In the fall of 1861, while much of the national attention was focused on events in the east, a tense political and military situation was also developing in the west. The border states were particularly sensitive. In Kentucky the election of Abraham Lincoln brought the politically diverse population into turmoil. In the southern and western sections of the state, where slave labor produced the state’s most importatnt cash crops, tobacco and hemp, the sentiment fell fully with the Confederacy. In the northern and eastern portions of the state a more diverse economy based on ties to the manufacturing states to the north led the population to favor continued allegiance to the Union. It was a difficult position for Governor Beriam Magoffin. He opposed secession in favor of mediation and hoped to avoid open bloodshed. In an effort to mitigate the the conflict between the split factions and to keep troops from either side from entering the state he issued a Proclamation of Neutrality on May 16, 1861.
Despite the position of neutrality the state was quickly surrounded by troops from both sides. The tense atmosphere continued until September 4, 1861 when MG Leonidas Polk ordered his Confederate troops, under BG Gideon Pillow, north to occupy Columbus.The port town on the Mississippi River was also the terminus for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Polk saw the position as critical to the Confederate effort to control the river. His unauthorized movement violated the neutrality of the state and justified the advance of Federal troops into Kentucky. The newly appointed commander of the District of Southeast Missouri, BG Ulysses S. Grant, disembarked an expeditionary force at Paducah. The war was on in Kentucky and it would start in and around Columbus.
Kentucky was not just a political hotspot. It was geographically located to be at the center of military interest in the west. Located north of Tennessee, the state if left to neutrality formed a natural buffer for the Confederacy. However, the western corner of the state also offered a number of excellent military advantages to whichever side controlled it.
This area of interest would give the Confederates the opportunity of controlling access to the upper Mississippi River. This was the key factor that led MG Leonidas Polk to ultimately violate the neutrality declaration and move troops into the state. The bluffs at Columbus and nearby Hickman gave Polk a commanding position overlooking the river. He wasted no time turning the position into a defensive bastion complete with fortifications and artillery. Furthermore, if his advance could be pushed as far north as Paducah he would have the ability to interdict traffic on the Ohio River. The Ohio led to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers which flowed into central Tennessee. Any Union forces moving in that direction might threaten to turn his position at Columbus.
Quite naturally the Union forces wished to deny the enemy the benefits of such a move and maintain the avenues of approach into Tennessee for any future movements. MG John Fremont was considering an early move into the area but was foiled by the political necessity of observing Kentucky’s neutral status. When Polk moved his forces into the state all pretense of neutrality was gone and the Federal troops were free to act to counter the Confederate move. BG Grant, reacting to the report of a spy (Charles DeArnaud) that the Confederates intended to move on Paducah, rushed a small force into the area. Grant fully understood the military ramifications if Paducah were to come into Confederate hands and garrisoned the town with the 9th and 12th Illinois, under the command of BG Eleazer Paine, on September 6th.
The location of the opposing forces also gave them the ability to support operations across the Mississippi in the equally volatile state of Missouri. Across the river was the Confederate camp at Belmont, Missouri, which teamed with the Polk’s defenses at Columbus effectively closed the river to Union traffic and provided an entryway for troops and material for the Confederate forces in the state. The Union priorities in the region were thus dictated by the positions assumed in the first week of September.
– Remain vigilant against any possibility of an invasion into southeast Missouri from Kentucky.
– Prepare for any move against Paducah.
– Maintain a watchful eye on the pro-Confederate state troops led by BG M. Jeff Thompson who were a primary concern for Fremont’s bungling efforts in Missouri.
The Confederate command, under an inept Polk and equally inept Pillow, concentrated on the defenses at Columbus and never expanded the defensive line to support the Tennesse forts. It was a problem that would plague the early defense of that state. Nevertheless Polk’s position at Columbus appeared to present all the options that Fremont feared. With these missions in mind the two sides began to eye each other.Battle of Belmont (Campaign Series)