American Civil War: Battle of Fort Henry

Fighting Fort Henry
Union ships bombarding Fort Henry, February 1862. Library of Congress 

The Battle of Fort Henry took place February 6, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and was one of the first actions of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's campaign in Tennessee. With the start of the Civil War, Kentucky declared neutrality and stated it would align against the first side to violate its territory. This occurred on September 3, 1861, when Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk directed troops under Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow to occupy Columbus, KY on the Mississippi River. Responding to the Confederate incursion, Grant took the initiative and dispatched Union troops to secure Paducah, KY at the mouth of the Tennessee River two days later. 

A Wide Front

As events were unfolding in Kentucky, General Albert Sidney Johnston received orders on September 10 to assume command of all Confederate forces in the west. This required him to defend a line extending from the Appalachian Mountains west to the frontier. Lacking sufficient troops to hold the entirety of this distance, Johnston was compelled to disperse his men into smaller armies and attempt to defend those areas through which Union troops were likely to advance. This "cordon defense" saw him order Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer to hold the area around the Cumberland Gap in the east with 4,000 men while in the west, Major General Sterling Price defended Missouri with 10,000 men.

The center of the line was held by Polk's large command which, due to Kentucky's neutrality earlier in the year, was based closer to the Mississippi. To the north, an additional 4,000 men led by Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner held Bowling Green, KY. To futher protect central Tennessee, construction of two forts had commenced earlier in 1861. These were Forts Henry and Donelson which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers respectively. The locations for the forts were determined by Brigadier General Daniel S. Donelson and while the placement for the fort bearing his name was sound, his choice for Fort Henry left much to be desired.

Construction of Fort Henry

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 with eleven covering the river and six protecting the landward approaches.

Named for Tennessee Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry Sr., Johnston had desired to give command of the forts to Brigadier General Alexander P. Stewart but was overruled by Confederate President Jefferson Davis who instead selected Maryland native Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman in December.  Assuming his post, Tilghman saw Fort Henry reinforced with a smaller fortification, Fort Heiman, which was constructed on the opposite bank. In addition, efforts were made to place torpedoes (naval mines) in the shipping channel near the fort.

Armies & Commanders:

Union

  • Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant
  • Flag Officer Andrew Foote
  • 15,000 men
  • 7 ships

Confederate

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

Grant and Foote Move

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 defeated Zollicoffer at the Battle of Mills Springs in January 1862, Grant was able to secure permission for a thrust up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Advancing with around 15,000 men in two divisions led Brigadier Generals John McClernand and Charles F. Smith, Grant was supported by Flag Officer Andrew Foote's Western Flotilla of four ironclads and three "timberclads" (wooden warships).

A Swift Victory

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 McClernand's division landing north of Fort Henry while 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 Colonel Adolphus Heiman to lead the bulk of the garrison to 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 when a shot hit its boiler as the low trajectory of the Confederate fire played into the strength of the Union gunboats' armor.

Aftermath

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. Large-scale fighting would resume in April when Johnston attacked Grant at the Battle of Shiloh.