Kentucky Civil War History

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Kentucky Civil War History Map
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American Civil War Kentucky Map

Background: Kentucky was a Border State of key importance in the American Civil War (1861-1865). President Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of the Commonwealth when he declared, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." In a September 1861 letter to Orville Browning, Lincoln wrote, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. ... We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital."
Kentucky, being a Border State, was among the chief locations where the "Brother against Brother" scenario was prevalent. Kentucky was officially neutral at the beginning of the war, but after a failed attempt by Confederate General Leonidas Polk to control the state of Kentucky for the Confederacy, the legislature petitioned the Union for assistance, and thereafter became solidly under Union control.

Kentucky was the battlefield for the following principal Civil War battles: Barbourville; Camp Wild Cat; Cynthiana; Ivy Mountain; Middle Creek; Mill Springs; Munfordville; Paducah; Perryville; Richmond; and Rowlett's Station.

Kentucky Civil War Battlefield Map
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Civil War Kentucky Border State Map

Kentucky was the site of fierce battles, such as Mill Springs and Perryville. It was host to such military leaders as Ulysses S. Grant on the Union side, who first encountered serious Confederate gunfire coming from Columbus, Kentucky, and Nathan Bedford Forrest on the Confederate side. Forrest proved to be a scourge to the Union Army in such places as the towns of Sacramento and Paducah, where he conducted guerrilla warfare against Union forces. See also Kentucky in the American Civil War: A Comprehensive History.
Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd, and his Southern counterpart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Kentucky was also birthplace to John C. Breckinridge, who was a former U.S. vice president and highest ranking public official to commit treason. Breckinridge, youngest vice president in history and cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln, had contested Abraham Lincoln for president and later served as a Confederate general. See also Kentucky in the American Civil War: Kentucky (1861-1865).
Civil War: According to the 1860 U.S. census, Kentucky had a free population of 930,201 and an additional slave population of 225,483. On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln sent a telegram to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin requesting that the Commonwealth supply part of the initial 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion. Magoffin, a Southern sympathizer, replied: "President Lincoln, Washington, D.C. I will send not a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern states. B. Magoffin."
Instead, most Kentuckians favored John J. Crittenden's position that the Commonwealth should act as a mediator between the two sides. To that end, both houses of the General Assembly passed declarations of neutrality, a position officially declared by Governor Magoffin on May 20, 1861.

Kentucky and the Civil War Map
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Civil War Kentucky Map

Both sides respected the Commonwealth's neutrality, but positioned themselves strategically to take advantage of any change in the situation. Union forces established Camp Clay in Ohio just north of the city of Newport, Kentucky, and Camp Joe Holt in Indiana opposite Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile Confederate troops constructed Forts Donelson and Henry just across Kentucky's southern border in Tennessee, and stationed troops fewer than 50 yards from Cumberland Gap. Volunteers from the Commonwealth left the state to join up with whichever side they favored. Some covert recruiting also took place. Nearly 60 infantry regiments served in the Union armies versus just 9 in the Confederate. However, a rather large number of cavalry outfits joined the latter. John Breckinridge originally commanded the "Orphan Brigade" of the Army of Tennessee, consisting of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th Kentucky Infantry. The brigade's nickname came about allegedly because the soldiers' home counties were occupied by Union troops for most of the war and they couldn't go home to them.
Realizing that neutrality was becoming less feasible, six prominent Kentuckians met to find some solution for a state caught in the middle of a conflict. Governor Magoffin, John C. Breckinridge, and Richard Hawes represented the states' rights position, while Crittenden, Archibald Dixon, and S. S. Nicholas advocated the Northern cause. The sextet agreed only to continue the doctrine of neutrality, however, and called for the formation of a five member board to coordinate the Commonwealth's defense. The General Assembly created the board on May 24 and vested in it supervision of the state's military, a power reserved in the Kentucky Constitution for the governor.
The Commonwealth's military forces, however, proved to be just as divided as the general populace. The State Guard, under the command of Simon B. Buckner, largely favored the Confederate cause, while the newly-formed Home Guard were mostly Unionists. Several close calls almost started a conflict within the state, but Buckner successfully negotiated with Union general George B. McClellan and Tennessee governor Isham Harris to maintain the Commonwealth's neutrality through the summer.
Neutrality Status: Almost immediately following the results of the 1861 presidential election, William "Bull" Nelson established Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting camp, in Garrard County. When Crittenden objected to this violation of Kentucky's neutrality, Nelson replied, "That a camp of loyal Union men, native Kentuckians, should assemble in camp under the flag of the Union and upon their native soil [and] should be a cause of apprehension is something I do not clearly understand." Governor Magoffin appealed to President Lincoln to close the camp, but he refused. Meanwhile, Confederate volunteers covertly crossed the Tennessee border and massed at Camp Boone, just south of Guthrie. Kentucky's fragile neutrality was nearing an end.

