Kentucky was one of the “border states” in the Civil War, both geographically and politically. It was situated on the dividing line between the northern and southern regions of the United States. And it was one of only a few slave states that opted to stay in the Union.
Though the Commonwealth was officially neutral, its citizens were deeply divided over the issues that caused the Civil War, and over the war itself – a division symbolized by the fact that both Civil War presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were Kentucky native sons.
Kentuckians had ties to both the North and South. The tobacco, whiskey, snuff, and flour produced in the state were shipped to Southern and European markets via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and to the Northern cities by rail. Losing either of these markets because of war would be a blow to Kentucky’s economy.
By law, Kentucky was a slave state. Kentucky was a source of slaves for the cotton plantations in the lower South, and the slave trade was a very profitable business for many Kentuckians. However, most Kentuckians did not own slaves. Those who did were wealthy plantation owners who stood to lose a lot if slavery were abolished. The major slave-owning areas in the state were the Bluegrass region, Henderson and Oldham counties on the Ohio River, and the western Kentucky counties of Trigg, Christian, Todd, and Warren. Many Kentuckians from these areas joined the Confederate army.
In 1860, slaves composed 19.5% of the Commonwealth’s population, and many Unionist Kentuckians saw nothing wrong with the “peculiar institution“. The Commonwealth was further 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. The ancestors of many Kentuckians hailed from Southern states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but many Kentucky children were beginning to migrate toward the North.
Kentucky, along with North Carolina, also boasted the best educational systems in the South. “Transylvania University” had long been one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the nation, and while its reputation had begun to fade by 1860, other Kentucky schools like “Centre College” and “Georgetown College” were gaining prominence.
Politically, Kentucky was proud of its role in preserving the Union. Through the work of the Great Compromiser, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, conflict was prevented for more than 30 years, even though bitter feelings between the Northern and Southern states over tariffs, states’ rights, and the slavery issue threatened to rip the country apart. At the time of the Civil War, the Kentucky governor, Beriah Magoffin, was a Southern sympathizer, while the representatives in the legislature supported the Union.
When the time came for the legislature to vote whether to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy or agree to provide troops for the Federal army, 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. The Assembly did, however, send six delegates to a February 4 Peace Conference in Washington, D.C., and asked Congress to call a national convention to consider potential resolutions to the secession crisis, including the “Crittenden Compromise“, authored by Kentuckian John J. Crittenden.
The War Breaks Out
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:
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.
President Lincoln, Washington, D.C. I will send not a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern states.
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 Breckenridge 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 and 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.
The Elections of 1861
The tide of public opinion was beginning to turn in Kentucky, however. In a special congressional election held June 20, 1861, Unionist candidates won nine of Kentucky’s ten congressional seats. Confederate sympathizers won only the Jackson Purchase region, which was economically linked to Tennessee by the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. Seeing imminent defeat at the polls, many Southern Rights Advocates boycotted the election; the total number of ballots cast was just over half the number that had been cast in the previous year’s election. Governor Magoffin was dealt a further blow in the August 5 election for state legislators. This election resulted in veto-proof Unionist majorities of 76–24 in the House and 27–11 in the Senate.
From that point forward, most of Magoffin’s vetoes to protect southern interests were overridden in the General Assembly. After clashing with the Assembly for over a year on even the most trivial issues, Magoffin decided that resignation was his only option. Magoffin’s lieutenant governor, Linn Boyd, had died in office, and Senate Speaker John Fisk, next in line for the governorship, was not acceptable to Magoffin as a successor. In an intricate plan worked out with the General Assembly, Fisk resigned as speaker and the Senate elevated Magoffin’s chosen successor, James F. Robinson, to the post. Magoffin then resigned, promoting Robinson to governor, and Fisk was re-elected as Senate Speaker.
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.
Almost immediately following the results of the 1861 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:
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.
Neutrality Violated – Battle at Columbus-Belmont
On September 4, 1861, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk violated 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.
In response to the Confederate invasion, 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.
