previous next


The gun-boats at Belmont and Fort Henry.

Henry Walke, Rear-Admiral, U. S. N.

Army transports at the Cairo levee. From a war-time sketch.

Flag-officer Foote in the wheel-house of the “Cincinnati” at Fort Henry.

At the beginning of the war, the army and navy were mostly employed in protecting the loyal people who resided on the borders of the disaffected States, and in reconciling those whose sympathies were opposed. But the defeat at Manassas and other reverses convinced the Government of the serious character of the contest and of the necessity of more vigorous and extensive preparations for war. Our navy yards were soon filled with workmen; recruiting stations for unemployed seamen were established, and we soon had more sailors than were required for the ships that could be fitted for service. Artillerymen for the defenses of Washington being scarce, five hundred of these sailors, with a battalion of marines (for guard duty), were sent to occupy the forts on Shuter's Hill, near Alexandria. The Pensacola and the Potomac flotilla and the seaboard navy yards required nearly all of the remaining unemployed seamen.

While Foote was improvising a flotilla for the Western rivers he was making urgent appeals to the Government for seamen. Finally some one at the Navy Department thought of the five hundred tars stranded on Shuter's Hill, and obtained an order for their transfer to Cairo, where they were placed on the receiving ship Maria Denning. There they met fresh-water sailors from our great lakes, and steamboat hands from the Western rivers. Of the [359] seamen from the East, there were Maine lumbermen, New Bedford whalers, New York liners, and Philadelphia sea-lawyers. The foreigners enlisted were mostly Irish, with a few English and Scotch, French, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes. The Northmen, considered the hardiest race in the world, melted away in the Southern sun with surprising rapidity.

On my gun-boat, the Carondelet, were more young men perhaps than on any other vessel in the fleet. Philadelphians were in the majority; Bostonians came next, with a sprinkling from other cities, and just enough men-o-war's men to leaven the lump with naval discipline. The De Kalb had more than its share of men-o‘--war's men, Lieutenant-Commander Leonard Paulding having had the first choice of a full crew, and having secured all the frigate Sabine's reinlisted men who had been sent West.

During the spring and summer of 1861, Commander John Rodgers purchased, and

Wharf-boat at Cairo. From a war-time photograph.

he, with Commander Roger N. Stembel, Lieutenant S. L. Phelps, and Mr. Eads, altered, equipped, and manned, for immediate service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, 3 wooden gun-boats — the Tyler, of 6 8-inch shell-guns and 2 32-pounders; the Lexington, of 4 8-inch shell-guns and 2 32-pounders, and the Conestoga, of 4 32-pounder guns. This nucleus of the Mississippi flotilla (like the fleets of Perry, Macdonough, and Chauncey in the war of 1812) was completed with great skill and dispatch; they soon had full possession of the Western rivers above Columbus, Kentucky, and rendered more important service than as many regiments could have done. On October 12th, 1861, the St. Louis, afterward known as the De Kalb, the first of the seven iron-clad gunboats ordered of Mr. Eads by the Government, was launched at Carondelet, near St. Louis. The other iron-clads, the Cincinnati, Carondelet, Louisville, Mound City, Cairo, and Pittsburgh, were launched soon after the St. Louis, Mr. Eads having pushed forward the work with most commendable zeal and energy. Three of these were built at Mound City, Ill. To the fleet of ironclads above named were added the Benton (the largest and best vessel of the Western flotilla), the Essex, and a few smaller and partly armored gun-boats.

Flag-Officer Foote arrived in St. Louis on September 6th, and assumed command of the Western flotilla. He had been my fellow-midshipman in 1827, on board the United States ship Natchez, of the West India squadron, and was then a promising young officer. He was transferred to the Hornet, of the same squadron, and was appointed her sailing-master. After he left the Natchez, we never met again until February, 1861, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was the executive officer. Foote, Schenck, and myself were then the only survivors of the midshipmen of the Natchez, in her cruise of 1827, and now I am the only officer left.

