Capture of Paducah, Kentucky; fighting at Carnifex Ferry, Virginia, and Lexington, Missouri: September 1861

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

There were no battles that were on the scale of those at Bull Run, Virginia and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri in July and August, but there were some significant smaller events in the Civil War in September 1861.

On September 4th, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at Cairo, Illinois, a strategically important location where the Ohio River emptied into the Mississippi. Across the Ohio was the officially neutral state of Kentucky, a border state whose residents were split in their loyalties. President Lincoln was adamant that Kentucky remain in the Union, but was sensitive to the state’s neutrality and did not want to do anything that might push the state to the Confederate side.

Grant was a former Regular Army officer who reentered service as Colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry. His connection to Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne led to his quick promotion to Brigadier General. Washburne would prove to be a powerful friend and ally of Grant throughout the war.

At about the same time that Grant was assuming command at Cairo, Confederate forces entered Kentucky, and the tenuous state of neutrality was over.  On September 6th, Grant sent a Federal expedition up the Ohio River to Paducah, Kentucky, a town located on the Ohio at the mouth of the Cumberland River. The expedition captured the town without incident, establishing a Federal presence in Kentucky at an important location. Control of the rivers was of utmost importance in the west, as these waterways were vital transportation routes. This casualty-free capture of Paducah was Grant’s first victory in the war.

In mountainous western Virginia, 2000 Confederates under General John B. Floyd occupied the high ground above Carnifex Ferry on the Kanawha River. On the morning of September 10th, Union General William Rosecrans’ command of about 6000 Federals advanced on Floyd’s position. The fighting lasted all day, but Rosecrans was unable to dislodge the Rebels. However, Floyd’s smaller force could not hold on indefinitely, and the Confederates withdrew during the night.

The defeat at Carnifex Ferry was another setback for the Confederates in western Virginia. The region was pro-Union, and there was a serious movement underway that would soon lead to the separation of the area from Virginia and the formation of the state of West Virginia. In an attempt to reverse these setbacks, Jefferson Davis sent his top military advisor to the region.  It was the first time in the war that General Robert E. Lee took to the field.

Lee believed that a strike against the garrison at Cheat Mountain would break the Union defensive line that extended from the Kanawha River to the Potomac River. An attack was launched on September 12th, but it was uncoordinated with fog, rain, and poor visibility hampering the effort. The Federals in the mountain garrison, though outnumbered, were in well prepared defenses. The Confederates withdrew from the area on September 15th. Robert E. Lee’s first campaign was a Confederate defeat. He was widely criticized for his handling of the campaign.

Confederate fortunes were somewhat better in Missouri. General Sterling Price and his 12,000 Missouri troops advanced on the town of Lexington in the northwest part of the state. Price engaged Union skirmishers on September 13th, driving them back into town.  Colonel James Mulligan’s 3,500 Federals were well fortified in the town. Price began his attack on September 18th and 19th, and positioned themselves for the final assault. On the 20th, Price’s troops advanced pushing large bales of hemp in front of them as moving cover. The tactic worked, and Mulligan surrendered his command that afternoon.

The war continued at sea as well, with U.S. Navy ships and Confederate blockade runners trying to outwit each other. Union forces captured Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi on September 17th. Ship Island would become an important staging area for campaigns along the Gulf Coast.

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