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Concurrent:

American Civil War

Next:

Battle of Marion

Battle of Paducah
Beginning:

12 pm, 20 February 1863

End:

1 pm, 21 February 1863

Place:

Paducah, Kentucky

Outcome:

Confederate Pyrrhic victory

Combatants

US flag 33 stars.svg United States

Flag of the Confederate States of America (1861-1863) Confederate States

Commanders

US flag 33 stars.svg Lt. Gen. William S. Rosecrans
US flag 33 stars.svg Mj. Gen. Louis J. Gascon

Flag of the Confederate States of America (1861-1863) General Albert S. Johnston†
Flag of the Confederate States of America (1861-1863) Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg

Strength

54,000, 136 guns

55,000, 150 guns

Casualties and Losses

8,375 killed, wounded, and missing
11 guns captured

9,488 killed, wounded, and missing

The Battle of Paducah was a battle fought during the American Civil War in early winter 1863 between the Union Army of the Tennessee and the Confederate Army of Kentucky in and around the city of Paducah, located on the Kentucky-side bank of the Ohio River. The battle, fought amid gentle and fierce snowfall over the course of two days, resulted in a Federal withdrawal at the cost of comparatively higher Confederate casualties, as well as the death of Confederate general Albert Sydney Johnston late in the first day.

General Johnston, fresh off his minor victory at Mayfield in mid-January and his larger success at Princeton the previous October, hoped to drive Federal troops out of Kentucky altogether with a surprise offensive late in the winter amid several snowstorms of varying intensity. Confederate cavalry under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest drove Union pickets from their positions at Folsomdale on 18 February, alerting Lieutenant General Rosecrans to the possibility of a Confederate assault; however, the general, still reeling from his recent defeats at Johnston's hand, and content in considering Paducah "a fortress nigh impregnable", continued to fortify his position in the dreary city. Johnston launched a several-pronged attack on the city around noon on 20 February amid heavy snowfall, catching most Union troops at the front by surprise. As his position came under attack, Rosecrans ordered engineers to immediately construct a new series of bridges over the Ohio River in the event a withdrawal was needed.

Over the next twenty-five hours Union positions were subjected to determined assaults by Confederate troops, who were carried afloat by their charismatic leader and their two recent victories. Here Major General Louis Gascon distinguished himself, going so far as to halt a Confederate advance and personally lead a brigade's countercharge to buy Union troops on that part of the line time to reorganize and prepare for another assault later on. Before sunset, Johnston was killed by a Minie ball to the neck as he observed a Confederate advance close to the front line. Command of the Army of Kentucky passed to Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg, who intended on continuing the assault until Paducah was taken or Rosecran's army was destroyed – whichever came first. As the sun rose on the 21st, Rosecrans' situation grew worse, as he struggled to supply his army with dwindling supplies. With only two bridges completed, he gave the order to prepare a controlled and covered retreat over the Ohio River. The urgency of the withdrawal forced Union troops to abandon several batteries of cannon. Concentrated artillery barrages from Confederate positions severely damaged one bridge, forcing Rosecrans to shift his reliance to the various riverboats he had requisitioned for the operation. By noon, his army was across, and the entirety of his force broke north and ended battle with Bragg by 1 pm.

The battle did little to help Rosecrans' increasingly damaged reputation, despite his various victories in early-to-mid 1862 and the good account his subordinate officers gave of him during the battle. He was relieved of command of the Army of the Tennessee three days later by President Frémont and replaced with newly-promoted Lieutenant General Gascon, who rechristened the force the Army of the Ohio. Gascon withdrew north and, bolstered by Union reinforcements and supplies as he operated in the heartland of Federal territory, fought several minor skirmishes with Bragg before securing a stunning and crushing victory at the Battle of Marion in May.