The Battle of Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, was the first significant Union victory of the American Civil War (1861-65). In an effort to gain control of rivers and supply lines west of the Appalachians, Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Commodore Andrew Foote launched an attack on the lightly defended Fort Henry in Tennessee. After a fierce naval bombardment, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman secretly evacuated the bulk of his troops to nearby Fort Donelson before surrendering to Union forces. The fall of Fort Henry, followed 10 days later by the capture of Fort Donelson, opened up both the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers to Union control, cutting off Confederate access to two key waterways for the remainder of the war.

History of Fort Henry

Fort Henry was named for Confederate Senator Gustavus Henry and built in 1861 during the Civil War. Located on the Tennessee River, it was a critical point of defense for the Confederacy, protecting Nashville, Tennessee and the railroad route between Bowling Green, Kentucky and Memphis.

Battle of Fort Henry Begins

The Battle of Fort Henry was an uneven one from the start. The fort had been partially flooded by recent rainstorms, and the bad weather had left many of the troops left to defend it ill. To make matters worse, much of the Confederate weaponry dated from the War of 1812.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and his troops arrived near the banks of the river on February 4 and 5, 1862, disembarking just out of range of Confederate cannons. The fort was defended by less than 3,400 Confederate soldiers. In comparison, Grant had 15,000 Union troops at his disposal, supported by ironclad and wooden gunboats led by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote.

Foote began his attack at noon on February 6, 1862. (Grant’s army, meanwhile, was delayed by muddy roads.) Foote’s Union ships shot at the fort from less than 300 yards away, damaging all of its defensive guns and killing 21 confederate soldiers.

Tilghman, knowing the situation was bleak, moved the majority of his troops from the difficult to defend Fort Henry to Fort Donelson, just 10 miles down the Cumberland River.

The Confederate surrender was received onboard the Cincinnati, with 12 Confederate officers and 82 men present. Foote’s fleet suffered 32 casualties, while battle damage to the ironclad Essex left it out of commission for the rest of the war.

Importance of Battle of Fort Henry

A week after the Union victory at Fort Henry, the two forces would face off again at the Battle of Fort Donelson. In addition to marking the first major Union victory in the Civil War, the Battle of Fort Henry, along with the subsequent Union victory at the Battle of Fort Donelson, restored Western and middle Tennessee and most of Kentucky to the Union.