[An AAR by myself with the assistance of my able opponent wsatterwhite who supplied most of the details on Union officers. All other errors and omissions are my own.]
When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object
In the evening of Thursday, October 24th 1861, Grant stood on the main dock at Cairo Illinois as the last of his troops boarded the steamships for what he hoped would be an unobserved night-time passage up the Ohio River and a surprise landing and assault of the rebel positions directly around Paducah at dawn the next day. After weeks of frustrating inactivity and conflicting orders from Fremont, Maj. General Henry Halleck took over the Department of the Missouri and things had gotten better organized. Grant knew he was risking his future in bending Halleck’s orders to “advance cautiously against rebel positions where success seems assured”, to boldly strike at the key town of Paducah with his newly formed 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions under John McClernand, Lewis Wallace and Stephen Hurlbut.
He was also uneasy about the three officers he was forced to work with. Inexperienced himself in command of so many men, Grant had hoped to at least have the assistance of some other professional soldier, someone who had at least studied at West Point. One such officer was at that time available—Brig General Charles Hamilton, fresh off a successful expedition to capture Pensacola, Florida, had recently been displaced in command of that post and was just then without a command. Grant knew of Hamilton from the old army and inquired as to his availability, only to be rebuffed by his superior Henry Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri. Little did Grant know at the time but Halleck actually had Hamilton in mind as a potential replacement, anticipating failure in the field on Grant’s part from the start. And neither Grant nor Halleck knew then, but General-in-Chief McClellan had his own plans for Hamilton and that officer was quickly on his way to Hilton Head, SC where other adventures awaited him.
Wallace and Hurlbut had been stationed in and around Cairo for months now with Wallace having recently led a successful expedition to capture Charleston in southern Missouri; McClernand however was new, only just recently having arrived from recruiting in northern Illinois. His presence was appreciated more for the reinforcements he brought with him than anything else. Hurlbut’s division had only three brigades, compared with the five in the other two divisions, one was a completely green Illinois militia brigade, and he had no artillery. Only Wallace’s division with Indiana and Iowa troops was trained up and in top form after their Charleston expedition. In addition to the infantry Grant had some eight regiments of cavalry and he intended to cut Paducah’s supply lines to the south with them. Naval Commander Foote had grave reservations about moving upriver past an enemy shore at night and wanted a better idea of what the rebels had in the way of big guns at Paducah but he was told they would make the landing at all cost, escorted by all his precious gunboats. All told, Grant had some 22,000 men, 7000 horses and 47 guns, backed up by the 16 Gunboats of Admiral Foot’s fleet.
Grant’s intelligence on the Confederate positions at Paducah was poor and he knew this was a big gamble. He had a lot of respect for Joe Johnston, but Joe was over in Bowling Green just now. The rebs had invaded Kentucky in late August and a small force under Thomas Jackson and had taken Paducah from the local pro-Union Kentucky militia there. Jackson’s presence out west was an unwelcome surprise given his reputation gained in Virginia, but Grant’s spies had indicated that even if Jackson was still in command over there, it was a smallish division he faced with around 5000 men or so. The rebs were clearly fortifying the Paducah location and so the sooner he struck the better to gain a critical foothold across the river before it froze up in the impending winter. If “Stonewall” was still there he would defend like the devil Grant knew, but he had decided on his plan and what the rebs did over there, with or without Jackson, he was no longer concerned with. He would take the town at all costs.
Davis had sent Jackson west in early August with Lee’s agreement, providing he was returned by the New Year, and he conferred with Joe Johnston in Nashville on Confederate strategy in the West. The other Johnston meanwhile, Albert Sydney, had gone to Missouri to take command of the newly formed Army of the West in Springfield. Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was set to launch a surprise invasion of Kentucky shortly in order to entrench along an advanced line from Bowling Green west to the entire Jackson Purchase, a rather apt coincidence in the name given the Confederate general who was set to seize it.
Jackson was no naval man but he knew a key position for artillery when he saw it. He tapped Paducah on the map with a finger. Gen. Johnston nodded silently.
