previous next

Doc. 73.-occupation of Columbus, Ky.

General Halleck's despatch.

sir: The cavalry from Paducah marched into Columbus yesterday, at six P. M., driving before them the enemy's rear-guard. The flag of the Union is flying over the boasted Gibraltar of the West. Finding himself completely turned on both sides of the Mississippi, the enemy was obliged to evacuate or surrender. Large quantities of artillery and stores were captured.

General Cullum's report.

Columbus, the Gibraltar of the West, is ours, and Kentucky is free, thanks to the brilliant strategy of the campaign, by which the enemy's centre was pierced at Forts Henry and Donelson, his wings isolated from each other and turned, compelling thus the evacuation of his stronghold of Bowling Green first, and now Columbus.

The flotilla under Flag-Officer Foote consisted of six gunboats, commanded by Capts. Dove, Walke, Stemble, Paulding, Thompson and Shirk, and four mortar-boats, in charge of Capt. Phelps, United States Navy, assisted by Lieut. Ford, advance corps United States Army, and three transports, conveying Col. Buford's Twenty-seventh Illinois regiment, and a battalion of the Fifty-fourth and Seventy-fourth Ohio, and Fifty-fifth Illinois, commanded by Majors Andrews and Sanger, the whole brigade being under Brig.-Gen. Sherman, who rendered the most valuable and efficient assistance.

On arriving at Columbus it was difficult to say whether the fortifications were occupied by our own cavalry, or a scout from Paducah, or by the enemy. Every preparation was made for opening fire and landing the infantry, when General Sherman and Capt. Phelps, with thirty soldiers, made a dashing reconnaissance with a tug, steaming directly under the water-batteries. Satisfied that our troops had possession, they landed, ascended to the summit of the bluff, and together planted the Stars and Stripes amid the heartiest cheers of our brave tars and soldiers. [223]

Though rising from a sick-bed to go upon the expedition, I could not resist landing to examine the works, which are of immense strength, consisting of tiers upon tiers of batteries on the riverfront, and a strong parapet and ditch, crossed by a thick abattis, on the land side. The fortifications appear to have been evacuated hastily, considering the quantities of ordnance and ordnance stores, and number of anchors, and the remnant of the chain which was once stretched over the river, and a large supply of torpedoes remaining. Desolation was visible everywhere, huts, tents and barricades presenting but their blackened remains, though the town was spared. I discovered what appeared a large magazine, smoking from both extremities. I ordered the train to be immediately cut. A garrison was left in the work of nearly two thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry, which I will strengthen immediately.

George W. Cullum, Brigadier-General, Chief of Staff.

Flag-office Foote's report.

Columbus, Ky., Tuesday, March 4, 1862.
sir: Columbus is in our possession. My armed reconnoissance on the second instant caused a hasty evacuation, the rebels leaving quite a number of guns and carriages, ammunition and stores, a large quantity of shot and shell, a considerable number of anchors, and the remnant of chain lately stretched across the river, with a large number of torpedoes. Most of the huts, tents and quarters, were destroyed.

The works are of very great strength, consisting of formidable tiers of batteries on the north side, surrounded by a ditch and abattis. Gen. Sherman, with Lieut. Commanding Phelps, not knowing that they were last evening occupied by four hundred and six of the Second Illinois cavalry, a scouting party sent by General Sherman from Paducah, made a bold dash to the shore, under the batteries, hoisting the American flag on the bluffs. It was greeted by the hearty cheers of our brave tars and soldiers.

The force consisted of six gunboats, four mortar-boats, and three transports, having on board three regiments and two battalions of infantry, under command of Col. Buford. Gen. Cullom and General Sherman being in command of the troops.

The former leaving a sick-bed to go ashore, discovered what was evidently a magazine on fire, at both extremities, and immediately ordered the train to be cut, and thus saved the lives of the garrison. While I cannot express too strongly my admiration of the gallantry and wise counsels of the distinguished aid and engineer of General halleck, Gen. Collum, I must add, that Commanders Davis, Walke and Stemble, and Lieuts. Commanding Paulding, Thompson, Shirk and Phelps — the latter being in command of the mortar division, assisted by Lieut. Luford, of the Ordnance corps of the United States Army--nobly performed their duty.

