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Letter to his Wife.
Ą letter of Captain Foote to his wife, dated December 13, 1861, written upon the back of a letter of General Grant to himself, asking his aid in an anticipated attack by the rebels upon Fort Holt, and addressing him as “Dear Commodore,” breathes the weary, anxious, yet brave spirit of a man almost overborne by cares, but still hopeful:
"CAIRO, December 17, 1861. “MY DEAR WIFE,—Weary days are my lot. Sanford is better to-day, and may be up and about in a week. Pennock, the only one left good for any thing, is on the Board examining mortar and gun boats with two generals and a colonel. I have been hard at work all day, but the Board have capsized every thing, and will keep us back for several days. If I could be fitted out at a navy yard, I would not care; but this fitting out vessels where no one knows any thing is discouraging. But I can now and then see light aloft. I feel clearer of head oppression than usual, though I may be prostrated at any minute. I sleep nicely at night, which is a blessing, and I don't mean to fret. General McClellan is to give us 1100 men—have just heard of it by telegram from Fox. Things brighten a little ahead. Ever affectionately, A. H. F."
PREPARATIONS FOR ATTACKING FORT HENRY.
ALTHOUGH the history of the Western flotilla is part and parcel of the biography of Admiral Foote, and although its achievements belong, in a true sense, to his renown, and all that it was and did is thoroughly identified with him, who was the main cause and promoter of its efficiency, yet we do not think it necessary to dwell further upon those minor movements and expeditions in which he was not present or personally engaged, and which were undertaken at the suggestion of the Army Department; and we turn now to those greater and more splendid operations where Foote himself was the prime directing and inspiring force.
The first strong line of the rebel defense at the West stretched from the Mississippi River at Columbus to the Cumberland Mountains. It was necessary to break through this at the most feasible point, which could not be on the Mississippi River on account of the immense strength of the fortifications at Columbus, neither could it be done by sending an Army across the Ohio into Kentucky, so far from the base of supply; and Foote, as well as the two Army commanders, Grant and Smith, early appreciated the strategic importance of seizing the strongholds on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, thus letting them far into the Southern line, and establishing a base whereby both Columbus and Bowling Green could be made untenable to the enemy, the railroad communications cut, and the rebel line of defense pushed farther down, leaving Kentucky and Tennessee at the command of
Reconnoissance of Fort Henry.
the Union forces. Foote was earnestly bent upon this idea, and hastened forward his preparations during the month of January, 1862. He was particularly careful as to the perfect condition of his gun-boats. The whole thing was novel and untried. It had not yet been ascertained how iron-clads would compete with land-batteries. This, in fact, was the first trial of iron-clad vessels. The strength of forts Henry and Donelson in guns and men was known only by rumor. It was therefore necessary to make cautious reconnoissances, without awakening the least suspicion of what was intended to be done. One of these expeditions, undertaken January 7th, is thus reported by Lieutenant Phelps of the Conestoga :
“Yesterday I ascended the Tennessee River to the state line, returning in the night. The water was barely sufficient to float this boat, drawing five feet four inches, and in coming down we dragged heavily in places. The Cumberland is also too low above Eddyville.
“The rebels are industriously perfecting their means of defense both at Dover and Fort Henry. At Fort Donelson (near Dover) they have placed obstructions in the river, one and a half miles below their battery on the left bank, and in the bend where the battery comes in sight. These obstructions consist of trees chained together and sunk across the river, with the butts up stream, the heads floating near the surface, and pointed. Placed as they are reported to be, any attempt to remove them must be made under a severe fire, and where there is very little room for covering boats. The bend is a very sharp one, and the river not more than one hundred and fifty yards wide. The battery upon the right bank is upon a hill half a mile back from the river, and considerably below the fort upon the left bank. It can be seen, I am told, but one mile. Four weeks since they had four 32-pounders mounted on the hill, and had a large force of negroes at work. The fire of gun-boats here would be at a bad angle. On these narrow streams, with their usually contracted channels, it would appear to one very necessary to have the assistance of mortars in reducing earth-works as strong and complete as those on the Tennessee and Cumberland have been made. The forts are placed, especially on the Cumberland, where no very great range can be had; and they can only be attacked in one narrow and fixed line. Shot can dislodge their guns (all en barbette)—nothing
The shells must burst at the moment, or they pass harmless, while there is little room to regulate distance nicely. There is no advantage to be gained by moving in circles or otherwise. Some of the disadvantages of narrow streams would be partially removed by a high stage of water,
“Fort Henry I have examined, and the work is formidable. Fort Donelson can only be seen from an easy range of its guns. There are a thousand rumors; but I conclude that the batteries upon both sides, their situation, the character and location of the obstructions—may be considered as known. It is now too late to move against the works on either river, except with a well-appointed and powerful naval force."
Another still more important and extensive reconnoissance was undertaken on the 16th of January by the gun-boats, accompanied by an Army force, in which a feigned assault was made upon Fort Henry. It is thus narrated by Lieutenant Phelps :
“On the 16th we proceeded up the river, accompanied by the transport-steamer Wilson, having on board a force of five hundred meninfantry and artillery—under command of Major Ellston, and anchored for the night near where the Tennessee line strikes the right bank of the river. A few miles above Paducah the Lexington struck a rock, and lay upon it over an hour, but was not apparently much injured. In the morning (17th) we proceeded up to near Fort Henry-the transport remaining a little below—and shelled the river bank at a point where all informants have uniformly reported a masked battery of two rifled guns; but we did not succeed in drawing its fire, although we approached to abreast the place. We also fired a few shells at Fort Henry -two and a half miles—too distant for effect. Having complied with General Smith's wish in feigning an attack, at early morn, with the whole force in view, we dropped below to Aurora, where the troops disembarked and marched for Murray. The transport returned down stream, while the two gun-boats again returned to the neighborhood of Fort Henry, and remained overnight at anchor about three and a half miles by water below the fort. The rebels made numbers of signals in the evening. In the morning we left there, coming directly down. A charge of slugs was fired yesterday at a group of officers, and Mr. Hamilton, gunner, was slightly wounded in the neck.
Correspondence about Mortar-boats.
“ There was a coal-barge lying at a landing some three miles below Fort Henry, on the Kentucky side, evidently taken there to freight a quantity of wood thrown down from the banks in readiness, and the wood could only have been intended for use at the fort. I therefore seized the barge, loaded the wood on it, and brought it down. The barge, or flat, is a very fine one, and might be of service at Cairo. I also cut adrift a small wood-boat at the same landing, to prevent its use in transporting supplies to the rebels.”
The use of mortar-boats for the reduction of the forts on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers became now an earnest question between Foote and the government. General Halleck, who had been appointed to the command of the Western Department, was the medium of communication.
"St. Louis, January 17, 1862. “FLAG-OFFICER FOOTE, Cairo:
COMMODORE,-General McClellan wishes to know if it would be of much advantage in any expedition up the Tennessee and Cumberland to have the mortar-boats armed. Can they be used with advantage on such an expedition? Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
“H. W. HALLECK, Major-General.”
The flag-officer replied in favor of the effectiveness of mortar-boats; but the difficulty seemed to lie in the Ordnance Department, which, for some reason or other, was behindhand in its preparations-so much so that Fox, the AssistantSecretary, writes (January 27th):
“The President is very much exercised in the matter, and I do not blame him. He telegraphed to Pittsburg, and they replied that two beds were ready. I doubt if the history of any war ever furnished such an exposure. The plan matured and commenced last summer, the boats built, the gun-boats in good condition, the river high, the time come to make the movement coincide with others, and only two beds ready. The President has determined to remove from the Ordnance, and it has shaken his confidence in many others. The result of the whole matter is a delay and change of programme. Our twenty mortar vessels have partly sailed, and will probably all be off in the course of ten days.