Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant began September commanding Federals within Major General John C. Fremont’s Department of the West at Cape Girardeau, in southeastern Missouri. Fremont had directed Grant to lead an expedition into neutral Kentucky and seize key points on the Mississippi River. Grant quickly crossed the river and took up headquarters at Cairo, Illinois, to the southeast. From this point, Grant could monitor Confederate activity at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
On the 4th, Grant officially became commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, which also included southern Illinois and western Kentucky. Just hours after taking command, Grant received word that Confederates had invaded Kentucky and seized the important river town of Columbus. The next day, one of Fremont’s staff officers came to Cairo and confirmed to Grant that Confederates had occupied Columbus and Hickman, and their next target would be Paducah, a strategic town 40 miles away at the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, with the Cumberland River nearby.
Grant immediately prepared to get to Paducah first. He wrote to the Unionist speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives: “I regret to inform you that Confederate forces in considerable numbers have invaded the territory of Kentucky and are occupying & fortifying strong positions at Hickman & Chalk Bluffs.” Grant warned that he would have to take military action in the state, a warning that should have come from his civilian superiors at Washington rather than himself.
Grant then sent messages to Fremont at St. Louis explaining the situation and stating that he would start moving unless Fremont ordered him to stop. Fremont did not respond, so Grant assembled his troops on steamers at Cairo just before midnight. When Fremont received Grant’s dispatches, he notified his superiors and ordered Grant to establish a foothold in Kentucky while pursuing withdrawing Confederates to New Madrid, Missouri, “taking Charleston and Sikeston, as well as holding Belmont.” However, the orders had been written by one of Fremont’s Hungarian staff officers and could not be understood. Grant responded that after making “preliminary arrangements,” “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. This took most residents by surprise, as they had hoisted Confederate flags to welcome the force that was on its way from Columbus. They hurriedly pulled the flags down while Grant’s men raised U.S. flags over the public buildings. The Confederates on their way to Paducah went back to Columbus.
Grant noted that he “never saw such consternation depicted on the faces of the people.” Most residents were clearly Confederate sympathizers, but the Federals seemed to like the town nonetheless. One soldier recalled, “I never saw so many pretty women in my life… All fat, smooth-skinned, small-boned, high-bred looking women.” The troops seized the railroad, guarded the roads, and took control of the telegraph and post 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.” He declared that “an enemy, in rebellion against our common Government,” was “moving upon your city” after invading Kentucky. “I have nothing to do with opinions,” he wrote. “I shall deal only with armed rebellion and its aiders and abettors.” 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.”
This bold, bloodless action by General Grant prevented Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates 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 his skill in conducting joint army-navy operations. This negated Polk’s seizure of Columbus, and Polk acknowledged that the Confederates should have broken Kentucky’s so-called neutrality months earlier because “Kentucky was fast melting away under the influence of the Lincoln government.”
Grant placed Brigadier General E.A. Paine in charge of the Federal occupation forces. Grant instructed: “You are charged to take special care and precaution that no harm is done to inoffensive citizens; that the soldiers shall not enter any private dwelling nor make any searches unless by your orders… Exercise the strictest discipline against any soldier who shall insult citizens or engage in plundering private property.” 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.
Grant was back at his Cairo headquarters by noon. Waiting for him was authorization from Fremont to enter Kentucky. The question over whether Kentucky would stay neutral was now settled. From this point on, the question would be whether the Federals or Confederates would ultimately control the state.
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