Kentucky was a Border State of key importance in the Civil War (1861-1865). President Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of the Commonwealth when he declared "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." In a September 1861 letter to Orville Browning, Lincoln wrote "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. ... We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital."
Kentucky was among the chief places where the "Brother against brother" scenario was prevalent. Kentucky was officially neutral at the beginning of the war, but after a failed attempt by Confederate General Leonidas Polk to take the state of Kentucky for the Confederacy, the legislature petitioned the Union for assistance, and thereafter became solidly under Union control.
Kentucky was the site of fierce battles, such as Mill Springs and Perryville. It was host to such military leaders as Ulysses S. Grant on the Union side, who first encountered serious Confederate gunfire coming from Columbus, Kentucky, and Nathan Bedford Forrest on the Confederate side. Forrest proved to be a scourge to the Union Army in such places as the towns of Sacramento and Paducah, where he conducted guerrilla warfare against Union forces.
In 1861 both sides respected the Commonwealth's neutrality, but positioned themselves strategically to take advantage of any change in the situation. Union forces established Camp Clay in Ohio just north of the city of Newport, Kentucky and Camp Joe Holt in Indiana opposite Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile Confederate troops constructed Forts Donelson and Henry just across Kentucky's southern border in Tennessee, and stationed troops fewer than 50 yards from Cumberland Gap. Volunteers from the Commonwealth left the state to join up with whichever side they favored. Some covert recruiting also took place. Nearly 60 infantry regiments served in the Union armies versus just 9 in the Confederate. However, a rather large number of cavalry outfits joined the latter. John Breckenridge originally commanded the "Orphan Brigade" of the Army of Tennessee, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th Kentucky Infantry. The brigade's nickname came about allegedly because the soldiers' home counties were occupied by Union troops for most of the war and they couldn't go home to them.
The Commonwealth's military forces, however, proved to be just as divided as the general populace. The State Guard, under the command of Simon B. Buckner, largely favored the Confederate cause, while the newly-formed Home Guard were mostly Unionists. Several close calls almost started a conflict within the state, but Buckner successfully negotiated with Union general George B. McClellan and Tennessee governor Isham Harris to maintain the Commonwealth's neutrality through the summer.
On September 4, 1861, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk violated the Commonwealth's neutrality by ordering Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow to occupy Columbus. Columbus was of strategic importance both because it was the terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and because of its position along the Mississippi River. Polk constructed Fort DuRussey in the high bluffs of Columbus, and equipped it with 143 cannons. Polk called the fort "The Gibraltar of the West." To control traffic along the river, Polk stretched an anchor chain across the river from the bank in Columbus to the opposite bank in Belmont, Missouri. Each link of the chain measured eleven inches long by eight inches wide and weighed twenty pounds. The chain soon broke under its own weight, but Union forces did not learn of this fact until early 1862.
In response to the Confederate advance, Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant left Cairo, Illinois, and entered Paducah, Kentucky, on September 6, which gave the Union control of the northern end of the New Orleans and Ohio Railroad and the mouth of the Tennessee River. Governor Magoffin denounced both sides for violating the Commonwealth's neutrality, calling for both sides to withdraw. However, on September 7, 1861, the General Assembly passed a resolution ordering the withdrawal of only Confederate forces. Magoffin vetoed the resolution, but both houses overrode the veto, and Magoffin issued the proclamation. The General Assembly ordered the flag of the United States to be raised over the state capitol in Frankfort, declaring its allegiance with the Union.
Its neutrality broken, both sides quickly moved to establish advantageous positions in the Commonwealth. Confederate forces under Albert Sidney Johnston formed a line in the southern regions of Kentucky and the northern regions of Tennessee, stretching from Columbus in the west to Cumberland Gap in the east. Johnston dispatched Simon B. Buckner to fortify the middle of the line in Bowling Green. Buckner arrived on September 18, 1861, and immediately began intensive drill sessions and constructing elaborate defenses in anticipation of a Union strike. So extensive were the fortifications at Bowling Green that a Union officer who later surveyed them commented, "The labor has been immense– their troops cannot be well drilled– their time must have been chiefly spent in hard work, with the axe and spade."
