Kentucky’s neutrality had been compromised by Federals for several months before Confederates officially broke it by occupying Hickman and Columbus. Federals had responded by occupying the strategically vital town of Paducah. To make matters worse, the state government was divided between a Unionist legislature and a governor with Confederate sympathies. Brigadier General Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal forces at Fort Sumter, was now in charge of all Federals in Kentucky, and he set up headquarters at Frankfort on September 7. Unionist legislators applauded him when he visited the legislature that day, while the Kentucky Senate approved a resolution:
“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.”
Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederates in the Columbus area, complied with orders to explain his actions to Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin by stating that he had entered the state based on “information, on which I could rely, that the Federal forces intended, and were preparing, to seize Columbus. I need not describe the danger resulting to West Tennessee from such success, nor say that I could not permit the loss of so important a position, while holding the command intrusted to me by my government.”
Polk added: “I am prepared to say that I will agree to withdraw the Confederate troops from Kentucky, provided that she will agree that the troops of the Federal Government be withdrawn simultaneously; with a guarantee, which I will give reciprocally for the Confederate Government, that the Federals shall not be allowed to enter, or occupy any point of Kentucky 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. Senator J.M. Johnson, chairman of the committee appointed to investigate the invasions, wrote to Polk on the 9th:
“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.”
On the 11th, the Kentucky legislature passed resolutions calling on Governor Magoffin to order the Confederate forces to leave the state. It declared that since the state had been “invaded by the forces of the so-called Confederate States… the invaders must be expelled.” The Unionist lawmakers defeated a measure calling on Magoffin to order the Federals out as well. Magoffin vetoed the measure, but the Unionist majority overrode his veto. Magoffin forwarded the order to Polk, but Polk would not leave, and there was nothing more the legislature or the governor could do. Polk issued a proclamation on the 14th:
“The Federal Government having in defiance of the wishes of the people of Kentucky, disregarded their neutrality, by establishing camps and depots of arms, and by organizing military companies within their territory, and by constructing a military work, on the Missouri shore, immediately opposite, and commanding Columbus, evidently intended to cover the landing of troops for the seizure of the town, it has become a military necessity, worth the defense of the territory of the Confederate States, that the Confederate forces occupy Columbus in advance. The Major-General commanding has, therefore, not felt himself at liberty to risk the loss of so important a position, but has decided to occupy it. In pursuance of this decision, he has thrown a sufficient force into the town and ordered fortifying it. It is gratifying to know that the presence of his troops is acceptable to the people of Columbus, and on this occasion they assure them that every precaution will be taken to insure their quiet, the protection of their property, with their personal and corporate rights.”
Not only was Polk staying, but other Confederate forces would soon enter Kentucky as well.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Duke, Basil Wilson, History of Morgan’s Cavalry. Cincinnati: Miami Printing and Publishing Co., Corner Bedinger Street and Miami Canal (Kindle Edition), 1867.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.