Kentucky Civil War Battlefield History Map
Kentucky Civil War Battle Map.jpg
Kentucky Civil War Battle Map

In response to Ulysses S. Grant's occupation of Belmont, Missouri, directly across the Mississippi River, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk, on September 4, 1861, challenged the Commonwealth's neutrality by ordering Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow to occupy Columbus. Columbus was of strategic importance both because it was the terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and because of its position along the Mississippi River. Polk constructed Fort DuRussey in the high bluffs of Columbus, and equipped it with 143 cannons. Polk called the fort "The Gibraltar of the West." To control traffic along the river, Polk stretched an anchor chain across the river from the bank in Columbus to the opposite bank in Belmont, Missouri. Each link of the chain measured eleven inches long by eight inches wide and weighed twenty pounds. The chain soon broke under its own weight, but Union forces did not learn of this fact until early 1862.
To check the Confederate move, Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant left Cairo, Illinois, and entered Paducah, Kentucky, on September 6, which gave the Union control of the northern end of the New Orleans and Ohio Railroad and the mouth of the Tennessee River. Governor Magoffin denounced both sides for violating the Commonwealth's neutrality, calling for both sides to withdraw. However, on September 7, 1861, the General Assembly passed a resolution ordering the withdrawal of only Confederate forces. Magoffin vetoed the resolution, but both houses overrode the veto, and Magoffin issued the proclamation. The General Assembly ordered the flag of the United States to be raised over the state capitol in Frankfort, declaring its allegiance with the Union.
Its neutrality broken, both sides quickly moved to establish advantageous positions in the Commonwealth. 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. Buckner arrived on September 18, 1861, and immediately began intensive drill sessions and constructing elaborate defenses in anticipation of a Union strike. So extensive were the fortifications at Bowling Green that a Union officer who later surveyed them commented, "The labor has been immense– their troops cannot be well drilled– their time must have been chiefly spent in hard work, with the axe and spade."
Confederate Withdrawal: 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. Although the Confederates withdrew, divided loyalties promoted an environment ripe for guerrilla warfare for the remaining war years.

Kentucky Secession Map
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Kentucky Civil War Secession Map

Civil War Fort Donelson Map
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Civil War Fort Henry Map

Military Rule: 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 guerrilla 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."
Aftermath and Analysis: By mid-1861, eleven states seceded, but four more slave-owning states remained in the Union—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Kentucky was considered the most at risk; the state legislature had declared neutrality in the dispute, which was a moderately pro-Confederate stance. The loss of Kentucky would have been catastrophic because of its control of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers and its position from which the vital state of Ohio could be invaded. Lincoln wrote, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."
On September 3, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk extended his defensive line north from Tennessee when Gideon Pillow occupied Columbus, Kentucky (in response to Ulysses S. Grant's occupation of Belmont, Missouri, directly across the Mississippi River). Polk followed that by moving through the Cumberland Gap and occupying parts of southeastern Kentucky. This violation of state neutrality enraged many of its citizens; the state legislature, overriding the veto of the governor, requested assistance from the federal government. Kentucky was never again a safe area of operation for Confederate forces. Ironically, Polk's actions were not directed by the Confederate government. Thus, almost by accident, the Confederacy was placed at an enormous strategic disadvantage. Indeed, the early Union successes in the war's western theater (their only non-naval successes until 1863) are directly related to Polk's blunder.

The Union capture of Forts Henry and Donelson were the first significant Union victories and the start of a mostly successful campaign in the western theater. General Ulysses S. Grant completed both actions by February 16, 1862, and by doing so, opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as Union supply lines and avenues of invasion to Tennessee, Mississippi, and eventually Georgia. The loss of control of these rivers was a significant strategic defeat for the Confederacy. This was the start of offensive actions by Grant that, with the sole exception of the Battle of Shiloh, would continue for the rest of the war.
Although Kentucky was a slave state, it was not subject to military occupation during the Reconstruction Period. It was subject to the Freedmen's Bureau and a congressional investigation into the propriety of its elected officials. During the election of 1865, ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment was a major political issue. Kentucky eventually rejected the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Democrats prevailed in the election, and one of their first acts was to repeal the Expatriation Act of 1862, thus restoring the citizenship of Confederates.

Kentucky Civil War Border State Map
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Civil War Map

Kentucky became internationally known for its violent feuds, especially in the mountains. They pitted the men in extended clans against each other for decades, often using assassination and arson as weapons, along with ambushes, gunfights, and pre-arranged shootouts. Some of the feuds were continuations of violent local Civil War episodes. Journalists often wrote about the violence, using stereotypes that city folks had developed about Appalachia; they interpreted the feuds as the inevitable product of profound ignorance, poverty, and isolation, and perhaps even interbreeding. In reality, the leading participants were typically well-to-do local elites with networks of clients who were fighting for local political power. See also Kentucky in the American Civil War: A Comprehensive History and Kentucky in the American Civil War: Kentucky (1861-1865).
    February 9, 1861 • Seven states, having declared their secession from the Union, establish a Southern provisional government, the Confederate States of America.
    April 12, 1861 • Confederate forces attack a Federal fort outside Charleston, South Carolina, at the Battle of Fort Sumter, beginning the American Civil War.
    May 10, 1861 • Confederate engineers begin construction of Fort Donelson only twelve miles south of the Kentucky line near Dover, Tennessee.
    May 16, 1861 • Neutrality resolution adopted by Unionist-dominated legislature, though governor Beriah Magoffin was an advocate of secession.
    May 20, 1861 • Kentucky, trying to remain neutral in the American Civil War, issues a proclamation asking both sides to stay off Kentucky soil.
    May 29–31, 1861 • Delegates from 5 Jackson Purchase counties meet in Mayfield along with delegates of 12 Tennessee counties to discuss secession, but the plan is abandoned following Tennessee's secession.
    December 10, 1861 • Kentucky is accepted as the 13th Confederate state.
    January 10, 1862 • Union Colonel James Garfield defeats Confederate Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall at the Battle of Middle Creek.
8 January 11, 1862 • Confederate vessels fall back during the Battle of Lucas Bend.
    January 19, 1862 • Union Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas defeats Confederate Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs, which, following Middle Creek, ends Confederate dominance in Eastern Kentucky and opens Eastern Tennessee to possible Union invasion.
    September 17, 1862 • Confederate General Braxton Bragg, conducting an invasion of Kentucky from Tennessee, captures a Union garrison and transportation center in the Battle of Munfordville.
    October 8, 1862 • Confederate General Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky comes to an end when his army defeats Union Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell at the Battle of Perryville, but then withdraws through the Cumberland Gap, leaving Eastern Kentucky in Union hands for the rest of the war.
    December 17, 1862 • General Grant issues General Order № 11, which calls for the expulsion of all Jews in his district (areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky)

Kentucky Border State and the Civil War Map
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Kentucky Civil War Border State History Map

    April 1863 • Camp Nelson established in southern Jessamine County.
    July 2, 1863 • John Hunt Morgan rides into Kentucky as part of Morgan's Raid, which departed Sparta, Tennessee on June 11.
    October 1863 • General Hugh Ewing assumes command of Louisville.
    March 25, 1864 • Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest raided Paducah as part of his campaign northward from Mississippi to upset the Union domination of the regions south of the Ohio River.
    April 14, 1864 • The Battle of Salyersville is fought in Magoffin County, resulting in a Federal victory in this largest skirmish fought in the county.
    April 14, 1864 • Brig. Gen. Abraham Buford revisits Paducah to capture "140 fine horses" reported by a Dover, Tennessee newspaper to have escaped Forrest's earlier raid.
    June, 1864 • Major Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge assumes military command over Kentucky.

(Related reading and sources below.)

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Related Reading:

Sources: National Park Service; Bailey, Bill (1995). Kentucky State Parks. Saginaw, Michigan: Glovebox Guidebooks of America. ISBN 1-881139-13-1; Kent Masterson Brown, ed. (2000). The Civil War in Kentucky: Battle for the Bluegrass. Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing Company. ISBN 1-882810-47-3; Cantrell, Doug (2005). Kentucky Through the Centuries: A Collection of Documents & Essays. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. ISBN 0-7575-2012-X; Encyclopedia of Kentucky. New York City, New York: Somerset Publishers. 1987. ISBN 0-403-09981-1; Harrison, Lowell H. (1975). The Civil War in Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-0209-X; Lowell H. Harrison, ed. (2004). Kentucky's Governors. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2326-7; Kleber, John E., ed. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Associate editors: Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, and James C. Klotter. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0; Powell, Robert A. (1976). Kentucky Governors. Frankfort, Kentucky: Kentucky Images. OCLC 2690774; Jerlene Rose, ed. (2005). Kentucky's Civil War 1861–1865. Clay City, Kentucky: Back Home in Kentucky, Inc. ISBN 0-9769231-2-2; Thomas, Edison H. (1975). John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-0214-6.

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