A century and a half ago today, a flotilla of Federal gunboats overwhelmed the flooded Fort Henry. The victory was the first round of the first major campaign of 1862. While overshadowed in history by events during the following weeks on the Cumberland River at Fort Donelson, the capture of Fort Henry laid open the Tennessee River to Northern Alabama. And beyond that geographic measure, the victory marked the debut of the Army-Navy team which would eventually clear the Mississippi River.
Nothing better explains the poor location of Fort Henry than the fact its underwater today. What attracted Confederate engineers to the site was the slight bend of the river. Placed on the outside of that curve, gunners had a superior alleyway of observation downstream. Fort Heiman on the other side of the river sat on higher ground, but offered about half the downstream reach. The Confederates should have fortified and improved both forts. But General A.S. Johnston’s defense line was a rubber band stretched to the breaking point. The resources just were not there.
Normally when discussing the important engagements, I like to offer up the “right on this spot” photos from my stompings. But as mentioned above the actual site of the fort is now under Kentucky Lake, a few dozen feet under a marker buoy. Some of the outer works remain, however, as part of the National Forest Service’s Land Between the Lakes. Unfortunately on my last visit to the site, over a decade ago, the trails were closed for maintenance. Not to disappoint, the Civil War Album has several recent photos of Fort Henry’s location.
Fort Heiman, on the other hand, is high and dry. After the 1862 campaign, the Federals garrisoned and improved the fort. The fort became, as was the case with many Federal garrisons in the area, a haven for escaped slaves. In 2006, the Fort Heiman Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans worked hard to secure and preserve the site. According to a Civil War News article posted that December by Deborah Fitts, the Fort Donelson National Battlefield received 163 acres by way of those efforts. But when I last visited in 2010, the old earthworks were easily visible and preserved. (more photos at the Civil War Album’s Fort Heiman page)
I’ve heard of a project for visitor parking and on site interpretation, along with improving the river/lake overlook. All would of course be welcome additions to the park. I’m just thankful that the site was set aside through the effort of some like minded preservationists.
For those visiting Forts Henry, Heiman, and Donelson, the latest issue of Blue & Gray Magazine offers an excellent overview of the campaign and driving tour, including some of the off the beaten path stops.