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.
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.