At Last a Chance for Action: Taking Fort Henry

Quartermaster Henry Newton Pearse of the 8th Illinois Infantry was on detached duty as the brigade quartermaster when he participated in the campaigns of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. The brigade, led by Colonel Richard “Uncle Dick” Oglesby who later served as governor of Illinois, consisted of five regiments of Illinois infantry, four companies of cavalry, and two batteries during the Fort Henry operations. Pearse’s account below describes the Federal land effort to cut off the retreat of the Confederate garrison at Fort Henry.

Quartermaster Henry Newton Pearse (1828-1884), 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

Fort Henry, Tennessee

February 6, 1862, midnight[1]

          We left Bird’s Point [Missouri] Sunday evening February 2 in connection with the balance of the First Brigade consisting of the 8th, 18th, 29th, 30th, and 31st regiments of Illinois infantry, four companies of cavalry (Dollin’s, Stewart’s, Carmichael’s, and Osborne’s) along with four batteries led by Captains Schwartz and Dresser, the brigade under the command of Colonel Richard J. Oglesby of the 8th Illinois.

          Another brigade of about the same force under Colonel Wallace of the 11th left in company with us but owing to heavy fog and other delays consequent upon the embarkation of so large a force, we were not under way from Cairo until Monday morning the 3rd. We arrived at Paducah about 9 p.m. and proceeded up the Tennessee about 60 miles where we debarked at daylight, and after a reconnaissance of the country found that we must go four miles further up the river to avoid a creek which obstructed our march to this place- the point of attack we sought.

Period watercolor map showing the Confederate defenses of the Tennessee River at Fort Henry; note Fort Donelson to the east on the Cumberland River. Pearse marched from the north towards the rear of Fort Henry in an attempt to cut off the retreating garrison. 

          We passed up four miles which brought us within six miles of Fort Henry where we debarked and encamped for the night. Early in the morning the 8th Illinois and all the cavalry of this brigade started to support of surveying party to examine the country. We left in high spirits for the boys felt now at last a chance for action.

          As we carefully felt our way, knowing that we were within three miles, next two miles, and now less than one mile from the fort with “15 regiments” in it, there was the most thrilling enthusiasm in the hearts of all. The country is heavily timbered and very hilly and after our advance had passed up a sharp hill and the regiment was fast following, the report of a company of our regiment as they discharged their muskets was the signal for a grand rush. Our lines were almost instantly closed and the battalion in column of companies when a sharp skirmish commenced on our left on the top of a ridge we had just crossed between part of Captain Dollin’s cavalry and about 200 Secesh cavalry. This last about five minutes when the enemy turned on their heels and ran, and though we tried we could not cut them off. One man on each side was killed, their leaving their dead on the field; their wounded were taken off. None on our side were wounded seriously. This little brush being over, and having looked over the ground about us and satisfied ourselves that there was no enemy left, we were ordered to move back to camp.

The water-logged Fort Henry under bombardment from Federal gunboats in the Tennessee River. Note how the fort is nearly surrounded by the river which had overrun its banks. 

          A tremendous thunderstorm, of which we have had several, passed over us and drenched many of us severely. Your correspondent was awakened about 4 a.m. with his tent falling down and then it was lifted off and left us snugly in bed but outdoors in the rain and everything apparently going to wash in a short time. But we jumped up and raised our tent again as soon as the wind would allow then turned in and took a nap in our wet beds till morning and got up all right. Who wouldn’t be a soldier?

          At 9 a.m., the whole force was under orders to move immediately and were soon marching, passing over some miles of the same ground examined the day before. It was a sight to make one’s blood chill to see 10,000 men moving up and down the hills of this rebel state. At 1 p.m., the gunboats commenced shelling they fort and they replied promptly; for an hour and a half we heard the roar of the heavy cannon and the whizzing and cracking of the balls and shells as they went forth to destroy whatever was in their way. Then the firing ceased and soon the message came that Fort Henry had surrendered to the gunboats.

          We had then come up to Lieutenant Colonel McCullough who had been sent by General [John] McClernand with two companies of his cavalry to reconnoiter on the road leading from Fort Henry to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Then came a scout saying that they were leaving Fort Henry as fast as possible. Colonel Oglesby sent Colonel McCullough with his command forward and with orders to go to their entrenchments and if they met no foe to go in, and if they found them retreating, to cut off as many as possible.

Fort Henry on the morning of February 6, 1862 with the U.S. flag flying from the post flagpole. The capture of Fort Donelson a week later would prove a much bloodier affair than the capture of Fort Henry. 

          Not hearing anything from them for a few moments, Colonel Oglesby and staff followed into the outer works which contained about 600 acres. There we saw the camp deserted and rode through the fort proper and into it and found it in our possession. Suffice it to say that they fled in utter confusion, leaving everything in the shape of camp and garrison equipment, all their knapsacks and personal effects, all the ordnance (some 20 large guns in the fort), quite a quantity of quartermaster and commissary stores, and about 150 horses and mules. Colonel McCullough in his pursuit had a fight killing some of the Rebels and losing one man. He captured eight brass field pieces and 35 prisoners; General Lloyd Tilghman, commanding this post, is also a prisoner. Major Lee and Captain Leach were captured by Colonel McCullough; in all, we have about 140 prisoners, a cheap victory.

[1] Letter from Quartermaster Henry N. Pearse, Daily Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), February 12, 1862, pg. 2


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