During the cruise of 1827, while pacing the deck at night, on the lonely seas, and talking with a pious shipmate, Foote became convinced of the truth of the Christian religion, of which he, was an earnest professor to the last. He [360]

The gun-boats “Tyler” and “Lexington” engaging the batteries of Columbus, Ky., during the battle of Belmont. After a sketch by rear-admiral Walke. In a letter written early in January, 1862, General Polk says of the works at Columbus:
We are still quiet here. I am employed in making more and more difficult the task to take this place. ... I have now, mounted and in position, all round my works, 140 cannon of various calibers, and they look not a little formidable. Besides this, I am paving the bottom of the river with submarine batteries, to say nothing of a tremendous, heavy chain across the river. I am planting mines out in the roads also.

rendered important service while in command of the brig Perry, on the coast of Africa, in 1849, in suppressing the slave-trade, and he greatly distinguished himself by his skill and gallantry in the attack upon the Barrier Forts, near Canton (1856), which he breached and carried by assault, leading the assailing column in person. He was slow and cautious in arriving at conclusions, but firm and tenacious of purpose. He has been called “the Stonewall Jackson of the Navy.” He often preached to his crew on Sundays, and was always desirous of doing good. He was not a man of striking personal appearance, but there was a sailor-like heartiness and frankness about him that made his company very desirable.

Flag-Officer Foote arrived at Cairo September 12th, and relieved Commander John Rodgers of the command of the station. The first operations of the Western flotilla consisted chiefly of reconnoissances on the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. At this time it was under the control of the War Department, and acting in cooperation with the army under General Grant, whose headquarters were at Cairo.

On the evening of the 6th of November, 1861, I received instructions from General Grant to proceed down the Mississippi with the wooden gun-boats Tyler and Lexington on a reconnoissance, and as convoy to some half-dozen transport steamers; but I did not know the character of the service expected of me until I anchored for the night, seven or eight miles below Cairo. Early the next morning, while the troops were being landed near Belmont, Missouri, opposite Columbus, Kentucky, I attacked the Confederate batteries, at the request of General Grant, as a diversion, which was done [361] with some effect. But the superiority of the enemy's batteries on the bluffs at Columbus, both in the number and the quality of his guns, was so great that it would have been too hazardous to have remained long under his fire with such frail vessels as the Tyler and Lexington, which were only expected to protect the land forces in case of a repulse. Having accomplished the object of the attack, the gun-boats withdrew, but returned twice during the day and renewed the contest. During the last of these engagements a cannon-ball passed obliquely through the side, deck, and scantling of the Tyler, killing one man and wounding others. This convinced me of the necessity of withdrawing my vessels, which had been moving in a circle to confuse the enemy's gunners. We fired a few more broadsides, therefore, and, perceiving that the firing had ceased at Belmont, an ominous circumstance, I returned to the landing, to protect the army and transports. In fact, the destruction of the gun-boats would have involved the loss of our army and our depot at Cairo, the most important one in the West.

Soon after we returned to the landing-place our troops began to appear, and the officers of the gun-boats were warned by General McClernand of the approach of the enemy. The Confederates came en masse through a cornfield, and opened with musketry and light artillery upon the transports, which were filled or being filled with our retreating soldiers. A well-directed fire from the gun-boats made the enemy fly in the greatest confusion.

Flag-Officer Foote was at St. Louis when the battle of Belmont was fought, and made a report to the Secretary of the Navy of the part which the gun-boats took in the action, forwarding my official report to the Navy Department. The officers of the vessels were highly complimented by General Grant for the important aid they rendered in this battle; and in his second official report of the action he made references to my report. It was impossible for me to inform the flag-officer of the general's intentions, which were kept perfectly secret.

During the winter of 1861-62, an expedition was planned by Flag-Officer Foote and Generals Grant and McClernand against Fort Henry, situated on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River, a short distance south of the line between Kentucky and Tennessee. In January the ironclads were brought down to Cairo, and great efforts were made to prepare them for immediate service, but only four of the iron-clads could be made ready as soon as required.

