The 29th Illinois Infantry left Paducah, Kentucky on February 3, 1862 as part of the invasion force that would capture Fort Henry, a Confederate fort sitting on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River, just south of the Kentucky border. The 29th, along with the 8th Illinois Infantry; 18th Illinois Infantry; 29th Illinois Infantry; 30th Illinois Infantry; 31st Illinois Infantry; Stewart’s, Dollins’s, O’Harnett’s, and Carmichael’s cavalry companies; and Schwartz’s and Dresser’s batteries, composed the First Brigade (commanded by Col. Richard J. Oglesby) of the First Division (commanded by Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand) of the army which would eventually be known as the Army of the Tennessee. The soldiers of the First Division were aboard transport ships headed up (southbound) the Tennessee River and were accompanied by the Essex and St. Louis ironclad gunboats.
Fort Henry was constructed in 1861 on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River. It was a five-sided structure that comprised ten acres of real estate. The site for the fort was scouted by Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson and was named in honor of Tennessee Senator (C.S.A.) Gustavus Adolphus Henry, Sr. The location of the fort provided for a two mile field of fire downriver. This was, however, the only benefit to the location. The fort was situated on low-lying swampy ground that was prone to flooding and was overshadowed by high-reaching bluffs across the river on the west bank. To secure the bluffs overlooking Fort Henry, the rebels constructed an earthen fort on the west bank, named Fort Heiman. Prior to the siege of Fort Henry, rebel soldiers numbering 1,885 and 1,100 manned the fortifications at Fort Henry and Fort Heiman, respectively, with Col. Heiman in command of all troops. The defenses of Fort Henry consisted of 20 foot masonry walls, 20 feet thick at their base and tapering up to 10 feet thick at their crest. Seventeen guns defended the fort: one (1) 10-inch Columbiad, one (1) 24-pounder rifled cannon, and fifteen (15) 32-pounder smoothbore cannons. Eleven of these were gazed upon the river, while the remaining six were facing inland to protect against an overland assault. In addition to the large guns, the rebels had sunk torpedoes (mines) in the river channel to protect against the invading gunboats. The garrison of Forts Henry and Heiman were armed with old flintlock rifles that had been in action since the War of 1812.
In the early morning of February 4th, McClernand’s First Division disembarked at Itra Landing 8 miles north of Fort Henry on the east bank. While the First Division disembarked, General Grant boarded the Essex and participated in a naval reconnaissance along with two other ironclads. The fleet steamed upriver within a mile or two of the fort and engaged in a brief cannonade with the fort, with one rebel shot passing over the heads of General Grant and Commander Porter of the Essex and landing a direct hit through the cabins and steerage of the Essex. Having tested the range of the rebel guns and also locating a closer landing site, the fleet returned to Itra Landing where the First Division was told to pack up and file back onto the transport ships. The First Division was ordered to disembark for a second time at Bailey’s Landing, 4 miles north of the fort on the east bank. On the evening of February 4th, the men of the First Division went into camp just outside of Bailey’s Landing at a camp that Gen. McClernand dubbed Camp Halleck. Grant’s Second Division, under the command of Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith, arrived on the night of the 4th and made camp at Camp Halleck.
On the morning of February 5th, a detachment of men in Oglesby’s First Brigade were sent on a reconnaissance mission between Camp Halleck and Fort Henry, where they engaged rebel skirmishers. The Union troops retired to Camp Halleck before rebel reinforcements could engage. Also on the morning of the 5th, Smith’s Second Division (with the exception of the Third Brigade of the Second Division), were ferried across the river with orders to take Fort Heiman on the bluffs overlooking Fort Henry. During the evening of the 5th, General Grant issued general orders to McClernand to move his First Division at 11:00 AM on the 6th to a spot on the Dover Road 8 miles south. The Dover Road linked Fort Henry to the town of Dover and Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, about 10 miles to the east. The dual purpose of this movement was to prevent soldiers from Fort Donelson from reinforcing Fort Henry as well as to prevent the evacuation of the garrison of Fort Henry. Also on the evening of the 5th, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote met with his gunboat commanders to decide a plan of attack for his Western Flotilla gunboats: the ironclads Cincinnati (the flagship), St. Louis, Essex and Carondelet and the timberclads Tyler, Conestoga, and Lexington.
Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman (C.S.A.) commanding the garrisons of Forts Donelson and Henry left Fort Donelson and arrived at Fort Henry late at night on February 4th after hearing the initial gunfire from the ironclads. At daybreak on February 5th, Tilghman ordered the garrison at Fort Heiman to abandon that position and move to Fort Henry. Rising river waters showed the poor location of Fort Henry, as the twenty foot walls rose only a few feet above the water level, allowing gunboats to come very close and lob shells from a higher position. At 10:00 AM on the morning of the 6th, Tilghman ordered the garrison of the fort to move out on the Dover Road, out of range of the gunboats and await further orders. Tilghman stayed in the fort with a lone artillery company to man the guns and delay the Union advance.
