On 6 February 1862, Union forces descended on the hapless Forts Heiman and Henry on the Tennessee River near the Kentucky / Tennessee border. If there was the one action that precipitated the fall of the Confederate west militarily, this was it. With control of the Tennessee River from Illinois through western Kentucky and western Tennessee all the way down to North Alabama, the Union changed the war with one stroke.
Forts Heiman and Henry
Fort Henry was under the Confederate command of General Lloyd Tilghman, but little could any General do about a poor position and a rising river. If Grant and Foote had not taken him, the river would have. Torrential rains had made the fort almost untenable for river guns. The heights across the river at Fort Heiman were to have been improved and might have made a difference, but the lack of men and equipment meant that the construction was not complete.
Confederate hopes flooded
A few days previous, Tilghman actually thought the Rebels might inflict a terrible loss on the Yankees, if reserves could be brought down from Columbus and over from Bowling Green. In the end, Tilghman saw he had a losing hand when no re-enforcements came to his call. Tilghman decided to save the infantry and personally join a small artillery detachment to hold off the Yankees long enough to let the infantry escape to Fort Donelson. He succeeded and surrendered to Foote on a gunboat at the entrance to the fort. Grant’s infantry divisions were bogged down in mud on either side of the river after alighting from Foote’s troop transports, so they didn’t even get in place before the surrender.
Commodore Foote’s ironclads had taken a significant beating in the battle with the Confederate river guns, but Foote had a few fast timberclads continue up the Tennessee River to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to wreak havoc with Confederate shipping and railway river bridges.
Whiskey and Combined Operations
An excellent anecdote from Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville pages, 184-185;
“At fifty-six he [Foote] had spent forty years as a career officer fighting two things he hated most, slavery and whiskey. It was perhaps a quirk of fate to have placed him thus alongside Grant, who could scarcely be said to have shown an aversion for either.” But both men got along, because they both believed in combined operations fervently. Foote was quoted as saying the Army and Navy “were like blades of shears–united, invincible; separated, almost useless.”
Forts Heiman and Henry Motorcycle Ride Recommendation
If you’re in Memphis, try this ride through beautiful far west Tennessee going through the Reelfoot Lake State Park area and on to the Fort Henry area in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.