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Capture of Fort Henry

Two rivers, the Tennessee and Cumberland, their mouths just a few miles apart on the Ohio River in Kentucky, flowed in parallel courses from the southeast in Tennessee, at which point the former's course came from further south in Mississippi and Alabama, originating back north in Tennessee, while the later flowed from more to the east, its source further north in eastern Kentucky. As the Union army was sitting near the river mouths in Cairo, these waterways formed an threatening invasion route for the Northerners to sail into Tennessee and plunge further into the Confederacy. To prevent this from happening, the Confederates built a forts on each river, just south of the Tennessee border where they were but twelve miles apart. Fort Henry was built on the east bank of the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the west bank of the Cumberland.

When Grant was making his advance against Belmont, a probing advance by a Union force led by General C.F. Smith along the Tennessee got within three miles of Fort Henry. Smith reported to Grant that "I think two ironclad gunboats would make short work of Fort Henry," so of course Grant asked for permission to move against the fort. In short order, Halleck ordered the attack and on February 3rd, Grant set off down river with 23 regiments, accompanied by a fleet, including four ironclad gunboats, led by Commodore Andrew H. Foote.

Fort Henry, manned by forces under General Lloyd Tilghman, was located on the east side of the Tennessee River, so that it could have direct communication with Fort Donelson. This meant, however, that it was in a poor strategic position, for high banks on the west side of the river dominated its low-lying situation. Besides this disadvantage, the rising river actually put a number of the Confederate guns under water and threatened the fort's magazine. As Grant's forces gathered for their attack, Tilghman realized the futility of his position, so he evacuated the infantry to Fort Donelson, leaving only a small force to delay the inevitable capture of the fort by the Union. On February 6th, Foote's ironclads began their bombardment of the fort. The Confederates returned fire for about two hours, at which time Tilghman surrendered his command to Foote, Grant's troops not making it to the fort until about an hour after the surrender.

This was the first major Union victory in the western theater, and while Grant did not participate in the actual battle, his planning and determination were clearly demonstrated. The victory, which Halleck reported with the words "Fort Henry is ours. The flag of the Union is reestablished on the soil of Tennessee. It will never be removed," was great celebrated in North and had the important consequence of opening the Tennessee River to the Union ships. This was immediately demonstrated by a foray of three gunboats, led by Lieut. Phelps, as far up the river as Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the limit of navigation. Phelps was able to wreck an important railroad bridge, destroy Confederate supplies and capture several Southern vessels.


Commadore Foote's flotilla
Prints from Harper's Weekly. Wood engravings. Very good condition.



"Fort Henry / Fort Henry and Fort Donelson / Military map of country between Tennessee and Cumberland, February 4th to March 10, 1862," plus 4 smaller maps. From the U.S. War Department's Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington: Gov't. Printing Office, 1891-95. Lithographed map, with some highlight color. Double folio size. NB: The maps from this atlas are printed on brittle paper, so there may be short tears in this map.

Richard Stephenson has written, "This is the most detailed atlas yet published on the Civil War. It consists of reproductions of maps compiled by both Union and Confederate soldiers." [Stephenson, Civil War Maps, p 99.] The maps show many of the events of the Civil War with great detail, including topography, troop placements and movements, and other information of interest. These are the best near contemporary maps available of many of these battles, sieges, and other events of this conflict. $75
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