February 1, 1862 (Saturday)
The damp snow that only February could bring dripped over the Ohio River cities of Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky, as General Ulysses S. Grant prepared his army to take Fort Henry. Two days had passed since Grant’s superior, General Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of Missouri, ordered him ready his men. In those two days, Grant lost no time.
General Halleck, as well, wasted no time. He knew that Grant needed more men. Originally, Halleck didn’t want to make an advance towards Nashville with less than 60,000. Grant had but 15,000. The race to find reinforcements was on. Halleck was able to pull a regiment from here or there, but Grant knew he would have to make do with what he had.1
Along with several regiments, Halleck also sent additional instructions for the campaign. Grant had put in a requisition for more wagons and horses. Halleck had little of each, but the key to the plan was speed. The roads, thanks to a soggy winter, were nearly useless. Fort Henry, however, was on the Tennessee River. Steamers would not only be used to transport the men, but they would also be used as a supply train.
Grant wired that his expedition would leave the next evening and then set about writing orders to his two division commanders, Generals McClernand and C.F. Smith. Both were ordered to pack lightly and to leave behind only the most scant of forces to defend Cairo and Paducah, respectively.2
The Defenses of Fort Henry
In Union-held Kentucky, two different armies, in two different departments, commanded by two different Generals faced off against one large Confederate army, commanded by a respected Old Army officer, General Albert Sidney Johnston. To the east, the bulk of General Don Carlos Buell’s troops were held north of the Green River, while the right wing of Johnston’s force held Bowling Green. Farther west, General Grant (under Halleck) stood opposite Johnston’s left wing, commanded by General Leonidas Polk, at Columbus.
The middle ground, the land between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, was defended by two Confederate forts, Henry on the Tennessee and Donelson on the Cumberland. The forts were under the command of General Lloyd Tilghman. Through the month of January, Tilghman had little more to worry about from the Federal forces aside from a gunboat or two lobbing shells at Fort Henry.
His two other concerns, however, were much more troublesome. With the almost-daily arrival of fresh troops, combined with Tilghman’s overly-strict discipline, moral was low. The weather, cold and sopping, lent no helping hand, and resulted in more sick than the command could easily afford.
Still, that wasn’t the crux of Tilghman’s troubles. As the rains took out men, it was also taking out the fort. The Tennessee River had risen thirty feet above the regular waterline, creeping and flowing towards battery emplacements and powder magazines inside the fort. Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, was hardly in better shape. In fact, General Johnston determined it the weakest point on his entire line.3
By the first day of February, what little change had taken place at Fort Henry was for the better. Lt. Col. Jeremy Gilmer, General Johnston’s Chief Engineer, had arrived the previous day and spent the next few inspecting the defenses. What Gilmer found was actually in surprisingly good shape. Tilghman had been told in November, that a large force of slaves would soon be at his doorstep ready to do all the hard labor he pleased. This brigade of chattel, however, did not arrive until early January. Gilmer applauded Tilghman’s speedy work under such harrowing circumstances.
While the defenses at Fort Henry, according to Gilmer, were adequate, there was a noticeable lack of artillery. For the few pieces that Tilghman could acquire, there was an even more noticeable lack of artillerists to man the guns.
During Gilmer’s visit, Tilghman confided in him that, while he was more or less certain that Fort Henry could withstand an infantry attack, he was less certain that it could withstand a naval attack. Tilghman believed that if such an attack were made, it would end in disaster for Fort Henry.4
General Buell Again/Still Not Advancing on Eastern Tennessee
General Don Carlos Buell had been urged for months by General McClellan and President Lincoln to advance into Eastern Tennessee. For months, General Buell had refused to do so. Following the Battle of Mill Springs in the middle of January, however, he dispatched a brigade under General Samuel Perry Carter to head towards Cumberland Gap.
By this date, however, Buell was again convinced that it was pointless. What the weather had done to Grant’s roads and Tilghman’s forts, it was now doing to Buell’s supply line. In a letter to General McClellan, Buell again insisted that Eastern Tennessee had been completely stripped by the several thousand enemy troops that had been near Knoxville.
He determined that it would take more than 30,000 to take that part of the state. That figure was shockingly huge, as the Rebels had a tiny force at Cumberland Gap of perhaps a little over 1,000.
Perhaps it was the fear that General Halleck would beat him to the punch at Forts Henry and Donelson that lit the fire under Buell. Though he was insistent upon not entering the barely-defended Eastern Tennessee, he was chomping at the bit to hit the Rebels at Bowling Green at the same time as Halleck assailed the forts.
Almost as a personal aside, Buell concluded his letter with a complaint about Halleck. While McClellan was ill, Lincoln had proposed that Buell attack into Eastern Tennesse, while Halleck created a diversion towards Fort Henry. Halleck was all for it, but Buell refused to set a date. Now Buell complained that Halleck had just informed him that he (Halleck) was going to make an advance on Fort Henry immediately.
“I protest against such prompt proceedings,” wrote a cranky Buell to McClellan, “as though I had nothing to do but command ‘Commence firing’ when he starts off.”
Before the letter was sent, Buell received a wire from Halleck that patted down his hackles. “However he telegraphs me tonight that co-operation is not essential now,” closed Buell, apparently satisfied that he could continue not advancing into Eastern Tennessee (or anywhere, for that matter).5