Grant requested permission from theater commander Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont to attack Columbus, but no orders came. For the next two months only limited demonstrations were conducted against the Confederates.
Frémont learned the Confederates planned to reinforce their forces in Arkansas, and on November 1, he ordered Grant to make a feint toward Columbus to keep the Confederates there. Grant sent about 3,000 men under Col. Richard Oglesby into southeastern Missouri. Grant then learned that Confederate reinforcements were moving into Missouri to intercept Oglesby’s column. He sent reinforcements and also ordered Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith to move from Paducah into southwestern Kentucky to distract the Confederates.
Grant chose to attack Belmont, a ferry landing and tiny hamlet of just three shacks, about 2,000 feet across the river from Columbus. Grant’s Expeditionary Command numbered 3,114 officers and men, and was organized into two brigades under Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand and Col. Henry Dougherty, two cavalry companies, and an artillery battery. On November 6, escorted by the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington, Grant’s men left Cairo on the steamboats Aleck Scott, Chancellor, Keystone State, Belle Memphis, James Montgomery, and Rob Roy.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk had about 5,000 troops guarding Columbus. When he learned of Grant’s movements, he assumed that Columbus was their primary objective and that Belmont was a feint. He ordered 2,700 under Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow to Belmont, retaining the rest to defend Columbus.
When he reached Belmont, Grant found Camp Johnston, a small Confederate observation post, supported by an artillery battery. He decided to attack to keep the Confederates from reinforcing Maj. Gen. Sterling Price or Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard, and to protect Oglesby’s exposed left flank.
At 8:30 a.m. on November 7, Grant’s force disembarked at Hunter’s Farm, 3 miles north of Belmont, out of range of the six Confederate batteries at Columbus. (The Columbus heavy water batteries featured 10-inch Columbiads and 11-inch howitzers and one gun, the “Lady Polk”, was the largest in the Confederacy, a 128-pounder Whitworth rifle.) He marched his men south on the single road, clearing the obstructions of fallen timber that formed an abatis. A mile away from Belmont, they formed a battle line in a corn field.
The line consisted of the 22nd Illinois Infantry, 7th Iowa Infantry, 31st Illinois Infantry, 30th Illinois Infantry, and 27th Illinois Infantry, intermixed with a company of cavalry. The Confederate battle line, on a low ridge northwest of Belmont, from north to south, was made up of the 12th Tennessee Infantry, 13th Arkansas Infantry, 22nd Tennessee Infantry, 21st Tennessee Infantry, and 13th Tennessee Infantry.
Grant’s attack drove in the Confederate skirmish line and for the remainder of the morning, both armies, consisting of green recruits, advanced and fell back repeatedly. By 2 p.m., the fighting became one-sided as Pillow’s line began to collapse, withdrawing toward Camp Johnston. The orderly retreat began to panic when four Federal field pieces opened up on the retreating soldiers. A volley from the 31st Illinois killed dozens of Confederates, and the Union soldiers attacked from three sides and surged into the camp. The Confederates abandoned their colors and their artillery, and ran towards the river, attempting to escape. Grant was constantly at the front, leading his men. His horse was shot from under him, but he mounted an aide’s horse and continued to lead.
Grant’s inexperienced soldiers became, in his own words, “demoralized from their victory.” Brig. Gen. McClernand walked to the center of the camp, which now flew the Stars and Stripes, and asked for three cheers. A bizarre, carnival-like atmosphere prevailed upon the troops, carried away by the joy of their victory, having captured several hundred prisoners and the camp. To regain control of his men, who were plundering and partying, Grant ordered the camp set on fire. In the confusion and blinding smoke, wounded Confederate soldiers in some of the tents were accidentally burned to death, causing returning Confederates to believe the prisoners had been deliberately murdered.
The captain of the boat that had just pushed out recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine: he then had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation. He put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and, with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted on board.
The Federals began to march back to their transports, taking with them two captured guns and 106 prisoners. They were suddenly attacked by Confederate reinforcements brought over on the transports Prince and Charm who threatened to cut off Grant’s retreat. These were the men of the 15th Tennessee Infantry, the 11th Louisiana Infantry, and mixed infantry under Pillow and Col. Benjamin F. Cheatham.