Many small skirmishes occurred in Kentucky in 1861, including "Forrest's First Fight" at Sacramento, but battles of great military significance did not begin in earnest until 1862.
In January 862, Union General George H. Thomas began to advance on George B. Crittenden's position at Mill Springs. In rainy conditions, Thomas' army moved slowly, and Crittenden advanced to meet them before they could be reinforced by forces from nearby Somerset. The battle commenced on January 19, 1862, and favored Crittenden's forces early on. However, in the confusion caused by the rain and fog, Felix Zollicoffer, commander of Crittenden's First Brigade, rode into the midst of the Union forces. A Confederate officer galloped in, yelling at Zollicoffer to inform him of his mistake. Upon being identified, Zollicoffer was shot out of the saddle and killed, disheartening the Confederates and turning the tide of the battle. Thomas' reinforcements arrived, and Crittenden's forces were forced to retreat across the flooded Cumberland River. Many drowned in the process, and Crittenden was given the blame for the debacle.
General Johnston countered by ordering Pillow, Buckner, and John B. Floyd to the defense of Fort Donelson. None of the three was specifically given command, a decision that would prove costly. Grant arrived at Donelson on February 13, and found himself outnumbered by some 3,000 troops. Floyd failed to capitalize on his advantage, however, and Grant was reinforced the next day. On February 15, the Confederates had nearly cleared an escape route to Nashville, but arguments among the generals delayed the retreat. Floyd seized a steamboat and used it to evacuate his forces, while Pillow fled in a rowboat. Buckner, left alone in command, proposed a cease-fire to Grant while terms of surrender were negotiated. Grant's reply– that only "an unconditional and immediate surrender" could be accepted– made him a hero in Union eyes, and earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
The collapse of Forts Henry and Donelson made Polk's position at Columbus untenable; the Confederates were forced to abandon "The Gibraltar of the West." His line shattered, Johnston abandoned Bowling Green on February 11, 1862, retreating first to Nashville, then further south to join P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg at Corinth, Mississippi. Cumberland Gap, the final piece of Johnston's line, finally fell to Union forces in June 1862.
On July 4, 1862, Morgan and his men left Knoxville, Tennessee, and captured Tompkinsville five days later. After a brief stop in Glasgow, where many of Morgan's troops were from, they continued to Lebanon, capturing it on July 12. From there, the cavalry stopped in Harrodsburg and Georgetown, and upon seeing that Lexington was too heavily fortified, turned their attention to the town of Cynthiana. Morgan was again victorious at Cynthiana, but with Union reinforcements closing in on him, he paroled all the captured soldiers from the battle and rode to Paris.
On their exit from the Commonwealth, the cavalry picked up 50 recruits at Richmond. They also stopped in Somerset, where Morgan instructed his telegrapher, George "Lightning" Ellsworth to send taunting messages to General Jeremiah Boyle and publisher George Prentice. At the completion of his escape through the Commonwealth, Morgan claimed to have captured and paroled 1,200 enemy soldiers, recruited 300 men and acquired several hundred horses for his cavalry, used or destroyed supplies in seventeen towns, and incurred fewer than 100 casualties.
As the battle at Cumberland Gap wore on, Morgan refused to retreat or surrender his position. Thinking an invasion of Kentucky was preferable to a long siege on the Gap, Smith left a detachment to handle Morgan and proceeded toward Lexington, abandoning the plan to join Bragg and capture Nashville. The move forced Bragg's hand, and he too entered Kentucky on August 28. As Smith progressed toward Lexington, Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton decided that Governor Robinson was doing too little to support the Union cause. He dispatched regiments across the Ohio into Louisville, and considered himself governor of both Indiana and Kentucky.
Upon learning of Smith's advance into Kentucky, General "Bull" Nelson prepared to engage the invading army at the Kentucky River to take advantage of the better terrain, but delayed the engagement so that more reinforcements could arrive. He ordered the brigades under Mahlon Manson and Charles Cruft not to attack Smith, but to withdraw to Lexington, but the orders either were not delivered in time, or they were ignored.
