The End of Neutral Kentucky

September 3, 1861 – Kentucky’s neutrality, which had been in question for several months, officially ended when Confederate forces entered the state ahead of the Federals.

Confederate General Leonidas Polk | Image Credit:
Confederate General Leonidas Polk | Image Credit:

On the same day that the new Unionist Kentucky legislature approved raising the U.S. flag over the State House at Frankfort, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Western Theater, received news that Federal forces were gathering across the Mississippi River from Kentucky.

Federals had already encroached upon the state’s avowed neutrality by arranging the election of a Unionist legislature, recruiting troops, and training them at Camp Dick Robinson. Kentucky’s Federal congressmen had already voted to pay for arming and supplying men to destroy the Confederacy, and in late August Major General John C. Fremont (without authorization) had directed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to openly violate Kentucky’s neutrality by leading Federal troops into the state.

Polk therefore resolved to beat Grant to the punch, directing Major General Gideon Pillow’s forces to advance northward and seize Columbus, a key Kentucky town on the Mississippi. Situated upon a high bluff, Columbus commanded the waterway between the Federal base at Cairo, Illinois, and the Confederates in northwestern Tennessee. It was also the northern terminus of the important Mobile & Ohio Railroad.

Pillow loaded his troops on transports at New Madrid, Missouri, and steamed upriver to seize Hickman, just below Columbus, which was covered by Federal artillery; the Confederates took Columbus shortly thereafter. Most residents welcomed the troops as protectors from the threatening Federal cannon across the river. Polk had hinted to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin that his forces may invade the state, having informed him that the Confederates “should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah.”

Occupying Columbus created a war front that now extended from the Atlantic Ocean westward to the American frontier. Unionists protested that the Confederate military had violated Kentucky’s neutrality first, disregarding prior Federal encroachments as well as the fact that the Federal military had planned to invade the state just one day later.

Some Kentuckians resented the Confederacy for violating the state’s neutrality first, causing a rise in Unionist sentiment. Others welcomed the Confederates as protectors. Polk argued that he had ordered his troops into Kentucky to counter the Federals, who “in defiance of the wishes of the people of Kentucky, disregarded their neutrality by establishing camp depots for their armies, and by organizing military companies within the territory, and by constructing military works on the Missouri shore immediately opposite and commanding Columbus, evidently intended to cover the landing of troops for the seizure of that town.”

Not all Confederates supported Polk’s move. Tennessee Governor Isham Harris wrote to Polk calling the action “unfortunate, as the President and myself are pledged to respect the neutrality of Kentucky.” Unless the Confederate “presence there is an absolute necessity,” according to Harris, it should be “withdrawn instantly.”

Polk responded on the 4th: “I regret that a movement so entirely acceptable to the people of Kentucky… and so essential to the security of Western Tennessee, does not permit me, in the exercise of the above authority, to concur with your views.” Polk asserted that he “had never received official information that the President and yourself had determined upon any particular course in reference to the State of Kentucky.”

That same day, Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Walker telegraphed Polk to lead his troops on a “prompt withdrawal from Kentucky.” Before receiving Walker’s message, Polk wrote to President Jefferson Davis:

“The enemy having descended the Mississippi River some three or four days since, and seated himself with cannon and entrenched lines opposite the town of Columbus, Kentucky, making such demonstrations as left no doubt upon the minds of any of their intention to seize and forcibly possess said town, I thought proper, under the plenary power delegated to me, to direct a sufficient portion of my command both by the river way and land to concentrate at Columbus, as well to offer to its citizens that protection they unite to a man in accepting, as also to prevent, in time, the occupation by the enemy of a point so necessary to the security of western Tennessee. The demonstration on my part has had the desired effect. The enemy has withdrawn his forces even before I had fortified my position. It is my intention to continue to occupy and hold this place.”

Davis overruled the secretary of war and supported Polk.

