The Battle of Paducah took place in March 1864 in Paducah, Kentucky – on the Ohio River. Here, David Pyle explains what happened during this American Civil War battle.
March of 1864, forces commanded by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest had set out from Columbus, Mississippi with the objective of recruiting more fighters, obtaining needed supplies and harassing the enemy. The General had 3,000 men under his command as he made the trip, cutting through Western Kentucky.
Tensely waiting action on the Union side were some 665 blue coats under the command of Colonel Stephen G. Hicks. The soldiers had many reasons for nervousness, one being Forrest’s nearing army and another being stationed in the unsympathetic city of Paducah, Kentucky, which would just have soon seen the fort burned to the ground.
Making the Union forces even more unpopular with the locals was the First Kentucky Heavy Artillery Colored unit being stationed there. Backing up the Union troops were two gunboats on the Ohio River.
Among Forrest’s troops were soldiers from Paducah. They were quite familiar with the city. The Confederate general set up his headquarters in Mayfield, Kentucky 25 miles from Paducah on March 25, 1864. One of these men was Col. Albert P. Thompson; he and some others were assigned by Forrest to launch a raid on Paducah, taking what the Confederates needed and spreading alarm and confusion.
Colonel Thompson and a force of 1,800 troops quickly moved to Paducah. Thompson’s regiment was first to reach Paducah’s outer picket lines where they took several Union sentinels prisoner. One guard who refused to surrender was killed in an exchange of gunfire.
To engage in the open?
The Confederate troops continued on into Paducah capturing pickets as they advanced. About 3 p.m. Thompson’s forces reached 15th and Broadway in Paducah; from their mounts they watched as Union soldiers marched into Fort Anderson. Several Confederates voiced a desire to engage the opposition while they were out in the open, but were reminded that the raid’s purpose was to capture medical supplies and munitions and not for prisoners. All they could do was watch as Union forces secured themselves in the fort.
Still, the desire to storm the fort was strong in the Paducah natives who served the Confederate cause. An assault upon Fort Anderson was most inevitable.
General Forrest ordered a flag of truce be sent to Fort Anderson’s commander, Col. Hicks. Forrest decided the men from Paducah should be the ones to deliver the message. The troops had started forward, Company D in the lead, but they were overtaken by a courier with a change in orders that all but six should return. D Company’s Captain selected the first six men in his charge to deliver the message.
Forrest’s message read, “Colonel: Having a force amply sufficient to carry your works and reduce the place, and in order to avoid the unnecessary effusion of blood, I demand the surrender of the fort and troops, with all public property. If you surrender you shall be treated as prisoners of war, but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.”
While the message was being delivered, members of the Third and Seventh Kentucky regiments took their positions; the Eighth regiment ransacked the commissary stores.
Hick’s considered Forrest’s demand for surrender and replied, “Sir, I have this moment received yours of this instant, in which you demand the unconditional surrender of forces under my command. I can answer that I have been placed here by the government to defend this post, and in this as well as all other orders from my superiors, I feel it to be my duty as an honorable officer to obey. I must, therefore, respectfully decline surrendering as you may require.”
As the refusal was being delivered, the gunboats Peosta and Paw Paw began shelling the city. Many shells went over the Confederates’ heads, but the gunboat commanders lowered the guns and flying gravel picked up by cannonballs mingled with the hurling shells. The fire forced the withdrawal of General Abraham Buford’s regiment from the river’s edge.
Union gunboats ranged their fire up Paducah’s streets to clear it of cavalry. Three-inch shells pierced an old Maple tree in the city.
After three assaults against Fort Anderson Gen. Forrest issued a ceasefire order. Col. A.P. Thompson and his staff gathered near an officer. Thompson sat upon his horse talking with the men not too many blocks from his Paducah home.
It was now nighttime in Paducah, and the Confederates were 500 feet from the fort, under fire from the gunboats.
Capt. D.E. Meyers was given the job of delivering messages to the Confederate colonels ordering them to fall back to the protection of some nearby houses. As he neared Thompson, a shell fired from a gunboat cannon struck the colonel, who fell from his horse. The injured horse bolted and ran half a block before falling dead.
The horse was buried where it had fallen, but Col. Thompson’s mangled body would lay till morning.
After Col. Thompson’s fall, Col. Ed Crossland assumed command. While ordering the men to fall back, he was hit by rifle fire, which wounded him in the right thigh. Sharpshooters swarmed down the street; nine succeeded in reaching a home.
The nine, including J.V. Greif, exchanged fire with the defenders of Fort Anderson from a distance of 100 feet.
“Our Guns were never idle,” Greif was reported as having said. “Until the enemy succeeded in bringing to bear on our position a gun from another part of the fort.”
Greif was knocked down when a cannonball passed through the house, and an object smacked his jaw. The order came to evacuate from the house. Greif managed to recover and fled with his comrades.
Greif’s jaw stung so much from the object that he thought he might have been wounded. To Greif’s relief a fellow soldier assured him there was no injury.
“There was a boy named Ewell Hord at my left side,” Greif recalled. “He asked me to load his weapon, I told him to load it himself, I was busy.” Grief added the boy said he couldn’t as his arm had been wounded, so Greif told him, “Go to the rear you fool, what better luck do you want? It gets you out of all this.”
Hord went off to the rear in tears.
Col. Crossland’s men entered a building that overlooked the fort. From the second floor his men opened fire on the fort and fire was returned, as one of the men in the window was killed by a solid shot to the chest.
As the Confederates withdrew they were fired upon and shelled. One cavalryman was holding several horses when he was struck in the hip by enemy fire. He would die a few days later.
In all the Union had 14 men killed and 46 wounded; on the Confederate side 11 were killed and 39 wounded.
Forrest reported to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “I drove the enemy to their boats and fortifications. We captured clothing, several hundred horses and clothes; we burned a steamer, the dock and all the cotton on the landing. We could have held on longer, but withdrew because of smallpox in the area.”
At 11 p.m. the Confederates withdrew from Paducah to a farm about six miles from Paducah.
The next day Col. Hicks ordered the 60 homes in Paducah burned. Word had gotten to him that the Confederates were planning another attack.
“We were attacked by an overwhelming force,” Hicks reported. “We repulsed the enemy and beat them back all day. I saw I would be attacked again and the better to protect myself against sharpshooters, I issued the order to burn the home.”
On the 26th the battle of Paducah came to its conclusion. Forrest sent to Hicks an offer to exchange prisoners. Col. Hicks responded he had no power to do so, but if he could he would be most glad to. The Confederates then withdrew.
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