February 6, 1862: Surrender of Fort Henry

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,

Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,

And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.

Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,

Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,

Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,

Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service

And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army

Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.

Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,

Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,

The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,

Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh

With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,

And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting

From winter and certain memories. 

It didn’t take much. A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue

And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.

Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,

Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far

Though he worked hard and was honest.

A middle-aged clerk,

A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,

Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,

Offering them such service as he could give

And saying he thought that he was fit to command

As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,

One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–

Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,

A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;

A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,

Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;

And then the frozen February gale

Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,

The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–

“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

                                                                                                                                     Stephen Vincent Benet

The taking of Fort Henry by Ulysses S. Grant on February 6, 1862, was important for a number of reasons:

1.  It opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and transports down through northern Alabama, effectively allowing the Union to outflank  Confederate

defenses in Memphis and  throughout eastern Tennessee.

2.  It earned the first fame to Grant, bringing him to the notice of Lincoln as a Union general who could be relied upon to be aggressive and to win.

3.  It demonstrated that a key weakness in Confederate attempts to defend in the vast western regions of the Confederacy was Union naval dominance of the rivers.

4.  It proved that Grant had a talent for combined operations, working well with the Union admirals who commanded the riverine forces that were an essential part of his strategy.

5.  It was an essential shot in the arm to Union morale in a theater of the War that had stagnated since the beginning of the conflict.

6.  It started Grant out on the path that would lead him, most improbably, to being the shabby failure who won the greatest war in American history.

Here is Grant’s retelling of the campaign against Fort Henry, taken from his Personal Memoirs:

As a result of this expedition General Smith reported that he thought it practicable to capture Fort Heiman. This fort stood on high ground, completely commanding Fort Henry on the opposite side of the river, and its possession by us, with the aid of our gunboats, would insure the capture of Fort Henry. This report of Smith’s confirmed views I had previously held, that the true line of operations for us was up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. With us there, the enemy would be compelled to fall back on the east and west entirely out of the State of Kentucky. On the 6th of January, before receiving orders for this expedition, I had asked permission of the general commanding the department to go to see him at St. Louis. My object was to lay this plan of campaign before him. Now that my views had been confirmed by so able a general as Smith, I renewed my request to go to St. Louis on what I deemed important military business. The leave was granted, but not graciously. I had known General Halleck but very slightly in the old army, not having met him either at West Point or during the Mexican war. I was received with so little cordiality that I perhaps stated the object of my visit with less clearness than I might have done, and I had not uttered many sentences before I was cut short as if my plan was preposterous. I returned to Cairo very much crestfallen.

  Flag-officer Foote commanded the little fleet of gunboats then in the neighborhood of Cairo and, though in another branch of the service, was subject to the command of General Halleck. He and I consulted freely upon military matters and he agreed with me perfectly as to the feasibility of the campaign up the Tennessee. Notwithstanding the rebuff I had received from my immediate chief, I therefore, on the 28th of January, renewed the suggestion by telegraph that “if permitted, I could take and hold Fort Henry on the Tennessee.” This time I was backed by Flag-officer Foote, who sent a similar dispatch. On the 29th I wrote fully in support of the proposition. On the 1st of February I received full instructions from department headquarters to move upon Fort Henry. On the 2d the expedition started.

  In February, 1862, there were quite a good many steamers laid up at Cairo for want of employment, the Mississippi River being closed against navigation below that point. There were also many men in the town whose occupation had been following the river in various capacities, from captain down to deck hand But there were not enough of either boats or men to move at one time the 17,000 men I proposed to take with me up the Tennessee. I loaded the boats with more than half the force, however, and sent General McClernand in command. I followed with one of the later boats and found McClernand had stopped, very properly, nine miles below Fort Henry. Seven gunboats under Flag-officer Foote had accompanied the advance. The transports we had with us had to return to Paducah to bring up a division from there, with General C. F. Smith in command.

  Before sending the boats back I wanted to get the troops as near to the enemy as I could without coming within range of their guns. There was a stream emptying into the Tennessee on the east side, apparently at about long range distance below the fort. On account of the narrow water-shed separating the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers at that point, the stream must be insignificant at ordinary stages, but when we were there, in February, it was a torrent. It would facilitate the investment of Fort Henry materially if the troops could be landed south of that stream. To test whether this could be done I boarded the gunboat Essex and requested Captain Wm. Porter commanding it, to approach the fort to draw its fire. After we had gone some distance past the mouth of the stream we drew the fire of the fort, which fell much short of us. In consequence I had made up my mind to return and bring the troops to the upper side of the creek, when the enemy opened upon us with a rifled gun that sent shot far beyond us and beyond the stream. One shot passed very near where Captain Porter and I were standing, struck the deck near the stern, penetrated and passed through the cabin and so out into the river. We immediately turned back, and the troops were debarked below the mouth of the creek.

