February 6, 1862 (Thursday)
The night, with its dark, pounding and flooding rains, had given way to a mild morning. A sparse, but noticeable breeze created ripples on the surface of the Tennessee River and blew over the submerged ramparts of Confederate Fort Henry, through the camps of General Grant’s men, three miles north, and across the bows of the Union fleet of Commodore Foote.
General Lloyd Tilghman, who commanded the 2,500 Rebels clinging to Fort Henry, witnessed one of his artillery officers row a boat over the earthworks and decided that his bastion was already lost. One council of war later, and Tilghman ordered all but seventy or so men to retreat to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, twelve miles east.
Fifty of those who remained were from Battery B, 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery. Their commander, Captain Jesse Taylor, convinced Tilghman that, with the eleven guns that remained above water, they could delay the Federals and protect the main body as it trudged along the road to Fort Donelson. This would, hoped Tilghman, give General Albert Sidney Johnston, the department commander, time to send reinforcements.
General Grant had set the time to move at 11am. It was then that his infantry, commanded by General John McClernand on the Fort Henry side of the River, and General Charles Smith on the other, stepped off. Commodore Foote’s fleet, with four ironclads in the front and three wooden gunboats in the rear, also set off at 11am.
As the flotilla steamed to within 1,700 yards of the fort, the flagship, USS Cincinnati, opened upon the fort. The Essex, St. Louis and Carondelet followed her lead. They drew closer and the fort replied, ripe with accuracy. The Rebel gunners of the 1st Tennessee had perfected the range of their guns, knowing the elevation and powder needed to hurl a shell exactly where the Union vessels were coming. The Cincinnati was hit over thirty times. The Union gunners aboard their ships, however, still needed to find the range, and they watched the shells splash harmlessly around the fort.
The Essex was taken out of the fight when a Rebel shell was sent into her boiler, exploding it, sending iron and steam into her crew, snuffing out the lives of several in the fulmination. But it was then that the Union fleet found its mark.
Two Rebel artillery pieces were hit concurrently, disabling the guns and killing or wounding the crews. Another two guns had burst on their own to the same horrific end. Then, in almost mystical succession, three more were knocked out of action by the overwhelming Federal fire.
General Tilghman knew all was lost, but threw off his coat and joined the crew of one of the remaining guns. For twenty minutes, they did what they could to hold off the Union fleet, but by 1:50, it was clear. Soon, the Rebel flag was taken down and pandemonium and cheers exploded from the Union ships.
Tilghman was shortly aboard Foote’s flagship, after being ferried from the fort in a boat that rowed through Henry’s sally port. In short order, Foote and Tilghman hammered out the terms for the unconditional surrender of the seventy or so Rebels who remained at the fort.
One thing that was missing from the battle was infantry. Commodore Foote figured that Grant’s troops would take the fort, but, when they didn’t show up, he decided to take it himself. McClernand’s division, on the Henry side of the Tennessee, had spent much of the day floundering in the mud that made up the roads leading to the fort.
This sluggishness not only caused them to miss the battle, but prohibited them from catching the fleeing Rebels on their way to Fort Donelson. Only bits of the Union cavalry tangled with a rear guard, which resulted in a few more Rebel prisoners.
By late afternoon, the Federal infantry found their way to the abandoned Confederate camp at Henry. It would take the retreating Rebels two days to wander through the thick woods to the relative (and ultimately, temporary) safety of Fort Donelson.1
That night, as the Union troops ate the food left behind by the Rebels and snuggled into their adversaries’ former beds, Grant wired his superior, General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, the news of the victory.
“Fort Henry is ours,” wrote the General, admitting, “the gunboats silenced the batteries before the investment was completed.” And then, without any orders for him to do so, Grant informed Halleck, “I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry.”2
Stonewall Jackson Un-Resigns
Stonewall Jackson had resigned after Secretary of War Judah Benjamin ordered General Loring’s brigades to abandon the town of Romney. Since then, Jackson’s friends had urged him to withdraw his letter of resignation, but Jackson was unmoving.
Virginia’s Governor Letcher sent mutual friend and Confederate Congressman, Alexander Boteler, to talk some sense into Jackson. He arrived in time for dinner and for dessert, he made the finest sales pitch he could make.
Jackson was more than willing to rethink his resignation, but only if he could manage his own campaigns without the whimsy of a certain someone “sitting at a desk three hundred miles away.”
Boteler countered while trying to appeal to Jackson’s love of Virginia. The words that came out of his mouth, however, seemed to say that Jackson was abandoning the state he so dearly loved, while others dedicated their lives to her cause.
General Jackson became irate, standing up and exclaiming that he had sacrificed his family life to the horrors of war. Calmed down, he explained that he would still serve his state, “even if it be as a private in the ranks.”
Jackson then sighed, probably realizing the full breadth of his duty, and said, “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”3
Before the night was over, Jackson penned a letter to Governor Letcher authorizing him to withdraw the letter of resignation. General Jackson, however, wanted to make it clear that he was in the right. To the Governor, he explained that “if the Secretary persists in the ruinous policy complained of, I feel that no officer can serve his country better than by making his strongest possible protest against it, which, in my opinion, is done by tendering his resignation, rather than be a willful instrument in prosecuting the war upon a ruinous principle.”4