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The Story of Forts Heiman, Donelson and Henry

Soon after Tennessee seceded in mid-1861, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris sent General Donelson to determine the best positions in Tennessee to defend against federal incursions on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Fort Donelson was built overlooking the Cumberland River. Fort Henry was built on the east bank of the Tennessee. On the west bank, just opposite Fort Henry, an outstanding defensive position existed. It was atop a very high bluff with a commanding view of both the river as well as the low-lying, flood prone Fort Henry. This was to become Fort Heiman which is located in the southeast corner of Calloway County, only a couple of miles from Kentucky Highway 121 and next door to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area. (continued below)

General Lloyd Tilghman was put in command of both Fort Henry and Fort Heiman. His deputy commander Colonel Adolphus Heiman, an accomplished architect, began construction in January 1962. Men from several states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky occupied the three forts. On February 4th, 1862, General Grant attacked Fort Henry with gunboats as well as by land. General C.F. Smith embarked by land to assault Fort Heiman. Fort Heiman was abandoned and the Confederate troops moved to Fort Henry. On February 6, with Fort Henry surrounded by water and one-third of its interior flooded, Tilghman surrendered after having first sent most of his 3,000 men to Fort Donelson.
Anticipating that Fort Donelson would fall, Johnston retreated from his headquarters in Bowling Green Kentucky to a position south of Nashville. When Fort Henry and Donelson fell, the Cumberland River was open past Nashville; and Nashville, a vast storehouse, was abandoned in a matter of days resulting in the loss of many supplies and material. Furthermore, the Tennessee River was open into Alabama. Thus, the heart of the confederacy as exposed to these North-South routes and the Union forces used them effectively throughout the war.
To bolster the route of the Tennessee River, Fort Heiman was strengthened and became a major supply depot for the Union Forces and their invading gunboats. This permitted the vast federal buildup of the Union forces at Shiloh. And when Shiloh fell, vital transportation and supply routes to the Confederacy’s eastern front were severed.

Fort Heiman remained in Union hands until mid 1863 when it was deemed safe to abandon. However, 30 miles south, Johnsonville Tennessee had become a vast Union supply depot. Large portions of these supplies were used to nourish Sherman’s army. In late October 1864, General Nathan Bedford Forrest occupied Fort Heiman and set a trap for Union transports and gunboats. Sinking some of the boats and salvaging others, he equipped them with artillery for a raid on Johnsonville. This raid was immensely successful. The wharf for a mile along the river was ablaze and all supplies were destroyed. Johnsonville has two Tennessee State Parks to commemorate the events that occurred there.

But Forrest’s raid came too late to be truly effective. The devastation of Franklin and Nashville in the West was only about a month away. And the defeat in the East followed in the spring. General Halleck, Grant’s commander, devised a plan to use the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to penetrate deep into the Confederacy. He fully realized the significance of this strategy. Apparently General Johnston failed to truly appreciate the importance of these positions or he would have placed the highest priority upon the hasty completion of Forts Heiman and Donelson. And he would have defended them with the utmost vigor instead of retreating with the largest of his army. Furthermore, he would have probably ignored the fatally flawed Fort Henry. This failure of the Confederacy could very well represent the pivotal point upon which it fate ultimately hinged.

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