“Build a fort… and need heavy guns, as many as possible General…” Jackson said, in his odd offhand manner. Johnston agreed, and while Jackson’s force was destined to be small, and made smaller by the need to defend both Paducah and Columbus just to the south, plans were set in place to prepare a fort in Paducah as soon as practicable.
On the evening of October 24th Jackson looked upon the new entrenchments with a feeling of both satisfaction and unease. The forward facing embankments were good enough to handle a fair-sized assault, but time and labour had limited this to a flat C-shaped line of gun emplacements behind a 10-foot high fortified berm facing the river some 200 feet away to the north. The rear of the fort facing the town itself immediately to the south was completely unfinished outside of a communication trench dug from the town of Paducah itself north some 100 yards, forming a ‘Y’ as it approached the fort, each arm tying in with the unfinished fort wall on either side. But he slapped the side of the nearest Brookes Rifle and felt a keen satisfaction that his engineer Lieut. Boswell had managed to emplace all 24 of these 7” – 178mm 8-ton monsters. All had the “S” stamped on them from the foundry in Selma Alabama that had cast them recently and rushed them up to Kentucky by rail. In fact they had just conducted ranging fire that afternoon, as soon as the front wall and its emplacements had been finished. To add to this he also had the 1st Alabama Battery B in place able to move it’s 8 Columbiads to whatever sector was threatened and sweep either upstream or downstream. Behind the entire defence line he had six heavy siege mortars he had brought west with him from Virginia.
The number of troops concerned Jackson as he only had some 8000 men and 2000 horses on hand; that said however, he had his “Stonewall” Brigade and he knew they would hold that line until the enemy withdrew or they were overrun.
October 25th – Day 1
Grant was with Foote on the Commander’s “timberclad” flagship USS Gun pushing slowly upstream in the darkness of the moonless night when both noticed signal fires being lit up along the southern bank of the river as they approached Paducah some 8 miles downstream from the town. The line of gunboats slowed to a crawl as the first steamboats behind them pulled up and slowly veered into the shore, the silent rebel fortifications limned against the faint growing light in the east. A heavy thump was followed by a roar as a geyser of water jetted into the air just ahead of the Gun. Foote lowered his spyglass and swore, “That’s over 2000 yards damn it, they have heavy guns emplaced.”
Grant, who was also sighting along what appeared to be an actual fort in place between Paducah and the River, nodded and simply said: “Carry on with the plan anyhow,” and jumped off to an adjacent boat which held back while the boats loaded with men sloughed in towards the low muddy shore.
McClernand, Wallace and Hurlbut put ashore their three divisions in the half dark of dawn, their troops struggling to put out the gangplanks properly, and floundering off in the shallows, marsh and mud to form up inland under the fire of Columbiads and siege mortars from the looming mass of Fort Paducah appearing to the east.
Foote was concerned about the guns in the fort but signalled Commander Walke’s line of ships drawing up off the port quarter, indicating his fleet was to carry on as planned: to bombard the fort in passing and carry on up the Ohio escorting his steamships destined to construct a major Union depot at Louisville Ky. Walke’s fleet moved east up the river with a blinding rising sun starting to appear just off the port bow and was immediately bracketed by cannon fire, and the numbers of cannons heard booming kept increasing. Foote ordered full ahead as Walke’s steamships went by and his 8” Dahlgren’s began blasting at the fort.
He was abreast of the fort before he realized it wasn’t just a few heavy naval guns the rebels had, but a full complement of over 20 heavy guns. While his Dahlgrens and 32-lber shots knocked out a few guns, most of his fire was thudding into the earthen walls of the fort. Sighting ahead through the showering spume from rebel shots he saw that Walke’s fleet was in desperate straits. Three of his gunboats were completely smashed up and sinking, their 5” timber bulwarks no match for the heavy Confederate naval guns. All his steamers were on fire and sinking. Realising his terrible mistake Foote ordered a return downstream as two of his own gunboats took devastating hits as well.
