Tuesday, September 3, 1861
Kentucky was, as much as it was possible, neutral. Both the Union and the Confederacy made a show of respecting that neutrality, but both also made secret plans to win the state (by force, if necessary) for their own cause. Kentucky troops had entered both the Union and Confederate armies, but only the North had established a camp within its borders. While the state government complained to Lincoln about the camp, Lincoln claimed that it was made up completely of the state’s citizens and so did not violate the state’s neutrality.
On August 28, Union General Fremont, commander of the Western Department, ordered General Grant to “occupy Columbus, Ky., as soon as possible.”1 This would, of course, be a clear violation of Kentucky’s neutrality. Perhaps because of this, Fremont failed to mention his intentions to Lincoln.
A few days later, General Polk, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department (for the time being, called “Department No. 2”), wrote to Kentucky’s governor, expressing his concern that he “should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah.”2 This would also violate Kentucky’s neutrality.
Polk noticed that Union forces had established a battery across the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky, at Baldwins. On this date, Confederate General Pillow, commanding troops at New Madrid, Missouri, received orders from Polk to load his men onto boats, steam up river and occupy Columbus. This was a direct order to violate the neutrality. However, Polk was convinced that the presence of Union forces opposite Columbus meant that they had their minds set upon taking the town themselves (which was true).
General Pillow, well aware of Union cannon and entrenchments opposite Columbus, landed at and occupied Hickman, Kentucky, just south of the target city.3
Continued Aggression Along the Gauley River
In Western Virginia, the skirmishes of the day before, that were drawn to a close by nightfall, were resumed when the sun rose. General Wise, who was commanding the Rebel advance against Union forces near Gauley Bridge, found Federals, 1,250 strong, in fortified positions near Big Creek. Having only 900 infantry, Wise split his force, sending 300 on a round-about route to attack the enemy’s flank.
Wise threw a few companies at the Union’s advance guard, pushing them west, up and over the side of a steep mountain. Along the way, the retreating Federals dropped guns, canteens and other nonessentials as they scrambled back to their camp.
As Wise, along with most of his men, reached the summit of the mountain, he peered down into the Union camp, viewing tents, cannons and a baggage train. As they kept up a skirmish fire upon the Union pickets, Wise’s artillery unlimbered atop the mountain and began to shell the camp. The Rebel fire was quickly answered by Union artillery and Wise saw enemy reinforcements marching towards the camp from Gauley Bridge.
Shortly, Wise began to see that he was out of his depths. He waited as long as he could for the flank attack to materialize, but before too long, he learned that the 300 troops sent to assail the Union left flank had gotten lost and had to find their way back the way they came.
Unable to maintain his advance position, Wise decided to fall back to Hawks Nest, on the east side of Turkey Creek, occupy Miller’s Ferry and try to coordinate something with the Confederate militia, under Generals Beckley and Chapman, on the other side of New River.4
Also, throughout the day, Union forces near Gauley Bridge were kept busy by Beckley’s militia, who drove the Federal pickets on the south side of the New River back to the water’s edge. General Cox, commanding the Union troops at Gauley, was convinced that Wise and Beckley had acted in some coordinated effort. More than anything, however, it was coincidence and luck.
About General Floyd at Carnifex Ferry to the northeast, Cox was confused. Due to conflicting reports, he was under the impression that Floyd had given up Carnifex and joined Wise in the attack.5 Floyd did no such thing and was actually growing in number thanks to two regiments of reinforcements.
With Floyd and Wise taking up secure positions, a lull fell over the Western Virginia approaches to the Gauley River. The lull would be punctuated by almost daily picket fire and skirmishing.