Kentucky Disorder Continues

October 6, 1861 – Military and political turmoil continued in Kentucky, both within and among the various opposing factions.

Confederates continued building their defensive line through this important border state with divided loyalties. This line centered on three points: Columbus on the Mississippi River, Bowling Green in the center, and Cumberland Gap in the east. For the Federals to invade the South west of the Alleghenies, they had to go through Kentucky.

President Abraham Lincoln, a native Kentuckian himself, was aware of the volatile situation in the state. As such, he promoted Robert Anderson, the hero of Fort Sumter and a fellow Kentuckian, to brigadier general and gave him command of the Federal Department of the Cumberland, which focused on operations in Kentucky.

Anderson worried that Federal military forces were inciting further unrest by arresting allegedly disloyal Kentuckians “on the slightest and most trivial grounds.” He received intelligence that Unionist Home Guards had “gone into adjoining counties and arrested and carried off parties who have been quietly remaining at home under the expectation that they would not be interfered with.”

In response, Anderson issued orders “not to make any arrests except where the parties are attempting to join the rebels or are engaged in giving aid or information to them,” and arrest only those who could be convicted in a court of law. Anderson believed that “many of those who at one time sympathized with rebellion are desirous of returning to their allegiance and wish to remain quietly at home attending to their business.” Leaving them alone “will join them to our cause,” while harassing them “may force them into the ranks of our enemies.”

The strain of trying to prevent his home state from tearing apart quickly affected Anderson’s health to the point that he requested to be removed. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott complied on October 6: “To give you rest necessary to restoration of health, call Brigadier-General (William T.) Sherman to command the Department of the Cumberland. Turn over to him your instructions, and report here in person as soon as you may without retarding your recovery.”

Federal Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:
Federal Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit:

Under General Orders No. 6, Anderson announced that Sherman would replace him as department commander. Anderson expressed hope that Sherman “may be the means of delivering this department from the marauding bands, who, under the guise of relieving and benefiting Kentucky, are doing all the injury they can to those who will not join them in their accursed warfare.”

Sherman eagerly accepted the assignment and took up headquarters at Louisville. He initially worked to ensure that his commanders followed the Confiscation Act, writing to a colonel who allegedly sheltered fugitive slaves: “The laws of the United States and of Kentucky, all of which are binding on us, compel us to surrender a runaway negro on application of negro’s owner or agent. I believe you have not been instrumental in this, but my orders are that all negroes shall be delivered up on claim of the owner or agent. Better keep the negroes out of your camp altogether, unless you brought them along with the regiment.”

The stress that Anderson had endured while commander transferred to Sherman almost immediately as he worried that Confederate forces would attack with superior numbers at any moment. He confided in Senator Garret Davis: “I am forced into the command of this department against my will, and it would take 300,000 men to fill half the calls for troops.” Sherman wrote to another general within the department: “We are moving heaven and earth to get the arms, clothing, and money necessary in Kentucky, but McClellan and Fremont have made such heavy drafts that the supply is scant.”

Sherman warned President Lincoln that the Confederates would “make a more desperate effort to gain Kentucky than they have for Missouri,” and the “force now here or expected is entirely inadequate.” Even worse, Kentuckians, “instead of assisting, call from every quarter for protection against local secessionists.” Troops in Ohio and Indiana were “ready to come to Kentucky, but they have no arms, and we cannot supply them arms, clothing, or anything. Answer.”

Secretary of War Simon Cameron traveled to Kentucky to inspect Sherman’s department and reported to Lincoln: “Matters are in a much worse condition than I expected to find them. A large number of Troops & arms are needed here immediately.” He then telegraphed the War Department: “Arms and re-enforcements needed here immediately. How many muskets, pistols, and sabers can be had? Is (General James S.) Negley’s brigade ready to march, and where is it?” Cameron issued orders for Negley to lead 10,000 Federals from Pittsburgh to Louisville via the Ohio River.

During a troop inspection at Lexington, Sherman “gave a gloomy picture of affairs in Kentucky, stating that the young men were generally secessionists and had joined the Confederates, while the Union men, the aged and conservatives, would not enroll themselves to engage in conflict with their relations on the other side.”

Sherman, who had 20,000 men in his department, told Cameron that 200,000 were needed to hold Kentucky. In spite of this seemingly excessive request, Cameron began working to transfer all available troops to Sherman’s command so he could “assume the offensive and carry the war to the firesides of the enemy.”

