So confident was Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote of victory in the coming Union assault on Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, that on 2 February 1862, four days before the Union attack, he issued bold special orders to Lieutenant Seth Ledyard Phelps. On his own initiative and without consulting others, Foote instructed Phelps that on the fall of Fort Henry he was to take his division of three timber- clad gunboats—the Conestoga (flagship), Lexington, and Tyler—up the Tennessee River, disable the key 1,200-foot Memphis, Louisville, and Clarksville railroad drawbridge at Danville, 25 miles above Fort Henry, and then raid into Confederate territory as far upriver as the depth of water would allow. After Foote’s squadron captured Fort Henry without the help of General Ulysses S. Grant’s army on 6 February, Foote returned to Cairo with his ironclads to effect repairs, leaving behind only the ironclad Carondelet to support Union troops ashore.
A fast Confederate steamer, the Dunbar, was anchored about a mile upriver from Fort Henry during the battle on the 6th, and Captain Gus Fowler kept her there afterward to see what would happen. He did not have long to wait; soon clouds of smoke were seen headed in their direction. Phelps’s mission had begun.
Fowler quickly ordered the Dunbar upriver to the Danville drawbridge. Arriving there at about 1600, the Dunbar’s crew spread the alarm that Union ships were coming. The Union arrival was delayed, however, when Phelps discovered the camp of the 48th and 51st Tennessee regiments along the shore and stopped to destroy it. At Danville, meanwhile, the Confederates saved what they could, loading supplies on board the transport steamers Appleton Belle, Lynn Boyd, Samuel On, and Time. These vessels then steamed upriver. Fowler also posted sentinels on the bridge and positioned the Dunbar along the shore, just beyond the bridge.
The Union ships arrived at the railroad bridge at about 2000. Phelps immediately opened fire on the Dunbar with one of the Conestoga’s 32-pounders. With Union shot splashing around her, the Dunbar then fled upriver after the transports.
The few Confederate sentinels on the bridge opened fire at the three Union vessels before escaping on board a waiting train. The timberclads were held up briefly, because the Confederates had disabled the machinery to keep the bridge down. Phelps landed men and in about an hour they succeeded in opening it. He then left behind Lieutenant William Gwin and the Tyler, slowest of his gunboats, so that the men might destroy track and telegraph line. Phelps, meanwhile, proceeded upriver with the Conestoga and Lexington. After accomplishing his assigned tasks and confiscating equipment abandoned by the Confederates, Gwin hurried the Tyler after the other two Union gunboats. The Union raiders did not destroy the railroad bridge as Foote had ordered, judging that it would be there when the expedition returned.
Phelps’s Conestoga, meanwhile, pressed ahead of the slower Lexington and gained gradually on the heavily laden Confederate transports. The captain of the Samuel On decided to fire his vessel rather than see her and her contents fall into Union hands. He also hoped that the explosion of her cargo of submarine batteries would disable one or more of the Union gunboats. But the Conestoga kept at a discreet distance as explosions ripped the Confederate steamer. Farther upriver the captains of the Appleton Belle and Lynn Boyd realized that they soon would be overhauled as well. They then landed their two vessels in front of the home of Judge Creavatt, a Union sympathizer, and fired them in turn. Spotting the burning steamers, Phelps halted the Conestoga some 1,000 yards away. No sooner had the Union gunboat stopped than a tremendous explosion ripped the Appleton Belle, which had been loaded with ordnance supplies and 3,000 pounds of powder. The explosion shattered the Conestoga’s skylights, lifted her light upper deck, opened doors, and even broke locks. It also shattered the Lynn Boyd, the Creavatt home, and, as Phelps described it, beat up a half-mile stretch along the river.
Phelps then decided to halt in order to wait for the other two gunboats, which did not have pilots on board. At 1100 on 7 February, all three gunboats arrived at Perry’s Landing, Tennessee, where they discovered strong Union sentiment. Much to the seamen’s delight, people on the banks waved hats and handkerchiefs and, on occasion, U.S. flags.
