The Battle of Fort Henry was fought in northern Tennessee, near the Kentucky border, on February 6, 1862. Primarily a naval engagement, the battle resulted in few casualties, but it opened the Tennessee River as a pathway for federal invasion of the South in the western theater of the American Civil War.
Prelude to the Battle
At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised most of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because Union troops might use any of three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) to invade the South.
In 1861, the State of Tennessee constructed earthen forts on the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River to prevent federal invasions from the north. Slaves and soldiers built Fort Henry on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The fort provided a clear field of fire down the river, toward Kentucky, but its position on the low, swampy ground was vulnerable to attack from the hills on the opposite side of the river. To better secure the site, the Confederates also constructed Fort Heiman on the high ground opposite Fort Henry.
Grant Advances Against Fort Henry
By late 1861, President Abraham Lincoln was pressuring Union commanders in the west to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, General Henry Halleck reluctantly approved Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to attack Fort Henry. Eager to move, Grant left Cairo, Illinois on February 2 with 15,000 soldiers, plus a flotilla of seven gunboats, commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. On February 4 and 5, Grant landed his force in two locations near Fort Henry and prepared for battle.
Tilghman Reinforces Fort Henry
Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, who commanded Fort Henry—and Fort Donelson, twelve miles to the east on the Cumberland River—realized that he had little chance of defending Fort Henry against Grant’s large force. On February 4, Tilghman ordered the soldiers occupying Fort Heiman back to Fort Henry.
One day later, he sent most of the occupants of Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, leaving behind only a handful of artillerymen to defend the fort. By February 6, Foote’s flotilla maneuvered into position and began bombarding the fort. Seventy-five minutes later, Tilghman surrendered after suffering roughly fifteen men killed and another twenty wounded. On the Union side, thirty-two men died or were wounded aboard the USS Essex when her boiler exploded after being hit by cannon fire from the fort.
Aftermath of the Battle
Although the Battle of Fort Henry was a relatively minor engagement, it created a pathway for future federal operations in the South. Shortly after the Union victory, three of Foote’s gunboats continued 150 miles up the Tennessee River as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama capturing several Confederate ships and destroying a key railroad bridge.