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Perry Cuskey

It began today

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Today marks the 147th anniversary of what would have to rank as one of the most overlooked and important events of the Civil War. Although much more attention is usually accorded to Fort Donelson, the capture of Fort Henry on February 6th, 1862, was a landmark moment in the war. The loss of this fort on the Tennessee River meant that the entire Confederate defensive line in Kentucky had been outflanked, and rendered all but useless. With the capture of Fort Henry, the Union Navy, and by extension the Union Army, effectively controlled the Tennessee River from it's mouth near Paducah, Kentucky all the way to Muscle Shoals in Alabama. This gave them the ability to land troops anywhere along that stretch, and place them completely behind the Confederates defending the line in Kentucky. It was a blow from which the Confederacy never fully recovered.

That was the importance of Fort Henry - the fact that control of a vast portion of the Tennessee River, and all that that meant, hinged on control of that single fort. Even retaining control of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River would not have repaired the breach that was opened at Fort Henry. The Union forces would still have been able to outflank that position, along with the rest of the Kentucky line.

Did it have to be that way? Possibly, but not necessarily. I'm not a big believer in the idea of inevitability where the Civil War was concerned, and I'm not convinced that the loss of either that fort or the Tennessee River was inevitable. The Confederates could have done a much better job of preparation, as well as location. They had the time, had they put it to better use.

It was much the same story at Fort Donelson, and for that matter, much of the Confederate effort in Kentucky from late 1861 to February 1862.

The capture of Fort Henry also marks what many people would consider to be the start of the Shiloh Campaign. Or if you prefer, the Corinth Campaign. So as of today, we are officially on the countdown clock toward Shiloh. But before we focus on Shiloh once more, or Fort Donelson, or Nashville, or any of the other remarkable events that led up to that titanic battle at Pittsburg Landing, let's not forget about Fort Henry. February 6th is a red letter day in the history of Shiloh. And a red letter day in the history of the American Civil War.

Perry

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I think it can be said, without reproach, that the confederates were not judicious in erecting Ft. Henry in either a timely manner or in the best location. The fort was almost under water the day it was taken by the Union Navy which along with everything else did little to ensure its security or the security of the forces within its walls. Everyone on both sides recognized early on the import of the rivers systems in the west as avenue's of invasion.

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Yes, Fort Henry, quite a story and Sharon is correct.  The fort was built in the wrong position.  The several expert engineers sited it on a flood plain.  You might say, The rest is history.  The federal officers sent to receive the surrender were rowed through the gate into the fort. 

Don't forget Fort Heiman on the opposite bank which was abandoned when Fort Henry was lost.  Fort Heiman was very incomplete but at least it was on a high bluff.  There is information about Fort Heiman on the web, just do a google search and several pages will come up.  You can read about the current efforts that resulted in Fort Heiman being included in the Fort Donelson park and is now part of the National Battlefield Parks.  Notice they halted the residential development of the area.  A odd bit of information is that the southern tip of the peninsula that sticks out into the lake is in Tennessee while the rest of the park is in Kentucky.  This little tip is completey cutoff from the state of Tennessee.  Also do a google search for Fort Heiman. 

The Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art features oil paintings by Andy Thomas which show Fort Henry as it appeared, partially underwater, during the attack.  Other pictures are of Fort Donelson and Ft. Heiman and they are very interesting because they show the forts as they appeared during the battles.  

If you are not aware of it, Fort Henry is under water today.  A map in one of the above web pages show some of the trenches of Fort Henry on shore, Thats all there is.

Ron

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The sites of Forts Henry and Donelson were chosen and the work of fortifying them begun by the State of Tennessee, when Kentucky was still holding itself neutral. The site chosen for Fort Henry commanded a straight stretch of the river for some miles, and was near the state line and near Donelson. But it was low ground, commanded by high ground on both sides of the river, and was washed by high water. Under the supervision of A S Johnston's engineers. the work had become well-traced, solidly constructed fortifications of earth, with five bastions mounting 12 guns, facing the river, and 5 guns bearing upon the land. Infantry intrenchments were thrown up on the nearest high land, extending to the river both above and below the main work, and commanding the road to Donelson.

