Despite the Kentucky State Legislature's declaration of neutrality on May 16, 1861, the Confederacy decided to make its move northward from the secessionist state of Tennessee. In a major "claim-staking," Confederate General Gideon Pillow moved on Columbus, Kentucky and fortified the area heavily, earning it the name "Gibralter of the West"--a title later shared by Vicksburg.
Realizing the severity of the threat, Union General Ulysses S. Grant moved quickly, taking Cairo, Illinois in three days. Then he moved into Paducah--extinguishing any hope that Kentucky could avoid the Civil War. Once in Paducah, Grant ordered the construction of two forts. Fort Anderson would be constructed at Paducah, and Fort Smith at Smithland.
Kentucky now had no choice but to claim allegiance to one side or the other. The legislature's decision, despite many Confederate sympathies, was to remain in the Union. With Confederate troops stationed at Columbus, the government of Kentucky immediately began to raise troops to force the Confederate army to leave. Now bound to the Union, forts were constructed to house and recruit soldiers, among them Fort Smith.
Smithland, Kentucky was chosen for its strategic location--it lay at the confluence of the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers. Both waterways would lead to major campaign areas--the Cumberland leading south into Tennessee and Fort Donelson; the Ohio leading into the Mississippi River and the Naval campaign that cut the South in half.
Fort Smith, an encampment and fortification complex, was constructed in September, 1861, and would serve its purpose until the last regiment there was mustered out of service in November, 1865. The star-shaped fortifications at Smithland were separated by half a mile of rolling river bluffs. One gun emplacement guarded the confluence of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers while the other guarded the floodplain that surrounded them.
The northern gun emplacement was protected by both a 32- and 64- pound cannon and housed the Union encampment and rifle pits. The southern gun emplacement was home to on 32-pounder that stood watch over the southern and western flanks and held the roads to Tilene and Gilbertsville free.
On September 5, 1861, four companies from the Illinois Twelfth Regiment Infantry under the leadership of General C. F. Smith, were first to arrive at Smithland. The others from their group were stationed at Fort Anderson in Paducah. Following them on September 8, Companies "B" and "I" separated from the 41st Regiment Infantry at Paducah and came to station at Fort Smith. During their stay atop Smithland's bluffs the men manned the forts and enjoyed stable weather, probably engaging in cards and drinking brandy.
However, their leisure time was interrupted during late September. A quote dated October 2, 1961 stated that within ten days past, skirmishes at Smithland, Lucas Bend, Buffalo Hill, and Grayson had resulted in "trifling" losses. With skirmishes ended, on November 7 the Companies "B" and "I" were on the move with several groups from Paducah. For two days they would make a "demonstration" on Columbus.
Early on, the build-up at Smithland caught the attention of Confederates in the area. On October 19, 1861, Brigadier General S. B. Buckner, CSA wrote: "A company or squad of 25 cavalry from Smithland marched within four miles of Eddyville. I now have spies at Smithland. The enemy have at that place 600 troops and are fortifying at a hill in rear of town." A month later, Buckner wrote that these fortifications would be completed in "a fortnight or so."
Buckner's concern over the military build-up at Smithland was not unjustified, nor were the concerns of the local slave owners. A correspondent from a camp near Smithland concluded his dispatch speaking of blacks being drilled in the "school of soldiery." He also stated that as regiments moved farther south, blacks joined in and marched in formation, later joined by increasing numbers of slaves as they moved across the countryside.
On December 9, 1861, Thielman's Independent Cavalry Battalion was being organized at Smithland by the Consolidation of Marx's and Theilman's Independents. Thielman's previous battalion had not taken part in the demonstration on Columbus and now was to lead an expedition on both the Confederate Camp Beauregard and the town of Viola, Kentucky. Their expedition would see them leave on December 28 and return on New Year's Eve.
The mild January of 1862 must have been welcoming to the 52nd Illinois Infantry as they settled in at Smithland. They would remain hardly a month, however, before moving on to Fort Donelson. Alongside the 52nd was Gilbert's Independent Cavalry that was attached on October 25, 1861, in Geneva. Following close behind was the Illinois 50th, moving into camp from January 21 to 28, remaining less than one week, before moving on to Fort Henry, and ultimately to Donelson in support.
On January 24, 1862, H. W. Halleck requested C. F. Smith to send a description of the road and country from Smithland to Dover and Fort Henry. By the 26th, the 13th Missouri Infantry was moving in and performing reconnaissance from Smithland toward Fort Henry.
After Lew Wallace's command was moved to Smithland, he was headquartered at the Gower House. In a letter home, he stated that he was enjoying his stay, though he waited in anticipation. He writes, "I have been assigned to the command--how long that will last I cannot tell....I hold myself at all times ready to move at a moment's warning....My quarters are the nicest I ever had....The town is a beautiful place. Mostly secesh, but inclined to be quiet. The drums are beating for dress parade and I must close."
A moment's notice was to take all of six days. On January 31, 1862, C. F. Smith received orders from General Grant to take all of the command from Smithland, except the 52nd Illinois, to Fort Henry.
After the victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, captured Confederates were to be sent north to Chicago. One of the first stops on the route north was Smithland. What Lew Wallace described as a mostly quiet town was enraged at the sight of the tattered and torn prisoners in gray.
Edmonia Patterson Daniel, in recollection of this event, recounted one particular incident. "A company of german soldiers, left in command, stood near our group. They jeered, made sport and mocked the captured men, saying, 'Oh, look at the damn ol rebel prisoners.' In bitter resentment with hearts bowed down, we girls told them these were brave heroes of the war. Threats to put us in the guard-house forbade another word and our mothers called us indoors."
On March 24, 1862, General Halleck sent a message to W. K. Strong at Cairo, "You will immediately take measures to break up the post at Smithland. The forces now stationed there will be sent up the Tennessee to General Grant, and the artillery, stores, and all public property removed to Paducah." For a period between late March and August of 1862, the fort at Smithland was silent. Then, on August 18, Battery "H" of the 2nd Regiment Light Artillery had encamped at Smithland. On section would occupy Fort Heiman and later would move to Clarksville from Donelson.
Following them in October, the 91st Indiana Infantry occupied the fort until June, 1865. This regiment was split into thirds in defense of Henderson, Madisonville, and Smithland. On April 6, 1864, the 48th Mounted Infantry company "G" arrived after having protected the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at Cave City. They moved out against guerilla activities in Livingston, Lyon, and Trigg counties.
On July 8, 1864, defense of Fort Smith was turned over to the 13th Heavy Artillery Colored Regiment who had arrived on June 23, 1864, after having garrisoned with others at Camp Nelson and "other points in Kentucky." They remained at Fort Smith until mustered out of service on November 18, 1865.
From a paper presented at the Kentucky Heritage Council Archaeology Conference, March 1996. Kathleen Tucker, Murray State University, Murray, KY.