On February 6th, 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote of the U.S. Navy attacked Confederate Fort Henry located on the Tennessee River in Tennessee near the Kentucky border. Foote’s fleet totaled seven gunboats, including four river ironclads. The expedition against Fort Henry also included Union Army ground troops under General Ulysses S. Grant; however the Army advance was plagued by heavy rains and muddy roads, and had not yet arrived on the scene. Foote launched his attack anyway.
Fort Henry’s location was poorly chosen. With the heavy rains, the Tennessee River was high and flooded the lower portions of the fort. The fort’s commanding officer was General Lloyd Tilghman. Realizing that the situation was hopeless, Tilghman sent most of his command to the march larger garrison at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, some 12 miles away. Tilghman himself stayed with the remaining artillerymen and prepared to fight a delaying action.
Despite being outgunned, Tilghman put up an effective fight, buying time for the evacuating soldiers to reach Fort Donelson. One shot from a six inch rifled cannon hit the USS Essex, damaging it’s boiler and forcing it out of action for two months. The ironclad USS Cincinnati was also damaged by Confederate cannon fire. But fire from the Union gunboats disabled many of Fort Henry’s big guns, and after about a two hour battle, Tilghman surrendered. Grant’s soldiers did not arrive on the scene until after the surrender.
Foote submitted this report of the action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:
CAIRO, ILL., February 7, 1862.
SIR: I have the honor to report that on the 6th instant, at 12:30 p.m., I made an attack on Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River, with the ironclad gunboats Cincinnati, Commander Stembel; the flagship Essex, Commander Porter; Carondelet, Commander Walke, and St. Louis, Lieutenant Commanding Paulding; also taking with me the three old gunboats, Conestoga, Lieutenant Commanding Phelps; the Tyler, Lieutenant Commanding Gwin, and the Lexington, Lieutenant Commanding Shirk, as a second division, in charge of Lieutenant Commanding Phelps, which took position astern and inshore of the armored boats, doing good execution there in the action, while the armored boats were placed in the first order of steaming, approaching the fort in a parallel line.
The fire was opened at 1,700 yards distant from the flagship, which was followed by the other gunboats and responded to by the fort. As we approached the fort under slow steaming, till we reached within 600 yards of the rebel batteries, the fire both from the gunboats and fort increased in rapidity and accuracy of range. At twenty minutes before the rebel flag was struck, the Essex unfortunately received a shot in her boilers, which resulted in the wounding, by scalding, of 29 officers and men, including Commander Porter, as will be seen in the enclosed list of casualties. The Essex then necessarily dropped out of line, astern, entirely ‘disabled and unable to continue the fight, in which she had so gallantly participated until the sad catastrophe. The firing continued with unabated, rapidity and effect upon the three gunboats as they continued still to approach the fort, with their destructive fire, until the rebel flag was hauled down, after a very severe and closely contested action of one hour and fifteen minutes.
A boat containing the adjutant-general and captain of engineers came alongside after the flag was lowered and reported that General Lloyd Tilghman, the commander of the fort, wished to communicate with the flag-officer, when I dispatched Commander Stembel and Lieutenant Commanding Phelps, with orders to hoist the American flag where the secession ensign had been flying, and to inform General Tilghman that I would see him on board the flagship. He came on board soon after the Union had been substituted by Commander Stembel for the rebel flag on the fort, and possession taken.
I received the general, his staff, and some 60 or 70 men as prisoners, and a hospital ship containing 60 invalids, together with the fort and its effects, mounting twenty guns, mostly of heavy caliber, with barracks and tents capable of accommodating 15,000 men, and sundry articles, which, as I turned the fort and its effects over to General Grant, commanding the army, on his arrival in an hour after we had made the capture, he will be enabled to give the Government a more correct statement than I am enabled to communicate from the short time I had possession of the fort.
The plan of attack, so far as the army reaching the rear of the fort to make a demonstration simultaneously with the navy, was frustrated by the excessively muddy roads and high stage of water preventing the arrival of our troops until some time after I had taken possession of the fort.
On securing the prisoners and making necessary or preliminary arrangements, I dispatched Lieutenant Commanding Phelps with his division up the Tennessee River, as I had previously directed, and as will be seen in the enclosed orders to him to remove the rails and so far render the bridge incapable of railroad transportation and communication between Bowling Green and Columbus, and afterwards to pursue the rebel gunboats and secure their capture if possible.
This being accomplished, and the army in possession of the fort, and my services being indispensable at Cairo, I left Fort Henry in the evening of the same day with the Cincinnati, Essex and St. Louis, and arrived here this morning.
The armored gunboats resisted effectually the shot of the enemy when striking the casemate. The Cincinnati, flagship, received 31 shot; the Essex, 15; the St. Louis, 7; and Carondelet, 6; killing 1 and wounding 9 in the Cincinnati and killing 1 in the Essex, while the casualties in the latter from steam amounted to 28 in number. The Carondelet and St. Louis met with no casualties.
The steamers were admirably handled by their commanders and officers, presenting only their bow guns to the enemy to avoid exposure of the-vulnerable parts of their vessels. Lieutenant Commanding Phelps, with his division, also executed my orders very effectually, and promptly proceeded up the river in their further execution after the capture of the fort. In fact, all the officers and men gallantly performed their duty, and, considering the little experience they have had under fire, far more than realized my expectations.
Fort Henry was defended with the most determined gallantry by General Tilghman, worthy of a better cause, who, from his own account, went into the action with eleven guns of heavy caliber bearing upon our boats, which he fought until seven of the number were dismounted or otherwise rendered useless.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. H. FOOTE,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
The damaged gunboats steamed to Cairo, Illinois for repair. The campaign moved on to Fort Donelson, and Foote assembled a larger fleet to participate in the reduction of that more formidable garrison later in the month. The gunboats would play a part in the capture of Fort Donelson, but the final Union victory there would be secured by Grant’s army.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
by James McPherson
Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron
by Gary D. Joiner
Official Records of the Union And Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 22.