Confederates Battle to Save Fort Henry on Tennessee River

Tennessee River, Cumberland River sites of forts erected by Confederates; Fort Henry battle detailed in book.

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Journalist Charles Carleton Coffin includes in my treasured heirloom book, “From My Days And Nights On the Battlefield,” a chapter entitled "The Capture of Fort Henry." His descriptive detail, as well as the military movements, provide an unforgettable picture. The Confederates erected two forts on the northern line of Tennessee, one on the Tennessee River (Fort Henry), another on the Cumberland River, to prevent Union troops from reaching the heart of the Confederacy via water.

The Union realized that "a fleet of gunboats would be needed on the Western rivers, and Capt. Andrew H. Foote of the Navy was placed in charge of their construction. They were built in Cincinnati and St. Louis, and taken to Cairo (Illinois), where they received their crews, armament and outfit."

Writer Coffin gives a picturesque account of Cairo of that day. "(Cairo) is a modem town of several thousand inhabitants on the tongue of land at the mouth of the Ohio. Let us look at the place as it appeared on the first day of February, 1862. Stand with me on the levee. There are from 50 to 100 steamboats lying along the bank, with volumes of black smoke rolling up from their tall chimneys. Among them are gunboats, a cross between a floating fort, a dredging machine and a mud-scow. The sailors call them ‘mud-turkles.’

"There are thousands of soldiers on the steamboats and on the shore, waiting for the sailing of the expedition, which is to make an opening in the line of Rebel defenses; thousands of people busy as bees loading and unloading steamboats, rolling barrels and boxes. Thousands of men and thousands of mules and horses.

"It is Sunday. A sweet day of rest in peaceful times, but in war there is not much observance of the Sabbath. It is midwinter, but a south wind sweeps up the Mississippi, so mild and balmy that the bluebirds and robins are out. Steamboats are crowded with troops, waiting for orders to sail, they know not where.

"The shops are open, the soldiers are purchasing knickknacks, tobacco, pipes, paper and pens to send letters to loved ones far away. At a gingerbread stall, a half-dozen are taking lunch. The oyster saloons are crowded. Boys are crying their newspapers.

“There are laughable and solemn scenes. Yonder is a hospital. A file of soldiers stand waiting in the street. A coffin is brought out. The fife begins its mournful air, the drum its muffled beat. The procession moves away, bearing the dead soldier to his silent home. A few months ago he was a citizen, cultivating his farm upon the prairies, plowing, sowing, reaping. But now the great reaper, Death.

"The church bells toll the hour. Some remember that it is Sunday and wade through the muddy streets to the church. Half the congregation are from the Army and Navy. Commodore Foote is there, a devout worshiper. Before church he visited each gunboat of this fleet.

"Let us on Monday accept the kind invitation of Commodore Foote and go on board his flagship and make an inspection of this strange-looking craft. It is like a great box on a raft. The sides are inclined, made of stout oak timbers and plated with iron. You enter through a porthole, where you may lay your hand upon the iron lips of a great gun, which throws a ball nine inches in diameter. There are 14 guns, with stout oaken carriages.

"Commodore Foote points out to you a secluded comer, where anyone of the crew who loves to read his Bible and hold secret devotions may do so and not be disturbed. He has given a library of good books to the crew, and he has persuaded them that it will be better for them to give up their allowance of grog than to drink it. He walks among the men, and has a kind word for all. Will they not fight bravely under such a commander?

"On Monday afternoon, February 2nd, the gunboats Cincinnati, Essex, St. Louis, Carondelet, Lexington, Tyler and Conestoga sailed from Cairo, accompanied by several river steamboats with 10 regiments of troops. They went up the Ohio to Paducah, and entered the Tennessee River at dark. The next morning, about daylight, they anchored a few miles below Fort Henry.

"Looking up the river from the deck of one of Commodore Foote's gunboats, you see Panther Island, which is a mile from the fort. It is a long, narrow sand-bank, covered with a thicket of willows. There is the fort on the eastern bank.

"You can count the guns, 17 in all. They are nearly all pivoted, so they may be pointed down the river against the boats, or inland upon the troops. It will not be an easy matter to take the fort from the land side.

"Commodore Foote has planned how to take the fort. General Grant and Commodore Foote agreed that the gunboats should commence the attack at twelve o'clock. The Commodore said, 'I shall commence firing when I reach the head of Panther Island, and it will take me about an hour to reach the fort, for I shall steam up slowly.'

"To his crews, Commodore Foote said, 'Fire slowly, and with deliberate air. If you fire slowly, you will keep cool yourselves, and make every shot count.'

"The gunboats steam up slowly against the current. The boats reach the head of the island, and the fort is in full view: It is thirty-four minutes past twelve o'clock. There is a flash, and a great creamy cloud of smoke. An eight-inch shell screams through the air. Your watch ticks 15 seconds before you hear from it.

"You see a puff of smoke, a cloud of sand thrown up in the fort, and then hear the explosion. From each vessel a shell is thrown. The fort accepts the challenge, and instantly the 12 guns which are in position to sweep the river, open upon the advancing boats. The shot and shell plough furrows in the stream, and throw columns of water high in the air. The gunboats move straight on."

Dear Readers of the My Folks series, is it not a rare privilege to savor these words from the lips, as it were, of one who can recount so vividly what it was like for those folks who fought the Civil War?

Marcia Baker Pogue
Cincinnati, Ohio

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.