September 24, 1861 – Federal Brigadier-General Robert Anderson, hero of Fort Sumter, tried calming tensions in Kentucky, but the state was quickly being torn apart by both sides.
Kentucky’s neutrality had been compromised by Federals for several months before Confederates officially broke it by occupying Hickman and Columbus. To make matters worse, the state government was divided between a Unionist legislature and a governor with Confederate sympathies. The legislators applauded a visit from General Anderson on September 7, the same day that the Kentucky Senate approved a resolution:
“Resolved… That the special committee of the Senate, raised for the purpose of considering the reported occupation of Hickman and other points in Kentucky by Confederate troops, take into consideration the occupation of Paducah and other places in Kentucky by the Federal authorities, and report thereon when the true state of the case shall have been ascertained. That the Speaker appoint three members of the Senate to visit southern Kentucky, who are directed to obtain all the facts they can in reference to the recent occupation of Kentucky soil by Confederate and Federal forces, and report in writing at as early a day as practicable.”
General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederates occupying the Columbus area complied with orders to explain his actions to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin by informing the governor that he had entered the state based on “information upon which I could rely that the Federal forces intended and were preparing to seize Columbus.” Polk also pledged “to withdraw if the Federal troops would leave the State and promise not to occupy any part of it in the future.”
Of course, the Federals would not leave Kentucky, as they had worked for months to keep the state in the Union by running guns and recruiting volunteers there. An article in the Kentucky Yeoman described the situation: “Who did not know that the establishment of (military) camps in our State, by one of the belligerent powers, would necessarily lead to the seizure of strategic points by the other?… If Kentucky suffers one of the belligerents to occupy our soil, she cannot expect the other to keep off.”
Some Confederate officials urged Polk to follow the letter of the law and leave Kentucky. But President Jefferson Davis ordered him to stay put. This did not satisfy the legislature. State Senator J.M. Johnson, chairman of the committee appointed to investigate the invasions, wrote to Polk on September 9:
“The people of Kentucky, having with great unanimity determined upon a position of neutrality in the unhappy war now being waged, and which they had tried in vain to prevent, had hoped that one place at least in this great nation might remain uninvaded by passion, and through whose good office something might be done to end the war, or at least to mitigate its horrors, or, if this were not possible, that she might be left to choose her destiny without disturbance from any quarter. In obedience to the thrice-repeated will of the people, as expressed at the polls, and in their name, I ask you to withdraw your forces from the soil of Kentucky.”
Polk quickly responded:
“The first and only instance in which the neutrality of Kentucky has been disregarded is that in which the troops under my command, and by my direction, took possession of the place I now hold, and so much of the territory between it and the Tennessee line as was necessary for me to pass over in order to reach it. This act finds abundant justification in the history of the concessions granted to the Federal Government by Kentucky ever since the war began, notwithstanding the position of neutrality which she had assumed, and the firmness with which she proclaimed her intention to maintain it… We are here… not by choice, but of necessity, and as I have had the honor to say, in a communication addressed to his Excellency Governor Magoffin, a copy of which is herewith inclosed and submitted as a part of my reply, so I now repeat in answer to your request, that I am prepared to agree to withdraw the Confederate troops from Kentucky, provided she will agree that the troops of the Federal Government be withdrawn simultaneously, with a guarantee (which I will give reciprocally for the Confederate Government) that the Federal troops shall not be allowed to enter nor occupy any part of Kentucky for the future.”
Not only was Polk staying, but more Confederates would soon enter Kentucky. Brigadier-General Felix Zollicoffer, commanding 7,000 Confederates at Knoxville, received orders from Richmond: “The neutrality of Kentucky has been broken by the occupation of Paducah by the Federal forces. Take the arms.” Zollicoffer notified Governor Magoffin:
“The safety of Tennessee requiring, I occupy the mountain passes at Cumberland, and the three long mountains in Kentucky. For weeks, I have known that the Federal commander at Hoskins’ Cross Roads was threatening the invasion of East Tennessee, and ruthlessly urging our people to destroy our own road and bridges… Tennessee feels, and has ever felt, towards Kentucky as a twin-sister… If the Federal force will now withdraw from their menacing position, the force under my command shall immediately be withdrawn.”
