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February 6, 1862: The Defense of Fort Henry

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From the American Civil War web site: http://www.civilwar-online.com/

The following is an eyewitness account of the Battle of Fort Henry from the Confederate perspective from "The Defense of Fort Henry" by Captain Jesse Taylor, C.S. Army:

On the 4th of February the Federal fleet of gun-boats, followed by countless transports, appeared below the fort. Far as eye could see, the course of the river could be traced by the dense volumes of smoke issuing from the flotilla-indicating that the long-threatened attempt to break our lines was to be made in earnest. The gunboats took up a position about three miles below and opened a brisk fire, at the same time shelling the woods on the east bank of the river, thus covering the debarkation of their army. The 5th was a day of unwonted animation on the hitherto quiet waters of the Tennessee; all day long the flood-tide of arriving and the ebb of returning transports continued ceaselessly. Late in the afternoon three of the gun-boats, two on the west side and one of the east at the foot of the island, took position and opened a vigorous and well-directed fire, which was received in silence until the killing of one man and the wounding of three provoked an order to open with the Columbiad and the rifle. Six shots were fired in return,-three from each piece,-and with such effect that the gun-boats dropped out of range and ceased firing.

At night General Tilghman called his leading officers in consultation-Colonels Heiman, Forrest, and Drake are all that I can now recall as having been present. The Federal forces were variously estimated by us, 25,000 being, I think, the lowest. To oppose this force General Tilghman had less than four thousand men,-mostly raw regiments armed with shot-guns and hunting-rifles; in fact, the best-equipped regiment of his command, the 10th Tennessee, was armed with old flint-lock "Tower of London" muskets that had "done the state some service" in the war of 1812. The general opinion and final decision was that successful resistance to such an overwhelming force was an impossibility, that the army must fall back and unite with Pillow and Buckner at Fort Donelson. General Tilghamn, recognizing the difficulty of withdrawing undisciplined troops from the front of an active and superior opponent, turned to me with the question, "Can you hold out for one hour against a determined attack?" I replied that I could. "Well, then, gentlemen, rejoin your commands and hold them in readiness for instant motion." The garrison left at the fort to cover the withdrawal consisted of part of Company B, 1st Tennessee Artillery, Lieutenant Watts, and fifty-four men.

The forenoon of February 6th was spent by both sides in making needful preparations for the approaching struggle. The gun-boats formed line of battle abreast under the cover of the island. The Essex, the Cincinnati, the Carondelet, and the St. Louis, the first with 4 and the others each with 13 guns, formed the van; the Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington, with 15 guns in all, formed the second or rear line. Seeing the formation of battle I assigned to each gun a particular vessel to which it was to pay its especial compliments, and directed that the guns be kept constantly trained on the approaching boats. Accepting the volunteered services of Captain Hayden (of the engineers) to assist at the Columbiad, I took personal supervision of the rifle. When they were out of cover of the island the gun-boats opened fire, and as they advanced they increased the rapidity of their fire, until as they swung into the main channel above the island they showed one broad and leaping sheet off lame. At this point, the van being a mile distant, the command was given to commence firing from the fort; and here let me say that as pretty and as simultaneous a "broadside" was delivered as I ever saw flash from the sides of a frigate. The action now became general, and for the next twenty or thirty minutes was, on both sides, as determined, rapid, and accurate as heart could wish, and apparently inclined in favor of the fort. The iron-clad Essex, disabled by a shot through her boiler, dropped out of line; the fleet seemed to hesitate, when a succession of untoward and unavoidable accidents happened in the fort; thereupon the flotilla continued to advance. First, the rifle gun, from which I had just been called, burst, not only with destructive effect to those working it, but with disabling effect on those in its immediate vicinity. Going to the Columbiad as the only really effective gun left, I met General Tilghman and for the first time knew that he had returned to the fort; I supposed that he was with his retreating army. While consulting with him a sudden exclamation drew me to the Columbiad, which I found spiked with its own priming wire, completely disabled for the day at least. The Federal commander, observing the silence of these two heavy guns, renewed his advance with increased precision of fire. Two of the 32-pounders were struck almost at the same instant, and the flying fragments of the shattered guns and bursted shells disabled every man at the two guns. His rifle shot and shell penetrated the earth-works as readily as a ball from a navy Colt would pierce a pine board, and soon so disabled other guns as to leave us but four capable of being served.

General Tilghman now consulted with Major Gilmer and myself as to the situation, and the decision was that further resistance would only entail a useless loss of life. He therefore ordered me to strike the colors, now a dangerous as well as a painful duty. The flag-mast,which had been the center of fire, had been struck many times; the top-mast hung so far out of the perpendicular that it seemed likely to fall at any moment; the flag halyards had been cut by shot, but had fortunately become "foul" at the cross-trees. I beckoned-for it was useless to call amid the din-to Orderly-Sergeant Jones, an old "man-o'-war's man," to come to my assistance, and we ran across to the flag-staff and up the lower rigging to the cross-trees, and by our united efforts succeeded in clearing the halyards and lowering the flag. The view from that elevated position at the time was grand, exciting, and striking. At our feet the fort with her few remaining guns was sullenly hurling her harmless shot against the sides of the gun-boats, which, now apparently within two hundred yards of the fort, were, in perfect security, and with the coolness and precision of target practice, sweeping the entire fort; to the north and west, on both sides of the river, were the hosts of "blue coats," anxious and interested spectators, while to the east the feeble forces of the Confederacy could be seen making their weary way toward Donelson.

On the morning of the attack, we were sure that the February rise of the Tennessee had come; when the action began, the lower part of the fort was already flooded, and when the colors were hauled down, the water was waist-deep there; and when the cutter came with the officers to receive the formal surrender, she pulled into the "sally-port"; between the fort and the position which had been occupied by the infantry support was a sheet of water a quarter of a mile or more wide, and "running like a mill-race." If the attack had been delayed forty-eight hours, there would hardly have been a hostile shot fired; the Tennessee would have accomplished the work by drowning the magazine.

The fight was over; the little garrison were prisoners; but our army had been saved. We had been required to hold out an hour; we had held out for over two.

We went into the fight with nine guns bearing on the river approach,-we had two more 42-pounders, but neither shot nor shell for them; of these all were disabled but four. Of the 54 men who went into action 5 were killed, 11 wounded or disabled, and 5 missing. When the Essex dropped our of the fight I could see her men wildly throwing themselves into the swollen river. Admiral Foote reported that his flag-ship was struck thirty-eight times, and the commanding officers of gun-boats (with several of whom I had enjoyed a arm personal acquaintance) complimented me highly on what they termed the extraordinary accuracy of the fire. I believe that with effective guns the same precision of fire would have sunk or driven back the flotilla.

The formal surrender was made to the naval forces; Lieutenant-Commander Phelps acting for Flag-Officer Foote, and I representing General Tilghman. The number captured, including Tilghman and staff, hospital attendants and some stragglers from the infantry, amounted to about seventy.

During the evening a large number of army officers came into the fort, to whom I was introduced by my old messmates, Lieutenant-Commanders Gwin and Shirk. Here I first saw General Grant, who impressed me, at the time, as a modest, amiable, kind-hearted but resolute man. While we were at headquarters an officer came in to report that he had not as yet found any papers giving information of our forces, and, to save him further looking, I informed him that I had destroyed all the papers bearing on the subject, at which he seemed very worth, fussily demanding, "By what authority?" Did I not know that I laid myself open to punishment, etc., etc. Before I could reply fully, General Grant quietly broke in with, "I would be very much surprised and mortified if one of my subordinate officers should allow information which he could destroy to fall into the hands of the enemy."

We were detained for several days at the fort and were confined to the same steamer on which General Grant had established his headquarters, and as the officers, Confederate and Federal, messed together, I saw much of the general during that time. We were treated with every courtesy; so our confinement was less irksome than we had anticipated and was only marred by one incident. Two of the younger Confederate officers having obtained liquor became vociferous. At dinner General Grant did not take his seat with the rest, and this restraint being removed, the young men, despite frowns and nudges, persisted in discussing politics, military men and movements, etc. While they were thus engaged General Grant, unobserved by them, entered, took his seat, and dined without appearing to notice their conversation, but when the youngsters left the table they were dumfounded to meet a corporal and file of men, who ceremoniously conducted them to the "nursery" and left them under guard, where I shortly visited them. At last I promised to intercede, which I did, carrying with me regrets, explanations, and apologies. The general smiled and said that he had confined them partly for their own sakes, lest they might fall in with some of his own men in a similar condition; that he did not believe the young men knew of his presence, and that he would order their release so soon as they became sober, which he did.


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Great post, Jim. Thanks.

Can you imagine climbing up that pole to strike the colors with gunboat shells screaming down around you? And he remembered the surrounding view from when he was up there, in detail. That's impressive.

I do like the story about Grant and the two "vociferous" southern officers. It kind of sounds like something Grant would do. A lot of officers would probably have turned beet red and roared at them to shut up, or had them arrested on the spot. Not really Grant's style though. And he was probably right, that it was as much for their own protection as anything else. Sometimes being vociferous isn't such a good idea. :)


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