Federal Gunboats Test Forts Donelson and Henry in Tennessee

January 21, 1862 (Tuesday)

General Ulysses Grant and a band of 15,000 had spent the better part of a week making a diversion in western Kentucky. The object was to keep the Rebels in the western portion of the state from reinforcing those in the eastern portion. This was done so General Buell in Louisville could launch a campaign into Eastern Tennessee. However, while Grant easily attained his objective, Buell gave little thought to acting in concert with him.

Though rendered pointless, Grant’s expedition wasn’t fruitless. General Charles Smith commanded a brigade under Grant that, on this date, was still on the march. Another brigade, commanded by General John McClernand, had returned to their base at Cairo, Illinois.

For Smith’s and McClernand’s men alike, the past week had been one of rain, ice, mud and hunger. They had marched at least seventy-five miles through a quagmire of roads as the temperatures dropped to near freezing. In their hunger, some soldiers even tried to make off with a horse.

But while McClernand’s men were settling back into their camps at Cairo, Smith’s brigade was on the road to Callaway, Kentucky, along the Tennessee River, seventy miles southwest of Cairo. Though the roads to the small river town were even worse than the typical Kentucky road in January, they finally made it to the banks of the Tennessee.

There, they found the USS Lexington, a gunboat armed with six pieces of heavy artillery. The Lexington, along with a steamer named the Wilson, had met Smith’s brigade to resupply the troops. There they learned that the Lexington had engaged a small Rebel vessel, but it had quickly scurried away after a short exchange. After the encounter, the Lexington threw twelve rounds into the fort and withdrew back to Callaway.

After hearing this report, General Smith must have made up his mind to see the fort for himself. The next morning, he and several of his staff planned to go with the Lexington for another sortie to Fort Henry.1

Fort Henry wasn’t the only Rebel fort in western Tennessee. Her sister, Fort Donelson, was twelve miles east, along the Cumberland River. The USS Lexington wasn’t the only ship on the waters casing the forts. The USS Conestoga, commanded by Lt. Seth Phelps, had taken a few peeks at Fort Donelson.

On this date, Phelps, his commander Flag Officer Andrew Foote, and General Henry Halleck, overall department commander, were debating the use of mortar boats against the forts. Mortar boats were simply boats with a mortar on board. They had no means of propulsion and had to be towed or floated to wherever they were needed.

Flag Officer Foote didn’t think the mortar boats were suited to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. The gunboats, like the Lexington and Conestoga, believed Foote, would be all that was needed to reduce the forts. He also had another concern. The mortar boats were constructed of heavy timber and would have to be towed up the swollen rivers, rather than floated down.

Lt. Phelps, on the other hand, believed the mortar boats to be well worth the trouble. “The gunboats will fire to great disadvantage,” reasoned Phelps in a letter to Halleck, “as the walls are much higher than the guns of the boats. If the shot lodges in the embankment it does no harm.” A mortar, on the other hand, lobs its shells up and over the parapets of the fort, “leaving no safety behind the walls.”

Unlike Foote, Phelps believed “that an efficient mortar boat would be worth a gunboat in the reduction of Fort Henry, but the mortar must be well worked.” Of Fort Donelson, he believed it “favorable for the greatest effect of bombshells, both in and about it. Effective mortar boats must prove the most destructive adversaries earth forts can have to contend with.”

Phelps’ letter, filled with sound strategic advice and encouragement was sent to both Halleck and Foote, who would respond the following day.2

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p72-73. []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, p511-514. []
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Federal Gunboats Test Forts Donelson and Henry in Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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