Battle of Fort Henry: Lincoln Finally Gets the Major Union Victory He Needs, and a Winning General
In February of 1862 President Abraham Lincoln finally got the two things he most wanted: a significant Union victory and an aggressive general. Both were provided by Ulysses S. Grant when he captured Fort Henry in Tennessee on Feb. 6, gaining control of the Tennessee River and opening up an invasion path into the western states of the Confederacy. General Grant was not done yet. In fact, he was just getting started—as the South was soon to learn, much to its dismay.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Feb. 8, 1862, issue of the New York Herald-Tribune (New York)
The first year of the Civil War had not gone well for the Union. The Confederacy won the war’s opening clash, the Battle of Fort Sumter, and also triumphed at the year’s most significant battle, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). As 1862 began the Northern press and public were growing impatient, and Lincoln wanted action. In the East, the Union Army of the Potomac seemed to be endlessly drilling and making no move on the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.
In the West, the Confederates held two strong positions in Kentucky, at Columbus and Bowling Green, and the various Union armies in the area had no unified plan of attack. Then the relatively unknown 39-year-old General Grant read the scouting reports and recognized the weak point in the Confederate defenses: in the center between Columbus and Bowling Green, where the key waterways the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River were each held by one fort. Grant, showing an aggressive nature unusual in other Union commanders, pleaded with his superior, General Henry W. Halleck, for permission to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.
Halleck finally relented and gave his permission on Jan. 30, 1862. Grant immediately sprang into action and began moving his 15,000 men up the Tennessee River toward the fort. Accompanying Grant’s force were seven gunboats, four of them ironclads, under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote.
The Confederates were confident Fort Henry could protect the vital Tennessee River. On Feb. 1, 1862, the day before Grant’s army began heading upriver, the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) printed this article:
Late and Interesting from Tennessee
The Memphis Appeal, of Friday, says:
Our intelligence from Fort Henry and the Tennessee river bridge is as late as midnight Tuesday night last. The health of the large number of troops at Fort Henry, on the Tennessee, and Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland, as well as that of those advantageously stationed elsewhere in the vicinity, was good, and all were busily engaged in still further strengthening their already formidable defences. All the forces, except those who have recently arrived, have provided themselves with winter quarters of the most comfortable character, and the utmost confidence is expressed of the ability of the command now concentrated to successfully resist any attack the enemy can make upon them.
This “utmost confidence” to “successfully resist any attack” was not well-placed, however. Fort Henry was doomed because it had been built in a low, swampy site chosen because its guns could cover a straight, two-mile stretch of the river. Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman had 17 pieces of artillery inside the fort, some of large caliber, and 3,000 to 3,400 men camped outside its walls. Heavy rains swelled the Tennessee River, and its rising waters were flooding the fort. By the time Grant sent a gunboat on Feb. 4 to test the range of the fort’s artillery so that he could begin safely landing his men, only nine of the fort’s guns were still above water.
This opening engagement of the battle was reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on the front page of its Feb. 6, 1862, issue:
Important from Cairo.
An Impending Battle.
The Enemy’s Entrenchments Attacked.
Fight with the Gunboats.
The United States Troops Successfully Landed.
Cairo, Feb. 5—(Special to the Chicago Journal.)
The United States forces, under Gen. Grant, arrived at Ives’ landing, six miles below Fort Henry, yesterday afternoon. The gunboats Essex and St. Louis made a reconnaissance of the Rebel works, for the purpose of landing our forces. They went within a mile and a half of the Rebel fort, throwing several shells inside of the entrenchments. The fire was returned. One shot struck the gunboat Essex, going through a corner of Captain Porter’s cabin. The range of the Rebel guns having been ascertained by this fire, a place was selected for the landing of the troops, which was successfully accomplished yesterday afternoon. The force of the enemy is supposed to be fifteen thousand.
A dispatch from the seat of war, dated today, says General Grant’s forces are within four miles of Fort Henry; and that a fight was expected to take place today.
(The force of the enemy, as stated in the above dispatch, must be an exaggeration. According to the correspondence of the St. Louis papers dated the 31st ult., the number of Rebel troops stationed at Fort Henry was about four thousand. Fort Henry is fifty-five miles above the mouth of the Tennessee river.)
The Southern press also knew of the battle’s opening engagement and—unaware of the rising flood waters—remained confident of Fort Henry’s defenses. This article was printed by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia) on Feb. 6, 1862:
Attack on Fort Henry
Nashville, Feb. 5.—Three Federal gunboats appeared in the Tennessee river yesterday, and opened fire upon Fort Henry. The latter responded, but no damage was done to the Fort. The Federalists were landing troops two or three miles from Fort Henry, and an attack is expected. The Confederates are in full force on the Tennessee river, and no danger is apprehended.