I have my flag on board the Cincinnati, commanded by the gallant Commander Stemble. Gen. Sherman remains temporarily in command at Columbus.


A. H. Foote, Flag-Officer.

Cincinnati Gazette account.

Columbus, Ky., March 4.
In my letter of the second instant, I stated that Columbus had been evacuated and burned by the rebels. This assertion was based upon observations made by the officers of the gunboats Cincinnati and Pittsburgh--the two vessels engaged in the reconnoissances of Sunday last. Since Monday all sorts of rumors have obtained circulation in Cairo. It has been said by different parties that Columbus was evacuated; that Columbus was reenforced; that Columbus was burned, and that Columbus was neither reenforced, evacuated, or burned. I see by the telegraphic despatches of the associated press that Com. Foote informed the authorities of Washington on Sunday that the evacuation had taken place. His actions to-day hardly warrant the belief that he knew this to be the case. It is not likely that the Commodore would require a fleet of six gunboats and four mortars, and an “army” of four thousand men, to take possession of a town which he knew to be empty. However, I will not discuss this point, but will merely narrate the occupation, by the Federal troops, of the Gibraltar of America, as our Southern brethren have been prone to style what will be better known as Columbus, Ky., with such details connected therewith as have come under my observation after a residence of six hours.

The steamboat Lexington arrived at Cairo on Monday morning from the Tennessee River, where she had been engaging the enemy to a small extent. It was rumored that she came down for reenforcements, and that several iron-clad gunboats would be sent back with her. In the afternoon the St. Louis, Carondelet, and Pittsburgh “got up steam,” and toward evening anchored in the river. The belief up to this time was that the destination of the fleet was Florence, Alabama. At ten o'clock at night, however, it leaked out, despite the efforts at secrecy on the part of military officers, that Columbus was to be attacked in the morning. Before twelve o'clock Cairo was alive with excitement on the subject, and the old rumors of evacuation, reenforcement, conflagration and occupation were again in circulation. At about two o'clock this morning the embarkation of troops in three transport steamers commenced. This strengthened the belief that Columbus was the point to be visited, because it was known that troops would not be sent from Cairo for the Tennessee expedition.

At four o'clock this morning an order was sent by Commodore Foote to the captains of the gunboats St. Louis, Carondelet, Pittsburgh, and Louisville, desiring them to get under way as soon as possible. In less than half an hour these vessels had their anchors up and were headed down stream. The Cincinnati preceded them as the flag-ship. The stern-wheel steamers Ike Hammet and J. F. Wilson followed, each towing two mortar-boats. [224] Behind these were the wooden gunboat Lexington and three transports — the Illinois, the Aleck Scott, and the T. A. Magill, having on board the following troops: Six companies of the Fifty-fifth Illinois, four companies of the Seventy-first Ohio, and one company of the Fifty-fourth Ohio--all for Paducah, under command of Major Sanger of the Fifty-fifth Illinois, and accompanied by Gen. Sherman, now in command at Paducah; the Twenty-eighth Illinois, under command of Col. Beaufort; and the Forty-second Illinois, under command of Col. Roberts.

We came down the river at a good rate of speed, probably ten miles an hour. The gunboats did not preserve any regular position with respect to each other, but kept a safe distance apart, the only object being to have a sharp look out for signals from the flag-ship. After a little less than two hours sailing, we came in sight of Lucas Bend, three miles above Columbus. It was then nearly seven o'clock. The morning was clear, bright, and cold.

The bluffs of Columbus were visible from the bend, and former reconnoissances had made us familiar with the positions of the batteries, but we could see nothing from the decks of the gunboats to indicate whether the place had been evacuated or not. The flag-ship rounded to, and the other four iron-clad vessels followed her. We maintained our position in the river for a while, keeping the engines at work just enough to prevent our drifting further down the stream. The mortars and transports were now about two miles in our rear. The Commodore was evidently waiting on them.