On the morning of the 2d of February the flag-officer left Cairo with the

Map of the region of Foote's operations.

[362] four armored vessels above named, and the wooden gun-boats Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga, and in the evening reached the Tennessee River. On the 4th the fleet anchored six miles below Fort Henry. The next day, while reconnoitering, the Essex received a shot which passed through the pantry and the officers' quarters and visited the steerage.1 On the 5th the flag-officer inspected the officers and crew at quarters, addressed them, and offered a prayer.

Heavy rains had been falling, and the river had risen rapidly to an unusual height; the swift current brought down an immensely quantity of heavy drift-wood, lumber, fences, and large trees, and it required all the steam-power of the Carondelet, with both anchors down, and the most strenuous exertions of the officers and crew, working day and night, to prevent the boat from being dragged down-

United States gun-boat “Tyler.” from a drawing by rear-admiral Walke.

stream. This adversity appeared to dampen the ardor of our crew, but when the next morning they saw a large number of white objects, which through the fog looked like polar bears, coming down the stream, and ascertained that they were the enemy's torpedoes forced from their moorings by the powerful current, they took heart, regarding the freshet as providential and as a presage of victory. The overflowing river, which opposed our progress, swept away in broad daylight this hidden peril; for if the torpedoes had not been disturbed, or had broken loose at night while we were shoving the drift-wood from our bows, some of them would surely have exploded near or under our vessels.

The 6th dawned mild and cheering, with a light breeze, sufficient to clear away the smoke. At 10:20 the flag-officer made the signal to prepare for battle, and at 10:50 came the order to get under way and steam up to Panther Island, about two miles below Fort Henry. At 11:35, having passed the foot of the island, we formed in line and approached the fort four abreast, the Essex on the right, then the Cincinnati, Carondelet, and St. Louis. For want of room the last two were interlocked, and remained so during the fight. [363]

As we slowly passed up this narrow stream, not a sound could be heard nor a moving object seen in the dense woods which overhung the dark and swollen river. The gun-crews of the Carondelet stood silent at their posts, impressed with the serious and important character of the service before them. About noon the fort and the Confederate flag came suddenly into view, the barracks, the new earth-works, and the great guns well manned. The captains of our guns were men-of-wars men, good shots, and had their men well drilled.

The flag-steamer, the Cincinnati, fired the first shot as the signal for the others to begin. At once the fort was ablaze with the flame of her eleven heavy guns. The wild whistle of their rifle-shells was heard on every side of us. On the Carondelet not a word was spoken more than at ordinary drill, except when Matthew Arthur, captain of the starboard bow-gun, asked permission to fire at one or two of the enemy's retreating vessels, as he could not at that time bring his gun to bear on the fort. He fired one shot, which passed through the upper cabin of a hospital-boat, whose flag was not seen, but injured no one. The Carondelet was struck in about thirty places by the enemy's heavy shot and shell. Eight struck within two feet of the bow-ports, leading to the boilers, around which barricades had been built a precaution which I always took before going into action, and which on several occasions prevented an explosion. The Carondelet fired 107 shell and solid shot; none of her officers or crew was killed or wounded.

The firing from the armored vessels was rapid and well sustained from the beginning of the attack, and seemingly accurate, as we could occasionally see the earth thrown in great heaps over the enemy's guns. Nor was the fire of the Confederates to be despised; their heavy shot broke and scattered our iron-plating as if it had been putty, and often passed completely through the casemates. But our old men-of-war's men, captains of the guns, proud to show their worth in battle, infused life and courage into their young comrades. When these experienced gunners saw a shot coming toward a port, they had the coolness and discretion to order their men to bow down, to save their heads.

After nearly an hour's hard fighting, the captain

Map of Fort Henry, February 6, 1862.

