Events pressed hard upon Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk in the late summer of 1861. As commander of defenses on the lower Mississippi River from the Tennessee-Kentucky border to Louisiana, Polk in confronted momentous decisions. His reaction to events produced a military and political disaster for the Confederacy.
Polk had assumed command of his post in July, at a time when political currents controlled military matters. With the firing on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the rebellion, the slaveholding border states of Missouri and Kentucky teetered between remaining in the Union and joining the Confederacy. While Missouri’s course of action was of strategic importance, Kentucky’s was more critical to the warring governments. “To lose Kentucky,” stated Lincoln, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
In the Bluegrass State, Governor Beriah Magoffin favored secession, while a majority of the state legislators opposed it. On May 16, a legislative committee proposed that the state remain neutral in the conflict. Four days later, Magoffin issued a proclamation of neutrality, which forbade “any movement upon Kentucky soil” by either Union or Confederate forces. It was an unrealistic stance, but one that held dire consequences for its violation.
As the weeks passed, Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis continued to honor Kentucky’s neutrality. Across the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and south of the state in Tennessee, meanwhile, Northern and Southern commanders enlisted troops, organized regiments and erected defenses. Federals gathered at Cincinnati, Ohio, at Cairo, Ill., and at Belmont, Mo., on the Mississippi River, opposite Columbus, Ky. In Tennessee Confederates moved to protect the Mississippi’s eastern bank, and work had begun on Forts Henry and Donelson to guard against a Union ascent of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
The situation, then, needed only a spark to ignite it into a bonfire. The circumstances demanded men of experience, caution and judgment. Instead, Davis appointed Polk, a former West Point friend who had been out of the army for more than three decades. Polk possessed none of the requisite qualities of an able commander, while believing that command gave him the discretion to act as he chose, despite the desires and orders of a superior.
Polk’s arrival in Tennessee joined him with Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, a controversial figure in the state and an officer whose incompetence rivaled Polk’s. A Mexican War veteran, Pillow used his political connections to secure command of Tennessee troops. He had a myopic view of his own generalship and had concocted several half-baked schemes to attack the Federals. While Tennessee Governor Isham Harris worked to secure Kentucky’s allegiance to the Confederacy, Pillow coveted an offensive into the neutral state, focusing on Columbus and Paducah, at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
Polk soon shared Pillow’s ideas for a strike northward. Both men thought the high bluffs along the Mississippi River at Columbus offered excellent positions for artillery to prevent a Union passage downstream. With Columbus secured, they planned to advance on Paducah and close the lower Ohio River to the enemy. By the end of August, Polk was preparing to capture Columbus. At the same time, Davis assured Magoffin that the Confederacy “neither intends nor desires to disturb the neutrality of Kentucky.”
Polk’s Union counterpart in the region, and an officer of similar competence, Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, issued a proclamation on August 30 declaring an end to slavery in his department. He also ordered Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to seize Columbus. Frémont had acted without Lincoln’s knowledge or approval. Frémont’s blunders might have shifted Kentucky toward the Confederacy, but Lincoln rescinded the proclamation, and before Grant executed his orders, Confederate soldiers were marching into Columbus.
On September 1, Polk notified Governor Magoffin that he planned to occupy Columbus and Paducah before the Federals moved against the town. Two days later, Pillow and his men boarded steamers, traveled up the Mississippi River, landed at Hickman, Ky., and marched 20 miles to Columbus. The Southerners began to erect fortifications, presenting the appearance of a permanent occupation. Kentucky’s neutrality had been violated. Three days later, Grant sent troops across the Ohio River from Cairo to secure Paducah, a vital base for Union offensives up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
Polk’s decision to invade Kentucky ahead of the Federals drove the state’s Unionists into the ascendancy. The state abandoned neutrality and sided with the government in Washington, D.C. With its adherence to the Union, any Confederate hopes of a northern border along the Ohio River ended. Within months, Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson and entered Nashville, Tenn., forcing the Southerners to abandon Columbus without a fight. A turning point had been reached on September 3, 1861, at Columbus—neither Kentucky nor perhaps “the whole game” had been lost.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.