About an hour after daybreak all hands on the gunboats were set to work in various ways to prepare the vessels for participation in the contest that most of us had by this time made up our minds was imminent. The guns were all manned and loaded. Magazine stewards, shell-passers, and powder-boys, were stationed at their different posts, ready to pass the ammunition from the ship's hold to the cannon's mouth. All fires and lights, except those connected with the engine-room, etc., were extinguished. The ward-room and cabin-furniture was removed to facilitate the working of the stern-guns. All hawsers and lines were coiled upon the deck to afford additional protection to the boilers and machinery. These many preparatory acts were the work of not more than half an hour.

Meantime the four mortar-boats, under command of Capt. George Johnson, of Cincinnati, had been towed to the right bank (the Missouri side) of the river, and made fast to some trees near the Belmont Point. The transports had come as near to the bluffs as was consistent with their safety, and were standing off in the centre of the stream, about a mile above us.

The fleet was now ready to make the attack. It was necessary first, to ascertain whether there was anything to attack. Spy-glasses were brought into requisition, but in our position, three miles distant, we could discover nothing very plainly. It was not a little amusing at this time to notice the varied results of observation made by different persons on board the gunboats. One man, after carefully scrutinizing everything he saw on the bluff through the ship's glass, said he had positive evidence that no evacuation of the town had taken place — that several regiments of troops were plainly visible on the hills, manoeuvring or drilling. Another, after an equally lengthy view, became convinced that the guns were all there — that the batteries were all manned, and that the rebels were fully prepared to meet the flotilla. A third beheld a chaos of fallen trees, a steep and rocky hill, and a couple of bare “table-bluffs,” the latter looking as if they might once have been in use for fortifications of some kind. A fourth saw in the dim distance large clouds of smoke, and felt quite sure that a great conflagration was in progress — that military stores and army quarters were in flames, and that the rumored evacuation had certainly taken place.

In the midst of this diversity of opinion, it is not to be wondered at that Commodore Foote felt a little dubious on the question at issue. He did not wish to get within range of the rebel guns until he had satisfied himself and seen that there was or was not somebody there to fire them.

On the right — hand side of the river, about three miles from Columbus, we saw a farmer running through a corn-field in the rear of his house. He had, I think, become frightened at the appearance of the gunboats, and was beating a hasty retreat from what he feared would be the scene of bloodshed, although, according to his own account, there were no troops in the fort to give us battle. The Commodore's tug was despatched to the river-bank, to hail him and get from him what information he had about the rebel stronghold. He appeared to be an honest, hard-working man, one of a class largely represented in Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee--who love the Union and abhor secession, but cannot easily reconcile themselves to the horrors of war, and pray for peace and the Union, though they know the two cannot be maintained at the present time. He told us that the rebels had left Columbus, carrying their arms and munitions with them, and that they had burned the greater part of the town.

The testimony of the former, added to what was already known on the subject, led the flag-officer to believe that the evacuation had taken place. We had been drifting slowly down the stream for about half an hour, and were now within twelve miles of the Columbus batteries. By the aid of the spy-glass a large flag could be seen waving on the summit of a hill, a little to the south of the main fort. At first it was difficult to discern the nature of the flag. It was too large for a rebel flag, we thought, and had too many stripes on it. We therefore concluded that the rebels had all vacated the town, leaving behind them, as they generally do, a leaven of Unionism, which had already begun to work. We were mistaken in the latter part of our supposition, for we ascertained after landing that a [225] detachment of the Second Illinois cavalry--about six hundred men — under command of Lieut.-Col. Hogg, had entered the place on Monday evening, finding it unoccupied, and were in joyful possession when we came in sight. The flag we saw was one which the cavalrymen had improvised for the occasion, manufactured out of colored calico — the object being to present to the gaze of Commodore Foote a banner of almost any description, provided it intimated that treason did — not rule supreme.

