Sunday, August 18, 1861
Confederate General Leonidas “The Fighting Bishop” Polk, commander of troops between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, wished to secure Island No. 10, off the shores of New Madrid, Missouri. He had ordered General Pillow at New Madrid to see to it, even selecting the Colonel for the job. At first, Pillow declined the order, telling Polk of his own plan to head north towards Union-held St. Louis. Polk, mustering as much tolerance as any Episcopal Bishop could, reiterated his order and gave Pillow the allowance to advance.
That, however, wasn’t enough for Pillow, who saw to the occupation and fortification of the island using 300 slaves as laborers. General Polk had specifically ordered the 4th Tennessee, commanded by Col. Neely, to occupy the island. After the 4th disembarked, Pillow ordered it to be swapped out for another regiment because the topographical engineer in charge of the island, Captain Gray, didn’t like Neely. The Captain at Island No. 10 proposed that Pillow “should furnish him with four good companies of Americans, under command of a competent officer.” The 4th Tennessee was mostly made up of Irish immigrants.
When Neely and his 4th Tennessee Irishmen showed up on the island, Captain Gray told him that they weren’t needed and should leave the island under new orders worked out between Generals Pillow and Polk. Of course, no such arrangement had been made. Polk wished for Neely to be on the island and Pillow changed a direct order. Neely’s men spent the night on the Missouri side of the river, near New Madrid.1
Pillow’s main objective, to drive northward toward St. Louis, was shaping up. He now had 12,000 men under him and hoped to link up with General Hardee at Greenville, giving him 14,000. The plan was to move out on the 21st, but it was clear that not everyone involved was on the same page.
General Jeff Thompson, commanding the Missouri State Guards in the area, had been urging Pillow to move on St. Louis as soon as possible. In the meantime, he and his men had been based out of Benton and were burning railroad bridges, and generally terrorizing the local Unionists. He wished to expand his field of operations and figured that Pillow was moving out on this day or the day after.
In a dispatch to Pillow, Thompson wrote that his men would cover Pillow’s operations that night by moving on the town of Commerce and the next night by moving on Bird’s Point. Thompson requested help from Pillow in that matter. For the while, Thompson was readying Benton for Pillow’s men, making sure the wells were in working order and that rations awaited them. He expressed hope that at least some of Pillow’s men would be there “immediately” as he feared that Union forces might quickly catch on to their little scheme.2
Taking matters into his own hands, that evening, Thompson gathered three companies of cavalry and a couple of artillery pieces and marched on Commerce. Before reaching the place, they heard that it was occupied by 700 Union troops. The small force galloped into town, only to find it deserted. Even the citizens of the town had decided to sleep across the river in Santa Fe, Illinois for fear of a Rebel attack.3
This was becoming commonplace for the people of Commerce. In the morning of this date, the town was in a panic over what they thought to be 800 – 1000 Secessionist troops about to attack the town. These forces, which were largely made up of youths, some as young as twelve, were mostly armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles.
Commander John Roberts of the Steamer Lexington, off the banks of Commerce, reported that the towns people were “full of stories of wanton and cruel destruction of the property of Union men, killing stock, stealing horses, burning corn fields, destroying household property, robbing women and children of their wearing apparel, and of carrying off young girls to their camp.”4
The guerrilla war of Missouri that had raged over the past decade had begun anew.