In the fall of 1861, Captain Jesse Taylor accepted command of the artillery at Fort Henry, a Confederate garrison on the Tennessee River near the Kentucky–Tennessee border. The Tennessee flows from eastern Tennessee southwest into northern Alabama before turning north and returning to Tennessee. It empties into the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky, and was an important transportation route into the south. It was up to those at Fort Henry to keep Federal forces from using that route.
Upon arrival at his new post, Taylor was appalled at the poor location of the fort. “I found it placed on the east bank of the river in a bottom commanded by high hills rising on either side of the river, and within good rifle range” he recalled. Taylor also confirmed with local residents that the low lying area flooded every year. Nonetheless, Confederate authorities stuck with the location.
Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman was in overall command at Fort Henry, and he had the thankless task of fulfilling an important mission with few resources. There were just seven cannon in the fort when Taylor took command of the artillery. By February 1st, 1862, Tilghman had managed to assemble 17 serviceable pieces of artillery of various sizes including one formidable 128 pounder Columbiad. Taylor wrote that the “[gun] powder supplied was mostly of a very inferior quality, so much so that it was deemed necessary to adopt the dangerous expedient of adding to each charge a proportion of quick burning powder.” Tilghman also had a little more than 3000 troops under his command, but many were untrained recruits armed with antique flintlocks from the War of 1812 or shotguns.
Federal Preparations for Attack
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote planned a joint Army and Navy attack upon Fort Henry. Grant’s 15,000 soldiers would be transported up the river and put ashore a few miles above Fort Henry. They would march overland and attack the fort from the land side. Foote’s flotilla of seven gunboats would attack from the river. The gun boats included the Essex, a steam ferry that had been converted into an ironclad; three City Class ironclad river gunboats, the Carondelet, St. Louis, and Cincinnati; and three wooden gunboats — Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga. The department commander, Major General Henry Halleck, gave the plan the go ahead in late January of 1862.
The expedition got underway on February 2nd with the departure of the flotilla from Cairo, Illinois. The region was soaked by heavy rains, causing the Tennessee to rise and flood the lower level inside of Fort Henry. The gunboat crews had their own problems with the weather as trees and other large debris were carried downstream by the high water, slowing the progress of the boats. Grant’s troops were put ashore on February 5th about six miles upstream from Fort Henry.
Inside the fort, Tilghman realized the garrison was in a hopeless situation and prepared to withdraw most of his troops to Fort Donelson, 12 miles away on the Cumberland River. Tilghman was determined to fight a delaying action while the withdrawal was made. Company B of the 1st Tennessee Artillery would remain behind to man the guns. Tilghman asked Taylor if he could hold out for an hour against an attack. Taylor said he could, and the Confederates began their withdrawal to Fort Donelson.
Federal Attack on Fort Henry
Late in the morning of February 6th, Foote placed the four ironclad vessels in line and approached Fort Henry. The gunboats opened fire when they were approximately 1700 yards away, eventually closing to 600 yards, where the Confederates began to return fire. The Essex took a shot that ripped through the ship and damaged the boilers, causing them to explode. Several men were killed and more than two dozen injured; many were scalded by steam from the boilers. The Essex drifted downstream and out of the fight.
Confederate fire scored about 80 hits on the Union vessels, including 32 on the Cincinnati. The ironclads closed to within 200 yards of the fort, and the wooden gunboats fired from longer range. Federal fire took a toll on the small group of defenders in the fort. At the outset of the attack, Taylor had nine guns on the river side of the fort in action, but after nearly two hours that was reduced to four. Several members of the gun crews were killed or wounded. With the rest of his force safely on the way to Fort Donelson, Tilghman surrendered Fort Henry to Flag Officer Foote.
Grant’s troops were slowed down considerable by the muddy roads and didn’t arrive until later in the afternoon after the fight was over. With Fort Henry in Union hands, Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler steamed up river and attacked targets as far south as Muscle Shoals, Alabama before returning. Grant now began preparations for the reduction of the much larger Fort Donelson.
- Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) by James McPherson. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- “The Defense of Fort Henry” by Captain Jesse Taylor. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I. Reprint. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1990.
- “The Gunboats at Belmont and Fort Henry” by Rear Admiral Henry Walke. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I.
- Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron (The American Crisis Series: Books on the Civil War Era) by Gary D. Joiner. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 22. U.S. War Dept. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Printing Off., 1895-1929.