The Beginning of the End: Forts Henry and Donelson

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The Beginning of the End: Forts Henry and Donelson
On May 7, 1861, the state of Tennessee withdrew from the Union and voluntarily joined the Confederacy. For the Union to prevail they must take possession over Confederate territory. When they did the Union Army faced the daunting task of occupying and controlling this vast area. One way to sustain an army is to keep it supplied and reinforced. The most efficient manner to accomplish this was to use Tennessee’s vast waterways. Some of the fiercest fighting happened on the states rivers and each side sought to control two key forts; Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. The capture of Forts Henry and Donelson gave Union forces the first major success toward the accomplishment of a northern victory and sounded the beginning of the end for Tennessee Confederate forces. The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson demonstrated that the Civil War in the West would be fought largely for control of the rivers. The true turning point of the Civil War for Tennessee came with Union’s victory began at Forts Henry and Donelson. In the beginning of the war, Tennessee was known as the Confederate frontier of the West. The state broke a Confederate defense line stretching from the Appalachian Mountains westward to the Mississippi River and beyond. Whoever controlled this area controlled entry into the south. Forts Henry and Donelson were key to the South’s defense. Forts Henry and Donelson were devised to protect middle and western Tennessee from Union forces who would use the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers as avenues of approach. These antebellum commercial arteries had become wartime barriers to effective Confederate unity and Union avenues for military, political, and economic reconstruction. The rivers of the South were the key to unlocking the Confederate heartland. They served as the great interstate highways of their day. Rivers and steamboats linked major cities such as Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Nashville, Clarksville, Paducah, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Tennessee recognized the importance of its resources and devised a strategy to defend and control these major transportation routes but the north had one too. The Union strategy called for splitting the Confederacy from north to south via the Mississippi River valley, then turning and splitting it again from east to west. Confederate authorities countered this strategy with one of their own. To combat this threat Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee decided to begin work on the defense of his state. He devised a defensive line with strategic strong points such as earthen forts and water batteries to protect crucial waterways. He dispatched engineers to select sites for forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. They built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Both are currently located within the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The first fortification to sustain attack and become the scene of the first major Union victory was Fort Henry on February 6, 1862. The garrison was named after Confederate Senator Gustavus Henry of nearby Clarksville. It was constructed in the summer of 1861 and poorly positioned by Tennessee state engineers who laid it out on low frequently flooded ground. Its purpose was to defend the Tennessee River and the critical railroad route between Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Memphis Tennessee. The fort housed seventeen mounted guns and fewer than 3,400 ill-equipped Confederate soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman. Unfortunately, Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant received scouting reports about Fort Henry’s a weak position. Seeing his opportunity, Grant took advantage of the fort’s meager defenses and began ferrying his troops to a spot just north of Fort Henry. General Grant had a force of 15,000 soldiers and was also supported by seven gunboats commanded by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote...
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