Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
February 10, 2012
January article on Mill Springs the strategic situation in Kentucky. Two rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland traversed the state north to south and provided high-speed avenues of approach deep into the heart of the Confederacy. Due to Kentucky’s declared neutrality, two forts were located on inferior ground just south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border. Fort Henry, an earthen fort, was constructed on the east bank of the Tennessee River and mounted 17 cannons.
Approximately 12-miles to the east, Fort Donelson was constructed on the west bank of the Cumberland River. This design allowed the forts to be mutually supporting – an attack against one could be reinforced by forces from the other. While the location of Fort Henry offered unobstructed fields of fire along the river, Fort Henry was located in low, swampy ground that was prone to flooding.
By December 1861, Confederate Brig Gen. Lloyd Tilghman arrived at Fort Henry and assumed command of the 4,000 men present for duty at both forts. Surveying Fort Henry, Tilghman was not pleased. The fort was pentagon shaped with a ten acre footprint. While the earthen walls of the fort were initially 20 feet high, heavy winter rains had swollen the banks of the Tennessee and much of the fort was underwater by late January, including two guns and the powder magazine. Amazingly, this single flooded fort was the only fortification on the river. The entire Confederate line could be turned by puncturing it at its weakest point.
If Confederate Gen. Johnston had the advantage of unity of command and disadvantage in numbers, Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was his exact opposite. A mere 12 months earlier, Grant had been a clerk in a tanning shop in Galena Illinois. Now he commanded 15,000 men and a flotilla of iron-clad warships. Despite his numerically superior army, Grant was caught in a leadership ping-pong between three different military department commanders. Impatient for success following a string of defeats in the east, President Lincoln urged action in the west. Rumors that the Confederate line would soon be reinforced prompted Union leadership to accept Grant’s plan to take Fort Henry. Receiving authorization in January, Grant moved decisively. He would move south from his base of operations in Cairo Illinois with two infantry divisions under command of Brig. Gens. John A. McClernand and Charles F. Smith; the latter had been Grant’s superintendent at West Point.
On February 4, 1862, Grant disembarked Smith’s division on the west bank of the Tennessee to secure the high ground overlooking Fort Henry. Meanwhile, McClenard’s division landed north of Fort Henry with the intent of preventing the escape of the fort’s defenders. Observing the landings Tilghman realized the fort was indefensible and determined to save the bulk of his garrison. With the water now two feet deep inside the fort, Tilghman evacuated 2,500 men to Fort Donelson while he remained to direct its hopeless defense.
On the morning of February 6, 1862, as Grant’s infantry columns marched toward their objectives The flotilla under command of Flag Officer Andrew Foote steamed within range of Fort Henry’s guns. Grant’s intent was to attack the fort simultaneously from the river and overland. Unfortunately, McClernand’s column bogged down in the muddy roads. Foote’s vessels would face the guns of Fort Henry alone.
At a range of perhaps 1,500 meters, Foote’s flagship, the Cincinnati opened fire. Observing that the first three shots from the Cincinnati fell short, the gunners of the adjacent USS Essex adjusted fire, firing air burst and solid shell. Fort Henry swiftly responded. The concussion of cannon fire and the acrid smoke hung in the air as the ironclads, wallowing in the swollen Tennessee closed the distance to 300 yards – point blank range for the cannons of both sides. Presently, Fort Henry’s 6-inch rifle exploded killing or maiming its gun crew. Nevertheless, the fort’s gunner’s continued to fire with effect. The Cincinnati’s hull rang with the staccato impact of iron shells. More than 30 rounds struck Foote’s flagship, wounding him in the process.
Meanwhile, the Essex had withstood a withering fire herself until a Confederate shell crashed into her boiler. Scalding steam and water erupted into the crew compartments killing or scalding 32 men including the ship’s captain. Out of action, the Essex, drifted helplessly away from the fort as men leapt from her steaming hull.
By this time, only four of the fort’s guns were in firing condition. Rather than witness further effusion of blood, Tilghman signaled his surrender. Fewer than one hundred men remained alive in the fort.
The battle had lasted approximately two hours and was a complete Union victory. In exchange for 120 casualties on both sides the Union had obtained a clear route of invasion all the way south to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. This was demonstrated promptly as Flag Officer Foote dispatched his three “timber clads” south. This raid burned bridges, captured ships, damaged port facilities and caused general mayhem.
Elevating Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) to division command, Grant marched the twelve miles overland to invest Fort Donelson. After five days fighting and more than 5,000 casualties Grant achieved the “unconditional surrender” of Fort Donelson and its 15,000 defenders. General Grant had captured the first of three armies who would eventually succumb to his terms.
With the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson the entire Confederate defensive line in the west collapsed. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson led directly to the loss of Nashville, the first Confederate capital to be captured. With Nashville in union hands Chattanooga could be established as a base of operations for Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. The success of the Atlanta campaign lifted President Lincoln’s reelection hopes. It is no small exaggeration therefore to imagine that the entire tide of the American Civil War turned on a hastily built fort on a far flung bank of the Tennessee River.
Next month: Weapon capabilities during the Civil War