  When the landing was completed I returned with the transports to Paducah to hasten up the balance of the troops. I got back on the 5th with the advance the remainder following as rapidly as the steamers could carry them. At ten o’clock at night, on the 5th, the whole command was not yet up. Being anxious to commence operations as soon as possible before the enemy could reinforce heavily, I issued my orders for an advance at 11 A.M. on the 6th. I felt sure that all the troops would be up by that time.

  Fort Henry occupies a bend in the river which gave the guns in the water battery a direct fire down the stream. The camp outside the fort was intrenched, with rifle pits and outworks two miles back on the road to Donelson and Dover. The garrison of the fort and camp was about 2,800, with strong reinforcements from Donelson halted some miles out. There were seventeen heavy guns in the fort. The river was very high, the banks being overflowed except where the bluffs come to the water’s edge. A portion of the ground on which Fort Henry stood was two feet deep in water. Below, the water extended into the woods several hundred yards back from the bank on the east side. On the west bank Fort Heiman stood on high ground, completely commanding Fort Henry. The distance from Fort Henry to Donelson is but eleven miles. The two positions were so important to the enemy, as he saw his interest, that it was natural to suppose that reinforcements would come from every quarter from which they could be got. Prompt action on our part was imperative.

  The plan was for the troops and gunboats to start at the same moment. The troops were to invest the garrison and the gunboats to attack the fort at close quarters. General Smith was to land a brigade of his division on the west bank during the night of the 5th and get it in rear of Heiman.

  At the hour designated the troops and gunboats started. General Smith found Fort Heiman had been evacuated before his men arrived. The gunboats soon engaged the water batteries at very close quarters, but the troops which were to invest Fort Henry were delayed for want of roads, as well as by the dense forest and the high water in what would in dry weather have been unimportant beds of streams. This delay made no difference in the result. On our first appearance Tilghman had sent his entire command, with the exception of about one hundred men left to man the guns in the fort, to the outworks on the road to Dover and Donelson, so as to have them out of range of the guns of our navy; and before any attack on the 6th he had ordered them to retreat on Donelson. He stated in his subsequent report that the defence was intended solely to give his troops time to make their escape.

  Tilghman was captured with his staff and ninety men, as well as the armament of the fort, the ammunition and whatever stores were there. Our cavalry pursued the retreating column towards Donelson and picked up two guns and a few stragglers; but the enemy had so much the start, that the pursuing force did not get in sight of any except the stragglers.

  All the gunboats engaged were hit many times. The damage, however, beyond what could be repaired by a small expenditure of money, was slight, except to the Essex. A shell penetrated the boiler of that vessel and exploded it, killing and wounding forty-eight men, nineteen of whom were soldiers who had been detailed to act with the navy. On several occasions during the war such details were made when the complement of men with the navy was insufficient for the duty before them. After the fall of Fort Henry Captain Phelps, commanding the iron-clad Carondelet, at my request ascended the Tennessee River and thoroughly destroyed the bridge of the Memphis and Ohio Railroad.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Was that fort also known as Fort Hood? My American History on Parade calendar names it “Hood.”

    It was the first major Federal victory in the war of northern aggression.

  2. I do not believe so T.Shaw. It was named after Senator Gustavus Adolphus Henry of Tennessee. You are correct that it was a major victory in the Glorious Northern Crusade for Union and Liberty.

  3. My copy of the Patriot’s Almanac made the same “Fort Hood” mistake yesterday. I corrected it before I read it to the kids. It also calls it the first “major victory.”

    Fort Hood was built and named after the War for the Union had concluded.

    Hood was a brave man–and a better soldier than he gets credit for, at least during the Atlanta campaign. Peachtree Creek was a near-run thing.

    But I can’t understand the neglect of other figures instead of him–George Thomas (speaking of Peachtree Creek), for example. Surely he deserves a military installation named after him.

    Much more so than that vindictive ditherer and near-incompetent Bragg.

  4. Pap Thomas and Bragg, Dale, definitely are the two ends of military competency in the Civil War. The War might well have had a different outcome if Thomas had gone with Virginia and ended up commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

  5. Thomas was a great general, and very underappreciated. Betrayed his native Virginia and took up arms against her, so that even some of his family would never speak to him again. I’d like to think it was wisdom not to send him East, where his presence could have provided a sort of negative morale boost due to the contempt his countrymen had for him.
    As to Grant, he did well out west, but when he came east, he earned, I think, the judgment made of him by Winston Churchill: “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter.” And so, with respect to Grant and his overland campaign, Churchill called his strategy “the negation of generalship.”
    But in his early wins in the west, he showed himself to be a competent, agressive leader, which the Union cause desparately needed.

