The Battle of Fort Henry took place on February 6, 1862. Although It was primarily a naval engagement, it was the first significant victory for Ulysses S. Grant and it opened the Tennessee River as a pathway for the Union invasion of the South in the Western Theater.
Summary of the Battle of Fort Henry
The Battle of Fort Henry was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on February 6, 1862, in western Tennessee. In 1861, the State of Tennessee constructed Fort Henry on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border to prevent Union invasions from the north. In early February 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant led a Union force of 15,000 soldiers, plus a flotilla of seven gunboats, into Tennessee to subdue Fort Henry. On February 6, the fort’s commander, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, sent most of his garrison to nearby Fort Donelson, leaving behind only a handful of artillerymen. On February 7, the Union flotilla began shelling the fort, forcing Tilghman to surrender.
This illustration depicts Union gunboats boarding Fort Henry during the battle. Image Source: Library of Congress.
5 Things to Know About the Battle of Fort Henry
- Key Fact: First Important Victory for Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater
- Theater of War: Western Theater
- Campaign: Federal Penetration Up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers
- Location: Stewart and Henry counties, in western Tennessee
- Who Won: United States of America
Overview of the Battle of Fort Henry
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.
Tennessee Builds Forts to Prevent Northern Invasion
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.
Outcome of the Battle of Fort Henry
The Union won the Battle of Fort Henry. Soon after the battle, three of Foote’s gunboats continued 150 miles up the Tennessee River and went as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They captured several Confederate ships and destroyed a key railroad bridge.
Significance of the Battle of Fort Henry
Although the Battle of Fort Henry was a relatively minor engagement, it was important because it created a pathway for future federal operations in the South. It was also the first significant victory for the Union in the war and the first for Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater.
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