by Roger D. BridgesOn February 6, 1862, the Confederate defense line in the West was breached when a small rebel force in Fort Henry surrendered. Although Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the expedition, his troops were not yet in place around the fort when the gunboats, commanded by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, forced the seventy-eight remaining defenders in the fort to surrender. The fort had been defended by 2,610 men, but the bulk of them had been evacuated earlier in the day.
The events surrounding the capture of Fort Henry have been described on numerous occasions, in newspaper accounts, official reports, reminiscences, and military histories. In preparing material for publication in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, three letters–two of them previously unpublished and the other printed only in part–providing eyewitness accounts of the encounter came to light which were peripheral to the Papers, but too important to be passed over. Written by officer participants in the capture of the Confederate fort, these letters provide interesting and informative private observations.
[pg. 18] Connecticut-born Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, who entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1822, had a long and distinguished career before the outbreak of the Civil War. He had participated in the African Slave Patrol in 1849-1851 and had reduced the Barrier Forts below Canton, China, in 1856 after attacks on the American flag. In August, 1861, he was placed in command of naval operations on the upper Mississippi River. On November 13, 1862, Foote was appointed a flag officer, placing him on a level of rank with Amy major generals. The gunboat flotilla commanded by Foote was under the control of the Army, so Brigadier General Grant commanded the expedition to Fort Henry. Foote’s letter to his wife, Caroline Augusta Street Foote, provides a graphic account of the role taken by the gunboats in the reduction of Fort Henry.1
Flag Steamer Cincinnatti
Off Fort Henry Tennessee Feby 6/62My dear Wife. Bless the Lord who has given me the victory after a horrible fight, of an hour and fifteen minutes. I earnestly & almost agonized in prayer for victory this morning, and we have it and to me the Fort was unconditionally surrendered.
This morning at 11 O’clock, after having made signal & had all Captains aboard and given them orders, and referring to my written orders when I had planned the attack two of which orders orders [repeated word cancelled] fortunately, as victory has crowned our arms, I have sent to the Secretary of the Navy.2 I then made signal to get underway and when the Army moved on each side of the river, I moved with seven Gun Boats over the torpedoes or in the channel where they were placed and where we hauled up five yesterday. We were in sight of the Fort for 2 miles. I opened the fire with rifle guns and soon they were returned by the Fort. I ran up rapidly to the distance of 700 yards, taking with me the “Essex,” “Cin.” “Carondelet” and “St. Louis,” ordering them to keep abreast of me in the Flag ship [Cincinnati]. I ordered the three Boats not iron clad to keep one mile astern. We are cut all to pieces & only the steam mach[in]ery has escaped. Other Boats except the Essex not hurt. The fire from the Fort, as the General said was directed upon me to sink or cripple the Flag ship, and we were struck with rifle & heavy shot & shells 30 times. I had the breath, for several seconds, knocked out of me, as a shot struck opposite my chest, in the iron clad pilot house on deck. Porter3 in the Essex received a shot in his boilers, [pg. 19] which scalded to death his two Pilots and I don’t know how many men,4 & dropped out of the action–receiving as I saw, two other plunging shots as he went. The fire now had become terrific and I had to signalize the two other iron plated Boats to run abreast of me, and I was constantly going ahead all this time. It was a fearful struggle, but I felt it must be victory or death. This ship was then in less than 700 yards & we began to get a beautiful range & poured shell in upon them fearfully. I all the time going ahead. One killed and nine wounded men were lying on deck groaning horribly. At length, and at a moment, when it seemed as if we must be killed or sunk the big Secession flag was hauled down & victory was ours. A cheer ran up from this ship, a yell in fact & I had to run among the men & knock them on the head to restore order. The