March 1, 1862 (Saturday)
All across Tennessee, troops of both armies were on the move. The fall of Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson had completely crushed the thin Rebel line. The few Confederate troops not captured at the forts had fled to Nashville, where they joined the rest of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee. Less than a week later, they were all retreating to Murfreesboro. Along the Mississippi River, General Leonidas Polk’s troops, soon to be commanded by General P.G.T. Beauregard, clung to their positions at Columbus, though it was believed even that bastion would have to be abandoned.
Beauregard, however, wanted to take command of the entire Confederate west. On February 26th, he wired Johnston, still in Murfreesboro, asking him to move to West Tennessee, as the Federals were planning an attack. Johnston agreed and began to move his army south towards Decatur, Alabama, via Shelbyville, hoping to join with Beauregard in the defense of Memphis. On this date, Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee was on its way.1
General Beauregard had his own plans for covering the Mississippi River and Memphis. He would abandon Columbus and anchor his left upon New Madrid and Island No. 10. The railroad towns of Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi would hold the right. The center could be held through towns like Jackson, Humboldt, and Union City. Though spread thin, the railroad could be used to quickly transport troops.2
General Polk began to evacuate Columbus on this date. Most of his 17,000 troops were to go to the New Madrid area, while the rest went to Humboldt. To take command of the troops in the Madrid Bend area, General John McCown was dispatched and arrived on February 26. He found the place nearly indefensible, predicting that New Madrid could hold out six hours against a Union naval force. He found the other river defenses in even worse shape.
On this date, the department’s Chief of Artillery, James Trudeau arrived and inspected Island No. 10, and concluded that it was “in no measure fortified.” However, ten heavy artillery companies arrived on the same day, bringing a sliver of hope to the Confederates.3
While the Rebels prepared their defenses, a growing Union force under General John Pope had been assembling in Commerce, Missouri, 100 miles up the Mississippi River, but only fifty miles by land. Pope had quickly thrown together 10,500 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 600 workers and engineers. They stepped off from Commerce on February 28th. On this date, they were still marching, but rains and mud had slowed them to a crawl. Pope himself became seriously ill through the deluge.4
Jeff Thompson’s New Toys
Standing in the way of Pope’s Army of the Mississippi were the Swamp Fox, General Jeff Thompson, and about eighty-five cavalrymen, slinking through the sloughs near Sikeston. With them, they had six breech loading 1-pounders, experimental cannons manufactured in Memphis. They were mounted on four wheels and each pulled by two horses.
Moving down the road from Sikeston to New Madrid was the vanguard of Pope’s force, the 7th Illinois Cavalry. Thompson believed the Union force to be small enough to scare away with his six new toys. He sent his nephew, Willie, north to get a better idea of what was coming towards him. When Willie drew within sight of the Union pickets, they shouted to him, “Whose men are you?”
Willie replied that they were Jeff Thompson’s men. “What are you doing here?” asked the Union picket.
“Hunting a fight!” Willie yelled back.
“By God, you’ll get it!” replied the Federals.5
Willie raced back, but Thompson, still thinking it was a small patrol to his front, fired one of his small cannons. Then, the entire 7th Illinois and other regiments of Union cavalry deployed to his front.
Jeff Thompson knew he couldn’t last. He ordered most of his men and his artillery to fall back to New Madrid as quickly as possible. He would try to distract the Yankees as best he could. Thompson’s best bought his men only a few minutes, as the Federal cavalry pitched into them, chasing the Rebels for sixteen miles.6
The Union troopers captured three of the small guns and several prisoners. The Federals chased Thompson to within four miles of New Madrid.7
When General Pope had a chance to examine the captured artillery, he found them interesting. “The pieces of artillery are of small caliber, breechloading, beautifully rifled, and handsomely mounted on four wheels, drawn by two horses each,” wrote Pope to General Halleck that evening. “They have an ingenious repeating apparatus at the breech, and were undoubtedly made for service in this swampy, low region.”8
- Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]
- The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. [↩]
- Island No. 10; Struggle for the Mississippi Valley by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock. [↩]
- General John Pope by Peter Cozzens. [↩]
- Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p173. Thompson’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p110. Col. James D. Morgan’s Report (he commanded the First Brigade of Pope’s First Division). [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p580-581. These cannons were Hughes Breech-Loading Cannons, made in 1861 by the Street & Hungerford Company. Here’s a video of one being fired. More about it here. [↩]