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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Campaign for Fort Donelson

   

THE STRATEGIC MEANING OF FORT HENRY'S SURRENDER

While newspapers in the North trumpeted the news of Grant's and Foote's success, the South recoiled in shock. Dramatic proof of the importance of Fort Henry's surrender soon followed. As Grant consolidated his position on the Tennessee, Foote sent Lieutenant Commander Seth L. Phelps and his three wooden gunboats on a 150-mile sweep all the way to northern Mississippi and Alabama. Phelps's orders were to break the railroad bridge at Danville and then to "proceed as far upriver as the stages of water will admit and capture the enemy's gunboats and other vessels which might prove available to the enemy."


(click on image for a PDF version)
ATTACK ON FORT HENRY —
On February 6, 1862, General Grant decided that everything is in place to move against Fort Henry. Flag Officer Foote will attack by water while the Union Army will surround Forts Henry and Heiman. The gunboats make better time on water than the army made over muddy roads. The gunboats are able to silence seven of the fort's 11 heavy guns and capture the fort before the Union army arrived.

Phelps's squadron seized the railroad bridge without trouble and destroyed the tracks for a distance on either side of the span. Further on at Cerro Gordo, they captured the unfinished gunboat Eastport, one of the fastest prewar steamboats on western rivers, which Confederate authorities were slowly converting from civilian to military use. Quantities of iron and timber used for this purpose were also seized. Phelps left the Tyler to guard the prizes and continued upriver to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Near Florence, at the foot of the shoals, citizens frightened by reports of Yankee atrocities pleaded for mercy, but Phelps assured them that the Federals were "neither ruffians nor savages" and left their bridge and the town unhurt. "Total war" against civilians and the economic underpinnings of conflict had not yet become official Union policy. Still, as one Alabama soldier, Henry Semple, wrote his wife from Montgomery on February 9, "This may be a very disastrous blow to us."

ALABAMA LOYALISTS WILDLY GREET UNION GUN BOATS. (HW)

THE USS TYLER, ONE OF FOOTE'S THREE WOODEN GUNBOATS. (USAMHI)

Phelps then made his way leisurely back downriver unimpeded by the Confederates. He destroyed a Rebel encampment at Savannah, Tennessee, before retrieving the Tyler, Eastport, the iron plate, and the timber. Along the way, he reported later, numerous loyal Unionists had flocked to the riverbanks to cheer the Stars and Stripes and demonstrate great affection for the Union. But he admitted that such feelings were not universal and places existed where tales of Yankee "burning, destroying, and plundering" had caused the inhabitants to flee to the woods at the approach of his gunboats. Still, he tied up at the Union-held Fort Henry on February 10, smiling with success amid cheers from Grant's soldiers.

As would be the case with most so-called raiding operations (whether by gun boats or cavalry) during the Civil War, Phelps's success proved short-lived. Within days, Confederate troops restored railroad service on the Memphis line and began persecution of the supposed Unionists along Phelps's route. In the absence of a major effort to exploit the Fort Henry victory by actually occupying the territory transited by the naval sweep, elapsed time permitted Confederate authorities to regain control of the upper reaches of the Tennessee River. In the meantime, Phelps's report caused the North generally, and President Lincoln in particular, to anticipate early renunciation of rebellion in the Confederate heartland. Such hopes would be dashed by several more years of warfare. For the moment, however, the fortunes of the Union boded well as a result of the victory at Fort Henry.

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