Image of Leonida Polk via Wikipedia
Kentucky's position of neutrality in the Civil War was doomed to fail. It finally came to an end on Tuesday, September 3, 1861, when Confederate troops under Brigadier General Gideon Pillow crossed into the state from Tennessee to occupy Columbus. The troops soon placed guns on the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
The move was ordered by Pillow's superior, Major General Leonidas Polk. He feared the Federals were planning to occupy the town and was trying to beat them to the punch. He would soon announce that he had occupied the town to protect it.
Polk was correct in his assessment of the situation. The Federals were massed across the river in Missouri, and Major General John Frémont had ordered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant to occupy Columbus as soon as possible.
Polk had signaled his intentions in a letter to pro-secessionist Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin on September 1: "I think it of the greatest consequence to the Southern cause in Kentucky or elsewhere that I should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah." When the troops were in motion, Polk wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis to tell him what he had done and why.
Pro-Unionist Kentuckians protested, but the greatest protests came from Tennessee Governor Isham Harris. As long as Kentucky could stay out of the war, it would act as a shield protecting Tennessee from invasion. Harris wrote to Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Walker, who ordered Polk to withdraw immediately, but Davis countermanded the order, telling Polk that "the necessity justifies the action."