Surgeon hollered & bawled I told him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, he said it was coming from death to life, he expected to be killed for the last half hour & to hear the cheer he could not help roaring with all his might. Officers ran up & congratulated me, while the Captains of the other Gun Boats came up & rushed aboard. A Boat came off with the Adjt. Genl. & Captain of Engineers,6 and asked if I would see their General. I told them yes, but he must come aboard. Soon afterwards Genl. Lloyd Tilgham7 an elegant gentle man and a West Point graduate came aboard, & said he wanted to treat. I had in the mean time taken possession & hoisted our flag in place of the Secession. I told the General he was a prisoner of war, with 17 Guns & all the effects in the Fort. he soon struck up an intimacy as he is a great admirer of Dr. Mason in Easton. He said he well knew me by reputation. He said that I showered shells upon him & nothing could stand it, but I do admire your course so much towards me. I let him write to his wife & friends & told him to tell them that he defended his fort with determined gallantry. He says that in 50 minutes seven of the eleven guns bearing on us were dismounted or burst. About this time Genl. Smith8 took quiet possession of the Fort opposite,9 which, did not have its guns mounted and he marched in his troops without opposition. Genl. Grant also came aboard and his 10,000 men marched into the Fort which now had the American flag flying. We got ahead of the Army all to pieces. I am now running back to Cairo, to work in getting Mortar & Gun Boats ready, and we have made the narrowest escape possible with our Boats & our lives. I have sent Phelps up the river in chase of the rebel Gun Boats,10 and let the Army swell with its 15000 men. I suppose they will go over to the Cumberland and try and take Dover.11 The Army is rather chop fallen. Porter I am sorry for but he has made too much of his little skirmishes. This vessel did the brunt of the work, & I will pay Stemble by getting his son into West Point,12 who acted as my aid. A good day’s work & I mean always to thank God for it. I never again will go into a fight half-prepared. Men were not experienced & perfectly green. The rifle shots hissed like snakes. Tilghmnan said he would have cut us all to pieces, had his best rifle not burst, & his 128 pounder been stopped in the vent. Now you may read this to your parents & friends. It is of course written in a great hurry. God bless you, children & friends
ever Affly A H FOOTE
[pg. 20] Colonel William H. L. Wallace, of Ottawa, Ill., a successful lawyer and a prominent Republican politician before the Civil War, had been a delegate to the first Republican National Convention in 1856. Wallace, who had been a second lieutenant in the Mexican War, abandoned his law practice at the outbreak of the Civil War and was mustered as colonel of the 11th Ill. on April 30, 1861. In June the 11th Ill. was ordered to Bird’s Point, Mo., opposite Cairo.
Wallace commanded the Second Brigade of the First Division of Grant’s army under Brigadier General John A. McClernand at Fort Henry. The day after the fort surrendered, Wallace described the action in a letter to his wife, Martha Ann Dickey Wallace, daughter of T. Lyle Dickey who had been a prominent Illinois lawyer, judge, and politician, and presently was colonel of the 4th Ill. Cavalry with Grant.13
Fort Henry Tenn. Feb. 7, 1862Dear Ann:–We are here–got in yesterday afternoon after the gun boats had shelled the enemy out–We (the 2nd Brigade) were some 3 or 4 miles out, on the march, when the cannonading ceased–It lasted about two hours & was tremendous–The effect of the fire on the fortifications here was terrible–Guns dismounted–earthworks torn up & the evidences of carnage meet the eye on every hand–It was a strong place & could have been held by a determined force for a long time–The enemy seemed to have been siezed with a panic & the whole body some 4 or 5000 left, leaving an artillery company in the Fort–Genl. Lloyd Til[gh]man who is in command of this district or division of the rebel forces is among the prisoners–Our loss aside from the scalding of some 30 men on one of the gun boats by the cutting of a steam pipe, was one man from the 4th Cavalry, belonging to Capt. Shepherdson company14–The 4th cavalry did good service in following up the retreating enemy They took eight cannon & 40 prisoners They feel mighty fine over it–The 11th didnt get under fire but hope for better luck next time.