In the North, news of Union troop movements was welcomed. This notice was printed by the Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on Feb. 6, 1862:
The report that Gen. Grant is about pitching into the rebels at Fort Henry, up the Tennessee River, is a good sign. It looks like work. Heaven grant the rebels may be clean[ed] out in that quarter!
Inside the fort, General Tilghman realized the situation was hopeless. As if 15,000 enemy soldiers and seven gunboats were not enough to contend with, the floodwaters kept rising—soon the entire fort would be submerged. On Feb. 5 Tilghman evacuated the fort and sent his soldiers 12 miles east to reinforce Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The brave general remained in the fort with less than 100 men, determined to fire the few cannons still above water and give the Yankees as much of a fight as possible before surrendering.
The expected attack came the next day, on Feb. 6. 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 still 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 it 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 was over.
The next day, Northern papers reported the victory to their excited readers. This article was printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on Feb. 7, 1862:
Ft. Henry, on the Tennessee River, Surrenders to Our Gunboats after a Sharp Engagement.
32 Men Killed and Scalded to Death.
The Victory Is Complete.
Fort Henry Surrendered
Milwaukee, 7th.—A private dispatch to the Daily Wisconsin, from Cairo, says Fort Henry surrendered to our forces at 4 o’clock yesterday p.m. Everything was given up to the Federal forces. Particulars probably this afternoon.
Particulars of Surrender of Fort Henry
Cairo, 7th. —Ft. Henry, on the Tennessee river, surrendered yesterday at 2 o’clock, after a determined resistance. The fight lasted an hour and twenty minutes. It was carried on by the gunboats Cincinnati, Essex and St. Louis. The Cincinnati fired 125 rounds, and received thirty-four shots from the rebels, killing but one man. The St. Louis fired 110 shots, but was not damaged. The Essex was disabled at the tenth round, by a ball striking her boiler, killing and scalding to death 32 men. Capt. Porter badly, though not dangerously scalded.
Two Rebel Generals, one Colonel, two Captains, and one hundred privates were taken prisoners. The Fort mounted 17 guns. Our land force did not reach the scene of action. The Memphis & Ohio R.R. bridge, 15 miles above the Fort, was taken possession of by our troops.
St. Louis, 7th.—The following is announced from headquarters of the army, in this city: “Fort Henry is ours. The flag of the Union is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed. By order of Maj. General Halleck. –W.W. Smith, Capt. and Aid de Camp.”
This article was printed by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia ) on the front page of its Feb. 7, 1862, issue:
Fort Henry Captured by the Federalists
Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 7.—A special dispatch to the Nashville Union & American, dated at Clarkesville, Tenn., Feb. 7th, 2 o’clock a.m., says:
Fort Henry has fallen into the hands of the enemy. Our forces are retreating to Fort Donelson. The enemy’s gunboats are at Danville, Tenn. The bridge at that place has been destroyed by the Federalists. No further particulars are given.
Memphis, Tenn., Feb. 7th.—Fort Henry was captured by the Federalists yesterday, after two hours fighting. The Federalists then advanced and destroyed the Tennessee River bridge, cutting off communication between Columbus and Bowling Green, Ky. No particulars yet.
As the news of Fort Henry’s loss began to sink in, the Southern press realized Yankee gunboats traveling freely on the Tennessee River meant a threat to towns across Tennessee and into Alabama, and the vital railroad bridges that kept communication open. This article was printed by the Daily True Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Feb. 8, 1862:
Fuller Particulars of the Capture of Fort Henry.
Paris in Possession of the Enemy.
Communication between Bowling Green and Columbus Cut Off.
Memphis, Feb. 7—p.m.
Special information to the Appeal has just been received, that Fort Henry was captured by the Federals yesterday, after a cannonading of an hour and a half from five gunboats, under command of Gen. Smith, during which time one hundred and fifty shot and shell were thrown into the fort. During the engagement two of the Federal gunboats were disabled by the fire from the fort. The presumption is, the Confederates finding their position in the fort untenable, abandoned it and retreated on Fort Donelson.
After the capture of Fort Henry, the Federal gunboats proceeded to the bridge which crosses the Tennessee river, over which the [rail]road from Memphis to Nashville passes, and destroyed it, thus cutting off the communication between Memphis and Nashville, by what is known as the Humbolt route. The rolling stock of the road has, however, been saved.
The very latest information that we have, by a second special dispatch, is that a strong force of Federal cavalry had penetrated the interior as far as Paris, taking possession of that important strategic point, which enables the enemy, if he can hold the place, to cut off all communication, by railroad, between Bowling Green and Columbus.
