It’s 4:30am and several Union transport ships have reached their destination eight miles downstream from Fort Henry, Tennessee. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant is dissatisfied with the location; he will not have his troops fight their way overland to the Fort. He is determined to find a water route. Leaving his troops behind, Grant boards a 1,000-ton ironclad gunboat, the USS Essex, and heads towards Fort Henry so he can better assess the range of its guns.
Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman is in command at both Fort Henry & Fort Donelson. There are more than 3,000 Confederate troops holding down Fort Henry, a large part which is significantly under water from recent heavy rains and the subsequent rising river. Tilghman is currently twelve miles away at Fort Donelson and has left Colonel Adolphus Heiman in charge. Heiman and his troops watch the Essex, flanked by two other Union gunboats, and determine that this is a Union attack.
Upon Grant’s command, Union gunboats send shots towards the Fort in an effort to determine the effective range of their fire. Several shots fall within the Fort. Confederates quickly return fire; shells begin flying towards the USS Essex. All Confederate shells fall short except for one, which slams through a cabin of the Essex and hits unbelievably close to Grant. They are now within a mile of the Fort, and Grant now has the information he needs. Grant orders the Essex to return to the original launch point. They pick up the Union troops and travel five miles; this puts them three miles downstream from Fort Henry. They set up a temporary camp, which Brigadier General John McClernand names “Camp Halleck.” Here, the Union men receive their first cooked meal in three days. The near empty steamers return to Paducah, Kentucky to pick up the rest of the Union troops; they should arrive by 10am tomorrow.
In Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issues a stay of execution – or more accurately, a two week delay – for Captain Nathaniel Gordon. In August 1860, Gordon had been caught smuggling nearly 900 Africans, more than half of them children, aboard his small ship Erie. He was caught by the African Squadron, a fleet of ships created by a treaty between England and the U.S. to eliminate slave trafficking, while he was on his way to Havana, Cuba. Gordon was taken to New York City for trial in a Federal court and was eventually found guilty of violating the 1820 Piracy Act, which stated that any U.S. citizen on the crew of a foreign ship, or anyone serving on a U.S. ship that seized a “Negro or mulatto, shall be adjudged a pirate and shall suffer death.” The case was closely watched by those not only in the U.S. but also overseas.
Gordon was sentenced to death by hanging, which was to take place just a few days from now on February 7; it would be the first hanging for the crime of slave trading. When Gordon was captured, then President James Buchanan said he would “never hang a slaver“, but now Lincoln is in charge. Lincoln has been barraged by people from all sides of the matter arguing for Gordon’s death and freedom. Everyone has been watching and waiting.
Lincoln, who has already earned a reputation as someone who easily exercises a pardon, has carefully looked at the evidence and cannot find a reason to pardon Gordon. Lincoln issues an order and moves the date of the execution to February 21 so Gordon and his family have time to get things in order and come to terms with his fate.