Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin, who was suspected of having Confederate sympathies, had proclaimed his state to be neutral in the conflict. But that had not stopped Federals from arranging the election of a Unionist legislature, recruiting troops, and training them at Camp Dick Robinson. Kentucky’s representatives in the U.S. Congress had already voted to arm and supply men to drive out secessionists. In late August, Major General John C. Fremont, commanding the Federal Department of the West, had (without authorization) directed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to openly violate Kentucky’s neutrality by leading Federal troops into the state.
Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding Confederate Department Number 2 (which included the entire Western Theater), received word that Federal forces were gathering in southeastern Missouri, across the Mississippi River from Kentucky. He informed Governor Magoffin that it was “of the greatest consequence that I should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah,” two key river towns.
As the new Unionist Kentucky legislature approved raising a U.S. flag over the State House at Frankfort, Polk directed Major General Gideon Pillow’s forces to cross the river from Missouri and seize Columbus. Situated atop 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 across the river. The Confederates took Columbus shortly thereafter. Most residents welcomed the troops as protectors from the threatening Federal guns. Polk explained his actions to Governor Magoffin:
“I should have dispatched to you immediately, as the troops under my command took possession of this position (Columbus)… It will be sufficient for me to inform you (as my short address herewith will do) that I had information, on which I could rely, that the Federal forces intended, and were preparing to seize Columbus. I need not describe to you the danger resulting to western Tennessee from such occupation… But I am prepared to say that I will agree to withdraw the Confederate troops from Kentucky, provided that she will agree that the troops of the Federal Government be withdrawn simultaneously, with a guarantee (which I will give reciprocally for the Confederate Government) that the Federal troops shall not be allowed to enter or occupy any part of Kentucky in the future.”
Polk arrived one day before the Federals’ scheduled arrival date. The people of Columbus had requested Confederate protection from an impending Federal invasion. Unionists immediately protested that the Confederacy had violated Kentucky’s neutrality first, disregarding prior Federal encroachments as well as the fact that the Federals had planned to invade as well but just were not fast enough.
Occupying Columbus created a war front that extended from the Atlantic Ocean westward to the frontier. This settled the issue over whether Kentucky would remain neutral. From this point on, both Federals and Confederates would openly battle to control the state. Some Kentuckians resented the fact that the Confederacy had violated the state’s neutrality, causing a rise in Unionist sentiment. Others welcomed the Confederates as protectors.
Polk proclaimed that he had led his troops into Kentucky in response to the Federal military buildup in the state as well as in Missouri, “evidently intended to cover the landing of troops for the seizure” of Columbus. Polk declared that the Federals “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.”
The people of the Confederacy generally applauded Polk’s move, but Tennessee Governor Isham Harris was the most vocal exception. 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.” Of course, Harris had the most to lose from such a move because he no longer had Kentucky as a buffer against a Federal invasion of his state.
Polk responded to Harris 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 P. 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 the Confederate gunboat C.S.S. Yankee and fired on Confederate shore batteries at Hickman. Commander John Rodgers of the 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.”
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