U.S. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan to take Fort Henry, Tennessee are to be a joint naval and land effort. Due to the heavy rains, Grant’s troops are dealing with deep mud and overflowing streams along their path and their presence is delayed. Union Commander Andrew Foote tells his fellow gunboat captains that “It must be victory or death.” Even though Grant’s soldiers have not arrived, the gunboats and the ironclad U.S.S. Essex open fire on the fort at the designated time of 12:30pm.
Inside the fort, Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman instructs his men to return fire. He had sent more than 3,000 of his troops towards Fort Donelson over the last 48 hours. Approximately 100 men remain to fight; the goal is not to hold the fort, but to buy as much time for the others to get as far away as possible from the enemy. With most of the fort and artillery under high river water, they do the best with what they have. They land hits on every one of the Yankee’s gunboats, though the damage is minimal. It’s not enough. By 1:30pm, Tilghman raises the white flag of surrender. He estimates his losses at 15 killed and 20 wounded.
Foote accepts the surrender and captures the Confederates as prisoners of war. The Union had fared very well with the exception of one deadly hit. A Confederate shell had slammed through the boiler of the Essex and exploded it, wounding and killing 48 men.
Grant and his men arrive at the fort with the naval victory complete. Troops quickly secure the fort. Grant sends the Essex and two gunboats back to Cairo, Illinois for repairs and to pick up reinforcements. Grant calculates that the ships can be back and ready for battle on the 8th against his next target: Fort Donelson. He can’t afford to wait, as he knows Confederate reinforcements are heading there. Donelson will not fall as easy as Fort Henry.
In Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln isn’t the only one with sick children. He receives a hastily written letter from his Secretary of State, William Seward:
I have just received word from Mrs. Seward that informs me that my only daughter and youngest child is very ill and requesting we to go to Philadelphia. I will let you know as soon as I can when I shall be able to return.
Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes and his fellow Union soldiers continue to go about their typical daily routine. Rhodes had been detached from the 2nd Rhode Island volunteers in November to work as one of four clerks in the headquarters of their Division currently commanded by General Erasmus D. Keyes. He is at his desk at the Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street headquarters by 9am, ready to receive the daily reports from his Division which consists of 13 infantry regiments, 1 cavalry regiment and 3 batteries. He spends six hours consolidating the reports and sends them over to General George B. McClellan’s headquarters by 3pm. He goes out to dinner with the other military personnel and heads back to headquarters where he shares a room with three other clerks. His living conditions are better than a typical soldier since he’s indoors, has his own bed and even has good bedding from when the building was a girls school. He takes out his diary and writes:
“Mud and rain and no prospects of a move. It is reported that the Senate expelled Senator Bright of Indiana for the crime of treason. All Copperheads (note: anti-war democrats) should be punished, for they are too cowardly to fight us in front, so they stop us in the rear. Orders have been issued that all passes must be approved by the Division Commander. This makes extra work for the clerks.”
Elisha has heard correctly; Democrat Jesse D. Bright was expelled yesterday for disloyalty to the Union after 16 years in the Senate. Last year an arms smuggler named Thomas Lincoln (no relation to President Abraham Lincoln) had been caught with a letter in his possession that was from Bright to Provisional Confederate President Jefferson Davis, dated March 1, 1861. It introduced Thomas to Davis and stated his purpose: “He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire-arms.” Bright’s defense was that the letter was written before the official start of the Civil War and that he didn’t even remember specifically writing the letter. It was a weak attempt; when Bright wrote that letter there was a Confederate government in place and they were racing to gather as many arms as possible in preparation for an attack. Bright had never been quiet about being against the war and for Confederate independence; now deceased Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas had even been infuriated by his disloyalty. Bright was expelled by a vote of 32 to 14 and now this news quickly spread through town. He is the fourteenth Senator to ever be expelled from Congress, but he is currently (2/6/12) the last.
Confederate Congressman Alexander Boteler arrives in Winchester, Virginia to meet with Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at the request of his friend Governor John Letcher. Jackson had sent a letter of resignation over a week ago due to a strong disagreement with Secretary of War Judah Benjamin on strategy and troop movements in the crucial Virginia Valley where he was stationed.
Boteler knows he is dealing with a strong willed individual with even stronger convictions. Over dinner and dessert, Boteler appeals to Jackson to reconsider. Jackson admits he is willing to rethink his resignation, but he wants to manage his own campaigns instead of some guy sitting at a desk hundreds of miles away.
He appeals to Jackson using his love of Virginia, though it comes out as accusing Jackson of abandoning them. Jackson is furious. He stands, exclaiming that he has sacrificed his family life for the horrors of war. He then composes himself and states that he will still serve the state of Virginia, “even if it be as a private in the ranks.” He then sighs. “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”
At the end of the evening Jackson writes a letter to the Governor authorizing him to withdraw the resignation. He can’t abandon the Southern cause, but he also makes it known that he still feels he was in the right:
“If the Secretary persists in the ruinous policy complained of, I feel that no officer can serve his country better than by making his strongest possible protest against it, which, in my opinion, is done by tendering his resignation, rather than be a willful instrument in prosecuting the war upon a ruinous principle.”