Thirty-nine regiments, including artillery batteries, had somehow been put ashore under this fire, with other troops lost in blazing steamboats hit by the rebel naval guns and Columbiads. Most troops were without sufficient direction as command control broke down for the most part. Grant then came ashore and lined up the assault with the guns moving forward to within range behind the advancing brigades. The assaults are launched in the afternoon with three charges almost topping the fort west wall at one point before being driven off by massed point-blank musket and artillery fire, and the Union troops finally pulled back in tattered clumps and strands of men running for cover to the west. He had been repulsed, and would later find out he had lost over 8500 men. The long range Columbiads and mortars wreaked havoc amongst the advancing troops and most never got even near the fort itself. Worse than that, 3800 men from Hurlbut’s division who had attempted to sweep around to the south of the fort were isolated and captured when the last charge by the divisions of McClernand and Wallace pulled back late in the afternoon, and Jackson’s veterans counter-charged with bayonets cutting Hurlbut’s men off south of the fort.
“Heavy losses, heavy losses,” Grant said to himself, watching his officers directing his dispirited retreated men to dig trenches to get down out of the deafening long range fire, still blasting about in the darkness. At one point of the battle, amidst the explosions and whizzing shots, he watched Hurlbut’s division sweep around the south side of the fort, only to melt away under downward rushing blasts of smoke from the rebel lines. He then heard the warbling rebel yell come across the flat fields and then the sound of firing decreased. Not many of Hurlbut’s men made it back. All three brigade commanders were casualties with one killed and another mortally wounded. Hurlbut himself suffered a serious wound; he would survive but was knocked out of action for months. With his spyglass he watched some Confederate officer waving his flashing sword up above the curving golden wall of the fort, all lit by the setting sun. It was an unforgettable image.
Grant’s earlier unease about his inexperienced commanders here had proven to be well founded. Hurlbut had been ordered to simply conduct a diversionary attack against the south wall of the fort to draw attention away from the main assaults by McClernand and Wallace but seeing what appeared to be an open passage into the fort, he instead committed his entire division to a fully fledged offensive with disastrous results. Grant was not dismayed though, appreciating the spirit shown by his men and Hurlbut’s aggressive spirit in spite of the bungling. The rout of Hurlbut’s division helped to teach Grant a lesson that would serve him well in the future: volunteer soldiers were not afraid to die for their cause and could fight just as well any professional so long as they were properly led.
Grant smoked his cigar and looked down at a shattered and badly wounded general about to be carted to the field hospital, his division all but destroyed, “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.”
Hurlbut’s sacrifice had given him one priceless bit of knowledge though: the hidden rear side of the fort facing the town was completely unfinished.
Jackson sat on his horse Sorrel, just behind the parapet gun emplacements, sucking on a lemon, watching the cannonade start up against the oncoming Union fleet. He didn’t like forts, it felt like a prison. He liked to manoeuvre and strike out of the blue. But Jackson had a superb eye for a defensive line, his eyes lighting up with pleasure the way most men’s would in eyeing a beautiful woman, or a fine horse. “Old Blue Lights” said one of his men to his comrades later in the thick of the battle, raising smiles, as they rammed charges down their muskets, grinning at Jack on his horse with his tattered forage cap pulled down low over those eerie eyes of his, and then recommencing firing at the ragged blue lines advancing below them. Jackson raised his left arm, held it skyward, palm facing forward.
Later in the afternoon Jackson saw his moment to strike approaching and ignored the constant entreaties of Preston to get down out of the humming line of fire. The frontal assaults were breaking up and falling back, just as a concerted rush of bluecoats were sweeping around the southern flank to the town. He signalled to General Dick Garnet to pull out all his regiments, massing his entire Brigade along the southern wall as well as the trench into town. Jackson, visibly excited, stood in his stirrups watching them pour fire into the advancing Yanks who faltered and dove for cover. At this point he had the bugle sound for fixed bayonets and ordered the charge: “Sweep the field!” he screeched, his voice lost in the white noise of battle.
October 26th - Day 2
Grant was up most of the night with McClernand and Wallace, assigning the survivors of Hurlbut’s Division to their new regiments and making sure a fast pace was set digging a sap that angled SE towards Paducah just out of musket range past the fort. He knew it wouldn’t get far enough or deep enough, but he had to have something.
