton, Jr., and Paymaster Lewis were standing in a direct line of the balls passing, Mr. Britton being in the centre of the group. A shot struck Mr. Britton on the top of his head, scattering his brains in every direction. The escaping steam went into the pilot-house, instantly killing Messrs. Ford and Bride, the pilots. Many of the soldiers at the rush of the steam jumped overboard and were drowned. The Cincinnati had one killed and six wounded; the Essex had six seamen and two officers killed, seventeen wounded and five missing. There were no casualties on the St. Louis or Carondelet, though the shot and shell fell on them like rain.
The St. Louis was commanded by Leonard Paulding, who stood upon the gunboat and wrought the guns to the last. Not a man flinched, and, with cheer upon cheer, sent shot and shell among the enemy.
The very latest news is that the enemy had retreated on Paris, with our cavalry in pursuit. General Grant would attack Fort Donelson today.
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