I am exceedingly tired & this morning I had a tremendous headache the worst I ever had–induced doubtless by long continued exposure & loss of sleep & irregularity in my meals–I have just laid down in Capt Rawlins15 stateroom on the steamer & slept an hour or so, & got some dinner & I feel much better & am now going out to my command which is encamped on the hills– [pg. 21] Genl. Grant invited me me to take a state room on his boat & perhaps I will for tonight–
I dont know where we go to next, but I suppose we will follow them up & perhaps attack Ft. Donaldson on the Cumberland which is 13 miles distant–
The men have been without tents most of the time since we started–The 11th had not had a tent since we landed & they were exposed to a tremendous rain the night before we marched here–The roads were horrible–but notwithstanding this they marched & took the heavy trains of artillery over the worst roads I ever saw–
God bless you my darling wife–I feel to rely on His providence & protection more & more–I know He will take care of us all if we do our duty, & in this I feel I am doing my duty–The prospect for being with you on the 18th are not flattering at present, but yet I am not altogether without hope–Kiss Blossom & Tilly for me–My regards to all our good friends & believe that I love you with my whole heart–Good bye–
Yours W H L WALLACE
A prominent Illinois Democratic lawyer-politician and Congressman (1843-1851, 1859-1861), John A. McClernand had been confirmed in his appointment as brigadier general on August 5, 1861, although he had little previous military experience. Lincoln was anxious to gain Democratic support for the war effort and McClernand, one of that party’s most popular leaders in Illinois, doubtless owed his high rank to his politics. He had preceded Grant at Cairo by a few days, and remained as post commander after Grant moved his District of Southeast Missouri headquarters there.
McClernand commanded the First Division of Grant’s army at Fort Henry. Two days after the surrender of Fort Henry, McClernand bypassed normal military channels and reported the results of the action directly to Commander-in-Chief Lincoln. Although the letter may have been personal, it was highly irregular. Ever anxious to advance himself, McClernand wrote as if he commanded the expedition and avoided any mention of Grant.16
Head Quarters 1st Division
Fort Foote Feby. 8th, 1862.
His Excellency A. Lincoln Prest. U. S.Sir:–I snatch a moment amid the tumult of a rapidly increasing camp [pg. 22] to advise you of events which, while illustrating the success of your administration, will find a blazoned page in history.
The day before yesterday I took up the line of march with a division consisting of eleven regiments of Infantry and Cavalry combined and four companies of Light Artillery against the enemy, from seven to eight thousand strong, at Fort Henry. Starting at eleven o’clock A. H. my whole division reached here before night fall–a considerable portion of the column coming in by three o’clock P. M., passing over the worst possible roads for the whole distance of about seven miles.
Meantime the Gunboats, under command of Commodore Foote, starting from the same place, (Camp Halleck)l7 opened fire on the Fort at one o’clock P. M., which closed at two oclock and ten minutes, when the enemy’s heavy guns were disabled and the evacuation of the Fort commenced. At no time being further from the Gunboats than two miles the firing was distinctly heard by my whole command who hailed it with enthusiastic shouts.
Word being sent to me that the enemy were evacuating the Fort, I hastened forward my column and ordered my Cavalry, in advance, to push on, engage the enemy, or if he had left the Fort to pursue him and put him to rout–capturing all whom they overtook.
The advance of the Cavalry came up, rapidly, but found the enemy, except a few of his number remaining behind, retreating outside of his defences. They made rapid pursuit killing one of them and capturing some forty prisoners, all of his Artillery (eight pieces) and a great number of animals. The rout was complete.
Besides the trophies mentioned all of the commissary, Quarter Master’s and Ordnance stores, in depot, were captured, including eighteen pieces of cannon in the Fort.
My division was the first into the Fort and was the only one that pursued the enemy. Gen. Smith moved up on the other bank of the Tenn.