As the Union men turned to face the Confederate reinforcements, the cannon “Lady Polk” fired into their ranks from Columbus and numerous other Confederate guns opened fire. The Union gunboats exchanged in a battle with the Confederate batteries. Grant said, “Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.”.
When Grant reached the landing, he learned that one Union regiment was unaccounted for. Grant galloped back to look for it, but found only Confederate soldiers moving in his direction. He spun his horse and raced for the river, but saw that the riverboat captains had already ordered the mooring lines cast off. Grant wrote in his memoirs:
While the riverboats were returning, the missing Illinois regiment was seen marching upriver and the men were taken aboard.
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
With Kentucky’s 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:
Today, the site at Columbus (Kentucky) is a state park and open-air museum. Flooding in 1925 exposed the remains of the giant chain, which are now on display. Among others, the remains of “Lady Polk,” a giant experimental cannon named for Polk’s wife, can also be seen. This 10 foot long gun could fire shells 10 feet (3.0 m) long and weighing 15,000 pounds. The park was designated on February 10, 1934 and has a size of 156 acres.
The elected government of Kentucky being decidedly Union, 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.
Bowling Green, now occupied by General Johnston himself, was designated as the state capital, though the delegates provided that the government could meet anywhere deemed appropriate by the provisional legislative council and governor. Being unable to flesh out a complete constitution and system of laws, the delegates voted that “the Constitution and laws of Kentucky, not inconsistent with the acts of this Convention, and the establishment of this Government, and the laws which may be enacted by the Governor and Council, shall be the laws of this state.” Though President Davis had some reservation about the circumvention of the elected General Assembly in forming the Confederate government, Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy on December 10, 1861. Kentucky was represented by the central star on the Confederate battle flag.
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.
The Battle of Paducah
In 1861 and 1862, Kentucky saw a number of battles and skirmishes. By the end of 1862, after the battle of Perryville, Confederate forces retreated from the state. But the destruction caused by war was not over for Kentuckians. From December 1862 to January 1865, famous Confederate raids by John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, William Quantrill, and “Sue” Mundy destroyed Union supply depots, bridges, county courthouses, and people’s personal property. Kentucky also experienced a period of lawlessness in 1864, when “Bushwhackers” – small bands of unruly soldiers from both sides – looted small towns and robbed local farmers of produce and livestock.
On July 26, 1863, Morgan surrendered to federal forces. He was taken to a penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, but escaped with several of his officers in November 1863. Despite the threat of a court martial from Braxton Bragg for disobeying orders, the Confederacy so desperately needed leaders that Morgan was restored to his command position.
But following Morgan’s capture in the summer of 1863, there were no major engagements fought in Kentucky until spring of 1864. Portions of three infantry regiments from Bragg’s army had requested to reorganize as a mounted infantry under Abraham Buford, but the Confederacy had no horses to supply them. In response, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been operating in Mississippi, began to organize a raid on western Tennessee and Kentucky. Besides obtaining mounts for the mounted-infantry-to-be, Forrest intended to disrupt Union supply lines, obtain general provisions for Confederate forces, and discourage enlistment of blacks in Kentucky into the Union army.
Having a force amply sufficient to carry your works and reduce the place, and in order to avoid the unnecessary effusion of blood, I demand the surrender of the fort and troops, with all public property. If you surrender, you shall be treated as a prisoner of war; but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.
Hicks had support from two gunboats on the Ohio River and while refusing to surrender, shelled the area with his artillery. Knowing that Forrest’s main objectives were to obtain supplies and horses, Colonel Hicks answered with a letter of his own, which reads:
I have this moment received yours of this instant, in which you demand the unconditional surrender of the forces under my command. I can answer that I have been placed here by the Government to defend this post, and in this, as well as all other orders from my superiors, I feel it to be my duty as an honorable officer to obey. I must, therefore, respectfully decline surrendering as you may require.