A portion of Zollicoffer’s force advanced from eastern Tennessee and scattered 300 Unionist home guards from Camp Andrew Johnson at Barboursville, Kentucky. The Confederates burned anything that the Federals could use so they would not return.
Prominent Kentuckian Simon B. Buckner, who had declined offers from President Lincoln to become a Federal general, accepted a commission as a Confederate brigadier-general. He urged his fellow Kentuckians to “defend their homes against the invasion of the North.” General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Confederate Department No. 2 (i.e., the Western Theater) directed him to take 5,000 troops by train from Nashville to Bowling Green.
Buckner’s Confederates took Bowling Green on the 18th, as Buckner proclaimed the region the Central Division of Kentucky. Bowling Green was the strongest point from which the Confederates could protect the vital transportation and manufacturing resources of Nashville, with the Green and Barren rivers hindering a Federal advance from the north.
Buckner issued a proclamation “To the People of Kentucky,” in which he urged his fellow Kentuckians to defy their state officials who “have been faithless to the will of the people.” Legislators had used the “guise of neutrality” to allow “the armed forces of the United States” to “prepare to subjugate alike the people of Kentucky and the Southern States.”
Buckner declared that his force, “made up entirely of Kentuckians,” would only use Bowling Green “as a defensive position.” Moreover, all Confederate forces in the state “will be used to aid the government of Kentucky in carrying out the strict neutrality desired by its people whenever they undertake to enforce it against the two belligerents alike.”
Thus, Johnston created a skeletal line across Kentucky hinged on Columbus in the west under Polk, Bowling Green in the center under Buckner, and Cumberland Gap in the east under Zollicoffer. This line was intended to defend against any Federal attempts to invade Tennessee and the Deep South. However, the Confederates were outnumbered two-to-one, with two Federal departments operating in Kentucky: a detachment of the Department of the West under Brigadier-General Ulysses S. Grant at Paducah, and General Anderson’s Department of the Cumberland based at Louisville.
Meanwhile, the Unionist legislature approved a resolution urging Federals to drive the Confederates out of Kentucky. The legislators overrode Governor Magoffin’s veto to make it law. It declared that since the state had been “invaded by the forces of the so-called Confederate States… the invaders must be expelled.”
By a three-to-one margin, the legislators voted for General Anderson to raise a volunteer militia force and Magoffin to mobilize existing militia units to expel the Confederate forces. Magoffin vetoed the measures, arguing that the legislature was illegally trying to usurp his authority as militia commander in chief. The legislature approved another resolution assuring Confederate sympathizers that their rights and views would be respected.
Anderson received orders on the 20th to move his headquarters from Cincinnati to Louisville and begin recruiting Federal forces in Kentucky. Anderson was to organize volunteers and oversee their armament and training despite Magoffin’s veto. Federal forces advanced and compelled Confederates to abandon Mayfield. He issued his proclamation on the 23rd, seeking to assure loyal Kentuckians their rights would be protected. However, the warning to arrest anyone helping the opposition led to a surge in arrests.
Federal authorities arrested several prominent Kentuckians for aiding “secessionists,” including James Clay (son of Henry Clay), Reuben Durrett, and former Governor Charles Morehead. Durrett and Morehead were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette, New York. Leading politicians were arrested in Harrison County, and employees of the Louisville Courier were also seized and the newspaper closed for alleged anti-Unionist sentiments.
While Kentucky was being pulled in both directions, a “peace convention” was organized in the hope of finding some middle ground. The delegates, mostly exiled States’ Rights Party members, demanded that Federals close their military camps and that Confederates withdraw from the state so Kentucky could remain neutral. They also denounced the Lincoln administration for provoking war and condemned Major General John C. Fremont’s emancipation proclamation in Missouri.
The battle for Kentucky was far from over.
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