It’s dawn in Fort Henry, Tennessee. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman and Colonel Adolphus Heiman have spent the last 24 hours preparing for a Union attack. The defense at the Fort is low, with only nine guns remaining above the rising river water. Tilghman knows that they don’t have the resources to hold the Fort. He makes the decision to take the majority of his 3,000 troops and move them 12 miles south overland to Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Along the way Union cavalry attempt to pursue them, but the roads are muddy and it makes fighting difficult, so the only damage they inflict is capturing a few Confederate prisoners.
This Confederate move leaves only a handful of artillerymen at Fort Henry. Heiman sends a message requesting reinforcements to Major General Leonidas Polk, who is more than 70 miles west in Columbus, Kentucky. He knows that reinforcements are very unlikely. The situation appears helpless, especially when Heiman receives reconnaissance information that greatly exaggerates the Union troop numbers and their movements. Tilghman and Heiman wait at their post, ready to receive a Union attack. It doesn’t come.
In Washington City, President Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son Willie is sick. He lies in bed with a fever and is finding it difficult to breathe. His mother Mary spends most of the day sitting beside his bed, holding his feverish hand in her own. Willie has been sick for a couple of weeks now, fluctuating between bad and good days. Today is one of the worse days he’s had. He’s been stuck inside and isolated from anything fun; he misses his younger brother Tad, his pony and their goats, Nanny and Nanko. His mother’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, keeps coming into the room, gently reminding his mother that she needs to get ready for this evening. He can tell his mother does not want to leave his side, but as First Lady she has a responsibility. She leans over to kiss him and smooths his brown hair, then heads across the hall to get ready after instructing the staff to interrupt her at any time if Willie’s status changes in the slightest. Doctors reassure her that Willie appears to be improving and is in no harm.
The highly anticipated and criticized White House ball is this evening. Between 600 & 700 invitations were sent out just days ago to politicians, diplomats, military leaders and members of high society. Holding the event had been of much debate, given Willie’s poor health and the simple fact that many in the President’s circle – including the President himself – thought it would be distasteful to celebrate and have lavish fun while hundreds of thousands of soldiers were in tents in the cold and rain, away from their loved ones. But there was also the argument that White House parties were tradition, so the Lincoln’s agreed to a modified engagement to suit the times. Everything has been carefully planned down to every last detail, but Mary adds a last minute change: Because of Willie’s illness, there will be no dancing tonight.
With the help of Elizabeth, Mary puts on a white satin gown with a low neck and short sleeves, trimmed with black lace flounces which are looped up with knots of ribbon. Last week they had received the news that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had passed away in December. One of England’s primary diplomats, Lord Richard Lyons, is going to attend tonight so Mary had requested that Elizabeth incorporate black into the dress to symbolize mourning and sympathy for the Queen’s loss. To finish the outfit Mary graces the top of her head with a floral headdress, which is a signature look she often uses for White House events.
It’s time for the President and First Lady to make their entrance and greet their guests. Abraham comes into the room, gazing and smiling upon his wife. “Ooohh…our cat has a long tail tonight,” he says playfully to Mary and Elizabeth. He notices that once again she chose to have Elizabeth make her a dress with a very low and revealing neckline. Mary looks upon her husband for approval. Abraham is not willing to give her complete satisfaction. “Mother, it is my opinion that if some of that tail was nearer the head it would be in better style.” Mary knows this is the best she will get out of her husband; he does not understand the heavy burden on her to have the most fashionable attire and to appear as beautiful as possible so the press & high ranks of society will not criticize her appearance. She once again instructs her staff to summon her if there is any change in Willie’s condition and heads downstairs with her husband.
The Marine Band plays in the Central Hall while the President, First Lady and their son Robert (who is home from Harvard) stand at the receiving door of the East Room. This event is the first official showcase of Mary’s $20,000 expenditures (using government money) to remodel the dingy and outdated White House they had acquired, so visitors are allowed to walk in the various rooms on the first floor. Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of Major General John C. Fremont, greets the President and notices that his face seems very sad. Instead of welcoming his guests, the President speaks of his sick boy Willie. He tells Jessie and her husband that his son is very ill and that he fears the result. Jessie expresses their hopes for Willie’s recovery and walks away feeling a great deal of pity for a man with such a grieved appearance.
Approximately 500 guests fill the rooms, making it a packed house while still providing space to comfortably move about. For several hours guests listen to the band playing respectable and patriotic songs, including a new song called “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Around midnight everyone makes their way into the State Room for dinner, only to find two larges pieces of ornamental confectionery. The center object representing the steamer “Union”, armed and bearing the “Stars and Stripes.” On a side table is a model of Fort Sumter also built out of sugar and provisioned with game. The food has been brought in from New York and contains a variety of delicacies, which are said to cost over $1,000; though several would maintain later that the President paid for this out of his own pocket and did not use taxpayer money.
Throughout the night both Abraham and Mary sneak upstairs to check on Willie, whose health appears to be worsening. Guests stay as late as 3am and many call the evening a great success, though some still strongly disagree with the choice to hold such a lavish function during a war. This debate will not end after tonight.
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.