Grant also knew that if he had the men, not to mention patience, he would sweep well to the south and cut their supplies, then mount a prepared assault from that direction. But he didn’t have enough time or men to do that, as well as cover his boat landings for needed supplies. Besides, his men were wavering and only had a few more days of offensive fighting left in them he reckoned. He had to have the fort right away. He hadn’t decided when to launch the attack by 2 am, but when a thick fog rolled in shortly after, he immediately knew. He quickly scribbled a note for Foote and sent out for McClernand and Wallace. Against his better judgement he gave in to McClernand’s desire to lead the southern sweep. He was still new to his division, and Grant had seen Wallace perform better that day, but McClernand had been a prominent politician before the war and a close friend of Lincoln’s. He also had seniority over Wallace anyhow: Grant gave him the nod.
The Confederate general could easily have been mistaken for a lowly private, lying asleep in a shallow trench, battered kepi over his face and covered by a blanket. He might have been, were he not surrounded by his Virginia Brigade who knew all the startling visuals of the man at this point, and so they tiptoed exaggeratingly around him as he slept.
Jackson was not asleep, he was pondering what to do on the morrow, something heaven-guided and worthy, when Gen Felix L. Zollicoffer appeared out of the fog in the firelight, demanding he be given a task commensurate with his rank. Jackson got up slowly and stared at him goggle-eyed, as though looking at a calf with two heads, and finally ordered him to safeguard the supply cache and magazines, supervising the dwindling supply of ammo they had on hand carefully, and to get those bluebelly prisoners on a train south. He scribbled out a note for Hardee down in Columbus: ‘SEND SUPPLIES GETTING LOW—TJ’ He handed it to Zollicoffer. The man was a politician and a military dunderhead, but he could handle those tasks at least. He turned and stood in front of the fire warming himself. It was cold.
He called an aide over and sent for his Adjutant, Gen. Lieut.-Col. Preston and General Garnett. Garnet had been supervising frantic efforts to strengthen the communication pit into Paducah as well as set up a line of stakes in front of it. When Garnett appeared shortly, he told him to “git the sharpshooters from the 33rd” (his Light Infantry skirmishers who had first spotted Grant’s fleet approaching from down river the day before): position them in houses and barns to the south of the fort. He also called for his artillery major and told him what he wanted done with some smoothbores and McClung's horse artillery.
Foote’s greatly diminished fleet opened up on the NW corner of the fort at 5:30 am, supported by some of Grant’s artillery. A cheer from Wallace’s troops in the fog as they staged their mock attack. At 6 am, just as the sun was starting to appear in the east, Grant’s main attack with McClernand’s entire reinforced 1st Division charged ahead into the gloom of the fog, out of the sap across the flat ground towards the south of the fort, towards the communication trench, and past the SE corner of the fort itself. A number of the fort’s cannons had exploded in their caissons and Foote had knocked out a few more.
Foote and his remaining four gunboats raked the fort with fire, circling in a large oval downstream from the fort. He dared not decrease the range, and even so lost two more gunboats—Marlin completely obliterated in an instant as its magazine and boilers were hit simultaneously, and Salem a burning wreck drifting downstream. “Get on with it Grant!” he muttered, furious he had been ordered into a death trap with most of his fleet sunk or incapacitated already.
As the bluecoats appeared in the U-shaped space of ground between the fort, the com. trench and the town of Paducah itself, the Confederate troops opened up at the dim hurtling shapes in the fog. Colonel Stephen’s Brigade of Tennessee and Kentucky regiments had been placed to the north, facing west from the river south to handle a possible diversionary attack, and it was entirely the veterans of the Stonewall Brigade lead by Richard B. Garnet that McClernand was up against. Grant’s artillery was blindly crashing along the SE corner of the fort and into the town and over the com. trench, while Foote’s gunboats to the northwest fired blind broadsides into the fog-shrouded fort. McClernand’s troops formed lines and fired, advancing almost to the line of stakes in front of the com. trench and were wavering. It was at that point that the 33rd Virginia Light infantry let loose with volleys from the town to the south, supported by 8 unlimbered horse artillery and some smoothbores, opening up with cannister. The fog moved in ever thicker and amidst the shrieks and screams across the obscured ground, along with diminishing return musket fire, and it was clear the Yanks were in retreat leaving scores of blue-clad figures on the ground.