Andrew Foote was a career naval officer who had been in the navy for nearly forty years at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Born and raised in Connecticut, Foote attended West Point between June and December 1822. On 4 December 1822 he gained an appointment as an acting midshipman in the United States Navy. His early career included cruises in the Pacific, the West Indies and an around the world cruise. In the early 1840s, when serving as a first lieutenant on the U.S.S. Cumberland in the Mediterranean, he managed to turn that ship dry. Over the next twenty years he campaigned for the abolition of the spirit ration, living long enough to see the success of his campaign in 1862.
Between 1849 and 1851 he commanded the U.S.S. Perry, on the African squadron. Here he had two conflicting duties – first to protect American vessels against British searches, designed to stop the slave trade, and second to stop the slave trade. He was an active opponent of the African slave trade, publishing a book on the subject in 1854 (Africa and the American Flag). Between 1851 and 1856 he was based ashore, taking advantage of that time to campaign against slavery.
Between 1856 and 1858 he was back at see, in command of the U.S.S. Portsmouth, in the Far East. This was the period of the Opium Wars, and although Britain was the main western power involved in fighting in China at the time, the United States was also involved. In November 1856 Foote led an attack on the four barrier forts that defended Canton. With a force of 287 sailors, he defeated the 5,000 strong garrison of the forts, and demolished them.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Foote was back in the United States, in command of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Foote was appointed to command naval operations on the upper Mississippi. His area of command also included the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. He had a difficult command. His first duty was to oversee the creation of a fleet where none had been needed before the war. Once he had a fleet, it came under army command.
Foote arrived at Cairo, on the Mississippi, on 12 September 1861. Work in the river fleet was already underway. James B. Eads had been given a contract to produce seven ironclad rivers boats in August 1861, and the first of them, the St. Louis and Carondolet launched on 12 October.
Their first test would come early in 1862. The army commander at Cairo was now U.S. Grant, and he was keen to test the Confederate defences of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Foote and Grant came up with a plan to attack Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, and then Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. In January 1862 General Halleck, then overall Union commander in the west, gave his approval for the plan.
The attack on Fort Henry was to be a combined operation. Grant’s troops would be landed several miles downstream of Fort Henry, and attack the fort from the rear, while Foote’s gunboats bombarded the fort from the river. In the event, Grant’s troops made slower progress than expected. On 6 February Foote ran his ironclads into a position from where they could bombard the fort. The commander of the Fort Henry, recognising the hopelessness of his position, evacuated most his men, only leaving the artillery to delay Foote. After a two hour artillery duel, Fort Henry surrendered to Foote.
The attack on Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, did not go as well for Foote and his ironclads. Fort Donelson was better located than Fort Henry, high above the river, so its guns would be able to direct a plunging fire onto the more vulnerable decks of the ironclads. This time, Grant and the army arrived first, on 12 February. An attack the next day failed.
On 14 February Foote arrived with the ironclads. At three in the afternoon he took them close to the fort, in preparation to bombard the forts. However, this time he got too close. Effective Confederate gunnery damaged two of the four ironclads (the Louisville and St. Louis) and Foote had to withdraw. The conclusion of the siege was thus left to Grant and the army, who captured it on 16 February. Foote himself suffered minor injuries when the St. Louis was hit.
Foote’s last action came at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi. This strong Confederate position effectively blocked the river to Union troops, Aware that his gunboats were essential for the defence of the upper Mississippi, Foote was more cautious. He engaged in a long range bombardment of the Confederate positions between 17 March and 4 April. This long range bombardment was not very effective, and the army commander facing Island No. 10, General Pope, repeatedly requested that Foote attempted to run an ironclad past the guns. Pope had captured New Madrid on 13 March. This placed his army downstream of Island No. 10, but on the opposite bank of the river. Without naval support he could not risk a crossing of the river.
Foote was opposed to the idea, but the captain of the Carondelet, Henry Walke, was sure that his boat could get past the Confederate guns. At a council of war at the end of March, he convinced Foote to let him try. On the night of 4 April, Walke succeeded in running past the guns of Island No. 10. Three days later, on 7 April, a second gunboat also ran the guns. On the same day Pope was able to cross the river, and force the defenders of Island No. 10 to surrender.
This was Foote’s last battle. His health was poor, and he had not yet fully recovered from the wounds he had suffered at Fort Donelson. Foote requested that he be relieved, and on 9 May 1862 he was replaced by Charles Henry Davis.
On 16 July Foote was promoted to Rear Admiral. He spent the winter of 1862-3 as chief of the bureau of equipment and recruiting. In the summer of 1863 he felt he was fit to return to active service, and was appointed to replaced Admiral Du Pont in command of the fleet outside Charleston. However, on 26 June 1863, while travelling south to take up his new command he died, of Bright’s disease. Foote’s great attribute as a commander was his determination. He was described as fascinating company by his contemporaries and appears to have been popular with his colleagues.