Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fort Henry: 150 Years Ago

On February 6, 1862, 150 years ago today, a flotilla of Union gunboats led by Commander Andrew Hull Foote assaulted Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. While the fight lasted little over an hour, its implications were great for the nation.

Fort Henry was the object of a southward movement by a joint force of infantry and naval gunboats commanded by Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. After weeks of fighting with his commanding officer, Henry W. Halleck, Grant was finally given approval for a movement against Fort Henry on the Tennessee. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman had an impossible task of defending the fort. The flooding Tennessee had incapacitated all but 9 of the forts guns by the 6th, as well as flooding Fort Henry's gun powder supply. After a direct movement against the fort and a fierce artillery exchange, several Union gunboats forced the fort's surrender. A small Union vessel actually sailed into the fort to pick up Tilghman for the surrender ceremony. While Foote's flotilla had taken the fort, they missed on capturing most of its garrison. On the 4th and 5th, in an act of great foresight, Tilghman sent nearly the entire Fort Henry garrison 12 miles east to the much more formidable Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.

The fall of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River for Union vessels to move deep into Southern territory. Three gunboats were quickly sent upriver, making their way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 125 miles behind Confederate lines, burning railroad bridges and destroying Confederate ships along the way. Perhaps even more importantly, Fort Henry set the stage for an even bigger struggle; while Halleck ordered Grant to stay at Fort Henry (a foolish request, considering that the fort was completely under water by February 8th), Grant wired his superior to tell him that he would soon advance upon and sieze Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. With the capture of Donelson, the Cumberland River would be opened, Nashville, Tennessee would be vulnerable, and a deep fissure would be forged in Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston’s defensive line across the state of Kentucky, forcing Confederates to withdraw from the crucial border state and retreat into the Deep South. 150 years ago today, with the capture of Fort Henry, these outcomes were still possibilities, yet their realization was coming into focus for Ulysses S. Grant.

Over the next three years, Grant’s journey from failure to glory would reach its critical stage. In 1854, Grant resigned from the army out of drunkenness, loneliness, and depression. In 1857, he was forced to pawn a gold watch for $22 to provide for his family. At the start of the war, Grant achieved command through political appointment; however, unlike many political appointees, Grant would make the most of his opportunities, forever changing the course of the Civil War and of the nation. 150 years ago today, Grant stood upon the verge of limitless success beyond his wildest dreams and aspirations. The upcoming campaign for Fort Donelson would begin to redefine his name and identity not just for his men, but for the nation, and for all of history as well.

For those who wish to learn more about this riveting campaign and exciting chapter in American history, you are welcome to attend a program at the Mentor Public Library (in Mentor, Ohio) this Wednesday, February 8th at noon, where I will be speaking about the campaign for Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. The program is free, and is a part of a series on Major Battles of the Civil War, given by the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. If you would like to make reservations or ask for directions, please see the links below. If you are in the Northeastern Ohio area, I hope to see you on Wednesday!

Major Battles Speaker Series

Mentor Public Library

Event Info/Registration

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