November 3, 1861 (Sunday)
As General John C. Fremont, finally relieved of command, left his headquarters in Springfield for St. Louis, other events in Missouri began to take shape. Since taking the field in late September, the command structure in the Western Department was curious. Fremont focused almost all of his attention upon chasing down Missouri State Guard General Sterling Price, all but ignoring the eastern sections of the state.
Left, more or less, in command at St. Louis was Captain Chauncey McKeever, Fremont’s adjutant. McKeever made plans, issued orders and kept Fremont, whose mind and body were elsewhere, appraised of the situation. Fremont was able, however, to issue at least two orders to General Ulysses S. Grant prior to his removal.
On November 1st, Fremont ordered Grant to make demonstrations on either side of the Mississippi River towards Columbus, but not to engage the enemy. Before Grant had any opportunity to prepare at least some of his 20,000 men for the demonstration, he received another order.
Missouri State Guard General Jeff Thompson had burned a railroad bridge and caused quite a fuss a couple of weeks back. Apparently, he, along with 3,000 troops, was currently twenty-five miles south of Greenville. While there was already a Union force under Col. Carlin en route from Ironton, Fremont ordered Grant to send troops from Cape Girardeau and Birds Point to assist in driving Thompson into Arkansas.
On this date, Grant, who may have already read about Fremont’s removal in the papers, issued orders to Col. R.J. Oglesby at Birds Point to move out with three regiments of Illinois infantry, some cavalry and a section of artillery. Oglesby was to head first to Sikestown and then find Thompson.
Perhaps grossly misrepresenting Fremont’s order to “assist Carlin in driving Thompson into Arkansas,” Grant wrote to Oglesby, “the object of this expedition is to destroy this force.”
Destroying Thompson’s 3,000 troops was a far cry from driving them into Arkansas. Nevertheless, Oglesby gathered his men, loaded them on steamboats to sail to Commerce. From there, they would march to Sikestown and then to Thompson.1
The Confederate Left in Kentucky/Tennessee
The Confederate situation in Kentucky was perilous. Under General Albert Sydney Johnston, the Rebels held Columbus (along the Mississippi) and Bowling Green, 180 miles
west east. Between the two strongholds lay Forts Donelson and Henry, along the Tennessee and Cumberland River, respectively.
These northern Tennessee forts, twelves miles apart, were built to obstruct Union gunboats from moving upriver from Kentucky into the heart of Tennessee. They were not, however, built to withstand an infantry assault. Donelson, for example, was manned by 300, mostly unarmed, recruits. Henry would be in even worse shape when the winter rains came and the Cumberland flooded.
General Leonidas Polk, the commander of the Confederate left in Kentucky and Tennessee, had been warned of this and was urged to move Henry, but Polk, being more concerned with Columbus, did nothing.
Back in western Missouri, Fremont had been certain that Johnston was planning on shifting troops from Columbus to fortify the Missouri State Guard. He believed that either Jeff Thompson, who Grant was to push into Arkansas, or Sterling Price, who Fremont had been slowly chasing, would be bolstered.
Johnston, however, had no plans at all of sending troops to either Thompson or Price. Mostly, he was worried about a possible Union push into the lightly-defended ground between Columbus and Bowling Green and wanted General Gideon Pillow’s division of 5,000, under Polk, to move from Columbus to Clarksville.
Neither Polk nor Pillow wanted to leave Columbus and while Polk effectively told General Johnston, his superior, “thanks, but no thanks,” Pillow traveled to Bowling Green to explain the situation to Johnston himself. He would arrive the next day.
If Johnston got his way, Columbus would be short 5,000 men when General Grant came with his “demonstration.” And if Grant amplified Fremont’s orders concerning Thompson, what was to stop him from amplifying them with the “demonstration”?2
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p267-268. [↩]
- The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, UNC Press Books, 1993. Also, The Battle of Belmont: Grant strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, UNC Press Books, 1991. I got a bit of help from the good, but hard to follow Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, LSU Press, 2002. [↩]