A Day for a Demonstration

Both President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief George B. McClellan had been urging the two Federal commanders in the Western Theater, Major Generals Henry W. Halleck and Don Carlos Buell, to coordinate their efforts to better confront the Confederates in Kentucky and Tennessee. Specifically, they wanted Halleck to threaten western Kentucky so that Buell could move into eastern Tennessee to protect the strong Unionist sentiment there. Halleck had argued that the problems in Missouri took precedence, but then he finally acceded and authorized an expedition.

Halleck directed Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, his district commander at Cairo, Illinois, to make a demonstration south of Paducah, Kentucky. The objective would be to make the Confederates think that Grant was targeting either Camp Beauregard below Columbus or Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. He warned Grant not to expose his flank to the Confederates at Columbus, but “Make a great fuss about moving all your forces towards Nashville, and let it be so reported by the newspapers.” Grant was to inform nobody about the mission’s true purpose, which was to prevent Confederates in western Kentucky and Tennessee from moving east to oppose Buell’s expected advance.

Halleck then asked Buell to “designate a day for a demonstration” and informed Lincoln that the matter was now in Buell’s hands because Halleck could help no further without more arms. Buell did not respond to Halleck’s request for a demonstration date. Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Buell that he was “exceedingly anxious to have some result in Kentucky, especially towards East Tennessee.” Halleck finally wrote, “I am not ready to cooperate. Too much haste will ruin everything.”

Frustrated, Lincoln wrote on Halleck’s letter, “It is exceedingly discouraging. As everywhere else, nothing can be done.” The president then wrote Buell, “Delay is ruining us, and it is indispensable for me to have something definite.” McClellan then pressed Buell: “You had no idea of the pressure brought to bear here upon the Government for a forward movement. It is so strong that it seems absolutely necessary to make the advance on eastern Tennessee at once.”

Halleck then notified McClellan that his scouts reported that the secessionist Missouri State Guards numbered about 40,000 men, with another 18,000 in Arkansas poised to come north and join the Missourians’ main camp at Springfield. Halleck downplayed a spy’s report that the Guards numbered no more than 16,000, were badly disorganized, and their commander, Major General Sterling “Pap” Price, was “drinking too much.”

Halleck told McClellan that the Guard was still the main threat to his department, and if he would be required to transfer troops to Kentucky and Tennessee, “we must seriously peril the loss of this state.” Halleck concluded, “If you insist upon my doing this now, your orders will be obeyed, whatever may be the result in Missouri.” McClellan testily replied, “If you can spare no troops it is only necessary to say so, and I must look elsewhere for the means of accomplishing the object in view. There is nothing in my letter that can reasonably be construed into an order requiring you to make detachments that will involve the defeat of the Union cause in Missouri.”

On January 8, Grant received Halleck’s orders to make the demonstration, with a strict order not to bring on a battle under any circumstances. Working with Commodore Andrew Foote’s naval squadron, Grant would send three gunboats down the Mississippi River toward Columbus, and another two southward up the Tennessee River. Federal troops would accompany the gunboats, but most of the force would advance on Mayfield under Brigadier General C.F. Smith.

But Buell still had not told Halleck when the demonstration should begin, and a dismayed Lincoln told McClellan that neither Halleck nor Buell had been responsive to the president’s repeated requests to provide a specific date when they would be ready to launch their offensives. Grant planned to proceed with or without a date, but thick fog and a snowstorm prevented the gunboats from being able to provide the cover his troops needed. Grant reported to Halleck, “The fog is so dense that it is impossible to cross the river. This will defer any movement.”

Grant was finally able to begin his diversionary advance on the 10th by sending a brigade from Cairo across the Mississippi to Fort Jefferson, Kentucky. The troops moved out on a rough march in cold rain. However, before Grant could proceed any further, Halleck notified him, “Re-enforcements are delayed, and arms. Delay your movement until I telegraph.” Nothing was accomplished except for the troops gaining a little experience in winter marching.

The true reason for the delay was because Buell had not responded to Halleck’s request to set a date for the diversion. Today Halleck notified Buell that his men were “ready for a demonstration on Mayfield, Murray, and Dover… fix day when you wish the demonstration,” but “put it off as long as possible, in order that I may increase the strength of the force.” The next day, Halleck finally told Grant, “I can hear nothing from Buell, so fix your own time for the advance.” Grant directed his forces to continue from Fort Jefferson and Blandville on to Mayfield.

Meanwhile, Buell continued to argue against moving his army into eastern Tennessee. He acknowledged that such a movement would be important, but he stated that a thrust into central Tennessee would be just as important, and to that end he had dispatched 14,000 Federals under Brigadier General George H. Thomas to confront the Confederates near Mill Springs, on the road to Nashville.

Frustrated, Lincoln wrote to both Halleck and Buell to explain the situation as he saw it:

“I state my general idea of this war to be that we have the greater numbers, and the enemy has the greater facility of concentrating forces upon points of collision; that we must fail, unless we can find some way of making our advantage an overmatch for his; and that this can only be done by menacing him with superior forces at different points, at the same time; so that we can safely attack, one, or both, if he makes no change; and if he weakens one to strengthen the other, forbear to attack the strengthened one, but seize and hold the weakened one, gaining so much.”

This did little to get either Halleck or Buell to change their separate strategies.

Meanwhile, Grant’s expedition continued, whether Buell moved or not. Grant consulted with Commodore Foote on the 14th to discuss the navy’s role in the upcoming diversion, while the Federal gunboats Essex, St. Louis, and Tyler traded fire with Confederate batteries at Columbus. A delay ensued when a corrupt quartermaster “was entirely unable to get crews for the necessary boats” due to his “great unpopularity with river men and his wholesale denunciation of everybody connected with the Government here as thieves and cheats.” Grant reported that the man “seems to have desired to be placed on duty here for no other purpose than to wreak his revenge upon some river men whom he dislikes, and to get into the service of the Government a boat in which he has an interest.” Grant placed him under arrest and made plans to advance without his “services.”

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

The next day, Grant’s 10,000 Federals moved out in terrible weather and came within about 10 miles of the Confederates at Columbus. The Confederate commander, Major General Leonidas Polk, fell for the diversion, reporting, “The enemy in the mean time is within three hours of my position,” and “has been concentrating a large force for an attack upon it, and, as my information is, has now about completed his plans of preparations for that purpose. Today and to-morrow are the days fixed upon for that attack.” But Grant had no orders to attack and therefore withdrew.

Halleck informed McClellan that the expedition would hold the Confederates in place at Columbus “till preparations can be made for operations on the Tennessee and Cumberland.” Grant was unimpressed with the results, but it served its purpose of keeping the Confederates from bolstering their forces in central and eastern Kentucky. It also opened the possibility of Grant’s Federals attacking Forts Heiman and Henry on the Tennessee River.

Perhaps most importantly, the movement made Grant believe that “public confidence in ultimate success is fast on the wane in the South… the expedition, if it had no other effect, served as a fine reconnaissance.” The expedition opened the possibility of a larger one, with more force behind it, that might be able to dislodge the Confederates from western Kentucky.


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