Kentucky: Crossroads of the Western Theater

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Kentucky was hugely important to both sides in the Civil War. It was a key border state whose geographical location placed it at the crossroads in the coming conflict. Kentucky abutted on six states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee. Three were slave states, three were free states. Kentucky itself was a slave state.

Kentucky’s northern border was the key waterway, the Ohio River while to the west a stretch of the Mississippi was its western border. The Ohio River would provide the Southern Confederacy with a defensible border if Kentucky was to join it. The Commonwealth was bound to the South by the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which were the main commercial outlet for her surplus produce, although railroad connections to the North were beginning to diminish the importance of this tie.

At the start of the war, Kentucky would have preferred to remain neutral in the conflict. As hard as it may be for us to comprehend, the residents of the state wanted to remain on the sidelines. They simply had too many connections to both sides.

Their connections started from politics; prominent politicians from Kentucky were serving in both governments. In fact, both presidents, Lincoln and Davis, were native Kentuckians. John C. Breckinridge had been Vice President for James Buchanan. Politically, Kentuckians had already played a pivotal role in the life of the United States. They continued to do so throughout the war.

One has only to look at a map to see that Kentucky was geographically situated between the Southern states of Tennessee and Virginia, the Northern states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and its fellow border state of Missouri. In a war in which rivers would play an important role, the Ohio River was a key river/highway for both sides but most especially for the Union. In September 1861, Kentucky-born President Abraham Lincoln wrote in a private letter, “I think to Western Theater from May to October 1862lose Kentucky is nearly to lose the whole game.”

Kentuckians would fight on both sides in the Civil War. Families would be split with prominent members of some families holding important command positions in both armies. President Lincoln’s five brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy. The ancestors of many Kentuckians hailed from Southern states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Kentucky was a slave state with a pro-Confederate Governor, Beriah Magoffin and a pro-Union legislature. Magoffin called a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly on December 27, 1860 and asked legislators for a convention of Kentuckians to decide the Commonwealth’s course regarding secession. The majority of the General Assembly had Unionist sympathies, however, and declined the governor’s request, fearing that the state’s voters would favor secession.

After Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk violated the Commonwealth’s neutrality by ordering Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow to occupy Columbus, Kentucky could no longer straddle the fence.  On September 7, 1861, the General Assembly passed a resolution ordering the withdrawal of only Confederate forces. When Magoffin vetoed the resolution, the legislature overrode his veto and Kentucky, despite remaining a slave state, remained in the Union.

Both sides immediately moved to take advantage of their situations in Kentucky. Confederate forces under Albert Sidney Johnston formed a line in the southern regions of Kentucky and the northern regions of Tennessee, stretching from Columbus in the west to Cumberland Gap in the east. Johnston dispatched Simon B. Buckner to fortify the middle of the line in Bowling Green.

Johnston’s forces were spread too thinly over a wide defensive line. His left flank was held by General Leonidas Polk in Columbus with 12,000 men. His right flank was under the command of Buckner in Bowling Green, with 4,000 men.

The center consisted of two forts under the command of Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, also with 4,000. Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were the sole positions to defend the important Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively. If these rivers were opened to Union military traffic, two direct invasion paths would lead into Tennessee and beyond.

On the Union side, General Ulysses S. Grant began his command career in Kentucky. Grant immediately understood the importance of rivers in the Western Theater. From his base in Paducah, Illinois he began by sending amphibious forces down the Mississippi to Belmont, Missouri where he fought an engagement that is considered a Union victory.

He then led a larger expedition of 15,000 men with 7 ships to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. Landing his troops in two separate locations, Grant moved on the fort. Unfortunately for the Southerners the fort was partly flooded from the high waters of the river with only nine guns able to be fired. After a 75-minute bombardment from the Union fleet, Tilghman surrendered his forces to the fleet on February 5, 1862.

Grant immediately saw the opportunity to cross the 12-mile gap between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and invest Fort Donelson. Johnston had consolidated his force in this area and the fort was held by about 16,000 men. Meanwhile, Grant’s invading force now numbered about 24,500.

Grant’s probing attacks began on February 12th and by February 16th, the Confederates surrendered unconditionally to Grant on February 16th. Only about 2,500 Confederates escaped from the doomed fort.

The collapse of Forts Henry and Donelson made Polk’s position at Columbus untenable; the Confederates were forced to abandon “The Gibraltar of the West.” His line shattered, Johnston abandoned Bowling Green on February 11, 1862, retreating first to Nashville, then further south to join P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg at Corinth, Mississippi.  Cumberland Gap, the final piece of Johnston’s line, finally fell to Union forces in June 1862.

On the civilian side of the conflict, a group of Southern sympathizers began formulating a plan to create a Confederate shadow government for the Commonwealth. Following a preliminary meeting on October 29, 1861, delegates from 68 of Kentucky’s counties met at the Clark House in Russellville, Kentucky on November 18. The convention passed an ordinance of secession, adopted a new state seal, and elected Scott County native George W. Johnson as governor. Despite some reservations by Jefferson Davis, Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy on December 10, 1861.

Though it existed throughout the war, Kentucky’s provisional government had very little effect on the events in the Commonwealth or in the war. When General Johnston abandoned Bowling Green in early 1862, the government’s officers traveled with his army, and Governor Johnson was killed in active duty at the Battle of Shiloh. 

Continuing to travel with the Army of Tennessee, the government re-entered Kentucky during Braxton Bragg‘s campaign in the Commonwealth, but was driven out permanently following the Battle of Perryville. From that time forward, the government existed primarily on paper, and dissolved following the war.

As the war in the Western Theater moved south into Mississippi, Alabama and eventually Georgia, Kentucky was the scene of Confederate cavalry raids from Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan. Morgan first raided the state in May of 1862. Morgan claimed to have captured and paroled 1,200 enemy soldiers, recruited 300 men and acquired several hundred horses for his cavalry, used or destroyed supplies in seventeen towns, and incurred fewer than 100 casualties.

In December 1862 John Hunt Morgan led his force into the state once again. This raid lasted several days and on New Years Day Morgan’s troops left the state for Tennessee. On July 2, 1863 Morgan led his troops into Kentucky for the final time. They raced across the state and entered Indiana on July 7th.

Following Morgan’s capture in the summer of 1863, there were no major engagements fought in Kentucky until spring of 1864. General Nathan Bedford Forrest led a raid into Kentucky to obtain mounts for the Confederacy. He also intended to disrupt Union supply lines, obtain general provisions for Confederate forces, and discourage enlistment of blacks in Kentucky into the Union army. They succeeded in capturing 340 remounts during the brief raid.

In response to the growing problem of guerrilla campaigns throughout 1863 and 1864, in June 1864, Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge was given command over the state of Kentucky. This began an extended period of military control that would last through early 1865, beginning with martial law authorized by President Abraham Lincoln.

To pacify Kentucky, Burbridge rigorously suppressed disloyalty and used economic pressure as coercion. His policy, which included public execution of four guerrillas for the death of each unarmed Union citizen, caused the most controversy. After a falling out with Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, Burbridge was dismissed in February 1865. Confederates remembered him as the “Butcher of Kentucky”. 




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