Meanwhile, Federal gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler traded fire with Confederate gunboat C.S.S. Yankee and fired on Confederate shore batteries at Hickman. Commander John Rodgers of Tyler observed that Confederates had assembled a large force and a battery at Hickman to fire on Federal vessels trying to pass. Rodgers later reported that “the (Confederate) army at Hickman is considerable.”

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:
Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant | Image Credit:

At the Federal base in Cairo, General Grant received intelligence on September 5 that Confederates were advancing from Columbus to occupy Paducah, 40 miles away at the important confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, with the equally important Cumberland River nearby. Grant shared this information with Fremont at St. Louis and stated that he would begin moving that night to get to Paducah first unless Fremont objected. Hearing nothing back, Grant assembled his troops on steamers just before midnight.

At St. Louis, Fremont received Grant’s dispatches and informed his superiors that the Confederates, having captured Columbus and Hickman, would likely seize Paducah the next day. He issued orders to Grant to both establish a foothold in Kentucky and pursue withdrawing Confederates to New Madrid in Missouri, “taking Charleston and Sikeston, as well as holding Belmont.” However, Grant did not receive those orders before making “preliminary arrangements” and informing Fremont, “I am now ready for Paducah.”

Three Federal army transport steamers, protected by the gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler, traveled 45 miles down the Mississippi and arrived at Paducah around 8:30 a.m. on the 6th. The small Confederate force in the town quickly evacuated by rail. Most residents supporting secession rushed to pull down their Confederate flags as Grant directed the raising of U.S. flags over the public buildings.

As Federals seized the railroad and telegraph offices, Grant issued a “Proclamation, To The Citizens of Paducah” which began: “I have come among you, not as an enemy, but as your friend and fellow-citizen, not to injure or annoy you, but to respect the rights, and to defend and enforce the rights of all loyal citizens.” Grant declared that “an enemy, in rebellion against our common Government,” was “moving upon your city” after invading Kentucky. Grant assured residents that his troops were there to “defend you against this enemy… and maintain the authority and sovereignty of your Government and mine.”

It was soon discovered that no Confederates were headed toward Paducah from Columbus. Nevertheless, Grant’s bold, bloodless action prevented Polk from moving closer to the Ohio River to threaten Illinois and possibly take control of all Kentucky. Taking Paducah earned Grant the respect of his troops. It also demonstrated Grant’s skill in conducting joint army-navy operations.

Grant issued orders for the troops to take “special care and precaution that no harm is done to inoffensive citizens.” Looting was prohibited, but Grant permitted his men to take all money from the town banks and store it on one of the gunboats in case of a Confederate attack.

Placing the highly respected Brigadier General Charles F. Smith in command of Federal forces in western Kentucky, Grant returned to Cairo around 12 p.m. There he finally received Fremont’s order to take not only Paducah but points along the Mississippi in Missouri. The orders had been written by one of Fremont’s Hungarian staff officers and could not be understood.

The question over whether Kentucky would stay neutral was now settled. From this point on Federals and Confederates would battle to control the state.



Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 114;; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6873, 6885, 6965-78, 6989; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 72-73; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 61-62; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 135-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 114-15; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 295-96; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46, 70-71; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 198-200; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 413-14; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361


  1. A very nicely written article. But I discovered an entry in Grant’s unsubmitted military report in the Library of Congress confirming that Grant was specifically instructed by Fremont to occupy Paducah, if possible. This twist to the usual story removes a little of Grant’s luster, and is thoroughly documented in my new biography, Grant under Fire. Much of the history passed down concerning Grant is similarly inaccurate.

  2. You’re most welcome. Grant Under Fire challenges Grant’s reputation both as a military genius, as well as for being an accurate and reliable chronicler of the Civil War. The above instance shows how General Grant came up short on both counts. He didn’t occupy Paducah without his superior’s approval and his Memoirs tried to claim that he did. Even one of the messages in the Official Records (which should have been obvious to any Grant biographer) revealed that Grant had received Fremont’s instructions before departing up the Ohio.

    Please contact me at if you have any questions about the General.

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