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February 10, 1862: The Union's raid up the Tennessee River

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

February 10, 1862: The Union's raid up the Tennessee River

On this day 150 years ago, Lieutenant S.L. Phelps, commanding the U.S.S. Conestoga, reported on his raid up the Tennessee River. Phelps, along with the gunboats Conestoga, Tyler, and Lexington had been sent up the Tennessee River almost the same hour as Fort Henry had fallen. Dashing up the Tennessee River, Phelps and his men wrecked bridges, burned rebel steamboats, seized supplies, and even captured a half finished Confederate ironclad.At Florence, where he should have destroyed the railroad bridge. The railroad bridge at Florence would later be used by the Confederates to move troops intended to counter the advance of Grant's army.


Tennessee River, February 10, 1862.

SIR: Soon after the surrender of Fort Henry, on the 6th instant, I proceeded, in obedience to your order, up the Tennessee River with the Tyler, Lieutenant Commanding Gwin; Lexington, Lieutenant Commanding Shirk, and this vessel, forming a division of the flotilla, and arrived after dark at the railroad crossing, 25 miles above the fort, having on the way destroyed a small amount of camp equipage, abandoned by the fleeing rebels. The draw of the bridge was found closed and the machinery for turning it disabled. About 1 1/2 miles above, were several rebel transport steamers escaping upstream. A party was landed and in one hour I had the satisfaction to see the draw open. The Tyler being the slowest of the gunboats, Lieutenant Commanding Gwin landed a force to destroy a portion of the railroad track and to secure such military stores as might be found, while I directed Lieutenant Commanding Shirk to follow me with all speed in chase of the fleeing boats. In five hours this boat succeeded in forcing the rebels to abandon and burn three of their boats, loaded with military stores. The first one fired (Samuel Orr) had on board a quantity of submarine batteries, which very soon exploded; the second one was freighted with powder, cannon, shot, grape, balls, etc. Fearing an explosion from the fired boats (there were two together), I had stopped at a distance of 1,000 yards; but even there our skylights were broken by the concussion; the light upper deck was raised bodily, doors were forced open, and locks and fastenings everywhere broken.

The whole river for half a mile around about was completely beaten up by the falling fragments and the shower of shot, grape, balls, etc. The house of a reported Union man was blown to pieces, and it is suspected there was design in landing the boats in front of the doomed home. The Lexington having fallen astern, and without a pilot on board, I concluded to wait for both of the boats to come up. Joined by them we proceeded up the river. Lieutenant Commanding Gwin had destroyed some of the trestlework at the end of the bridge, burning with them a lot of camp equipage. I. N. Brown, formerly a lieutenant in the Navy, now signing himself Lieutenant, C. S. N., had fled with such precipitation as to leave his papers behind. These Lieutenant Commanding Gwin brought away and I send them to you, as they give an official history of the rebel floating preparations on the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee. Lieutenant Brown had charge of the construction of gunboats. At night on the 7th we arrived at a landing in Hardin County, Tenn., known as Cerro Gordo, where we found the steamer Eastport being converted to a gunboat. Armed boats crews were immediately sent on board and search made for means of destruction that might have been devised. She had been scuttled and the suction pipes broken. These leaks were soon stopped. A number of rifle shots were fired at our vessels, but a couple of shells dispersed the rebels. On examination I found that there were large quantities of timber and lumber prepared for fitting up the Eastport; that the vessel itself, some 280 feet long, was in excellent condition and already half finished; considerable of the plating designed for her was lying on the bank and everything at hand to complete her. I therefore directed Lieutenant Commanding Gwin to remain with the Tyler to guard the prize, and to load the lumber, etc., while the Lexington and Conestoga should proceed still higher up.

