After returning from their expedition into southeastern Missouri in November 1861, the 29th Illinois Infantry returned to garrison duty at Cairo. The regiment celebrated Christmas and New Years in camp. President Lincoln was anxious for his generals to take action against the rebel forces, but in the west thus far, commanding generals Henry Halleck, commanding the Department of the Missouri with headquarters in St. Louis, and Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Department of the Ohio with headquarters at Louisville, Kentucky, had not agreed on a joint plan. Meanwhile, General Grant was developing a plan to use the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to invade Tennessee. In January 1861, he presented his plan in person to General Halleck in St. Louis and his idea was rejected. General Grant later recalled in his memoirs that he was received with such “little cordiality” at this meeting. The relationship between Grant and Halleck would be strained throughout Grant’s days in the western theater. Shortly after his encounter with Halleck, Grant was ordered to move his troops into Kentucky, although not for the purpose of an invasion.
To prevent the rebels from reinforcing General Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was threatening General Buell at Bowling Green, Kentucky, General Grant ordered General Charles F. Smith to lead his division up the Tennessee River from Paducah to feign an attack on Forts Henry and Heiman. Additionally, General John A. McClernand led a mixed force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, consisting of 6,000 men, on an expedition into western
Kentucky. General Grant accompanied McClernand’s expedition. The 29th Illinois Infantry was a part of McClernand’s expedition. On January 10, 1862, McClernand’s expedition arrived at Fort Jefferson, Kentucky, a few miles south of Cairo. On the 11th, McClernand’s cavalry companies led multiple reconnaissance patrols east and south of Fort Jefferson in the direction of Columbus. On the 12th, McClernand ordered a demonstration be made toward Columbus. Six companies of cavalry along with the 10th and 18th Illinois Infantry regiments were engaged. This column surveyed the area around Columbus, captured some Confederate prisoners, and returned to camp at Fort Jefferson. On the 14th, McClernand’s entire force proceeded east toward Blandville, Kentucky then south near Milburn, Kentucky, where they formed a line of battle about ten miles east of Columbus. At sunrise on the 16th, most of the expedition, including the 29th Illinois entered the town of Milburn and established a defensive position. The Confederates were confused as to whether McClernand intended to attack Columbus or Camp Beauregard, a Confederate encampment about 20 miles southeast of Columbus. Terrible weather conditions – snow and mud – made movement for McClernand’s forces very difficult. Both McClernand’s and Smith’s movements into Kentucky and Tennessee achieved their stated goals – preventing reinforcements from joining Buckner in eastern Kentucky. Additionally, McClernand’s expedition had gathered a great deal of intelligence concerning troop concentrations and uncharted roads in the vicinity of Columbus. The 29th Illinois returned to Cairo on January 21st. Intelligence gathered by General Smith indicated that Grant could move with ease from Paducah up the Tennessee River to the Kentucky/Tennessee border and assault the Confederate fortifications – Fort Heiman (on the west bank) and Fort Henry (on the east bank). Once these forts were leveled, the Union navy would have an open highway from the Ohio River to Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Grant’s planned invasion of Tennessee would require a joint army-navy effort. The inland navy in the western theater was known as the Western Flotilla and later the Mississippi River Squadron, and consisted of a mixture of wooden (timberclads) and metal (ironclads) riverboats that had been equipped with canons. Orders for additional gunboats had been placed in 1861. These gunboats, known as the “city-class” river ironclads because they were each named in honor of a city that lies on the banks of the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers, were commissioned into service in January 1862. Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote commanded the Western Flotilla beginning in August 1861. With the intelligence gathered by Smith and the support of Flag Officer Foote, Grant once again requested permission from General Halleck to proceed with two divisions and several gunboats up the Tennessee River to engage the forts. Grant received orders on February 1, 1862 to attack Fort Henry. His invasion force left Cairo the next day to rendezvous at Paducah. The invasion force consisted of 15,000-17,000 men organized into two divisions – one commanded by General McClernand and the other commanded by General Smith – and seven gunboats, consisting of four ironclads – the USS Cincinnati, the USS Carondelet, the USS St. Louis, and the USS Essex – and three timberclads – the USS Conestoga, the USS Tyler, and the USS Lexington. On February 2, 1862, Corporal Michael Hickey of Company C, 29th Illinois Infantry, with his military issued equipment consisting of a musket; ball, cartridge and powder; a knapsack; haversack; canteen; several days rations; a blanket; a shelter tent; a woolen overcoat; a tin cup and a tin plate; a metal knife, fork and spoon; a bible; stationary; a toothbrush and a shaving kit, sat on the deck of a transport ship steaming up the Ohio River to Paducah. He was a part of the force that would spearhead the invasion in the western theater and help General Grant in securing his reputation as a quick-thinking, aggressive military leader.