February 6, 1862
On January 30, 1862, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at last received the reluctant permission of Gen. Henry W. Halleck to attempt to capture Fort Henry, a Confederate earthwork fort on the Tennessee River just south of Kentucky that was one of a string of outposts built to protect Confederate territory. Grant was to be assisted by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s flotilla of seven gunboats in this first attempt to penetrate the western Confederacy by using the major rivers as lines of operations.
Confederate Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, commander of the 3,400 Rebel troops at Fort Henry, knew his post was indefensible. Located on low ground on the edge of the river, Fort Henry was subject to flooding and was dominated by high ground on both sides of the river. Tilghman was determined not to give up his position without a fight, but he wisely decided not to sacrifice his men in the effort. Holding back 100 artillerymen, he sent the rest of the garrison to Fort Donelson, 10 miles away on the Cumberland River. With 11 of the fort’s 17 guns placed where they commanded a three mile stretch of the main channel, Tilghman and his brave gunners gamely defended their post.
At 12:00 noon on February 6, while Grant’s infantry was still approaching the fort overland, Foote’s powerful flotilla steamed upriver, firing rapidly into the open fort. The courageous defenders returned the fire when the approaching gunboats were still a mile distant, but the Rebels were severly outgunned, and the Union fire knocked one Rebel cannon after another out of action. After two hours of furious cannon fire, and with only four cannon still operating, Tilghman had done all that honor demanded; he struck the flag and surrendered the fort to Foote. The Confederates had suffered 5 killed and 11 wounded; the Union sailors lost 11 killed and 31 wounded. Grant and his army, much to the navy’s delight, did not arrive on the scene until after the fort had surrendered.
Fascinating Fact: Grant decided to proceed from Fort Henry and capture Fort Donelson but feared his cautious superior, General Halleck, would not approve the action. According to legend, Grant sent a message from Fort Henry that he was proceeding overland to Fort Donelson–then cut his own telegraph communications so he could receive no reply