Soon after daylight on the 8th we passed Eastport, Miss., and at Chickasaw, farther up, near the State line, seized two steamers, the Sallie Wood and Muscle; the former laid up and the latter freighted with iron destined for Richmond and for rebel use. We then proceeded on up the river, entering the State of Alabama and ascending to Florence, at the foot of the Mussel Shoals. On coming in sight of the town three steamers were discovered, which were immediately set on fire by the rebels. Some shots were fired from the opposite side of the river below. A force was landed and considerable quantities of supplies, marked Fort Henry, were secured from the burning wrecks. Some had been landed and stored. These I seized, putting such as we could bring away on board our vessels and destroying the remainder. No flats or other craft could be found. I found also more of the iron and plating intended for the Eastport.

A deputation of citizens of Florence waited upon me, first desiring that they might be made able to quiet the fears of their wives and daughters with assurances from me that they would not be molested; and, secondly, praying that I would not destroy their railroad bridge. As for the first I told them we were neither ruffians nor savages, and that we were there to protect from violence and to enforce the law; and with reference to the second, that if the bridge were away we could ascend no higher, and that it could possess, so far as I saw, no military importance, as it simply connected Florence itself with the railroad on the south bank of the river.

We had seized three of their steamers, one the half-finished gun- boat, and had forced the rebels to burn six others loaded with sup- plies, and their loss, with that of the freight, is a heavy blow to the enemy. Two boats are still known to be on the Tennessee, and are doubtless hidden in some of the creeks, where we shall be able to find them when there is time for the search.

We returned on the night of the 8th to where the Eastport lay. The crew of the Tyler had already gotten on board of the prize an immense amount of lumber, etc. The crews of the three boats set to work to finish the undertaking, and we have brought away probably 250,000 feet of the best quality of ship and building lumber, all the iron, machinery, spikes, plating, nails, etc., belonging to the rebel gunboat, and I caused the mill to be destroyed where the lumber had been sawed.

Lieutenant Commanding Gwin in our absence had enlisted some 25 Tennesseeans, who gave information of the encampment of Colonel Crews' rebel regiment, at Savannah, Tenn. A portion of the 600 or 700 men were known to be "pressed" men, and all were badly armed. After consultation with Lieutenants Commanding Gwin and Shirk, I determined to make a land attack upon the encamp- ment. Lieutenant Commanding Shirk, with 30 riflemen, came on board the Conestoga, leaving his vessel to guard the Eastport, and accompanied by the Tyler we proceeded up to that place, prepared to land 130 riflemen and a 12-pounder rifled howitzer. Lieutenant Commanding Gwin took command of this force when landed, but had the mortification to find the camp deserted. The rebels had fled at 1 o'clock in the night, leaving considerable quantities of arms, clothing, shoes, camp utensils, provisions, implements, etc., all of which were secured or destroyed, and their winter quarters of log huts were burned. I seized also a large mail bag, and send you the letters giving military information. The gunboats were then dropped down to a point where arms gathered under the rebel press law had been stored, and an armed party under Second Master Goudy, of the Tyler, succeeded in seizing about 70 rifles and fowling pieces. Returning to Cerro Gordo, we took the Eastport, Sallie Wood, and Muscle in tow, and came down the river to the railroad crossing. The Muscle sprung a leak, and all efforts failed to prevent her sinking, and we were forced to abandon her, and with her a considerable quantity of fine lumber. We are having trouble in getting through the draw of the bridge here.