[364] of the Essex, going below, and complimenting the First Division for their splendid execution, asked them if they did not want to rest and give three cheers, which were given with a will. But the feelings of joy on board the Essex were suddenly changed by a calamity which is thus described in a letter to me from James Laning, second master of the Essex:
A shot from the enemy pierced the casemate just above the port-hole on the port side, then through the middle boiler, killing in its flight Acting Master's Mate S. B. Brittan, Jr., and opening a chasm for the escape of the scalding steam and water. The scene which followed was almost indescribable. The writer, who had gone aft in obedience to orders only a few moments before (and was thus providentially saved), was met by Fourth Master Walker, followed by a crowd of men rushing aft. Walker called to me to go back; that a shot from the enemy had carried away the steam-pipe. I at once ran to the stern of the vessel, and, looking out of the sternport, saw a number of our brave fellows struggling in the water. The steam and hot water in the forward gun-deck had driven all who were able to get out of the ports overboard, except a few who were fortunate enough to cling to the casemate outside. When the explosion took place Captain Porter was standing directly in front of the boilers, with his aide, Mr. Brittan, at his side. He at once rushed for the port-hole on the starboard side, and threw himself out, expecting to go into the river. A seaman, John Walker, seeing his danger, caught him around the waist, and supporting him with one hand, clung to the vessel with the other, until, with the assistance of another seaman, who came to the rescue, they succeeded in getting the captain upon a narrow guard or projection which ran around the vessel, and thus enabled him to make his way outside to the after-port, where I met him. Upon speaking to him, he told me he was badly hurt, and that I must hunt for Mr. Riley, the First Master, and if he was disabled I must take command of the vessel, and man the battery again. Mr. Riley was unharmed, and already in the discharge of his duties as Captain Porter's successor. In a very few minutes after the explosion our gallant ship (which, in the language of Flag-Officer Foote, had fought most effectively through two-thirds of the engagement) was drifting slowly away from the scene of action; her commander badly wounded, a number of her officers and crew dead at their post, while many others were writhing in their last agony. As soon as the scalding steam would admit, the forward gun-deck was explored. The pilots, who were both in the pilot-house, were scalded to death. Marshall Ford, who was steering when the explosion took place, was found at his post at the wheel, standing erect, his left hand holding the spoke and his right hand grasping the signal-bell rope. A seaman named James Coffey, who was shot-man to the No. 2 gun, was on his knees, in the act of taking a shell from the box to be passed to the loader. The escaping steam and hot water had struck him square in the face, and he met death in that position. When I told Captain Porter that we were victorious, he immediately rallied, and, raising himself on his elbow, called for three cheers, and gave two himself, falling exhausted on the mattress in his effort to give the third. A seaman named Jasper P. Breas, who was badly scalded, sprang to his feet, exclaiming: “ Surrender! I must see that with my own eyes before I die.” Before any one could interfere, he clambered up two short flights of stairs to the spar-deck. He shouted “ Glory to God!” and sank exhausted on the deck. Poor Jasper died that night.

Cross-section of a Confederate torpedo found in the Tennessee River: an iron rod armed with prongs to fasten upon the bottom of boats going up-stream and act upon B, a lever connecting with trigger to explode a cap and ignite the powder. C, canvas bag containing 70 lbs. Of powder. D, anchors to hold torpedo in place. this torpedo consisted of a stout sheet-iron cylinder, pointed at both ends, about 5 1/2 feet long and 1 foot in diameter. The iron lever was 3 1/2 feet long, and armed with prongs to catch in the bottom of a boat. This lever was constructed to move the iron rod on the inside of the cylinder, thus acting upon the trigger of the lock to explode the cap and fire the powder. The machine was anchored, presenting the prongs in such a way that boats going down-stream should slide over them, but those coming up should catch.


