February 6, 1862
The Battle of Fort Henry was fought in northern Tennessee, near the Kentucky border, on February 6, 1862. Primarily a naval engagement, the battle resulted in few casualties but did open the Tennessee River as a pathway for Federal invasion of the South in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.
At the onset of the American Civil War, the State of Tennessee comprised the majority of the northern border of the Confederate States of America in the West. Defending that border was difficult for the Confederacy because three major rivers (the Mississippi, which flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which flow north to the Ohio River) provided access to the South. In 1861, the State of Tennessee constructed earthen forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to prevent Federal invasions from the north. Slaves and Tennessee soldiers built Fort Henry on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The fort provided a clear field of fire down the river, toward Kentucky, but its position on low, swampy ground was vulnerable to attack from the hills on the opposite side of the river. To better secure the site, the Confederates also constructed Fort Heiman on the high ground opposite Fort Henry.
By late 1861, Union commanders in the west were being pressured by President Abraham Lincoln to invade the South. On January 30, 1862, General Henry Halleck reluctantly approved Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's request to attack Fort Henry. Eager to move, Grant left Cairo, Illinois on February 2 with 15,000 soldiers, plus a flotilla of seven gunboats, commanded by United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote. On February 4 and 5, Grant landed his force in two locations near Fort Henry and prepared for battle.
Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, who commanded Fort Henry, as well as Fort Donelson, twelve miles to the east on the Cumberland River, realized that he had little chance of defending Fort Henry against Grant's sizable force. On February 4, Tilghman ordered the soldiers occupying Fort Heiman back to Fort Henry. One day later, he sent the majority of the occupants of Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, leaving behind only a handful of artillerymen to defend the fort. By February 6, Foote's flotilla maneuvered into position and began bombarding the fort. Seventy-five minutes later, Tilghman surrendered after suffering approximately fifteen men killed and another twenty wounded. On the Union side, thirty-two men were killed or wounded aboard the USS;Essex;when her boiler exploded after being hit by canon fire from the fort.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Fort Henry included:
20th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
58th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
68th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
76th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Although the Battle of Fort Henry was a relatively minor engagement compared with the scale of future Civil War battles, it provided great cause for celebration in the North because it opened a pathway for Federal operations in the South. That fact was quickly substantiated as three of Foote's gunboats continued 150 miles up the Tennessee River as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama immediately after the battle, capturing several Confederate ships and destroying a key railroad bridge.