Another Southern paper presented a sober assessment of the situation. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Feb. 8, 1862:
From the West
The news from Tennessee is a little startling. Fort Henry, on the Tennessee river, has fallen—a victim, no doubt, to the superior metal of the Federal gunboats, and the garrison is in retreat to Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland. The Railway bridge across the Tennessee river at Danville, a place not laid down on our map, but which we suppose to be at the mouth of Sandy river, about ten miles below the Kentucky line, has been destroyed by the Federals, and the communication between our forces at Bowling Green and Columbus is cut off. This, however, would be the case anyhow, for the Federal forces are at least thirty miles south of Columbus and forty south of Bowling Green, and must be able to command many miles of the Memphis and Ohio Railroad. What is the particular strategic value of his position, and his object in gaining it, we are unable to say—the idea held out, however, is an assault upon Columbus in the rear, from which he is distant about seventy miles in a southwesterly direction. Memphis is distant from the Danville bridge at least a hundred and fifty miles by the railroad.
The Somerset fight and the loss of Fort Henry breaks our line of defence on the east and west, and leaves our main positions, Columbus and Bowling Green, high up in the rear of the enemy. As soon, then, as marching weather sets in, we must expect active movements of the enemy, if not of the Confederates. It is not in us to doubt the military sagacity with which Gen. Johnston’s policy has been directed, although we cannot understand it. He must see, though we cannot, why the superior forces of the enemy may not effectively turn both these positions and occupy Tennessee in his rear, cutting off his supplies, while armies equal to our own may menace the positions at Columbus and Bowling Green and hold him in check to be subdued by starvation. The force of the enemy in Kentucky is supposed to be nearly twice our own. But we have the strongest possible confidence in the military capacity of Gen. Sidney Johnston, and look confidently to see him resolve our perplexities by a discomfiture of the Federal operations.
The Northern papers also fully realized the significance of capturing Fort Henry. This article was printed by the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) on Feb. 8, 1862:
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.
With a major victory firmly in hand, some Northern papers dared mention the ending of the war. This article was printed by the New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) on Feb. 8, 1862:
The War for the Union.
The Capture of Fort Henry.
The Effect of the Capture.
Special Dispatch to the N.Y. Tribune.
Washington, Friday, Feb. 7, 1862.
The capture of Fort Henry is regarded at the War Department as the salvation of Tennessee. It compels the evacuation of Columbus and Bowling Green. Beauregard was sent from the Potomac expressly to save the place. If Com. Foote and Gen. Grant had not turned the Rebel position in Tennessee before he got there, the six Ohio and two Indiana regiments, recently hurried down to the Cumberland, would have brought strength enough to the Union troops to have whipped him back to the line where the war is a contest in camping.
… Talk of peace and of a restoration of the Union has revived with the news of the taking of Fort Henry. The olive branch is waved considerably tonight. The vacant chair of Slavery in the National Legislature will be dusted soon by pious hands, and got ready for reoccupation.
The Northern press and public, hungry for a victory, enthusiastically welcomed Grant’s triumph. The Union was thrilled to finally have an aggressive general who took the initiative, and whose army was on the move and making progress. This article was printed by the New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) on Feb. 8, 1862:
It Moves at Last!
Victory and omens of victory attend the assumption by President Lincoln of his constitutional functions as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy. The country was thrilled yesterday not only by the announcement of a most important triumph in northwestern Tennessee, but by the indications of new vitality and a more active spirit along the whole enormous line of operations. A few more events such as the capture of Fort Henry, and the war will be substantially at an end.
…One thing is certain, that we have broken the strong line of the enemy’s position, upset all his calculations, placed him where he must fight a last battle with disordered forces, or purchase an ignominious safety in flight, and have put ourselves in a position to command the entire field. The National flag is firmly planted now in Kentucky and Tennessee, and we know that whatever work our troops are called on to do they will do with their might, sure of victory.
…Thus from every quarter the light comes. Now we feel that the limit of inaction has been reached, and that from this time forth an indomitable will impels a vigorous arm to strike the repeated blows which shall free us forever from the toils so long binding us hand and foot. From this hour we will take fresh courage; with heads erect and hearts strong in faith, we will defy the assaults of domestic foes, the sneers of those abroad, and, joining once more our hands for the Union, we will go forward to the glorious end.
The Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio) printed this article on Feb. 8, 1862:
It Moves! It Moves!
The Flag of Treason Goes Down, and the Flag of the Union Goes Up!
