Civil War Fifty-One Years Ago

The Fight for Fort Henry

Newark, Illinois, February 5, 1913

Published in Kendall County Record, March 5, 1913.

It was not long after the guns in Charleston Harbor announced to the people of the startled nation the existence of real war till active hostilities commenced all along the border land between north and south from the Potomac River to the Missouri. Early in the season the rebels, as we called them constructed fortifications on the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers. The forts were called Columbus, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. These positions they held as a line of defense against the advance of Union armies into the south. Columbus was considered so strong a position that an assault was not warranted but during the fall our army made an attack on a body of Confederate soldiers at Belmont across the river from Columbus. Here, in the first onslaught, the Union forces met with some success but later the tide of battle turned and Grant and his army were driven from the field. The dead and wounded were left in the hands of the enemy. Subsequent demonstrations against Columbus also gave unfavorable results.

In January 1862, there was a movement of troops from Cairo, Bird's Point and other places to Paducah at the mouth of the Tennessee River. After remaining in camp at Paducah for a short time the army embarked upon steamboats and ascended the Tennessee. We were landed at night on the east bank of the river and were informed that we were in the State of Tennessee. When morning came we saw in plain view a giant staff upon which floated a big flag; the Stars and Bars, the emblem of treason and rebellion. This was February 5, 1862. We lay in camp all day and watched the Confederate flag as its folds unfurled in the breeze. The war vessels under Commodore Foote were some distance above us in the river. Steamers were arriving with additional troops. Quiet prevailed during the day but all were wrought to a high tension because of the nearness of the contending forces and the expectation of a clash of arms. In the evening a heavy force was detailed for guard duty. As darkness was settling upon the earth a strong line of pickets was thrown out, two men at a post. The posts were only a few paces apart.

Benjamin Adams of my company and I were stationed together in the branches of a large tree that had fallen. We had not been there long before black heavy clouds rolled over the sky. This continued all night. The elements themselves appeared to be also at war. It may have been a manifestation by the Father in heaven of displeasure with his weak and erring and warring children here below.

Benjamin Adams

I will now digress to give a short sketch of the soldier who stood with me on guard during all that cold, wet night in the fearful storm. Benjamin Adams, son of Earl Adams, was born in Kendall County near Newark, in 1841. He became a student at the Fowler Institute. He enlisted in April 1861. When he signed the muster roll, Professor Wilmarth of the Institute went up to him and congratulated him and said: "Ben, trust in God and keep your powder dry." Comrade Adams fought at Fort Donelson, and was in the Union ranks during the great struggle between the contending armies on the bloody field of Shiloh. He participated in the battle of Briton's Lane and the battle of Port Gibson. At Raymond he was shot and killed and buried on the field with seven other Kendall County men. At the close of the battle he was still living and conscious. He was put upon a table at the field hospital but as soon as the doctors took a hurried look at him the ordered him removed and he was placed under a nearby tree. He was now in extreme agony and said to a comrade: "Oh! I wish I could die." His pocket book, containing some money, was sent home. That pocket book and money stained by the blood of the soldier is now in the possession of his sister in Millington.

On Picket Post.

We will return now to the picket post in the branches of the fallen tree. The rain continued to pour down in torrents. The darkness was so extreme that it was impossible to relieve us and there we had to stand without moving during all the long dreary hours of the night. We soon became as wet as though we had been dipped into the river. Our shoes would fill with water and every few minutes we would take them off and pour out the water. We fixed bayonets on our guns and thrust them into the ground muzzle downward. We had no dry power that night and all we could do was to trust in God and fight with the bayonet if necessary. Ben Adams made frequent reference to this during the night.

March in Mud -- Naval Battle.

As day was breaking we heard the beat of the reveille by all the regimental drums of the army. About this time a squad of cavalry that had been posted out beyond the main line of pickets came in. One of these cavalrymen was carrying a dead soldier strapped to his horse. This gave us to understand that we were in the enemies' country and right in the midst of real actual war. As soon as the various battalions were formed the picket line was withdrawn. Ben Adams and I went in and found the 20th Illinois Regiment marching out of camp. We were wet and cold and hungry. There was nothing for us to eat and we took position in the ranks and stepped to the beat of the drum. The entire army was now moving but the country was flooded with water and but little progress could be made. It was almost impossible to move the artillery. The horsed drawing the guns would fall in bad places and then long lines of men pulling with ropes would bring them through. Two streams had to be crossed. These had over flown their banks. It became necessary to make detours and to build some bridges. While the army was thus engaged floundering through mud and water in a desperate attempt to gain the rear of Fort Henry, Commodore Foote steamed up to within three-quarters of a mile of the fort. He commenced the battle by a shot from his flagship. This was promptly answered by a number of shots from the big guns of the Fort. The naval force here engaged consisted of seven vessels, the Cincinnati, carrying the flag of the commander, the Carondelet, the Essex and the Saint Louis were iron clads and formed the first line in the river. The three wooden boats, Conestoga, Lexington and Tyler formed the second line. The Lexington and Tyler are the vessels, which rendered such great service in the battle of Shiloh two months afterward. The boats all steamed slowly ahead while the firing was going on until they were within a quarter of a mile of the fort. The duel between the artillery of the fort and that of the flotilla became terrific. We had been engaged in some fighting prior to this but never had we heard so furious a bombardment. The fire from the fort was very accurate. Our vessels were repeatedly hit but their armor was sufficient to resist the impact of the Confederate missiles. However, a shot penetrated the side of the Essex and passed through her boiler. About forty men were terribly scalded by escaping steam. The Essex became unmanageable and floated down stream out of the action. The other vessels continued the fight. The men in the fort fought with desperation. Many of their guns were disabled. They surrendered, the Confederate flag came down and the Stars and Stripes went up. In the meantime, the army was making desperate efforts to gain the rear of Fort Henry in order to intercept the Confederates in their retreat to Fort Donelson. We were just too late. Our cavalry, however, gave their rear a few volleys as a parting salutation. Signed: Andrew Brown, Company K, 20th Illinois Infantry Regiment.

Last Modified on 2012-11-23 00:14:53-0600 CST by Elmer Dickson