Friday, April 20, 2012

U.S. Grant's first step to glory

When the American Civil War broke out, the Union's greatest general was busy minding his father's store in Galena, Illinois. By the time the war ended Ulysses S. Grant would lead the Union to victory in both the Western and Eastern theaters. Later elected President of the United States, he is still remembered today as one of America's greatest heroes.

Every legend has a beginning, and Grant is no exception. Recruited  Illinois Governor Richard Yates to recruit and train Illinois soldiers, Grant quickly proved his worth and was promoted to be in charge of the District of Cairo (Illinois). In this position he set his eyes on Fort Henry, a Confederate fort situated on the Tennessee River. Reducing the fort would allow the Union unimpeded access up the river which wound its way through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.

The fort was commanded by Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman and garrisoned with over 3000 men. The fort was poorly sited and partially submerged by high water. On February 4, 1862 Grant landed troops north of Fort Henry. Grant envisioned a coordinated attack on land and by water with the assistance of Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote's Navy gunboats.

Tilghman realized that the fort was untenable and sent most of his men overland to reinforce Fort Donelson. Foote's gunboats arrived by the infantry and engaged. With just enough men to man the fort's guns Tilghman engaged the still-novel ironclads. A well-placed shot struck the boiler of the USS Essex, releasing scalding water that killed or wounded 32 men. Outnumbered, the Confederate guns were soon silenced. Though minor in scale, the battle boosted the morale of the North, allowed Union raids upriver, and along with the ensuing battle of Fort Donelson brought Grant into public view.