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.