Confederates continued building their defensive line across Kentucky, an important border state with divided loyalties. This line centered on three points under the overall command of General Albert Sidney Johnston:
- Major General Leonidas Polk’s Confederates held Columbus, on the Mississippi River in western Kentucky.
- Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner’s Confederates in central Kentucky occupied Bowling Green and were poised to threaten Louisville.
- Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer’s Confederates in eastern Kentucky advanced through Cumberland Gap and camped on the Cumberland River.
For the Federals to invade the Confederacy west of the Alleghenies, they had to go through Kentucky. President Abraham Lincoln, a native Kentuckian, was well 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 had 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 asked to be removed. He summoned Brigadier General William T. Sherman to his Louisville headquarters and told Sherman that he feared retaining his command would kill him. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott wrote Anderson on October 6, “To give you rest necessary to restoration of health, call Brigadier-General 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.”
Anderson issued General Orders Number 6, which 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 reluctantly accepted the command, having told the War Department that he hoped Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell, heading east from California, would take over.
Sherman transferred command of his Federals at Muldraugh’s Hill to Colonel Lovell Rousseau and moved into Anderson’s Louisville headquarters at the Galt House. Sherman wrote to 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 a general within the department, “We are moving heaven and earth to get the arms, clothing, and money necessary in Kentucky, but McClellan (in northern Virginia) and Fremont (in Missouri) have made such heavy drafts that the supply is scant.”
Sherman assigned Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden, brother of Confederate General George B. Crittenden and son of Senator John J. Crittenden, to organize Federal forces in Owensborough. Sherman wrote to him, “Kentucky looks for some bold stroke, and with such men as Jackson, Johnson, Burbridge, Hawkins, and McHenry almost anything might be attempted.” Brigadier General Alexander D. McCook was given command of the Federals at Elizabethtown, between Louisville and the Confederates at Bowling Green.
Sherman initially worked to ensure that his commanders adhered to 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 the Confederates would attack with superior numbers at any moment. He 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 and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas traveled to Kentucky to inspect Sherman’s department. Sherman expressed fears that Buckner’s Confederates would attack Louisville at any time. Cameron replied, “You astonish me! Our informants, the Kentucky senators and members of Congress, claim that they have in Kentucky plenty of men, and all they want are arms and money.” Sherman said that this was untrue.
Cameron 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. He reiterated this a few days later to Adjutant General Thomas: “I again repeat that our force here is out of all proportion to the importance of the position. Our defeat would be disastrous to the nation; and to expect of new men, who never bore arms, to do miracles, is not right.” 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 Brigadier 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, Brigadier 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 Brigadier General Albin Scheopf, who repelled an attack at an outpost called Camp Wildcat. After Zollicoffer withdrew 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.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Crocker III, H. W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (Kindle Edition), 1889.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.