  6. I am a Churchill man to the bone, but his courtly sympathies were showing in that assessment of

    Grant’s lack of spectacular success in the eastern theatre is due to two things–1. Lee, and 2., the fact he did not take direct control of the Army of the Potomac. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the competent Meade, apart from excessive caution, but that extra layer of decisionmaking added unnecessary friction. This was especially true with the Cold Harbor horror.

    It’s also safe to say that Lee also lacked spectacular success facing Grant. The field of battle in Northern Virginia did not permit spectacular manuevers.

    The war in the East was decided after the Wilderness, when Grant gave the order to move south. Lee threw his best haymaker, and Grant kept on coming. Unlike McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, etc.

    As to Thomas, it is one of the minor tragedies of history that he ordered his papers to be burnt upon his death, and his beloved wife faithfully carried out that order. We have no picture of the inner man and his struggle over secession. It seems to have come down to what oaths men considered binding, and against whom they could draw their swords.

    For the significant–likely decisive–number of Southern Unionists like Thomas, they could not draw their swords against the Union, which itself would have constituted a betrayal.

  7. “…that assessment of Grant’s generalship. He admired Lee greatly.”

    My goodness, maybe I shouldn’t start blogging again if that’s what’s going to happen to my thought processes. [Scare quotes around the word thought.]

  8. I really appreciate learning about the history in these posts. It is very interesting and informative, especially now, that America may be heading towards another civil war against a grotesque form of totalitarianism. Thank you Donald McClarey and others. Mary De Voe

  9. Lee was only hobbled by a lack of troops at that late time in the war. The opposite of Grant,he was a master of manuever, as Chancellorsville demonstrated, in the same area of Virginia as the beginning of the overland campaign. Outnumbered 2-1, despite continually inflicting twice the casualties on Grant as the ANV suffered, Lee could not replace his men, like Grant could. Grant knew this, and decided to simply spend his men’s lives by staying engaged with Lee, rather than attempting to defeat him or interpose between him and Richmond by manuever.

    As it was, there were at least two occasions I can think of where Lee came mighty close to inflicting what might have been a fatal blow to the AOP during the overland campaign.

    Cold Harbor was Grant’s responsibility, as he manfully acknowledged. He had been hoping for months that Lee and the ANV were demoralized and ready to crack. Cold Harbor disillusioned him of that idea.

  10. Grant knew this, and decided to simply spend his men’s lives by staying engaged with Lee, rather than attempting to defeat him or interpose between him and Richmond by manuever.

    Except that it’s not true–Grant did by swinging around to Petersburg, which was, for a brief time, undefended.

    Yes, Lee could have defeated the Union at the North Anna–with the army of 1863. But he had no lieutenant who understood him implicitly, as Jackson and Longstreet did. There’s a reason he couldn’t manuever as well by that point–the ANV wasn’t the same army, and not solely because of the Overland Campaign. The losses had been piling up for a couple of years by that point, and the relative advantage in leadership had been worn away.

    Grant came within a hair of crushing the ANV with Hancock’s assault at the Wilderness. But, leaving aside the relative merits of the commanders, there was a reason armies were (with one exception) not destroyed during the War. It was extremely hard to do.

    Finally, Grant’s strategy was extremely good–force the Confederates to fight at multiple points in Virginia, and keep them from shifting forces between east and west. If he had had two non-incompetents instead of Butler and Sigel, things might have ended much sooner.

  11. Gordon found the Union right open at the Wilderness, and a strong strike against it would likely have rolled up the federal right. Delay unfortunately resulted in a loss of daylight to complete the maneuver.

    Grant crossed the James finally because he realized at Cold Harbor courtesy of 7,000 dead soldiers that his attrition strategy had no end in sight. He had stayed true to his pledge to fight it out along the overland front all summer, and had certainly bled Lee, but at a fearsome price of his double the losses of his own men.

    His delay in striking at Petersburg, which was open for a brief window, guaranteed months of further bloody attrition until Sheridan finally flanked the ANV, stretched thin as paper, at Five Forks.

  12. Of course, if Grant had led the AOP in 1862 on the Penninsula, the war likely would have ended that year with the capture of Richmond… imagine how an early federal victory would have resulted in a much different post-war outcome.

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