The Tennessee River flows from the mountains of east Tennessee to the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. In the 19th century it was navigable from the Ohio to Great Bend at Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama. Steamboats and gunboats could move freely from Paducah to Alabama, bringing supplies and soldiers to whichever side controlled the river.
The Confederates Occupy Columbus
In a monumental blunder, the Confederates occupied neutral Columbus, Kentucky, in September 1861. Federal forces quickly responded by seizing Paducah and Smithland, Kentucky, at the mouths of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
Forts Henry and Heiman Fall
The Confederates constructed two forts on the Tennessee River, Fort Henry on the east bank in Tennessee and Fort Heiman on the west bank in Kentucky. The Union navy made short work of both. Gunboats again steamed as far south as Alabama, demonstrating Union might.
The Union Takes the River
Combined Union army-navy operations proved successful at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh, blows from which the Confederacy never recovered. Once Union forces took the Tennessee River it became part of a supply network for Federal armies in the west. The river and railroad connection at Johnsonville made it a key component in the Union supply line.
(lower left) Union engineers built strong fortifications in Puducah, strengthening the army's hold on the mouth of the Tennessee River.(upper right) Fort Henry was no match for the Union's "brown water navy." Ironclad gunboats shelled the fort into submission. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division