The nature of the ensign being discovered, Commodore Foote ordered a detachment of the Twenty-seventh Illinois, (Col. Beaufort,) to disembark in the vicinity of the upper batteries. Two tugs accompanying our fleet were brought into requisition to aid in this work. About fifty men were transferred to these “junior gunboats,” and with great puffing and steaming — infinitely more than comes from the Great Eastern--they started down the stream with their martial cargo. The officers in charge of this detail were not quite clear in the belief that there was no enemy ashore to meet or repulse them. The tugs approached within a mile of the Fort, then retired, and stood out like two small specks upon the river, nothing but the noise they made indicating to a person at a moderate distance that they were anything but two large saw-logs at the mercy of the current. Finally the spy-glass revealed the real character of the flag on the hill, and in a few moments Col. Beaufort's men were landed.

I do not believe a hill of the same altitude was ever clambered as rapidly as was the great bluff of Columbus to-day by the Illinois volunteers just named. In less than five minutes after the first men set foot on shore, the entire squadron was in the main fort, and had unfurled a beautiful silk flag. The appearance of this handsome edition of the Stars and Stripes, as they proudly floated where blatant Southrons have boasted of treason's impregnability, had a magical effect upon every one in our fleet, and cheer after cheer resounded through the surrounding woods and hills.

Shortly after this, all the transports came down, and the troops were landed at the wharf in front of the town.

I have now come to a point at which I should describe the fortifications of Columbus, about which the people in the North have heard so much, and of which many of our Generals have entertained so much horror. My own opinion is, that our Generals have been ignorant, from the first, of the real strength of the rebels at this point. They have taken at par the reports of the “Sessia scouts” --a parcel of men who never went within ten miles of the place, and whose chief office seems to be to lie and steal. I do not believe the fort has ever been properly reconnoitred, and I am borne out in this belief by the statements of those who are conversant with the past military operations of this department.

The fortifications at Columbus are erected on a bluff about one hundred and fifty feet high, immediately north of the town. The position is admirably adapted to defence. By cutting down a number of trees on the Belmont point nearly opposite, the rebels were enabled to command a perfect view of the river for a distance of four miles. The bluff faces north and projects slightly into the Mississippi beyond a ridge extending a mile above it. There are, or rather there were, three rows of batteries upon it: the first about fifteen feet above the river, the second about — feet above this, and the third on the top of the hill. It is difficult to say how many guns either of these mounted, as the rebels threw most of their heavy pieces into the river, or attempted to do so, though many of them failed to reach their destination, and stopped on the bank, where they are now visible. It is presumed that the three main batteries mounted fifty guns, and we have the evidence of citizens who frequently visited the camp to this effect. An attacking party would have had one great advantage. There was no shelter erected for the artillery-men, and those who worked the guns in the lower batteries would be exposed during the entire action to the fire of the gunboats. The water-battery was on a sort of table about fifty feet long and twenty feet deep. It formed an excellent mark for a good gunner, and if the gunboats could have held out against it for any length of time, it would have been silenced. The upper batteries were not quite so much exposed, but in none of them were the men sufficiently well sheltered from bursting shell, grapeshot or canister.

The entire works on the summit of the hill cover an area of about four miles. The fortifications are equally strong on all sides, and calculated to repulse an army attacking from the south as well as from the north. The fort can be reached from the town of Columbus by four different roads, cut through the high hills at an immense outlay of labor.

The quarters for the troops are small cabins or huts, about six feet square, built of clay, by digging three feet into the earth, for the body of the tenement, and making out of the soil thus evacuated a slanting roof, which in a majority of cases is well shingled. There are enough of these apartments to accommodate thirty thousand men. Regimental and company officers' quarters are constructed in the same manner, but a little more tastily finished.

Near the river, below the water-battery, is the principal magazine of the fort. It is a subterranean work, about twenty feet square, easy of access from all parts of the fortifications. About half way up the bluff--seventy-five feet about this — is another magazine, equal in size and similar in construction to the first.

The fort is supplied with water from the river, by means of a force pump, worked by an engine.

Among the objects which excited curiosity to-day was Pillow's great chain, designed to span the Mississippi, so as to prevent the downward passage of the Federal gunboats. It is a very strong and heavy-looking affair, stretching down the hill and into the river, where, I believe, it is broken.

