Yankee Gunboats Make Their Imprint At Fort Henry

On 28 January 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote proposed to take Fort Henry on the Tennessee River with four newly built ironclads. This proposal was made in a letter to Major General Henry Wager Halleck. In it, Foote explicitly states that it was his idea, and not General Ulysses S. Grant’s, to attack the fort – evidence of the uneasy relationship between Grant and Halleck. Halleck finally relented and ordered Foote to make ready for the assault.

The ironclads Essex, Carondelet, Cincinnati, and Foote’s flagship St. Louis led the assault, with the woodclads Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington in support. The ironclads steamed parallel to one another in order to reduce exposure from the fort’s guns. Foote stressed to his officers the importance of accurate firing. Careless firing wasted ammunition, but more importantly, it boosted the enemy’s morale and would encourage their resolve to fight. Foote appreciated the psychological effect these floating juggernauts would have when their massive firepower rained down accurately on the fort.

The naval attack was supposed to be coordinated with a land attack by General Grant’s army, but they were bogged down on muddy roads. The flotilla opened fire on Fort Henry from 1700 yards on 6 February 1862. One hour and fifteen minutes later, a white flag was raised above the fort. Seven of the eleven guns placed at the fort were disabled; the battle was a complete naval victory.

Upon site of the gunboats, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, commanding the fort, reported, “I had no hope of being able, successfully, to defend the fort against such overwhelming odds, both in point of numbers and in caliber of guns.” He ordered all troops except for the artillery detachment to Fort Donelson and decided on a delaying action.

The Union suffered seventy-three casualties, twenty-nine of which occurred on the gunboat Essex when its boiler was struck. The Confederacy suffered twenty-one casualties and sixty prisoners. The gunboats were, by no means, invincible; the Cincinnati was hit by thirty-one shots, Essex received fifteen shots, St. Louis caught seven and Cairo collected six.

From a tactical point of view, the fort was a poor collection of earthworks that made easy targets for the gunboats. It was also built in a very poor location with part of it underwater; the defenders actually rowed out from the fort to surrender to Flag Officer Foote. From a psychological stand point, the gunboat’s swift conquest of Fort Henry struck fear into the Confederates. Immediately following the capitulation, Foote sent the three woodclads under command of Lieutenant Phelps up the Tennessee River. This expedition steamed into the heart of Dixie – all the way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In four days, they captured three rebel gunboats and forced the enemy to burn six others. There was no doubt as to which side controlled the rivers.

General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in the west, was discouraged by the success of the gunboats. In a letter to Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, he reports that earthworks are no match for the river navy and predicts that Fort Donelson will fall to the gunboats without the assistance of the army. The river fleet will not fare so well at Fort Donelson, but that is for another post. The victory at Fort Henry and the incursion into the deep south via the Tennessee River caused deep apprehension for the Confederate military and forced them to rethink their strategy in the west.

For more on Fort Henry:

U.S. Navy Department. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. 33 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894. Reprint, Harrisburg: The National Historical Society, 1987.

Series I, Volume 22 – contains most of the river operations.

Walke, Henry. “The Gun-Boats at Belmont and Fort Henry.” In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Thomas Yoseloff Inc., 358 –367. New York: The Century War Series, 1956.

Milligan, John D. “From Theory to Application: The Emergence of the American Ironclad War Vessel.” Military Affairs 48 (July 1984): 126 – 132.

—. Gunboats Down the Mississippi. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1965.

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About Billy Whyte

Hello my name is William Whyte. I live in Nazareth, Pennsylvania with my wife, Susan, and my two children, Kylie and William. I am currently enrolled at East Stroudsburg University and scheduled to graduate with a Masters of Arts degree in History in the fall of 2008. I count the American Civil War, nineteenth century America, and World War II among my specific areas of historical interest. I hope to pursue a doctorate degree in history upon successful completion of a Masters Degree. I am currently employed with a major bank in the financial district of downtown New York and as an Adjunct Professor at a local community college. I’m a member of the OAH, AHA, and the Society for Civil War Historians. I love spending time with my family and traveling to Civil War battlefields, as well as other historical sites. I also enjoy fishing, hunting, reading, film, and New York Giants football. I hope to one day be a professor of history at a university or small college and to publish historical works.

3 thoughts on “Yankee Gunboats Make Their Imprint At Fort Henry

  1. That was a very interesting read. The Union seemed to enjoy quite an advantage when it came to the use of psychological warfare. The impact of sailing up the Tennessee river reminds me quite a bit of impact that Sherman’s March had on the Confederates.

  2. Thanks Alex. That is a good analogy. Sherman’s march was punitive but very much psychological. General Albert Sidney Johnston, who would be killed at Shiloh, played an excellent game of psychological warfare in Kentucky. In the months following Fort Sumter, Johnston used a series of troop movements and feints to give the illusion of a much larger Confederate force. Sherman took the bait and was forced to take a leave of absence. The late historian Shelby Foote described Sherman as suffering from “Johnston Jangled nerves.”

  3. The USS Cairo was a great Ironclad, I’m glad there’s something left of it. I love Civil War Ironclads, especially the Confederate ones. It was incredible what the South could do considering their lack of manufacturing capability. To learn more about the diversity of CSA Ironclads of the American Civil War and a few of the Union ones, too, go to CSA Civil War Ironclads

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