Between decks-serving the guns. After a sketch by rear-admiral Walke.

the Essex before the accident had fired seventy shots from her two 9-inch guns. A powder boy, Job Phillips, fourteen years of age, coolly marked down upon the casemate every shot his gun had fired, and his account was confirmed by the gunner in the magazine. Her loss in killed, wounded, and missing was thirty-two.

the St. Louis was struck seven times. She fired one hundred and seven shots during the action. No one on board the vessel was killed or wounded.

flag-officer Foote during the action was in the pilot-house of the Cincinati, which received thirty-two shots. Her chimneys, after-cabin, and boats were completely riddled. Two of her guns were disabled. The only fatal shot she received passed through the larboard front, killing one man and wounding several others. I happened to be looking at the flag-steamer when one of the enemy's heavy shot struck her. It had the effect, apparently, of a thunder-bolt, ripping her side-timbers and scattering the splinters over the vessel. She did not slacken her speed, but moved on as though nothing unexpected had happened.

from the number of times the gun-boats were struck, it would appear that the Confederate artillery practice at first, at least, was as good, if not better, than ours. This, however, was what might have been expected, as the Confederate gunners had the advantage of practicing on the ranges the gun-boats would probably occupy as they approached the Fort. The officers of the gunboats, on the contrary, with guns of different caliber and unknown range, [366] and without practice, cold not point their guns with as much accuracy. To counterbalance this advantage of the enemy, the gun-boats were much better protected by their casemates for distant firing than the Fort by its fresh earthworks. The Confederate soldiers fought as valiantly and as skillfully as the Union sailors. Only after a most determined resistance, and after all his heavy guns had been silenced, did General Tilghman lower his flag. The Confederate loss, as reported, was 5 killed, 11 wounded, and 5 missing. The prisoners, including the. General and his staff, numbered 78 in the Fort and 16 in a hospital-boat; the remainder of the garrison, a little less than 2600, having escaped to Fort Donelson.

our gun-boats continued to approach the Fort until General Tilghman, with two or three of his staff, came off in a small boat to the Cincinnati and surrendered the Fort to flag-officer Foote, who sent for me, introduced me to General Tilghman, and gave me orders to take command of the Fort and hold it until the arrival of General Grant.

General Tilghman was a soldierly looking man, a little above medium height, with piercing black eyes and a resolute, intelligent expression of countenance. He was dignified and courteous, and won the respect and sympathy of all who became acquainted with him. In his official report of the battle he said that his officers and men fought with the greatest bravery until 1:50 P. M., when seven of his eleven guns were disabled; and, finding it

General Lloyd Tilghman. From a photograph.

impossible to defend the fort, and wishing to spare the lives of his gallant men, after consultation with his officers he surrendered the fort.

It was reported at the time that, in surrendering to Flag-Officer Foote, the Confederate general said, “I am glad to surrender to so gallant an officer,” and that Foote replied, “You do perfectly right, sir, in surrendering, but you should have blown my boat out of the water before I would have surrendered to you.” I was with Foote soon after the surrender, and I cannot believe that such a reply was made by him. He was too much of a gentleman to say anything calculated to wound the feelings of an officer who had defended his post with signal courage and fidelity, and whose spirits were clouded by the adverse fortunes of war. [367]

When I took possession of the fort the Confederate surgeon was laboring with his coat off to relieve and save the wounded; and although the officers and crews of the gun-boats gave three hearty cheers when the Confederate flag was hauled down, the first inside view of the fort sufficed to suppress every feeling of exultation and to excite our deepest pity. On every side the blood of the dead and wounded was intermingled with the earth and their implements of war. Their largest gun, a 128-pounder, was dismounted and filled with earth by the bursting of one of our shells near its muzzle; the carriage of another was broken to pieces, and two dead men lay near it, almost covered with heaps of earth; a rifled gun had burst, throwing its mangled gunners into the water. But few of the garrison escaped unhurt.

General Grant, with his staff, rode into the fort about 3 o'clock on the same day, and relieved me of the command. The general and staff then accompanied me on board the Carondelet (anchored near the fort), where he complimented the officers of the flotilla in the highest terms for the gallant manner in which they had captured Fort Henry. He had expected his troops to take part in a land attack, but the heavy rains had made the direct roads to the fort almost impassable.

The wooden gun-boats Conestoga, Commander S. L. Phelps, Tyler, Lieutenant-Commander William Gwin, and Lexington, Lieutenant J. W. Shirk, engaged the enemy at long range in the rear of the iron-clads. After the battle they pursued the enemy's transports up the river, and the Conestoga captured the steamer Eastport. The news of the capture of Fort Henry was received with great rejoicing all over the North.

Following upon the capture of Fort Henry (February 6th, 1862) and of Fort Donelson (February 16th), the fortifications at Columbus on the Mississippi were evacuated February 20th. In January General Halleck reached the conclusion that the object for which General Polk had labored in fortifying Columbus had been accomplished, for on the 20th he wrote General McClellan: “Columbus cannot. be taken without an immense siege-train and a terrible loss of life. I have thoroughly studied its defenses — they are very strong; but it can be turned, paralyzed, and forced to surrender.” In accordance with the idea suggested in this dispatch, the Federal movement upon Forts Henry and Donelson was decided upon.

In the latter part of January General Beauregard was ordered to report to General Johnston for assignment to duty at Columbus. He arrived at Jackson, Tennessee, about the middle of February, but, being too ill to proceed to Columbus, he requested General Polk to visit him at Jackson. The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the declared purpose of the Federals to push their forces up the Tennessee River, made the further occupation of Columbus a serious question. General Beauregard had sent his chief of staff, Colonel Jordan, and his engineer officer, Captain Harris, up to Columbus, and they had made such reports to him concerning the nature of the works that he was inclined to doubt their efficiency. This, together with the necessity he was under to gather as large a force as possible which with to meet the enemy's movement up the Tennessee, convinced him that Columbus should be evacuated, and the defense of the river made at Island Number10 and Fort Pillow. These points he considered not only more defensible than Columbus, but defensible with a smaller force, which would enable him to take a part of the command then holding the river for operations in conjunction with the troops he was gathering along the line of the Memphis and Charleston railroad. When, in the conference at Jackson, Beauregard unfolded these views to General Polk, the latter was not disposed to yield a ready assent to all of them. He recognized the necessity for gathering a force for field operations. It was, indeed, exactly what he and every other prominent officer in the department had, for six months, been urging upon the authorities. He, however, questioned the advisability of giving up Columbus. The works had been accepted by Colonel Gilmer, the chief engineer of the department, an officer who subsequently became the head of the Corps of Engineers in the Confederacy. In spite of the strategical fault which might be committed in an attempt to hold it, General Polk maintained that, just at that time, the moral effect of a determined stand at Columbus would be of great service to the Confederate arms.

1 Composition and losses of the Union fleet at Fort Henry: Flag-Officer A. H. Foote, commanding. First Division: Flagship Cincinnati, Commander R. N. Stembel: 6 32-pounders, 3 8-inch, 4 rifled army 42-pounders, 1 12-pounder boat-howitzer; Essex, Commander W. D. Porter: 1 32-pounder, 3 11-inch, 1 10-inch, 1 12-pounder boat-howitzer; Carondelet, Commander H. Walke (same armament as the Cincinnati); St. Louis, Lieut.-Commanding L. Paulding: 7 32-pounders, 2 8-inch, 4 rifled 42-pounders, 1 rifled boat-howitzer. Second Division: Lieut. S. L. Phelps, commanding: Conestoga, Lieut.-Commanding S. L. Phelps: 4 32-pounders; Tyler, Lieut.-Commanding William Gwin: 1 32-pounder, 6 8-inch; Lexington, Lieut.-Commanding J. W. Shirk: 2 32-pounders, 4 8-inch. The Union loss as officially reported was: Cincinnati, killed, 1; wounded, 9. Essex, killed, 6; wounded, 18; missing, 5. Total killed, 7; wounded, 27; missing, 5. Total,39.--editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: