Kentucky: Smith Takes Lexington and Frankfort

September 3, 1862 – The Confederate incursion into Kentucky continued, with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s forces taking Lexington and the state capital of Frankfort.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit:

Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky approached Lexington two days after their crushing victory at Richmond. The Unionist legislature approved a measure to relocate their body to Louisville as the Confederates spread out within the Lexington, Harrodsburg, and Frankfort area. Smith made no real effort to coordinate his movements with General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi, heading north from Chattanooga.

Pro-Confederate residents of Lexington celebrated Smith’s arrival to their town on the 2nd, and a group of ladies presented Smith with an embroidered flag. Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry joined Smith’s men in Lexington a couple of days later, riding through the streets to the sounds of ringing church bells and cheering spectators.

Smith set up headquarters at Lexington and began arranging to install a pro-Confederate governor in the hope that he would help recruit Kentuckians into Smith’s army. A portion of his command entered Frankfort on the 3rd, where more pro-Confederate citizens turned out to cheer their arrival. The troops raised the flag of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry, the only flag on hand, over the vacated state capitol building.

Further north, panic swept through the Ohio River towns in Indiana and Ohio because there was no substantial Federal force between them and the Confederates. Businesses shut down as civic officials declared martial law and called for volunteers to defend their homes. The governors of Ohio and Indiana called on the Federal government to provide military aid.

Back in Tennessee, Bragg’s Confederates were at Sparta, preparing to head north into Kentucky. Smith informed Bragg of the Confederate victory at Richmond and urged him “to move into Kentucky and, effecting a junction with my command and holding (Federal Major General Don Carlos) Buell’s communications, to give battle to him with superior forces and with certainty of success.”

After Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio abandoned Alabama to pursue Bragg’s army, Bragg issued a proclamation declaring that Alabama was “redeemed. Tennesseans! your capital and State are almost restored without firing a gun. You return conquerors. Kentuckians! the first great blow has been struck for your freedom!” Various Tennessee politicians, including Governor Isham Harris, tried persuading Bragg to regain Nashville instead, but Bragg was determined to join Smith in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Buell worked to fortify Nashville against a possible Confederate attack. When Buell arrived at the city on the 2nd, Federal forces were using cotton bales to barricade the approaches. Military Governor Andrew Johnson declared that he would defend the city to the death, refusing to be taken alive. Major General Ulysses S. Grant sent 10,000 troops from his department as reinforcements, prompting Buell to report to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“I believe Nashville can be held and Kentucky rescued. What I have will be sufficient here with the defenses that are being prepared, and I propose to move with the remainder of the army against the enemy in Kentucky.”

Buell withdrew his army from northern Alabama to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When Buell learned that Smith’s Confederates had captured Lexington, he feared that Bragg may change his plan of invading Kentucky and instead turn on Nashville. As such, Buell pulled his Federals back closer to that city. But Bragg did not change plans. After mapping out a practical route to Kentucky, he directed Major General Leonidas Polk’s corps to move toward the Cumberland River via Gainesboro.

Panic continued spreading from Kentucky into the northern states. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton called upon citizens to form militia units and prepare to defend their homes. An article in the Cincinnati Gazette declared, “To arms! The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is approaching our doors.” General Lew Wallace raised about 15,000 volunteers to help defend Cincinnati, including about 1,000 “squirrel hunters” from the Ohio Valley, and General Jeremiah Boyle raised another 25,000 Federals at Louisville. Boyle frantically reported, “The whole state will be in possession of Rebels if some efficient aid is not rendered immediately.”

E.K. Smith, whose force was too small to invade the North (unbeknownst to those preparing for defense), reported to the Confederate adjutant general:

“It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the enthusiasm of the people here on the entry of our troops. They evidently regarded us as deliverers from oppression and have continued in every way to prove to us that the heart of Kentucky is with the South in this struggle… If Bragg occupies Buell we can have nothing to oppose us but raw levies, and by the blessing of God will always dispose of them as we did on the memorable August 30.”


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18148; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 209-10; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 653-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 202-04, 206; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 110; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 260-62, 264; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 517; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 502; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 576-77; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 32, 50; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 414-15

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