While Smith was continuing on to Lexington, Bragg was just entering Kentucky, having delayed at Chattanooga until August 28. Bragg was told that there were ample supplies in the Glasgow area, but upon learning that Bragg had entered Kentucky, Buell left George Thomas to guard Nashville and moved the rest of his army to heavily-fortified Bowling Green.
Meanwhile, Smith had dispatched Colonel John Scott to look for Bragg. On the night of September 13, Scott encountered John T. Wilder at Munfordville, and demanded his surrender. Scott requested the aid of James Chalmers' Mississippi brigade, which moved to support Scott throughout the night. The assault commenced the next morning, and though outnumbered, Scott's forces inflicted more than 200 casualties in the early fighting. At 9:30 AM, Chalmers tried to intimidate Wilder into surrender, sending a flag of truce with the message, "You have made a gallant defense of your position, and to avoid further bloodshed I demand an unconditional surrender of your forces. I have six regiments of infantry, one battalion of infantry sharpshooters, and have just been reinforced by a brigade of cavalry, under Colonel Scott, with two battalions of infantry." Upon receiving this message, Wilder replied "Thank you for your compliments. If you wish to avoid further bloodshed, keep out of the reach of my guns."
Wilder was soon reinforced by Colonel Cyrus L. Dunham, who brought a force of 4,000 men. Scott and Chalmers sought assistance from Bragg's main army. Bragg was incensed, but arrived the next day to take charge of the battle. Bragg deployed forces under William J. Hardee and Leonidas Polk to surround the town, delaying his assault until September 17. Bragg sent another request for the force's surrender. At a council of war, Wilder made an unusual request of Bragg's subordinate, Simon B. Buckner– that he be allowed to inspect the forces that now surrounded him to determine whether surrender were the correct course of action. Delighted by this supreme compliment, Buckner obliged, and after surveying the Confederate line, Wilder surrendered.
Wilder's force of some 4,000 men was paroled and directed to Bowling Green, where Bragg hoped they would be a drain on Buell's supplies. The delay caused by the Confederate victory at Munfordville may well have cost them a much more important prize– Louisville.
While Bragg rested his troops and planned his next move, Buell marched north from Bowling Green and arrived in Louisville on September 25. Seeing his primary objective fallen into Union hands, Bragg turned to Bardstown, where he had expected to meet Smith. Smith was actually operating independently near Frankfort, and Bragg, now painfully aware that the lack of cooperation with Smith might prove the Confederates' undoing in Kentucky, began to disperse his troops into defensive postures at Bardstown, Shelbyville, and Danville.
The ceremony took place on October 4, 1862. First, Bragg addressed the assembled partisan crowd, promising to defend the Commonwealth. Then Hawes, who had taken the oath of office months earlier while traveling with Bragg's Army of Tennessee, delivered a lengthy inaugural address. He told the crowd that the provisional government would "institute as far as possible such civil institutions, as will protect persons and property, until the people in their sovereign capacity can establish a permanent Government founded on the will of the majority."
The promises made by Bragg and Hawes were short-lived. Before the inaugural ball could be held, Buell's forces had descended on the state capital, firing artillery shells that shattered the jovial atmosphere and put the Confederate forces to flight. Bragg had sorely underestimated Buell's ability to make a rapid advance on his position. While preparations were being made for Hawes' inauguration, Buell was already forcing the Confederate army from Shelbyville. Bragg ordered Leonidas Polk from Bardstown to attack Buell's flank, but Polk was already under attack and retreating to Bryantsville. Bragg began a retreat from Frankfort to Harrodsburg to regroup with Polk. Meanwhile, Smith prepared to defend Lexington, where he assumed the bulk of Buell's force would be directed.
By October 7, Polk's forces had fallen back to the town of Perryville. The dry summer of 1862 had left water in short supply, and when the Union troops learned of water in Perryville's Doctor's Creek, they began to move on the Confederate position. Bragg shared Smith's assumption that the bulk of the Union attack would be directed at Lexington and Frankfort, and ordered Polk's forces to attack and destroy the approaching Union force before proceeding to Versailles to meet Smith. The Confederate soldiers in Perryville, however, realized that a much larger force was approaching, and assumed a defensive posture. In fact, Buell, Charles Champion Gilbert, Alexander McCook, and Thomas Crittenden were all approaching Perryville.
