On January 27, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued General War Order No. 1 directing all Federal armies to initiate offensive operations. Since the firing on Fort Sumter, both sides dramatically increased the size of their respective armies and navies. Clashes at Wilson’s Creek, First Bull Run, and Ball’s Bluff resulted in Confederate victories, while in western Virginia (modern-day West Virginia), the Union found sustained success.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
Library of Congress
While the Federal war machine lay idle in the Eastern Theater as it prepared for its offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, the Federal army and navy sprang to life In the Western Theater. The Confederate border between the north and south in the Western Theater ran from the Appalachian Mountains across the Mississippi River into Arkansas and modern-day Oklahoma. General Albert S. Johnston was charged with the defense of this expansive line, and he only had roughly 71,000 Confederate soldiers and a cadre of unimpressive subordinates to employ for the defense of key strategic positions. This cordon strategy played into Federal hands.
Seeking to open river traffic on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, Federals targeted Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The fort was situated on a low piece of ground and a thin peninsula of sorts created by the two rivers. Capturing Fort Henry and its sister, Fort Donelson, some five miles distant, would split Johnston’s defensive line in two while opening the rivers to the Federals.
Some 3,000 Confederates commended by Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman manned the defenses of Fort Henry. The poorly situated fort boasted 20-foot-high walls that were 20-feet thick at the base, but winter rains had swollen the river, leaving the parade ground submerged beneath two feet of water and much of the powder in the magazines damp.
A portrait of Lloyd Tilghman.
On February 4–5, Grant’s infantry disembarked out of range of Fort Henry’s guns. Tilghman realized that he was woefully outmanned and outgunned. He withdrew his force manning the incomplete Fort Heiman, on the west bank of the river, and dispatched the majority of the force inside Fort Henry five miles overland to the more defensible Fort Donelson. Still, Tilghman determined to make a stand against the coming gunboats rather than abandon Fort Henry to the enemy.
At noon on February 6, 1862, Foote ordered his flotilla into position less than 300 yards from the fort. The point-blank range battle wreaked havoc on the Confederates. Before long, all four of the fort’s heavy guns had been lost and 21 Southerners were casualties. A direct hit to the middle boiler knocked the ironclad USS Essex out of commission, causing 32 casualties in one shot and disabling her for the rest of the campaign. The Cincinnati took 32 hits, the St. Louis seven, and the Carondelet six. Confederates had the worst of it, though, and Tilghman asked Foote for terms. The sailor’s response presaged Grant’s 10 days later at Fort Donelson: “Your surrender will be unconditional.” In a ceremony onboard the USS Cincinnati, 12 officers and 82 men surrendered.
With the Tennessee River now open before him, Foote dispatched his three timberclads, Tyler, Conestoga and Lexington, as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, destroying supplies and infrastructure as they went, even capturing the uncompleted Confederate ironclad Eastport. Grant eyed the next prizes, Fort Donelson and the Cumberland River.
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