The rebel forces at Columbus numbered over [226] twenty thousand on Sunday week, when the gunboat fleet came down the river, and was prevented by a flag of truce from reconnoitring or attacking. They were under the impression then that they could not resist an attack from the gunboats, and I have the authority of a deserter from their ranks for saying that they would have fled rather than fought. What was the object or what the result of the flag of truce I do not know.

The evacuation of the place commenced a week ago to-day. It was carried on rapidly. Every wagon within miles around was impressed to transport stores and ammunition to the depot of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad--a distance of about three miles. Civilians were entirely excluded from the camp on and after the twenty-fifth ult.

Gen. Polk left Columbus on Thursday, the twenty-seventh, for some point South, supposed to be New-Orleans.

By Sunday last all the infantry had gone. Gen. Cheatham then departed, leaving the fort in charge of about one thousand three hundred cavalry, with instructions to burn the camp and fly on the approach of the Federals. This last command left on Monday morning, having destroyed everything on the previous night. They set fire to all the stables, and burned eighteen thousand bushels of corn, and about five thousand tons of hay. They also burned a quantity of stores which had been left behind by the evacuators for want of transportation.

The troops that left Columbus went to three different places--one third to Jackson, Tenn., one third to Island No.10, and the remainder started to Nashville, but where they went to I am not informed.

The town of Columbus is a small, unimportant place, with a population, in its palmiest days, of about one thousand inhabitants. As the terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, it has a business significance that would not otherwise belong to it. It is situated in a low, flat ground, and for mud and dirt of its thoroughfares resembles Cairo. There are four large brick buildings in the town--one of them a hotel, whose principal patronage was that of railroad-passengers. We found nearly every house vacant to-day. The people were driven off last summer when the rebels took possession of the hills. There are no provisions to be had for miles around — the “Southerners” having depleted every farmer of his produce, without giving him even confederate scrip therefor. There are a few stores scattered through the streets, but they are all closed — the Davisites having “cleaned them out” also. Altogether, Columbus is one of the poorest and gloomiest towns I have come across, even in the benighted regions of Secessia.

I believe the only woman I met in my rambles through this metropolis to-day was a Mrs. Sharpe, wife of the Ex-Mayor of the city — for Columbus is nothing short of a Southern city. Mrs. Sharpe, on seeing the Federal soldiers in the streets, addressed one of the officers, remarking that she hoped “the Union men would not desert her, as she had stuck up for the Union cause while the secession soldiers threatened to tear her house down.” She informed us further that the rebels had forcibly taken her husband to the South. The reason was because he was well acquainted with their many faults and foibles, and they feared he might narrate his experience, derived from a lengthy residence among them, to the Federal officers. They decoyed him into their camp on Sunday morning, and forced him away on the cars on Sunday night. Mr. Sharpe is an old citizen of Columbus, a wealthy and highly respectable citizen. He is a lawyer by profession, and has held several public offices.

The rebels did not burn the depot of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, nor did they destroy the track in the vicinity of Columbus. They left in too great haste to do any damage to this end of the road. I believe they destroyed a culvert or two beyond Moscow — about twenty miles from this place.

The first thing that met the Federal eye on entering the camp to-day was an effigy marked, “Bill Seward the d — d abolitionist.” Not far distant from this was a similar representative of “Tilghman the traitor,” and a third one of “Floyd the runaway.” Trophies are numerous about town. There are no shot-guns or rifles to be had, however. They were all carried off, being rather scarce in the South just now.

We counted fourteen guns — mostly thirty-two-pounders — that had been thrown down the river-bank, but were not submerged. There are a few good gun-carriages in the fort.

The gunboat St. Louis and two mortar-boats have been left here to protect the town from attack by river. I suppose a few regiments of infantry and artillery will be sent down to-morrow.

Com. Foote, with the gunboats Cincinnati, Carondelet, Louisville, and Pittsburgh has gone to Cairo.

Another account.

A correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer gives the following account of the occupation:

Columbus, Ky., March 4, via Cairo.
Columbus, which is the strongest rebel position in the Valley of the Mississippi, has been evacuated, burnt, and otherwise destroyed. So incensed were the rebels that they spared nothing in their work of destruction except a portion of private property.