In addition to summoning Negley’s troops, Cameron looked into pulling troops from western Virginia. He also directed General Ormsby M. Mitchel in eastern Kentucky to report to Sherman and “be governed by such further orders as he may give.” Mitchel was to go to Camp Dick Robinson near Lancaster, and “prepare the troops for an outward movement, the object being to take possession of Cumberland Ford and Cumberland Gap, and ultimately seize the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad and attack and drive the rebels from that region of country.”

By that time, General Felix Zollicollifer’s 5,400 Confederates had advanced 60 miles on the Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap. This advance was stopped by 7,000 Federals led by General Albin Scheopf, who repelled an attack at an outpost called Camp Wildcat. After Zollicoffer withdraw back to Laurel Bridge, Schoepf requested permission to seize Cumberland Gap and the railroad connecting Manassas to Memphis. Sherman replied that he could spare no reinforcements for such an operation.

Meanwhile, the press began reporting what Cameron called Sherman’s “insane request” for 200,000 more troops. The story quickly became distorted to the point that Sherman was labeled insane himself, with various newspapers calling him a “visionary lunatic” and a “military imbecile.” Sherman resented Cameron for not clarifying his statement to the press, calling the secretary “simply unbearable.” Sherman’s relations with his department and the administration deteriorated as the strain of the job took its toll.

Politically, Kentucky continued being pulled in several directions. The Unionist Kentucky legislature approved various anti-secessionist measures, including imposing penalties for encouraging enlistment in the Confederate army, prohibiting display of the Confederate flag, and requiring teachers and court officials to swear allegiance to the U.S.

On the secessionist side, John C. Breckinridge, former U.S. vice president and current U.S. senator, issued a proclamation to his fellow Kentuckians in response to Unionist infringements on their rights:

“Fellow citizens, you have to deal now, not with this fragment of a Legislature, with its treason bills and its tax bills, with its woeful subservience to every demand of the Federal despotism, and its woeful neglect of every right of the Kentucky citizen; but you have to deal with a power which respects neither the Constitution nor laws, and which, if successful, will reduce you to the condition of prostrate and bleeding Maryland

“In obedience, as I supposed, to your wishes, I proceeded to Washington, and at the special session of Congress, in July, spoke and voted against the whole war policy of the President and Congress; demanding, in addition, for Kentucky, the right to refuse, not men only, but money also, to the war, for I would have blushed to meet you with the confession that I had purchased for you exemption from the perils of the battle-field, and the shame of waging war against your Southern brethren, by hiring others to do the work you shrunk from performing.

“During that memorable session a very small body of Senators and Representatives, even beneath the shadow of a military despotism, resisted the usurpations of the Executive, and, with what degree of dignity and firmness, they willingly submit to the judgment of the world. Their efforts were unavailing, yet they may prove valuable hereafter, as another added to former examples of many protest against the progress of tyranny…

“General Anderson, the military dictator of Kentucky, announces in one of his proclamations that he will arrest no one who does not act, write, or speak in opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s Government. It would have completed the idea if he had added, or think in opposition to it.

“Look at the condition of our State under the rule of our new protectors. They have suppressed the freedom of speech and of the press. They seize people by military force upon mere suspicion, and impose on them oaths unknown to the laws. Other citizens they imprison without warrant, and carry them out of the State, so that the writ of habeas corpus can not reach them…

“The Constitution of the United States, which these invaders unconstitutionally swear every citizen whom they unconstitutionally seize to support, has been wholly abolished. It is as much forgotten as if it lay away back in the twilight of history. The facts I have enumerated show that the very rights most carefully reserved by it to the States and to individuals have been most conspicuously violated…”

Taking Breckinridge’s words to heart, States’ Rights Party leaders from 32 Kentucky counties met at Russellville on October 29. Denouncing the Unionist legislature, they declared that the state constitution gave the people “at all times an inalienable and indefensible right to alter, reform, or abolish their (state) government, in such a manner as they may think proper.”

Delegates also condemned the Republican Party: “Absolute and arbitrary power over the lives, liberty, and property of freemen exists nowhere in a republic—not even in the largest majority.” The leaders approved a motion to assemble a Kentucky Sovereign Convention on November 18.

Kentucky would remain in military and political turmoil for the time being.


References (multiple dates); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 142-43; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 7023-68; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 71, 75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 125, 130-31; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q461


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