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Battle of Paducah winner remains uncertain

By Leanne Fullerlfuller@paducahsun.com

On March 25, 1864 - 150 years ago Tuesday - a Confederate command led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest faced off against a Union garrison under Col. Stephen G. Hicks in what would come to be known as the Battle of Paducah.

To commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle, Lloyd Tilghman House and Civil War Museum Director Bill Baxter will lead a discussion at the McCracken County Library on Tuesday. The talk will describe the events of the battle and discuss the effects of the battle on Paducah and the Civil War.

"It's Paducah's only real violent excursion into the war," Baxter said of the battle. "The rest of the time it was a peaceful city."

In March 1864, Baxter explained, Forrest was tasked with destroying a Union supply depot in Paducah on the banks of the Ohio River in an attempt to slow the flow of supplies and equipment to Union troops farther south. Paducah had been under Union occupation since autumn 1861, when Ulysses S. Grant established Fort Anderson.

During the battle, the 600 or so Union soldiers took shelter in the earthen fort. Forrest's forces - estimated between 1,800 and 2,000 men, many of them originally from Paducah and west Kentucky - split up: one group attempting to destroy the depot and the other surrounding the fort.

Jim Hank, a professional Civil War reenactor from Paducah, said which side won the battle has been long debated. One reason for the uncertainty, Hank said, is that each side claimed to have won. 

"Like any battle - especially during the Civil War - when the two sides leave, they want to brag about how well they did and how they beat the other side." Hank explained. "Men have huge egos, and they don't want to admit that they got their butts kicked."

Beyond bragging rights, Hank said the answer to the question of who won depends on how victory is defined.

On one hand, Hank said, the Confederates more or less accomplished what Forrest set out to do. They held the town for hours, taking supplies they wanted, destroying some supplies they didn't, killing some men and capturing others. They held the Union soldiers in Fort Anderson for six hours.

"So they actually did what they wanted and then they left," Hank said.

On the other hand, the reenactor continued, Hicks' men repulsed each of three attacks the Confederates made on Fort Anderson. Union gunboats on the Ohio River shelled the town as well, and the Confederates suffered casualties before they withdrew.

Baxter said if victories were determined solely by the number of casualties, the Battle of Paducah would be judged a draw because both sides lost roughly 40 to 50 soldiers.

The museum director said the Confederate withdrawal doesn't equate to a Confederate defeat because it was never their intention to stay in Paducah or take Fort Anderson. Baxter said the northern newspapers that covered the battle called the battle a Confederate loss as part of "the Union propaganda machine" trying to boost northern support for the war.

At the 6 p.m. library discussion Tuesday, Baxter said he will describe the events of the battle in greater detail.

"We're just trying to do a respectful, low-key remembrance of (the fact that) 150 years ago, this major Civil War event occurred in Paducah, and this is how we interpret what took place," Baxter said.

Contact Leanne Fuller, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653.

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