When the Civil War began in 1861, the state of Kentucky was officially neutral. Though this border state had slavery and a large number of Confederate sympathizers, Kentucky leaned slightly
more toward the Union, and unionists secured large majorities in both houses of the state legislature in August 1861 elections. Though both sides initially respected the state’s neutrality and kept their armies out, they also had large numbers of troops near Kentucky’s borders and it was only a matter of time before the state would be drawn into the conflict.
On September 3rd, a Confederate force under General Leonidas Polk made the first move, occupying Columbus, Kentucky, a town located across the Mississippi River from Missouri. Though it made sense from a military standpoint to take Columbus– a railroad town located on a high bluff above the river–it did push the state politically toward the Union.
With Kentucky’s neutrality violated, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant made a counter movement. Grant, who was headquartered at Cairo, Illinois, on the extreme southern tip of that state where the Ohio River entered the Mississippi, put his troops on transports and steamed up the Ohio about 45 miles to Paducah, Kentucky. Paducah is located on the Ohio River at the mouth of the Tennessee River, a waterway that would be an important transportation route into Tennessee during future campaigns. Grant put his troops ashore and occupied Paducah without firing a shot. Grant filed this brief report with his commanding officer, Major General John C. Fremont:
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT SOUTHEAST MISSOURI,
Cairo, Ill., September 6, 1861.
I left Cairo at 10.30 o’clock last night, taking two gunboats and three steamboats, with the Ninth Illinois, under Gen. E. A. Paine; the Twelfth Illinois, under Col. J. McArthur, and Smith’s battery, four pieces light artillery, under Lieutenant Willard. I met with some detention at Mound City, owing to an accident to one of the steamers, creating a necessity for a transfer of troops. During the detention I was joined by Captain Foote, U.S. Navy, who accompanied the expedition.
Arrived at Paducah at 8.30 this morning. Found numerous secession flags flying over the city, and the citizens in anticipation of the approach of the rebel army, which was reliably reported 3,800 strong 16 miles distant. As we neared the city Brigadier-General Tilghman and staff, of the rebel army, and a recruiting major with a company raised in Paducah, left the city by the railroad, taking with them all the rolling stock. I landed the troops and took possession of the city without firing a gun.
Before I landed the secession flags had disappeared, and I ordered our flags to replace them. I found at the railroad depot a large number of complete rations and about two tons of leather, marked for the Confederate Army. Took possession of these and ordered the rations to be distributed to the troops. I also took possession of the telegraph office, and seized some letters and dispatches, which I herewith transmit. I further took possession of the railroad. The enemy was reported as coming down the Tennessee River in large force, but this I do not credit. I distributed the troops so as best to command the city and least annoy peaceable citizens, and published a proclamation to the citizens, a copy of which will be handed you by Captain Foote.
I left two gunboats and one of the steamboats at Paducah, placed the post under command of General E. A. Paine, and left Paducah at 12 o’clock, arriving at this post at 4 this afternoon.
Last night I ordered the Eighth Missouri Volunteers, Col. M. L. Smith, stationed at Cape Girardeau, to report here immediately. I will send them to re-enforce General Paine at Paducah to-night. I would respectfully recommend that two additional pieces be added to the excellent battery of Captain Smith, commanded by Lieutenant Willard, making it a complete battery of six pieces. He has men sufficient for six pieces, but will require horses and harness.
Colonel Waagner accompanied me, and manifested great zeal and precaution. 1 must acknowledge my obligations to General McClernand, commanding this force, for the active and efficient co-operation exhibited by him in fitting out the expedition.
Maj. Gen. JOHN C. FRÉMONT,
Saint Louis, Mo.
Paducah remained a Union supply base for the rest of the war. In March of 1864, General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry attacked Paducah, capturing horses and supplies, but failing to take the Union garrison there.
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
Holding Kentucky for the Union by R. M. Kelly. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume IV Chapter XII