Monday, February 4, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Monday, Feb. 3, 1862

Fort Henry Threatened

Aboard wooden steamboats and escorted by two recently commissioned and barely tested ironclad gunboats, the St. Louis and the Essex (pictured at right), the lead elements of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s attack force chugged south 60 miles south on the Tennessee River during the night. At 4:30 this morning, Fort Henry was glimpsed, two miles ahead. The little fleet backpedaled a short distance, anchored out of range of Fort Henry’s guns, and landed the soldiers, who began looking for a place to set up camp. The Confederates in Fort Henry never noticed their visitors.

Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand of Illinois, Grant’s second-in-command, heads this part of grant’s force, the first division of the attackers. Grant remained temporarily at his Paducah staging area, sorting out the rest of his army. A nervous Halleck had ordered Grant to stay in touch daily by telegraph, so now the quiet, unimpressive-looking commander from Ohio wires St. Louis, “Will be off up the Tennessee at six o’clock. Command twenty-three regiments in all.” A second division under Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith constituted the rest of Grant’s army.

Later today, Grant joins McClernand near Fort Henry. He ascertains the range of the Confederate cannon by directing the gunboat Essex to approach the fort and draw fire. With Grant aboard the Essex, one Rebel shell passed dangerously close and another smashes through the vessel’s superstructure, dropping into the water on the other side. Having learned what he wanted to know and survived, Grant also backpedals and begins positioning his men for the assault he is planning.

Previously unaware of Grant’s force, the Confederates finally realize that something is up. Grant estimates that 6,000 or more enemy soldiers man Fort Henry, but the Confederate commander does not intend to put up much of a fight. Believing he is in weak position in the partly flooded fort, he will order his garrison to evacuate the fort, except for the crew of one battery. The Confederate soldiers are to join the larger garrison at Fort Donelson, only 12 miles away on the Cumberland river, which parallels the Tennessee in this region.

In an impressive display of energy and organization, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant has launched, in scarcely three days, a campaign to bring 15,000 Union soldiers and seven gunboats into position to attack the Confederacy’s gatekeeper of the Tennessee River, Fort Henry. Grant’s fast mobilization puts to shame General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s foot-dragging in putting his well-trained and well-equipped Army of the Potomac into motion against the eastern Confederacy.

Grant is also a commander who learns from mistakes. He nearly lost the so-called “Battle of Belmont” the previous November after his men broke discipline to loot abandoned Confederate camps—and then were surprised when the Rebels returned. This time, Grant’s “General Orders No. 7” has circulated among the troops. Grant forbids firing except when ordered, requires all men to remain within their camps, and—most of all—declares in no uncertain terms, “Plundering and disturbing private property is positively prohibited.” Officers are warned that “regimental commanders will be held strictly accountable for the acts of their regiments, and will in turn hold company commanders accountable for the acts of their companies.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE WAR: President Abraham Lincoln politely declines the king of Siam’s offer of war elephants to the Union cause. Less amusing is the President’s letter to General McClellan, summarizing their “distinct and different plans” for an advance into Virginia: McClellan proposes a roundabout plan to move his force by water to the Virginia Peninsula so as to attack Richmond from the south, while the President wants a more direct attack overland by way of nearby Manassas. If McClellan can give Lincoln satisfactory answers to several questions, says Lincoln, “I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.” Lincoln’s questions require McClellan to explain why his plan is less expensive, less time consuming, and more certain of victory than Lincoln’s. And, from Benton Barracks near St. Louis, where Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman is training troops, a letter goes from the general to his brother, Sen. John Sherman. Feeling defeated and lacking confidence in himself, Cump admits he is “still depressed by my past errors, but still I do not seek any leading post, on the contrary, prefer any amount of labor & drudgery to attempting to lead when I see no practicable result.”

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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