Shortly thereafter, at 10:20, Flag Officer Foote, aboard the Cincinnati, ordered the signal to prepare for battle to be hoisted. The gunboats then steamed up river toward the fort. At 1,700 yards, the ironclads formed a battle line, four abreast with their bows pointed toward the fort. Each boat was armed with three 9-inch Dahlgrem bow guns. At 12:34, the gunboats began firing on the fort. Within minutes all 12 guns were raining down shells on the fort as the boats closed the gap. The rebel artillery held their fire until the gunboats were in range, and then opened up with the Columbiad, the 24 pounder and the 32 pounders. About 30 minutes into the fight, the rebels landed a fortuitous shot onto the Essex, which penetrated her middle boiler, spewing scalding steam through half of the boat and disabling her. Several sailors,including Commander Porter, suffered severe burns, and some went overboard to escape the steam. The Essex floated listlessly downriver, she was out of the fight. Shortly after the Essex went out, the rebel 24-pounder and Columbiad were out of commission – one due to an explosion and the other to a jammed priming wire. The rebel gun crews were suffering from wounds and exhaustion. At one point, Tilghman jumped in and manned a 32 pounder, firing two shots at the Cincinnati.
At about 1:50, there were not enough able rebel gunners left to man the guns and Tilghman gave the order to strike the colors and raise the white flag. Heiman was given the order to proceed to Donelson with his troops. McClernand was still en route to his ordered position, but could not catch the garrison before it escaped. Flag Officer Foote sent Commander Stembel of the Cincinnati on a yawl to the fort to accept the surrender of the fort on behalf of Foote. Because of the high water level, Stembel was able to sail the yawl right through the front gates of the fort. Stembel accepted the surrender of the fort and took Tilghman to board the Cincinnati to present himself to Foote. Aboard the Cincinnati, Tilghman honored Foote by stating his happiness to surrender to such a gallant officer, Foote apparently responded by stating “You do perfectly right sir, in surrendering, but you should have blown my boat out of the water before I would have surrendered to you.” With that Tilghman became a prisoner of war, and would remain so until August of 1862. He would later die during the Vicksburg campaign. In addition to Tilghman, Foote captured 60 or 70 artillerymen and another 60 invalids aboard a captured hospital ship docked near the fort.
The scorecard for the gunboats was as follows: the Cincinnati fired 112 shots, received 31 hits from rebel guns, and suffered 1 killed and 9 wounded; the Essex fired 72 shots, received 15 hits from rebel guns (including the shot to the boiler) and suffered 10 killed, 23 wounded, and 5 missing (likely drowned after going overboard); the St. Louis fired 116 shots, received 7 hits from rebel guns and suffered no casualties; and the Carondelet fired 107 shots, received 6 hits from rebel guns and suffered no casualties.
The First Division marched toward the fort once the firing ceased, with the 18th Illinois Infantry reaching the fort at 3:30. Once McClernand realized that the garrison had evaded him, he sent his cavalry after the retreating rebels. The cavalry harassed Heiman’s rear guard, consisting of the 26th Alabama Infantry and the 15th Arkansas Infantry, for much of Heiman’s exhausting 22 mile march back to Fort Donelson. McClernand’s cavalry were able to capture 6 guns and 38 prisoners. General Grant wanted to move on Fort Donelson, and its then garrison of 7,000 soldiers, as quickly as possible before reinforcements arrived from Nashville, and he wired Gen. Halleck that he would move on the 8th. Foote’s ironclads, however, were in no shape to immediately engage another land battery, and headed back to Cairo for repairs. When they arrived, they were flying captured rebel flags – upside down. Grant was forced to delay his assault on Fort Donelson, and McClernand moved his First Division east on February 11th. Confederate General Albert S. Johnson, then Commander of the Western Department (which encompassed western and central Tennessee) believed that Fort Donelson would meet the same fate as Fort Henry – yielding to the gunboats without the need for a Union ground assault. However, due to the superior placement of the river batteries of Fort Donelson, he would be mistaken.
Having not suffered any damage, Foote’s timberclads, under the command of Lt. Phelps, steamed up the Tennessee River, unchecked, into Northern Alabama, destroying bridges and capturing rebel ships. They returned to Fort Henry on February 12. This was the benefit of the capture of Fort Henry – to provide an expressway for invasion deep into the Confederacy. The Cumberland River, and a direct river route to Nashville was next.
Sources: The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Bearss, Edwin C., The Fall of Fort Henry Tennessee, The West Tennessee Historical Society, Vol. XVII (1963).