The news of the overthrow of the rebels at Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, will thrill a myriad of hearts and will cheer every loyal man and woman in the land. It is an important achievement in itself as it opens the way up the Tennessee to the borders of the State of Tennessee. It flanks both Bowling Green and Columbus and is an entering wedge to the complete overthrow of the rebels on the soil of Kentucky. But beyond and above this, it has a significance as coupled with a forward movement of the Union army. It shows vitality, purpose and design, and that the rebels are henceforth to be pressed wherever an opportunity presents itself. As such a sign, we hail it with the most intense satisfaction, and trust and hope that successive blows will now be struck for the Government and the Union. So may it be!
In the same issue, the Daily Commercial Register could not help gloating:
Good!—How They Did Run!
How fleet of foot must have been the brave 5000 invincible Southern soldiers, who cut stick from Fort Henry as though they had been sent for in a hurry! Talk about Bull Run speed! It was not a touch to the Fort Henry flight.
Four days after the battle the mood of the Southern press was still somber. This article was reprinted by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Feb. 10, 1862:
The Enemy Gaining on Us
The Atlanta Confederacy, in commenting upon “the situation” in Kentucky and Tennessee, remarks:
Take a map of Tennessee and Kentucky. It will be seen that the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers come near each other as they approach the lines between these two States, and flow on thus through Kentucky till they empty into the Ohio River. Fort Donelson is on the Cumberland River and Fort Henry is on the Tennessee, at the points where the line between the two States crosses these streams.
The Yankees have brought their gunboats and forces from Paducah, down the Tennessee River across the entire State of Kentucky, in the most populous and wealthy portion of it, to the Tennessee line, and captured a fortification which our people considered strong, and which was intended to keep them out of the State of Tennessee and protect the Railroad bridge across the Tennessee River on the route from Nashville to Memphis.
If they should succeed in taking Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland, they would have Bowling Green flanked on both sides, and be in position to attack Nashville…thus surrounding and cutting off Bowling Green entirely. As it is, Columbus, Ky., is flanked, and there is nothing to hinder them from coming down the River, through the heart of Tennessee into Alabama as far as Florence, which is within six miles of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad; and the Muscle Shoals alone prevents steamboats from reaching Chattanooga and Knoxville.
The Western theater of the Civil War was now fully engaged, and the South braced itself for the challenge ahead. This article was reprinted by the Daily True Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Feb. 11, 1862:
The War in Tennessee
“The Crisis.”—The late successes of the enemy in Tennessee appear to have aroused the people there to a sense of the real danger that surrounds them. The press throughout the State is calling upon the people to rush to arms and drive back the invaders at all hazards. Under the caption above the Memphis Avalanche has an eloquent and stirring appeal. It is convinced that it will require the whole power of the South to drive back the armies, fleets and flotillas of the enemy, thereby defeating their purposes of invasion and subjugation. The attempt to subdue and conquer the South, the writer considers the extreme of folly—indeed, little less than madness.
We give the annexed extract from the Avalanche’s article:
All that we deem essential now is, to make our people realize the exigency before them. We have yet some weak points to be protected—they must be strengthened; and we predict, that all classes who now constitute our population, wherever before politically classed, will alike respond to the demand upon them and the country. We want peace, but with it independence! We want a short war! To bring the war to an end quickly, let our entire power make our weak places strong! Let our whole forces be marshaled for the crisis—for the impending conflict, driving back the enemy at all points of assault, and we shall end, and speedily, this conflict! Let every man fill some place, and the best for which he is qualified. Let old and infirm, but capable men be placed where mind and experience can meet the duties. Let young braves who have health, strength and powers of endurance vacate places which the old and feeble can as well fill, and seek positions of real hardships and peril—the dangers of “camp life” and the exposures upon the “battlefield.” We hope to hear no more about the first Secessionist and the last Union man, but let all such distinctions be forgotten in a generous and patriotic struggle for liberty and life.
The same sentiment appears in this article, printed by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on the front page of its Feb. 11, 1862, issue:
On the Way to Columbus
(Special Correspondence of the Picayune.)
Lacky House, Jackson, Tenn., February 7, 1862.
The news of the surrender of Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River…was received here last night. As no particulars are given, the deepest anxiety prevails to learn the extent of our loss…Great apprehensions are entertained here for fear that the enemy may get possession of the Nashville [rail]road, and thus cut off all communication. It is now felt that Tennessee must become a bloody battleground, and that every man in the State must rally to the rescue. The war in the West has now commenced in earnest, and a series of battles must soon follow.
As for the North, its new mood of optimism and confidence is expressed in this passage from an article printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Feb. 11, 1862:
The Capture of Fort Henry
…It may be stated, in conclusion, that as to the capture of this fort, General Tilghman is a fair representation of Rebel opinion, when he asserts it to be one of the most damaging blows of the war. Its positive value is no greater than this negative importance: it has injured, depressed and damaged the Rebel cause, and thus has enhanced the advantages, elation and good to our own.
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