March 16, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a Confederate cavalry expedition into western Tennessee and Kentucky.
Forrest, stationed at Columbus, Mississippi, with 5,000 troopers, received orders to move north. His mission was to attack Federal outposts, recruit volunteers, capture deserters, and disrupt the Federal supply line along the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Forrest took 2,700 of his men on the excursion.
A little over a week later, a detachment of Forrest’s 7th Tennessee Cavalry surprised and captured the Federal 7th Tennessee Cavalry at Union City in northwestern Tennessee. The Confederates placed logs on wheels to resemble cannon and left a note: “If you persist in defense, you must take the consequences. N.B. Forrest, Major General, Commanding.” The Confederates took 481 prisoners, 300 horses, and a large amount of supplies.
Meanwhile, Forrest’s main force continued north toward Paducah, a strategic Kentucky town near the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers which had been under Federal control since September 1861. After riding 100 miles in 50 hours, the troopers arrived outside Paducah on the 25th. The Federals, led by Colonel Stephen G. Hicks, quickly fell back to Fort Anderson, a strong fortification west of town.
Hicks had just 665 men, but they were supported by artillery and two tinclad gunboats (the U.S.S. Peosta and Paw Paw) on the Tennessee River. Forrest sent Hicks a message: “If you surrender you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works you may expect no quarter.” Forrest did not actually intend to assault the fort; he only wanted horses and supplies.
The Federals responded to Forrest’s demand by blasting the streets with their artillery, joined by fire from the gunboats. Brigadier General Mason Brayman, the overall commander at Paducah, later wrote that the tinclads–
“… shelled the rebels out of the buildings from which their sharpshooters annoyed our troops. A large number took shelter in heavy warehouses near the river and maintained a furious fire upon the gunboats, inflicting some injury, but they were promptly dislodged and the buildings destroyed…”
Colonel Albert P. Thompson disregarded Forrest’s orders and led two regiments in an assault on Fort Anderson. The Federals repelled them, inflicting 50 casualties (10 killed and 40 wounded), though Hicks claimed to have inflicted 1,500 casualties. Thompson, who lived nearby, was among those killed. The Federals sustained 60 casualties (14 killed and 46 wounded).
Meanwhile, the gunboats fired about 700 rounds. According to a gunner on the Peosta:
“We kept putting the shell and grape into them from all the guns we could get to bear. Their riflemen and some of the people of the town got into the buildings down by the river and pelted us with musket balls but we soon gave them enough of that for we directed our whole fire on them at short range with shell grape and canister and soon fetched the bricks around their eyes… They would have had the fort and the city if it had not been for us, for they were out of ammunition in the fort.”
Forrest finally withdrew the next morning, taking 50 prisoners, 400 horses, and more supplies. Before leaving, the Confederates destroyed cotton and a steamer in dry dock. Forrest’s raid had alarmed residents of the Ohio River Valley, but the Confederates failed to establish a foothold in Kentucky. They fell back toward Fort Pillow on the Mississippi.
After Forrest left Paducah, he learned from a local newspaper that his troopers had missed out on capturing 140 army horses hidden in a mill. Forrest resolved to return next month and get those mounts.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385, 388; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2249-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 409, 411-12; Harrison, Lowell H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 552; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-78; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 190