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Civil War Trust

Henry Walke's Account of the Battle of Fort Henry

February 6, 1862

Henry Walke
Cdr. Henry Walke (Library of Congress)

The following is an excerpt from Commander Henry Walke's account of the Battle of Fort Henry. Walke commanded a gunboat in the action, and recorded this account in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War decades later.

Flag-Officer Foote arrived in St. Louis on September 6th, and assumed command of the Western flotilla. He had been my fellow-midshipman in 1827, on board the United States ship Natchez, of the West India squadron....During the cruise of 1827, while pacing the deck at night, on the lonely seas, and talking with a pious shipmate, Foote became convinced of the truth of the Christian religion, of which he, was an earnest professor to the last ... He was slow and cautious in arriving at conclusions, but firm and tenacious of purpose. He has been called “the Stonewall Jackson of the Navy.” He often preached to his crew on Sundays, and was always desirous of doing good. He was not a man of striking personal appearance, but there was a sailor-like heartiness and frankness about him that made his company very desirable.

...

During the winter of 1861-62, an expedition was planned by Flag-Officer Foote and Generals Grant and McClernand against Fort Henry, situated on the eastern bank of the Tennessee River, a short distance south of the line between Kentucky and Tennessee. In January the ironclads were brought down to Cairo..., but only four of the iron-clads could be made ready as soon as required.

On the morning of the 2d of February the flag-officer left Cairo with the four armored vessels... and the wooden gun-boats Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga.

...

Heavy rains had been falling, and the river had risen rapidly to an unusual height; the swift current brought down an immensely quantity of heavy drift-wood, lumber, fences, and large trees and ... the enemy's torpedoes [were] forced from their moorings by the powerful current.... The overflowing river, which opposed our progress, swept away in broad daylight this hidden peril; for if the torpedoes had not been disturbed, or had broken loose at night while we were shoving the drift-wood from our bows, some of them would surely have exploded near or under our vessels.

The 6th dawned mild and cheering, with a light breeze, sufficient to clear away the smoke.... We formed in line and approached the fort four abreast, the Essex on the right, then the Cincinnati, Carondelet, and St. Louis. For want of room the last two were interlocked, and remained so during the fight.

...

Fort Henry
Union gunboats begin the attack on Fort Henry (Harper's Weekly)

The flag-steamer, the Cincinnati, fired the first shot as the signal for the others to begin. At once the fort was ablaze with the flame of her eleven heavy guns. The wild whistle of their rifle-shells was heard on every side of us. On the Carondelet not a word was spoken more than at ordinary drill.... The Carondelet was struck in about thirty places by the enemy's heavy shot and shell.... The Carondelet fired 107 shell and solid shot; none of her officers or crew was killed or wounded.

The firing from the armored vessels was rapid and well sustained from the beginning of the attack, and seemingly accurate, as we could occasionally see the earth thrown in great heaps over the enemy's guns. Nor was the fire of the Confederates to be despised; their heavy shot broke and scattered our iron-plating as if it had been putty, and often passed completely through the casemates. But our old men-of-war's men, captains of the guns, proud to show their worth in battle, infused life and courage into their young comrades. When these experienced gunners saw a shot coming toward a port, they had the coolness and discretion to order their men to bow down, to save their heads.

After nearly an hour's hard fighting, the captain of the Essex, going below, and complimenting the First Division for their splendid execution, asked them if they did not want to rest and give three cheers, which were given with a will. But the feelings of joy on board the Essex were suddenly changed by a calamity which is thus described in a letter to me from James Laning, second master of the Essex:

"A shot from the enemy pierced... the middle boiler..., opening a chasm for the escape of the scalding steam and water. The scene which followed was almost indescribable.... A shot from the enemy had carried away the steam-pipe. I at once ran to the stern of the vessel, and ... saw a number of our brave fellows struggling in the water. The steam and hot water in the forward gun-deck had driven all who were able to get out of the ports overboard.... In a very few minutes after the explosion our gallant ship ... was drifting slowly away from the scene of action; her commander badly wounded, a number of her officers and crew dead at their post, while many others were writhing in their last agony"

...

Cmdre Foote
Flag Officer Andrew Foote (Library of Congress)

Flag-officer Foote during the action was in the pilot-house of the Cincinnati, which received thirty-two shots. Her chimneys, after-cabin, and boats were completely riddled. Two of her guns were disabled. The only fatal shot she received passed through the larboard front, killing one man and wounding several others. I happened to be looking at the flag-steamer when one of the enemy's heavy shot struck her. It had the effect, apparently, of a thunder-bolt, ripping her side-timbers and scattering the splinters over the vessel. She did not slacken her speed, but moved on as though nothing unexpected had happened.

...

The Confederate soldiers fought as valiantly and as skillfully as the Union sailors. Only after a most determined resistance, and after all his heavy guns had been silenced, did General Tilghman lower his flag. The Confederate loss, as reported, was 5 killed, 11 wounded, and 5 missing. The prisoners, including the General and his staff, numbered 78 in the Fort and 16 in a hospital-boat; the remainder of the garrison, a little less than 2600, having escaped to Fort Donelson.

...

General Tilghman, with two or three of his staff, came off in a small boat to the Cincinnati and surrendered the Fort to flag-officer Foote.... General Tilghman was ... dignified and courteous, and won the respect and sympathy of all who became acquainted with him. In his official report of the battle he said that his officers and men fought with the greatest bravery until 1:50 P. M., when seven of his eleven guns were disabled; and, finding it impossible to defend the fort, and wishing to spare the lives of his gallant men, after consultation with his officers he surrendered the fort.

...

When I took possession of the fort the Confederate surgeon was laboring with his coat off to relieve and save the wounded; and although the officers and crews of the gun-boats gave three hearty cheers when the Confederate flag was hauled down, the first inside view of the fort sufficed to suppress every feeling of exultation and to excite our deepest pity. On every side the blood of the dead and wounded was intermingled with the earth and their implements of war. Their largest gun, a 128-pounder, was dismounted and filled with earth by the bursting of one of our shells near its muzzle; the carriage of another was broken to pieces, and two dead men lay near it, almost covered with heaps of earth; a rifled gun had burst, throwing its mangled gunners into the water. But few of the garrison escaped unhurt.

Fort Henry
Fort Henry newly under Union control (Harper's Weekly)

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