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Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson

   

GUNBOAT VICTORY AT FORT HENRY

Tilghman, once his scouts announced the presence of the enemy's soldiers and gunboats, sent most of the garrison over land to Fort Donelson. He knew Fort Henry was untenable but was determined to make a stand against the gunboats. No attempt would be made to push McClernand and Smith from their camps into the river. In spite of familiarity with the roads and creek crossings in the vicinity, where he might have ambushed the blue coats as they floundered through knee deep mud en route to the fort, Tilghman decided to concentrate on the river battle. And he did not have long to wait. About noon on February 6, Foote's flotilla moved to the attack.

FOOTE'S GUNBOATS MOVE INTO POSITION IN PREPARATION TO ATTACK FORT HENRY. (HW)

Foote divided his gunboats into two divisions. Four ironclads of the so-called City Series, Essex, Cincinnati, Carondelet, and St. Louis led the assault. The three timberclads, Tyler Conestoga, and Lexington, steamed behind. The Union flotilla mounted fifty-four guns although only eighteen bow pieces could bear on Fort Henry in such a formation. Therefore, odds were somewhat even until Foote ordered his gunboat captains to close within point-blank range and simply overwhelm the fort's gunners.

Heavy fire from fort and gunboats soon echoed across the river flats as action opened at 12:34 P.M. Yet the fight proved short and unexpectedly easy for the Union side. Tilghman lost all but four of his heavy guns. Two of these cannon either exploded upon firing or were rendered inoperable by inexperienced gun crews. As the gunboats closed to within 300 yards of the fort, the carnage inside the work became dreadful. Twenty-one Confederate gunners were killed or wounded by the fusillade of naval gunfire. Decapitated and armless bodies, shattered gun carriages, and dismounted cannon as well as battered parapets presented a gruesome spectacle. Confederate engineer captain J. A. Haywood watched the unequal fight, recording in his journal that the fort's gunners became completely exhausted, some scarcely able to stand.

A PERIOD PAINTING OF FORT HENRY UNDER ATTACK BY THE FEDERAL GUNBOAT FLOTILLA ON FEBRUARY 6, 1862. (COURTESY OF U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY, BEVERLY R. ROBINSON COLLECTION)

THE FEDERAL GUNBOAT ATTACK AS WITNESSED FROM NEAR FORT HENRY. (HW)

All were full of bravery and spirit and some were confident, but those who knew better saw that it was vain to fight longer—"a useless sacrifice to life," recorded Haydon. This opinion was entertained for a full hour and a half before the fight ended, he added. Still, Captain Jesse Taylor's men stuck to their posts and managed to plant a shot squarely in the Essex's boiler, knocking it out of action while the Cincinnati received thirty-two hits, severely damaging its smokestacks, main cabin, and small boats and silencing two of its guns. But Foote clung tenaciously to his mission, claiming "it must be victory or death." Before long, Tilghman asked for terms.

"No sir, your surrender will be unconditional," fired back the prickly flag officer because victory at Fort Henry clearly belonged to the navy. While Grant's soldiers slogged toward the fort, two of Foote's subordinates rowed through the sally port and onto the flooded parade ground to accept Tilghman's sword. It was late afternoon before Grant and his land forces arrived. They had missed the retreating Confederate infantry, which had escaped to Fort Donelson as soon as the Confederate Stars and Bars fluttered from the Fort Henry flagstaff in defeat. The Federals discovered the environs of the fort cluttered with abandoned cooking pots of stew and other food, and sizable quantities of quartermaster, commissary, and ordnance supplies, while on the road to Fort Donelson lay six abandoned cannon mired in the mud. Sullen prisoners mingled with elated Yankee soldiers and sailors as Union forces celebrated their first major victory of the campaign.

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