Wednesday, September 4, 1861
News of Confederate troops on Kentucky soil flashed across the country. To many, the violation of the state’s neutrality was a hard pill to swallow. Tennessee’s Governor, Isham Harris, who had refused Lincoln’s call for troops, taking his state out of the Union and into the Confederacy, was the most outspoken Rebel against it.
Harris wrote Confederate General Polk, who ordered the invasion, stating that it was “unfortunate, as the President and myself are pledged to respect the neutrality of Kentucky.” Unless their “presence there is an absolute necessity,” he hoped they would be “withdrawn instantly.”
In response, hoping that President Davis was on his side, Polk struck an almost sarcastic tone: “I regret that a movement so entirely acceptable to the people of Kentucky… and so essential to the security of Western Tennessee, does not permit me, in the exercise of the above authority, to concur with your views.” Polk, who had been placed in command of a Department that included much of the water around the state, “had never received official information that the President and yourself had determined upon any particular course in reference to the State of Kentucky.”
Harris, however, seems to have written not only Polk, but Secretary of War LeRoy Walker and even President Davis himself. Walker, without consulting Davis, quickly wired Polk to “order their prompt withdrawal from Kentucky.”
Before Davis could wire Polk himself, the bishop-turned-General explained his move to the President. Polk accused the North of “making such demonstrations as left no doubt upon the minds of any of their intention to seize and forcibly possess said town [Columbus, Kentucky].” As he told Harris, Polk explained that this necessary move was made for “the security of Western Tennessee.”
Davis quickly wired his approval: “The necessity justifies the action.”1
Polk also issued a proclamation to the public, explaining his actions and accusingly writing that the North,”in defiance of the wishes of the people of Kentucky, disregarded their neutrality by establishing camp depots for their armies, and by organizing military companies within the territory, and by constructing military works on the Missouri shore immediately opposite and commanding Columbus, evidently intended to cover the landing of troops for the seizure of that town.”2
Trying to keep track of the incredibly fluid Confederate movements in southeastern Missouri, General Grant, who had just relocated to Cairo, Illinois, had learned that the Rebels had left Sikestown for a concentration at New Madrid and a possible move to Memphis, Tennessee. Grant was “disposed to credit” this information, “although the authority is a negro man” who “tells a very straight story.”3
Grant may not have known precisely where the Rebels were, but Commander John Rodgers of the gunboat Taylor did. While Polk and various Confederate officials debated the merits of occupying Hickman and Columbus, Kentucky, Rodgers exchanged shots with a Rebel gunboat just off of Hickman.
During the dual, Rodgers could see that the town was fully invested by the Rebels. They had established a battery just below the town and he steamed upstream to avoid its fire. As he neared Columbus, a smattering of musket fire rained down upon his ship from the Kentucky side of the river. He answered it in kind, accompanied by two larger guns on board. He later reported that “the [Confederate] army at Hickman is considerable.” 4