Yesterday I sent forward different detachments of the Cavalry which driving in the pickets of the enemy, extended their reconnoisance to a point within a mile and a half of Fort Donnelson and to the rail road bridge across the Tenn. seventeen miles above this Fort.
Both detachments came in with prisoners of war–one of the detachments destroying a portion of the telegraph wires and the other bringing in quite a number of the enemy’s beeves.
In honor of the commander of the “Mississippi Fleet” I have changed the name of the Fort here from the name of Fort Henry to Fort Foote.18
Whether considered with reference to the spoil captured or military military consequences this is perhaps the most complete victory achieved during the war.
Your Obt. Sevt. JOHN A. MC CLERNAND
- The letter is in the Records of Area 5, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, Record Group 45, National Archives.
- Foote actually sent copies of three orders to Secretary of the Navy [pg. 23] Gideon Welles. See Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, 1894-1927), I, xxii, 535-537. Hereafter O.R. (Navy). The list of gunboats and their officers may be found ibid., 550-551.
- Commander William D. Porter was a brother of Commander David D. Porter who rose to the rank of admiral.
- The pilots killed were James McBride and H. H. Ford. The Essex executive officer, Robert K. Riley, reported nineteen men scalded, five men missing, and six men killed. Ibid., 540.
- Surgeon John Ludlow.
- Act. Asst. Adjt. Gen. W. LaFayette McConnico, 10th Tenn., and either Capt. Charles Hayden or Capt. Lewis Miller, 48th Tenn.
- Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman of Paducah, Ky., USMA 1836.
- Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith, USMA 1825, had been in command of West Kentucky, and commanded the Second Division at Fort Henry.
- Fort Heiman, Ky., was an unfinished earthen fortification.
- Lt. Seth Ledyard Phelps, commander of the gunboat Conestoqa, was in charge of the expedition up the Tennessee River. For the reports, see ibid., 570-574; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), I, vii, 153-156.
- Fort Donelson was located near Dover, Tenn., approximately twelve miles east of Fort Henry by land.
- Commander Roger N. Stembel’s son, Master’s Mate James H. Stembel, was a non-graduate of USNA 1866. United States Naval Academy Alumni Association, Register of Graduates (n.p., n.d.), 224.
- Portions of this letter have been published in Isabel Wallace, Life & Letters of General W. H. L. Wallace (Chicago, 1909), 155. The letter is in the Wallace-Dickey Papers, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Ill.
- Capt. George J. Shepardson, of Earl, Ill., 4th Ill. Cav.
- Capt. John A. Rawllns, of Galena, Ill., was Grant’s adjt.
- This letter is in the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection, Library of Congress.
- A federal camp seven miles north of Fort Henry, near the Tennessee River, used by McClernand’s division before the attack on the fort.
- See McClernand to Foote, Feb. 7, 1862, O.R. (Navy), I, xxii, 544. Despite McClernand’s effort, the name remained Fort Henry.
NEWS NOTES *** Roger D. Bridges, who prepared the article above, holds a Fellowship in Advanced Historical Editing for 1969-1970 awarded by the National historical Publications Commission. He recently completed work for a doctorate in history at the University of Illinois with a disser [pg. 24]tation entitled, “The Constitutional World of John Sherman, 1861-1869,” directed by Harold M. Hyman. During his fellowship year, Bridges has been assisting in the preparation of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. *** Thomas G. Alexander, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, will hold a similar fellowship in 1970-1971. He received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and has published extensively in the field of Utah history. *** The third volume of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant has been turned over to Southern Illinois University Press and is scheduled for publication late this year. Covering the fourteen weeks from October 1, 1861, through January 7, 1862, this volume will present Grant’s first battle of the Civil War at Belmont, Missouri, November 7, 1861, and will carry his career to the eve of his expedition into Kentucky in January, 1862, which served as a prelude to the advance to Forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862. The fourth volume, covering the Tennessee River campaign and carrying Grant to the eve of Shiloh, is currently in preparation and should be completed by the end of this year.