In the spring of 1864, Colonel William H. Lawrence commanded a garrison at Columbus, Kentucky built around eight companies of Lawrence’s 34th New Jersey Infantry. Like many other similar posts in west Tennessee and Kentucky, the garrison’s duties were relatively quiet compared to the front lines of the war. While earlier in the war, Columbus was a critical point of defense along the Mississippi River (though most of the fighting around the town was on the Missouri side), after the river-port’s fall to the Federals it was just another backwater of the war which required a garrison.
But with Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s raid into west Tennessee and Kentucky that spring, Columbus, like many other garrisons in the region, was suddenly part of an active sector of war. On the morning after the fall of Fort Pillow, a column of Confederates commanded by Brigadier-General Abraham Buford approached Columbus. At around 6 a.m., as was the practice of Forrest’s raiders that spring, Buford sent a message over to Lawrence under a flag of truce:
Headquarters Confederate Forces,
Before Columbus, Ky., April 13, 1864.
The Commanding Officer U.S. Forces, Columbus, Ky.:
Fully capable of taking Columbus and its garrison by force, I desire to avoid the shedding of blood and therefore demand the unconditional surrender of the forces under your command. Should you surrender, the negroes now in arms will be returned to their masters. Should I, however, be compelled to take the place, no quarter will be shown to the negro troops whatever; the white troops will be treated as prisoners of war.
I am, sir, yours,
Lawrence took stock of his situation. His garrison was in fortifications, though not well maintained or armed fortifications. However, laying in port at Columbus was the steamer L.M. Kennett loaded with a battery of artillery and a detachment of infantry. Lawrence also knew another steamer was due in that day with another 1,500 troops. So Lawrence sent his reply:
Headquarters of the Post,
Columbus, Ky., April 13, 1864.
Brig. Gen. A. Buford,
Commanding Confederate Forces before Columbus, Ky.:
General: Your communication of this date is to hand. In reply I would state that, being placed by my Government with adequate force to hold and repel all enemies from my post, surrender is out of the question.
I am, general, very respectfully,
WM. Hudson Lawrence,
Colonel 34th New Jersey Volunteers, Commanding Post.
Consider the words of Buford’s surrender demand and the context. Particularly with Fort Pillow in mind. I find it hard to accept a “the troops just got out of hand” explanation, sometimes advanced about Fort Pillow, in that light.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, page 553.)