I now come to the, to me, most interesting portion of this report, one which has already become lengthy; but I must trust you will find some excuse for this in the fact that it embraces a history of labors and movements day and night from the 6th to the 10th of the month, all of which details I deem it proper to give you. We have met with the most gratifying proofs of loyalty everywhere across Tennessee, and in the portions of Mississippi and Alabama we visited most affecting instances greeted us almost hourly. Men, women, and children several times gathered in crowds of hundreds, shouted their welcome and hailed their national flag with an enthusiasm there was no mistaking. It was genuine and heartfelt. Those people braved everything to go to the river bank, where a sight of their flag might once more be enjoyed, and they have experienced, as they related, every possible form of persecution. Tears flowed freely down the cheeks of men as well as of women, and there were those who had fought under the stars and stripes at Moultrie, who, in this manner testified to their joy. This display of feeling and sense of gladness at our success, and the hopes it created in the breasts of so many people in the heart of the Confederacy astonished us not a little, and I assure you, sir, I would not have failed to witness it for any consideration. I trust it has given us all a higher sense of the sacred character of our present duties. I was assured at Savannah that of the several hundred troops there, more than one-half, had we gone to the attack in time, would have hailed us as deliverers and gladly enlisted with the national force. In Tennessee the people generally in their enthusiasm braved secessionists and spoke their views freely; but in Mississippi and Alabama what was said was guarded. If we dared express ourselves freely you would hear such a shout greeting your coming as you never heard. We know there are many Unionists among us, but a reign of terror makes us afraid of our shadows. We were told, too, Bring us a small organized force with arms and ammunition for us, and we can main- tain our position and put down rebellion in our midst. There were, it is true, whole communities who, on our approach, fled to the woods, but these were where there was less of the loyal element and where the fleeing steamers in advance had spread tales of our com- ing with firebrands, burning, destroying, ravishing, and plundering.

The crews of these vessels have had a very laborious time, but have evinced a spirit in their work highly creditable to them. Lieutenants Commanding Gwin and Shirk have been untiring, and I owe to them and to their officers many obligations for our entire success.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,

S.L. PHELPS, Lieutenant,

Commanding, U. S. Navy.

Flag-Officer, A. H. FOOTE, U. S. Navy,

Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters.

The long-term effects of Phelp's raid were devastating. The Tennessee River had been an important artery of commerce and supply for the Confederacy. Phelps captured or burned all but two of the Confederacy's steamboats on the Tennessee River, which was a problem because the Confederates themselves lacked the ability to build steamboats. By destroying the Confederate shipping on the Tennessee River, Phelps rendered the Tennessee River useless to the Confederates. Phelps also did critical damage to railroad bridges that cross the river, though he missed his chance at Florence when he failed to destroy the railroad bridge there. The railroad bridge at Florence would be used later in the year by the Confederates to move troops to counter the advance of Grant's army.


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When I first read this document, I believed the following statement was the most significant achievement of the raid:




Returning to Cerro Gordo, we took the Eastport, Sallie Wood, and Muscle in tow, and came down the river to the railroad crossing. The Muscle sprung a leak, and all efforts failed to prevent her sinking, and we were forced to abandon her, and with her a considerable quantity of fine lumber. We are having trouble in getting through the draw of the bridge here...



As impressive as the capture of the half-finished ironclad, Eastport, was, I now believe that there is something even more significant, hidden in plain view:




 The first one fired (Samuel Orr) had on board a quantity of submarine batteries, which very soon exploded...



For an explanation of the highlighted term, and its use, see the below websites:





http://ehistory.osu.edu/books/official-records/110/0230   Dateline: 'Memphis,  December 5, 1861'





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Another benefit of the Phelp's Raid... After the fall of Fort Henry, concerns were raised, among the defenders, about the river defenses of Fort Donelson. And, it was suggested that submarine batteries would come in handy. Unfortunately, it was discovered that none of these items were available...





http://archive.org/stream/lifeofgenalberts028942mbp#page/n467/mode/2up   page 435, top.

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One more thing about that raid...  I always assumed it was done 'spur-of-the-moment,' a target of opportunity following conveniently upon the defeat of Fort Henry. But, the following extract proves otherwise [from OR (Navy) SN 33, Volume 22. page 537]:


Special Orders No. 3

Issued at Paducah, Kentucky


February 2nd, 1862


      Lieutenant-Commanding Phelps will, as soon as the fort shall have surrendered and upon signal from the flagship, proceed with the Conestoga, Tyler and Lexington up the river to where the railroad bridge crosses and, if the army shall not already have got possession, he will destroy so much of the track as will entirely prevent its use by the rebels.

      He will then proceed as far up the river as the stage of water will admit and capture the enemy's gunboats and other vessels which might prove available to the enemy. 


Andrew H. Foote


Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters


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