The Confederates were not the only ones to misjudge the situation, however. When Bragg learned that his men had not attacked as ordered, he came to Perryville himself to lead the attack. In realigning to an attack posture, the Confederates stirred such a cloud of dust that the approaching Union force believed they were retreating to Harrodsburg. This gave Bragg's men the advantage of surprise when they opened fire on McCook's forces at 2 PM on October 8. While McCook was being pushed back on the left flank, the Union center held strong until the right flank began to collapse.
It was not until late afternoon that Buell learned of McCook's plight, whereupon he sent two brigades from Gilbert's corps to reinforce him. This halted the Confederate advance on McCook north of Perryville. Meanwhile, small Confederate brigades encountered Gilbert's force of 20,000 men to the west and Crittenden's force, also 20,000 strong, to the south. Only then did Bragg realize that he was facing Buell's main force, and that he was vastly outnumbered. As night approached and halted the battle, Bragg conferred with his officers and decided to retreat to Harrodsburg to meet Smith. From Harrodsburg, the Confederates exited Kentucky through Cumberland Gap. For the remainder of the war, there would be no concerted efforts by the Confederacy to hold Kentucky.
On December 17, 1862, under the terms of General Order No. 11, thirty Jewish families, longtime residents all, were forced from their homes. Cesar Kaskel, a prominent local Jewish businessman, dispatched a telegram to President Lincoln, and met with him, eventually succeeding in getting the order revoked.
His inability to engage Bragg and Smith on their retreat from Kentucky led to Buell being replaced by General William Rosecrans. Rosecrans encamped at Nashville during the fall and early winter of 1862. Believing that Rosecrans would begin a campaign as soon as sufficient supplies were accumulated, Bragg dispatched John Hunt Morgan back into Kentucky in December 1862 to cut the supply line afforded Rosecrans by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
Morgan's men crossed into Kentucky on December 22 and captured a Union supply wagon bound for Glasgow. On Christmas Day, Morgan's men rode through Glasgow, bound for Bacon Creek Station and the L&N bridge span. After quelling the stiff Union resistance, Morgan's men destroyed the bridge and several miles of railroad track. Whatever else might happen, they had succeeded in disrupting Rosecrans' supply line.
Colonel John M. Harlan's artillery shelled Morgan's force as it crossed the Rolling Fork River on December 29, seriously wounding First Brigade commander Basil W. Duke. Duke was taken to Bardstown for medical treatment, however, and recovered in time to rejoin the Confederate retreat the next day.
Freezing rain plagued Morgan's men as they encamped at Springfield on the night of December 30. Worse yet, scouts reported a massive Union force concentrated nine miles away at Lebanon. With Frank Wolford's men moving on his position, Morgan made the difficult decision to move out just after midnight in ever-worsening weather. He ordered a few companies to create a diversion, feigning an attack on Lebanon and burning fence rails to give the appearance of campfires, while the main body of his force continued to Campbellsville. The plan worked, and following a march that many described as their most miserable night of the war, Morgan's men arrived safely in Campbellsville on New Year's Eve and captured some welcome supplies. The following day, they proceeded through Columbia, and returned to Tennessee on January 3.
Following the Christmas Raid, there were only minor incursions into Kentucky by various units under Roy Cluke, John Pegram, Humphrey Marshall, among others. Frustrated Union commanders could only react to these unpredictable raids. Morgan would soon do them a favor, however, by raising the visibility of his next raid.
It was widely reported that since his December 1862 marriage, Morgan had lost some of his bravado. Morgan, eager to dispel such rumors and weary of guarding Bragg's left flank, proposed a raid through Kentucky and across the Ohio River. Bragg, fearing an attack from Rosecrans, welcomed the idea of a distraction that would take the pressure off his Army of Tennessee. Morgan gathered his men to an area between Liberty and Alexandria, Tennessee. On June 10, he addressed his unit, telling them that Bragg had sanctioned a raid to Louisville, and if conditions permitted, across the Ohio River into Indiana and possibly Ohio. He confided Bragg's true orders– to halt at the Ohio River– only to trusted confidant Basil Duke.
