The predominantly Unionist legislature of Kentucky had protested that Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates entered the state and occupied Hickman and Columbus, strategic towns on the Mississippi River. But Polk had orders from President Jefferson Davis to stay put. Moreover, Polk was superseded as commander of Department Number 2 by General Albert Sidney Johnston, and Johnston had no intention of leaving Kentucky.
Johnston had a force of 7,000 Confederates at Knoxville, Tennessee, under Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer. Zollicoffer 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 Kentucky Governor Beriah 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; their people, are as our people in kindred, sympathy, valor, and patriotism; we have felt and still feel a religious respect for Kentucky’s neutrality; we will respect it as (long) as our safety will permit. If the Federal forces will now withdraw from their menacing positions, the forces under my command shall be immediately withdrawn.”
A portion of Zollicoffer’s command advanced from eastern Tennessee and secured Cumberland Gap. An advance Confederate force of about 800 men moved to Barboursville, Kentucky, where they found Unionist Camp Andrew Johnson abandoned, with only 300 Unionist home guards remaining to guard the town. The Confederates drove the Unionists off, seized the town’s arms and supplies, and burned the buildings to ensure that Unionists could not return to the camp. This gave the Confederacy a foothold in eastern Kentucky.
Meanwhile, prominent Kentuckian Simon B. Buckner, who had declined offers from President Abraham 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.” A.S. Johnston ordered Buckner to load his 5,000 troops on trains at Nashville and head to Bowling Green in central Kentucky.
Confederate occupation of Bowling Green would ensure Confederate control of southern Kentucky and protect northern Tennessee. Johnston, outnumbered two-to-one with his command scattered by geography, resolved to make Kentucky his prime region of defense. He divided the state into three zones, with Zollicoffer at Cumberland Ford in eastern Kentucky, Buckner’s Army of Central Kentucky at Bowling Green, and Polk at Columbus on the Mississippi. Johnston then called on Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas to send troops to his department.
Buckner’s Confederates took Bowling Green on the 18th, with Buckner calling 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. The Confederates set up defenses on the Green River to protect both the waterway and the railroad crossing the river. The occupation of Bowling Green sparked Federal fears of a potential attack on Louisville, 100 miles 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.”
Johnston’s skeletal line across Kentucky was now complete, intended to resist any Federal attempt to invade Tennessee and the Deep South. However, the Confederates remained outnumbered, with two Federal departments operating in Kentucky: a detachment of the Department of the West under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant at Paducah, and Brigadier General Robert Anderson’s Department of the Cumberland at Louisville in central Kentucky and Camp Dick Robinson to the east.
The Unionist legislature continued to try to expel the Confederates from the state. On the 18th, a measure was approved by a three-to-one margin calling on Anderson to raise a volunteer militia and Governor Beriah Magoffin to mobilize the existing state militia to drive the Confederates out. Legislators also called on the Federal government to give “that protection against invasion which is granted to each one of the states by the fourth section of the fourth article of the Constitution of the United States.” Magoffin, who had Confederate sympathies, vetoed the measures on grounds that the legislature unconstitutionally attempted to usurp his authority as militia commander in chief.
The legislature also approved a resolution assuring Confederate sympathizers that their rights and views would be respected. But that did not stop Federal authorities from arresting 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 seized and the newspaper banned from the mails.
Anderson received orders on the 20th to move his headquarters from Cincinnati to Louisville and begin recruitment efforts in Kentucky. Anderson was to organize volunteers and oversee their armament and training, despite Magoffin’s veto. Anderson announced that Kentuckians who did not oppose Federal or Unionist state authority would not face persecution, nor would anyone who did not aid the opposition. This sought to assure loyal Kentuckians that their rights would be protected, but the warning to arrest anyone helping the opposition threatened to greatly increase the number of arrests in the state.
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.
In western Kentucky, Federal forces advanced and compelled Confederates to abandon Mayfield, between Columbus and Paducah. Federals also occupied Smithfield, at the mouth of the Cumberland River near Paducah. The battle for Kentucky was far from over.
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