The evacuation commenced on Thursday last, but all the rebels did not leave until a late hour yesterday afternoon. The torch of the incendiary was first applied on Friday, and the conflagration raged with great fury until Sunday. Even now large portions of the enemy's barracks, magazines, and other quarters are still burning, sending up heavy clouds of smoke and ashes.

The rebels did not destroy the fortifications, which have cost them so much labor, but left them unmolested. Everything which they could not carry away with them they either burnt or threw into the river. A great many cannon of the most effective range have been dismantled and sunk in the river. In one place I saw five heavy guns, and in another seven, which had [227] been thrown from a high bluff on the bank of a river. But in their descent they had been stopped by the trees which overhang the stream below. It is as yet impossible to ascertain how many cannon the rebels have thrown into the Mississippi, supposing that in so doing they would render them useless to us.

Lieut.-Col. Hogg, of the Second Illinois cavalry, from Paducah, in company with two hundred and fifty men, was the first to enter the enemy's works at five o'clock yesterday afternoon.

Our gunboats and transports reached this place at eight o'clock to-day; but the officers not knowing that the position had been evacuated and occupied by our troops, the gunboats were cleared for action and moved down the river in line of battle. Although there were no guns in the water-batteries, still the gun-carriages which remained presented a similar appearance to mounted guns. As soon as the Stars and Stripes were discovered on the rebel works the crews of the different gunboats gave hearty cheers, which were answered with a will from the fortifications. The transports were then signaled to come down the river, and our troops were soon in the works.

The fortified works are very extensive, as they reach from the iron-banks above the town round to the chalk bluffs below, probably four miles in extent. Every prominent bluff on the river and around the town is fortified.

The rebels entirely destroyed their barracks, commissary and quartermaster's stores, and in one lot burned six thousand bushels of corn. One building, containing a large quantity of bacon, being very much soaked with water, would not burn, and a lady told me that when the rebels found they could not destroy this bacon by fire, they sprinkled poison over it.

The massive chain which the enemy had stretched across the Mississippi still remains, although the Missouri end is in the bottom of the river. The shore is strewn with the greatest quantity of torpedoes and anchors. The large magazine is still on fire, but whether or not all the powder has been removed, is not known.

But few persons remain in the town, and those only who have not heretofore taken sides in favor or against secession. The remainder, from three to five hundred in number, have fled, leaving their houses and stores, where not destroyed, open.

There were, at the time of the evacuation, nineteen thousand troops in and around the place, the entire force commanded by Gen. (Bishop) Polk. Gens. Cheatham and Pillow were in command of brigades. Gen. Beauregard was not here, but was hourly expected, having been delayed by sickness.

The rebels, when they evacuated Columbus, not only went by railroad, but also availed themselves of the facilities offered by twenty transports.

The railroad-track was torn up for six miles, and the bridges burned. Where the railroad crosses the Ohio River the bridge was burnt, but what other destruction was accomplished is not yet known.

A lady resident informs me that the troops who left by the river were destined for Island Number10, thirty miles below, and for New-Madrid, forty miles distant. The capture of Fort Donelson and occupation of Nashville had disheartened them; and the men, becoming demoralized and reckless, said they would soon be surrounded and starved out, and they would no longer obey the commands of their superiors. Gen. Polk and the officers generally had become unpopular, because, as the troops remarked, they had done nothing but fortify. The town had been fired several times, and was only saved by the untiring exertions and the constant vigilance of the officers, who feared that their demoralized condition would thus be made known to the Union troops.

Ex-Mayor Sharpe was suspected of treason to the so — called Southern confederacy, and was seized before they left and carried off a prisoner, without being allowed even to address a parting word to his wife. Yesterday morning a force of rebel cavalry returned and captured twenty Union men, who had come to town, knowing it to have been evacuated by the rebels, and expecting to find our troops in possession.

Strong guards have been detailed, and private property — under which head may be mentioned large quantities of sugar, molasses, flour, and grain, etc.--will be protected. It is suspected this property belongs to the rebel army, and if it proves true, will be seized by the Government.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
March 4th, 1862 AD (3)
March 4th (2)
2nd (2)
27th (1)
25th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: