Chapter 14: battle and capture of Fort Henry by the Navy.
- Commanding positions of forts Henry and Donelson. -- Grant given permission to attempt the capture of the forts. -- Foote's gun-boats and the Army under Grant leave cairo. -- Landing of the Army at Bailey's Ferry. -- defenses of Fort Henry. -- Fort Hieman evacuated. -- the gun-boats open fire on Fort Henry. -- description of the battle by a Confederate historian. -- the Essex disabled. -- Commodore William D. Porter wounded. -- Fort Henry surrenders. -- Captain Walke takes possession of the Fort. -- losses. -- gallant Foote. -- dreadful scenes of the engagement described by an officer of the Essex. -- vessels engaged in attack on Fort Henry.
Shortly after the battle of Belmont the Confederates established a strong line of operations reaching to the centre of Kentucky. On their left was Columbus, where they had collected a strong force and 140 guns. One of their largest armies was at the junction of the Louisville and Nashville, and Memphis and Ohio Railroads (the northernmost point then held by the Confederates west of the Alleghany Mountains). These armies threatened Northern Kentucky and protected Nashville and Middle Tennessee. At the centre of this strategic line the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers formed the natural avenues into all the disputed territory north of the cotton States. These two streams approach within twelve miles of each other, at a point near the boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee. Here, at a bend in each river, the Confederates had erected two batteries, Fort Henry, on the Tennessee, and Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland. These forts completely commanded the navigation of the two rivers, and by forbidding any advance of the Union gun-boats or transports, prevented the transportation of our army by water, either into Kentucky or Tennessee. The reader may think it strange that the Confederates, with nothing like the Federal resources, should be able to throw up so many formidable fortifications on coast and river, and mount them with heavy guns, and will naturally ask where the guns came from. The answer to this question is that, by our terrible blunder in surrendering the Norfolk Navy Yard at the commencement of the war, we put into the hands of the Confedates 1,400 guns of all calibres. Our Navy had already recaptured 211 of these Norfolk guns, and it remains to be seen what account it will render of those which now confront it at Columbus, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Grant knew the nature of these works better than any other officer, and saw that Bowling Green and Columbus could both be turned as soon as Henry and Donelson fell. Halleck and others were making great strategic movements, which amounted to nothing, but Grant kept his mind steadily fixed on these two forts, knowing the effect their fall would have. On the 23d of January Grant visited Halleck at St. Louis, and urgently requested permission to make the attempt to take Forts Henry and Donelson; both of which General C. F. Smith, who had made a reconnoissance, reported could easily be done. The gun-boats at that time were subject to General Halleck's orders, and Flag-officer Foote, who commanded them, had recommended a united movement of Army and Navy against the forts. The desired permission was finally granted to these officers, but the gallant commander of the Army contingent was greatly hampered by detailed instructions furnished by the Commander-in-Chief.  Grant started from Cairo on the 2d of February, 1862, with 17,000 men in transports, and Foote accompanied him with seven gun-boats. After reconnoitering the forts the Army landed at Bailey's Ferry, just out of reach of the enemy's fire. The Confederates had erected their works at Fort Henry on both sides of the river, with a garrison of 2,800 men, under Brigadier General Tighlman. The main fortification was on the eastern bank. It was a strong field-work with a bastioned front, defended by seventeen heavy guns, twelve of which bore on the river. Embrasures had also been formed by placing sand-bags on the parapets between the guns. On the land side there was an entrenched camp, and beyond this an extended line of rifle-pits, located on commanding ground. The earthworks covered the Dover road, by which alone communication could be held with Fort Donelson. The heights on the west commanded Fort Henry, but the works at this point were unfinished. Grant's plan was to land and attack the enemy in the rear, while Foote was to attack their batteries in front with the gun-boats. When the Confederates discovered this plan they prepared for a determined resistance. New lines of infantry cover were established and additions were made to the fortifications on both sides of the river. Tighlman at once ordered up re-enforcements from Danville and the mouth of Sandy River, as well as from Fort Donelson. The country around Fort Henry was all under water from the overflow of the Tennessee River, which impeded the movements of the troops on both sides. The rain fell in torrents on the night of the 5th of February, and Grant having an insufficiency of transports was obliged to send some of his steamers back to Cairo to bring up part of his command. He did not therefore succeed in getting all his men on shore until 11 P. M. The original plan was to invest Fort Hieman on the west bank simultaneously with Fort Henry, in order to prevent re-enforcements, and also the escape of the garrisons. The Confederates perceiving the impossibility of holding both works against such a force, evacuated Fort Hieman, and gave all their attention to defending Fort Henry. Grant was ignorant of this withdrawal, and that night ordered General C. F. Smith to seize the heights on the west with two brigades. The rest of Grant's force, under Gen. McClernand, was to move at 11 A. M. on the 6th to the rear of Fort Henry, and take position on the road leading to Fort Donelson and Dover. where they could intercept fugitives and hold themselves in readiness to take the works by storm promptly on the receipt of orders.
|Commodore Foote's iron-clad gun-boats at Cairo.|
|Attack on Fort Henry.|
A few moments before the surrender, the scene in and around the fort exhibited a spectacle of fierce grandeur; many of the cabins and tents in and around the fort were in flames (from the Federal shells)--added to the scene were the smoke from the burning timber, and the curling of the dense wreaths of smoke from the guns, the constantly recurring spatter and whizzing of fragments of bursting shells, the deafening roar of artillery, the black sides of five or six gun-boats, belching fire at every port-hole, and the army of General Grant, 10,000 strong, deploying around our small army, attempting to cut off its retreat. The gallant Tighlman, exhausted and begrimed with powder and smoke, stood erect at the middle battery and pointed gun after gun, and remarked, “It is vain to fight longer, our gunners are disabled, our guns dismounted — we can't hold out five minutes longer,” and finally he ordered the white flag to be hoisted.When the gun-boats had obtained a stationary position and were able to get their range. almost every shot and shell went to its mark, and the destruction caused was marvelous: but with all the damage our fire was doing to the enemy they fought like devils, and only gave in when it was no longer possible to hold out. The gun-boats did not get off “scot free” in this attack: they had their share of damage as well as the fort, and a fair share of killed and wounded. About twenty minutes before the Confederates surrendered. the gun-boat Essex was pierced through the boilers by a shot, which resulted in wounding and scalding 29 officers and men, including her gallant commander, William D. Porter. She drifted out of the fight totally disabled, and took no further part in it. After the Essex dropped out, the firing from the fort continued with undiminished rapidity upon the three iron-clads which remained  in position, and was continued without intermission until the flag was hauled down, after a hotly-contested action of one hour and fifteen minutes. At the end of the battle a boat containing the Adjutant General and Captain of Engineers went alongside the flagship and reported that Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tighlman, the commander of the fort, wished to communicate with the naval commanding officer. Lieuts. Stembel and Phelps were then sent on shore to hoist the American flag on Fort Henry, and a request was sent to Gen. Tighlman that he visit the flagship, which he did, and surrendered himself a prisoner. All the prisoners were received on board the fleet, and thus ended the battle of Fort Henry. Besides the General and his staff there were 60 or 70 prisoners, and a hospital ship containing 60 invalids, all of whom were treated with that kindness which naval officers always extend to an enemy in distress. Captain Walke of the Carondelet was directed to go on shore and take charge of the fort and all within it until the arrival of the Army, which took place an hour afterward, when everything was handed over to Gen. Grant. This was a well-fought battle on both sides, and the gun-boats were skillfully handled by the naval commanders. The gallant Foote might well feel proud to be the first to remove that absurd idea that “gun-boats would not prove serviceable in Western waters as they could not resist the fire of heavy guns in earthworks.” On taking possession of the fort Commander Walke beheld a perfect scene of destruction. Everything in and about the works was either knocked to pieces or set on fire; and it is remarkable that with such evident effects of the naval fire so few of the enemy were disabled (six killed and seventeen wounded). Twenty heavy guns fell into our hands as well as a large amount of military stores. The Essex was the only gun-boat that suffered any severe damage from the enemy's fire. But the Confederate practice was excellent, and the iron-clads were frequently struck. According to Flag-officer Foote's report the Cincinnati was struck thirty-one times, the Essex fifteen times, the St. Louis seven times and the Carondelet six times, though Commander Walke claims to have been struck much oftener. The Essex lost 29 men killed and wounded by scalding steam, and also nine soldiers who were serving on board of her. The casualties on the other vessels were few and unimportant, as their iron plating (though only two and a half inches thick), had done them good service. This is the result of the first action between gun-boats and shore batteries in Western waters. It was an unequal contest against a fort that mounted 20 heavy guns, but it was so quickly settled that it gave the Confederates a great dread of the iron-clads; and in building forts thereafter, they were more careful not to have them in accessible places. Where all did their duty so well it would be hard to discriminate. Each one received his full meed of praise from Foote, and their conduct on this occasion was long remembered by the people of the country, for it was now clearly demonstrated that the naval vessels on the Western rivers could sustain the fire of the heaviest batteries, notwithstanding the high authority to the contrary. To give an idea of some of the dreadful scenes to which our gun-boats were liable, we insert an interesting letter written after the battle of Fort Henry, by James Laning, the Second Master of the Essex, in which he thus describes the engagement:
On February 1st, 1862, the iron-clad gun-boat Essex, whilst lying off Fort Holt, received orders from Flag-officer A. H. Foote, commanding the Western flotilla, to proceed up the Tennessee River, and anchor some five miles below Fort Henry, blockading the river at that point. The ironclads Carondelet, Commander Henry Walke; the Cincinnati, Commander Stembel, and the “St. Louis,” Lieutenant Commanding Leonard Paulding, were completed and put into commission a few days previous, making, with the Essex, four iron-clads, besides the wooden gun-boats Taylor, Lexington and Conestoga, now ready for offensive operations. On the 5th of February, after reconnoitering up the Tennessee to Fort Henry, we fired a few shots at the fort and returned towards our anchorage. The enemy made no reply, and apparently took no notice of our shots, until we were well on our way back. When about two, or two and a half miles distant, the fort fired a rifle shot, which passed over our boat to the right and cut down a number of saplings on shore. In a few moments another shot, fired with more precision, passed over the spar-deck amongst the officers; through the officers' quarters, visiting in its flight the steerage, commander's pantry and cabin, passing through the stern; doing, however, no damage except breaking some of the captain's dishes, and cutting the feet from a pair of his socks, which happened to be hanging over the back of a chair in his cabin. These shots reaching us at so great a distance, rather astonished us, as the enemy intended they should. After this reconnoissance it was decided to remove the torpedoes from the island chute, and instead of going up the main channel, to steam up the chute, and forming line of battle under cover of the timber on the island, advance towards the fort and open fire as we reached the head of the island at the distance of a mile to a mile and a half, and continue advancing. The wooden gun-boats, Taylor and Lexington, were, therefore, ordered to remove the torpedoes, which they did without much difficulty. The army, which was encamped on both sides of the river, was to move at daylight on the morning of the 6th, so as to make a land attack, and prevent the escape of the garrison, whilst the gun-boats were to attack as before mentioned.  On the afternoon of the 5th, Flag-officer Foote came on board the Essex, and our crew were called to quarters for drill and inspection. After putting them through the evolutions he addressed the crew and admonished them to be brave and courageous, and above all to place their trust in Divine Providence. The writer, who was in command of the battery, was especially charged with the importance of wasting no shots. Remember, said he, “that your greatest efforts should be to disable the enemy's guns, and be sure you do not throw any ammunition away. Every charge you fire from one of those guns cost the government about eight dollars. If your shots fall short you encourage the enemy. If they reach home you demoralize him, and get the worth of your money.” After commending all to the care of Divine Providence he left us, and repaired on board the Cincinnati, which was his flag ship at that time. During the night of the 5th, or morning of the
6th, a heavy rain fell, which very much retarded the movements of the army, and made the roads so heavy that they did not succeed in reaching the scene of action until after the fort had surrendered. The naval forces, after waiting until 11 o'clock A. M., got under way and steamed up the river. Arriving at the island chute, the line of battle was formed, the “Essex ” on the extreme right, the Cincinnati, with Flag-officer Foote on board, on our left, the Carondelet on her left, and the St. Louis on the extreme left — the wooden boats taking position in our rear under cover of the island, and firing over us at long range. As we could only use the bow batteries on each boat, we could only bring, on the four iron-clads, 11 guns to bear. The fort, although mounting 17 guns, could only bring 11 of them to bear on the island chute, so it was a fair and square fight, and the problem was about to be solved whether ironclad gun-boats could compete with mud fortifications. Under the old system of warfare, I believe, it was conceded that one gun on land was about equal to three on water. Upon arriving at the head of the island, the flagship Cincinnati opened fire, which was the signal to commence the general engagement. The writer had, however, received orders from Capt. Porter not to fire until he had particularly noted the effect of the Cincinnati shots, so as to profit by their mistakes, if they made any, in elevation. The first three shots from the flagship fell short, so there was $24 worth of ammunition expended. A lesson, however, had been learned on board the Essex, and orders were at once given to increase elevation. At that moment the captain's aide appeared on the gun-deck with orders to fire high, and blaze away; and before I could repeat the order, the No. 2 port-bow gun belched forth her fiery flame, and sent a nine-inch shell plump into the breastworks, which, exploding handsomely, caused a considerable scattering of earth, and called forth a cheer from the fleet, whilst it produced great consternation in the fort. The Essex had therefore won the honor of putting the first shot into the enemy's breastworks. And here I must record the fact, in justice to the memory of a brave man, who lost his life in that engagement, that the honor of that shot belonged to Jack Matthews, captain of the No. 2 gun. Jack was an “old tar,” who had seen much service on men-of-war in both the English and American navies, and was always restive under the command of a volunteer officer. Jack, ever on the alert to put in the first licks, and feeling, no doubt, jealous and insubordinate, had increased the elevation of his gun, and just as I was in the act of repeating the captain's order, pulled his lockstring and blazed away. The fort seemed a blaze of fire, whilst the boom of the cannon's roar was almost deafening. The wind was blowing across our bows, carrying the smoke away so rapidly as to prevent any obstruction  to the view. Our fleet kept slowly approaching the fort, and gradually shortening the distance. Our shells, which were fused at 15 seconds, were reduced to 10, and then to five seconds. The elevation of the guns was depressed from seven degrees to six, five and four, and then three degrees, and every shot went straight home, none from the Essex falling short. Twenty or thirty minutes after the action had begun, some one of the officers ventured to call the attention of Capt. Porter to the fact that the officers on the other vessels were leaving the spardecks and going below. “Oh, yes,” says Porter. “I see; we will go too, directly.” Just then a shot struck the pilot-house, making the splinters fly terribly, as no plating had as yet been put on it. At this the order was given for all to go below, and soon all joined us on the gun deck. Capt. Porter, on coining below, addressed the officers and crew, and complimented the first division for their splendid execution, asking us if we did not want to rest, and give three cheers, and they were given with a will. By orders I turned over the command of the battery to the third master, and ordered the first division to give way to the second. Capt. Porter then ordered the first division to the stern battery. This was a precautionary measure, the importance of which could scarcely be estimated at that time, but became dreadfully apparent a few moments after. A few of my men, however, reluctant to quit the scene of action, lingered by their guns on the forward gun deck; amongst the number was Jack Matthews. In the twinkling of an eye the scene was changed from a blaze of glory to a carnival of death and destruction. A shot from the enemy pierced the casemate just above the port-hole on the port side, then through the middle boiler, killing Acting Master's Mate S. B. Brittan, Jr., in its flight, 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 (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 stern port 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. On seeing the men in the water, I ordered Mr. Walker to man the boats and pick them up; Capt. Porter, who was badly scalded, being assisted through the port from outside the casemate by the surgeon, Dr. Thomas Rice, and one of the men. 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 on to 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 that he was badly hurt; and that I must hunt for Mr. Riley, 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. He had been saved by a sailor (John W. Eagle) from going overboard in much the same manner that Captain Porter had been. This man Eagle was Captain of No. 1 gun, and like Jack Matthews, would not leave his gun, and although badly wounded, with his right hand in a sling, he begged me, with tears in his eyes, not to remove him, but to let him fight his gun. I reported the case to Captain Porter, who decided to let him remain; and this brave fellow fought his gun most admirably through the action, and then “capped the climax” of his bravery and heroism by grasping the casemate with his wounded hand, and clasping Executive Officer Riley with the other one as he was falling overboard, sustaining him until both regained a footing on the projection before mentioned. In a very few minutes after the explosion our gallant ship (which had, in the language of Flagofficer Foote, fought most effectually through two-thirds of the engagement) was drifting slowly away from the field of glory; her commander badly wounded, a number of her officers and crew dead at their posts, whilst many others were writhing in their last agony. As soon as the scalding steal 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. Pilot James McBride had fallen through the open hatchway to the deck below; he was still living, but died soon after. The captain's aide, Mr. S. B. Brittan, Jr., had fallen by the shot as it passed through the gun-deck before entering the boiler. 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. Jack Matthews had gone overboard badly scalded. He was picked up by the boats. Third Master Theo. P. Terry was severely scalded, and died in a few days. H e was a brave officer. Our loss in killed, wounded and missing amounted to 32. Of these three were killed instantly, four died that night, several were drowned (the number not definitely known), and about one-half the wounded recovered. The Flag-officer continued approaching nearer and nearer to the fort, pouring shot and shell from the boats at still shorter range . . . until they showed the white flag to surrender. 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 make a third. A seaman named Jasper P. Breas, who was badly scalded, sprang to his feet, naked to the waist, his jacket and shirt having been removed to dress his wounds, exclaiming: “Surrendered! 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 spardeck, where he was gladdened with the sight of his own flag proudly and victoriously floating in the breeze. He shouted, “Glory to God!” and sank exhausted on the deck. Poor Jasper died that night, that his country might live. The Essex fired seventy-two shots from two 9-inch guns during the battle. In obedience to battle orders, I had instructed the powder boys to keep count of the number of charges served to each gun. Job Phillips, a boy fourteen years old, was powderboy of No. 1 gun. After the action, I asked Job how many shots his gun had fired. He referred me to a memorandum on the whitewashed casemate; where with a rusty nail he had carefully and accurately marked every shot his gun had fired; and his account was corroborated by the gunner in the magazine. This may be considered as a striking example of coolness and bravery in a boy of fourteen, who had never before been under fire.
Rear Admiral R. N. Stembel, commander of the Cincinnati. (from a portrait taken in 1883.)
Official thanks to the Army and Navy.The State of Ohio deemed this battle sufficiently important to merit a vote of thanks, as appears from the following:
The following is a list of the vessels and officers engaged in attack on Fort Henry:
By referring to the public or official dispatches of the war, the names of the commanders and officers above mentioned will be found constantly referred to in battles with the enemy, and were very frequently distinguished by acts of bravery and heroism creditable alike to themselves and the naval service. The position of the Navy in the West at that time was an anomalous one, belonging as they did neither to one or the other branches of the service; and the hands of the naval commander were so tied down by the orders of General Halleck, that he could make no move without his permission. The same may, however, be said of General Grant, who was completely handicapped by his own superior. There was only one killed and eleven wounded on the iron-clads in this battle at Fort Henry, a small number for so long a fight, but this is accounted for by the fact that the accuracy of the gun-boats' fire was so great, and the discharges so rapid, that the enemy were constantly driven from their batteries — even the great bravery of their Commander (General Loyd Tighlman), and the example he set in firing the guns himself, could not induce the Confederates to stand up to their work under such a fire, especially after seven of the fort's guns had been dismounted.