At 1900 the Union gunboats reached Cerro Gordo, Tennessee. Small arms fire on the Conestoga produced retaliatory shelling from the flagship and the Tyler. The three Union gunboats then hove to and launched their cutters. At the riverbank the Union seamen took possession of the large, 670-ton, 260-feet-long steamer Eastport, which had been undergoing conversion into an ironclad ram. They also took a great quantity of materials intended for her alteration, including 250,000 board feet of “the best quality of ship and building lumber” and iron plating. The East- port had been partially scuttled, but the Union sailors were able to stop the leaks and pump out the water.
Again leaving the Tyler behind, this time to guard his prize, Phelps pressed on with the Conestoga and Lexington. On 8 February, at Waterloo Landing, Mississippi, Phelps took two small steamers, the Muscle and Sallie Wood—the latter vessel filled with iron destined for the Tredegar Iron works in Richmond. A prize crew from the Conestoga boarded the Muscle and used her to tow the Sallie Wood back to Cerro Gordo.
Phelps’s gunboats got as far south as Florence, Alabama, arriving there on the afternoon of the 8th. Here the raid ended, stopped by Muscle Shoals. The crews of the Dunbar and another Confederate steamer, the Alfred Robb, managed to prevent their capture by hiding them in a stream. The Confederates fired three other steamers, the Julius Smith, Sam Kirkman, and Time. The Julius Smith was cut loose with her paddle wheels turning in reverse in the hopes that she would run into and destroy one or more of the raiders, but the Union gunboats easily avoided her mad passage downstream. The other two steamers were fired at the landing, but seamen from the Conestoga quickly went ashore and managed to save a quantity of stores from the burning vessels.
A delegation of Florence citizens now approached Phelps, pleading that he not destroy their city or the prized 15-pier railroad bridge over the river. Phelps reasoned that because Muscle Shoals impeded him from further passage upriver and that the bridge had little military value, he would leave it intact. He also assured the delegation that the Union seamen were “neither ruffians nor savages” and that they would not destroy private property. Phelps did take an armed party with telegraphers and their equipment to the local telegraph office, where they listened to telegraph messages until the Confederates learned what was going on and rerouted their messages. At the same time, the remainder of the Union shore party was going through warehouses and seizing official Confederate property. They took a quantity of supplies designated for Fort Henry as well as iron plating intended for the Eastport. Phelps ordered private property seized on board the steamers to be offloaded and returned to its owners.
That same evening the two gunboats departed Florence. Later that night they reached Cerro Gordo, where Gwin and his men had been busy loading captured supplies and getting the Eastport ready for her trip downriver. The Union seamen were surprised to find hundreds of local citizens who came out to voice their distaste for the Confederacy and their support for the Union cause.
On his return to Cerro Gordo, Phelps consulted with Gwin and Lieutenant James W. Shirk of the Lexington. The three decided they would assault a Confederate regimental camp near Savannah, Tennessee, reportedly containing some 600 pressed men. Leaving the Lexington behind to guard the Eastport, the Conestoga and Tyler set out. They soon arrived at Savannah, and 130 sailors and Marines with a Dahlgren 12-pounder howitzer stormed ashore, only to find the camp hastily deserted. The landing party then removed some stores and fired others, along with the camp’s log cabins. On the night of 9 February the Lexington and Tyler, on either side of the Eastport, took their large prize in tow; the Conestoga towed the Sallie Wood and the Muscle, the latter under steam. But the Muscle sprung a leak and had to be abandoned, along with the lumber piled on board her.
On 10 February Phelps’s little flotilla returned to Fort Henry. The expedition had been an immense success: it had taken three Confederate steamers and brought the destruction of six others. The Eastport was a particularly valuable capture. She became a Union ironclad of the same name, mounting six IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 100-pounder rifled guns. The expedition also secured a considerable quantity of lumber, iron plate and other stores, and small arms. News of the raid spread across the South and had a profound psychological impact. In the region it spread panic among Confederates and caused Alabama Governor John G. Shorter to call out the militia. At the same time it heartened Union sympathizers, a surprising number of whom had come forward openly to express their sentiments.