The raid was delayed by orders to intercept a Union raiding party moving on Knoxville, Tennessee, but after three miserable weeks of floundering through muddy conditions, Morgan's men still had not located the enemy. They finally began entering Kentucky on July 2, 1863. Two days later, Morgan engaged Colonel Orlando Moore's forces at Tebb's Bend, a bridge crossing the Green River near Campbellsville. As was his custom, Morgan demanded an unconditional surrender, but Moore, noting that this was Independence Day, replied "It is a bad day for surrender, and I would rather not." Moore's forces won the day, and Morgan, having suffered 71 casualties, decided to bypass the bridge.
Morgan again encountered resistance at Lebanon where, despite the Confederate victory, his nineteen-year-old brother Tom was killed. From Lebanon, Morgan's men made haste through Springfield toward Bardstown, where they learned that Union soldiers were less than a day behind, and that Louisville was already bracing for another attack. Morgan had the advantage of surprise, however, having selected Brandenburg as his target instead. He sent an advance detachment to make preparations for crossing the Ohio, and on July 7, they captured two steamboats, the John B. McCombs and the Alice Dean. By midnight, all of Morgan's men were on Indiana soil.
Over the next few weeks, Morgan rode along the course of the Ohio River, raiding Indiana and Ohio. On July 19, Federal forces captured Duke and 700 of Morgan's men, but Morgan escaped with 1,100 others. Union pursuit was heavy, and Morgan lost exhausted men daily, his command dwindling to 363 men by the time he surrendered on July 26, 1863.
Morgan was taken to a penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, but escaped with several of his officers in November 1863. Despite the threat of a court martial from Bragg for disobeying orders, the Confederacy so desperately needed leaders that Morgan was restored to his command position.
Following Morgan's capture in the summer of 1863, there were no major engagements fought in Kentucky until spring of 1864. Portions of three infantry regiments from Bragg's army had requested to reorganize as a mounted infantry under Abraham Buford, but the Confederacy had no horses to supply them. In response, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been operating in Mississippi, began to organize a raid on western Tennessee and Kentucky. Besides obtaining mounts for the mounted-infantry-to-be, Forrest intended to disrupt Union supply lines, obtain general provisions for Confederate forces, and discourage enlistment of blacks in Kentucky into the Union army.
On March 25, 1864, Forrest commenced his attack. He met Colonel Stephen G. Hicks at Fort Anderson and demanded an unconditional surrender. Knowing that Forrest's main objectives were to obtain supplies and horses, Hicks declined. For the most part, Hicks was right in his assumption that Forrest would not assault the fort, but Confederate colonel Albert P. Thompson, a native of the area, did briefly attempt to capture it before being killed with 24 men from his unit. Forrest held the city for ten hours, destroying the Union headquarters, as well as the buildings housing the quartermaster and commissary. Forrest also captured a total of 200 horses and mules before withdrawing to Mayfield. Following the raid, Forrest granted furlough to the Kentuckians under his command so they could secure better clothing and mounts. As agreed, every man reported back to Trenton, Tennessee on April 4.
Unionist newspapers bragged after the raid that Union forces had hidden the best horses in the area and that Forrest had only captured horses stolen from private citizens. Furious, Forrest ordered Buford back into Kentucky. Buford's men arrived on April 14, forced Hicks back into the fort, and captured an additional 140 horses in the foundry, exactly where the newspaper reports had placed them. They then rejoined Forrest in Tennessee. The raid was not only successful in terms of gaining additional mounts, but provided a diversion for Forrest's attack on Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
In response to the growing problem of guerrilla campaigns throughout 1863 and 1864, in June 1864, Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge was given command over the state of Kentucky. This began an extended period of military control that would last through early 1865, beginning with martial law authorized by President Abraham Lincoln. To pacify Kentucky, Burbridge rigorously suppressed disloyalty and used economic pressure as coercion. His guerrilla policy, which included public execution of four guerrillas for the death of each unarmed Union citizen, caused the most controversy. After a falling out with Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, Burbridge was dismissed in February 1865. Confederates remembered him as the "Butcher of Kentucky". See also Kentucky Civil War History and Kentucky in the American Civil War: Kentucky (1861-1865).