At 11:00 in the morning on (Feb.) 6th, Gen. Grant moved with his command, and at the same time Commodore Foote, steamed up the river with his fleet. The 1st was the ironclads, Cincinnati, Carondelet and the St. Louis, each carrying 13 guns, and the Essex carrying 9 guns. The 2nd division of 3 wooden boats followed a half mine astern. At 11:45 the ironclads opened with their bow-guns at a distance of 1700 yards and continued firing while slowly advancing within 600 yards of the fort. Here the 4 ironclads took position abreast and fired with rapidity. The wooden ships sent shots falling within the works. The little garrison replied with spirit. 59 shots from their guns hit the fleet, but most of them rebounded without harm. One shot exploded the boiler of the Essex, scalding 28 officers and seamen, including Foote. In the fort the 24 lb rifled gun exploded, disabling every man at the piece: a shell from the fleet exploded at the mount of 1 of the 32 lb(ers), ruined the gun and killing or wounding all the crew. A premature explosion of a 42 lb(er) killed killed 3 and wounded others. A primer wire accidently spiked the 10" columbiad. 5 were killed, 11 wounded and 5 missing. 4 guns in the fort were disabled. The men were discouraged. Gen. Tilghman took personal charge of 1 of the guns and worked it but he could no longer inspirit his men. Col. Gilmer and a few others, not willing to surrender, left the fort and proceeded to Fort Donelson on foot. At 5 minutes before 2 Gen. Tilghman lowered his flag and sent his adjutant by boat to report to the flag officer of the fleet. 12 officers and 66 men in the fort and 16 men in the hospital boat surrendered.. Flag officer Foote, in his report, says the hospital-boat contained 60 invalids.

Extracted from Campaigns of the Civil War: From Fort Henry to Corinth by M F Force, late Brigadier General and Brevet Major General US Volunteers.

Oh by the way everyone wish W. T. Sherman "Happy Birthday" on the 189 anniversary of his birth. It is also the 51 anniversary of my dearly beloved husband birthday. May both men rest in peace together in a better place.

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Good posts. Concerning the location chosen, a better spot would probably have been just north of the Kentucky border, where the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were something like five miles apart, or maybe a bit less. But when the sites for what became forts Henry and Donelson were being chosen of course, in the summer of 1861, Kentucky was still officially neutral. I think one reason why the site for Henry was chosen was due to its proximity to the site for Fort Donelson, and that the two forts would be within fairly easy marching distance of each other, to offer mutual support if the need arose.

Still, a better site for Henry could certainly have been picked. And after Polk violated Kentucky's neutrality in September, the Confederates had opportunity to begin construction of a fort at that narrow gap in Kentucky. But even barring that, it's astonishing how ill-prepared both Henry and Donelson were when the Union finally launched an offensive. Johnston never seems to have checked to make sure any real progress was being made on either fort, and apparently assumed that all was well at both. That was a serious oversight on his part. Plus, Polk in Columbus, as well as Johnston at Bowling Green, both seem to have felt that responsibility for Fort Henry rested mainly with the other guy. Someone else's troubles, as it were.

Ron, good point about Fort Heiman. If they were going to build a fort in that area, that's probably where they should have focused their efforts, with Fort Henry basically being a supporting position. But I suppose being on the 'wrong' side of the river from Fort Donelson played into that decision. They should have pushed Fort Heiman more than they did, though. I didn't realize the site was now part of the NPS. Glad to hear that. I followed your advice and did a search, and came across a site with some good information...

http://www.trailsrus.com/fortheiman/

Also, below is the CivilWarAlbum page for Fort Henry, with some modern-day pictures...

http://www.civilwaralbum.com/donelson/donelson_ft.henry.htm

As Ron says, the main part of the fort is now underwater. Which in a way is appropriate, given the fort's brief and soggy history. Only the outerworks are left now.

Sharon - happy brithday to Cump, and to your husband. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they're exchanging birthday greetings today, and wishing you well.

Perry

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Something I forgot to mention before. After Fort Henry fell, Grant wrote to Halleck saying that he expected to capture Fort Donelson on February 8th. Oops. :)

Perry

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Yes The Ft Henry site is under water they have a sign down a nondescript road going to a hike to the bank where it sits under water.

Mona

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