For the most part, Hicks was right in his assumption that Forrest would not assault the fort, but Confederate Colonel Albert P. Thompson, a native of the area, did briefly attempt to capture it before being killed with 24 men from his unit. Forrest held the city for ten hours, destroying the Union headquarters, as well as the buildings housing the quartermaster and commissary. Forrest also captured a total of 200 horses and mules before withdrawing to Mayfield. Following the raid, Forrest granted furlough to the Kentuckians under his command so they could secure better clothing and mounts. As agreed, every man reported back to Trenton, Tennessee on April 4.
Unionist newspapers bragged after the raid that Union forces had hidden the best horses in the area and that Forrest had only captured horses stolen from private citizens. Furious, Forrest ordered Buford back into Kentucky. Buford’s men arrived on April 14, forced Hicks back into the fort, and captured an additional 140 horses in the foundry, exactly where the newspaper reports had placed them. They then rejoined Forrest in Tennessee. The raid was not only successful in terms of gaining additional mounts, but provided a diversion for Forrest’s attack on Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Casualties were 90 Union, 50 Confederate.
Kentucky and the 13th Amendment
When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy were legally set free. Because Kentucky remained in the Union, slaves in this state were not free. Lincoln declared in 1864 that any slave who enlisted in the Union army would be given freedom as well as the freedom of his family. A flood of Kentucky slaves rushed to Camp Nelson to enlist. Soon, the camp in southcentral Kentucky became a recruitment center for “coloured” troops, as well as a refugee center for their families.
The Civil War ended in 1865, and Kentucky slaves were legally freed when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified soon afterward. But Confederate sentiment was still high in Kentucky after the war. The Kentucky General Assembly failed to ratify either the 13th Amendment; the 14th, which gave equal protection under the law to blacks; or the 15th, which gave African Americans the right to vote.
Kentucky’s first constitution, written in 1792, protected the right to own slaves. Slave labor was used to grow hemp in the 1800s, and tobacco in the central and western regions of the state. By 1850, 28 percent of white families owned slaves, but the average slaveholder owned five slaves or fewer.
At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln had hoped to encourage border states like Kentucky to take the initiative in abolishing slavery themselves, according to historians Lowell Harrison and James Klotter. Lincoln tried several times to get Kentucky to adopt a plan of compensated emancipation. It would work like this: If a state committed itself to a definite date to end slavery, then Lincoln would recommend to Congress that owners receive $400 for each slave. The plan didn’t work.
When Lincoln decided that ending slavery would help win the war, he declared slaves free only in those areas controlled by the Confederacy. Therefore, his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did not affect Kentucky. Even so, the proclamation attracted protest in the Bluegrass.
Kentucky Gov. James F. Robinson denounced the Emancipation Proclamation in his message to the legislature in early January 1863. The legislature also denounced the proclamation “as unwise, unconstitutional and void,” and there was talk in the state of recalling Kentucky troops from the Union army. Some even advocated that Kentucky secede from the Union.
Such talk embarrassed those who supported emancipation. Samuel Lusk wrote to a friend on Feb. 4, 1863: “If the president is resolved on going to hell and destroying the best government on earth, let him place himself under the control of Kentucky politicians and he will soon have accomplished his purpose.”
Meanwhile, the feds were doing little to win the hearts and minds of many Kentuckians. Federal troops resorted to abrasive measures that were illegal or unconstitutional to maintain military control of the state. This included military interference with elections, such as prohibiting “disloyal” persons from voting.
Among those opposing federal policies was Brutus Clay, a U.S. congressman from Bourbon County, who was steadfastly against abolition and the enlistment of slaves into the Union army. (Brutus was brother to Cassius Marcellus Clay, who argued for emancipation and published an anti-slavery newspaper, “The Lexington True American”.)
During the debate on the 13th Amendment, Brutus Clay said: “If you take away from a man that which he considers to be justly his own, you make him desperate, and he will retaliate upon you. You can never by oppression make a man obey willingly the laws of his country. Act justly toward him, let him see he has a government which will protect him and he will love that government. But oppress and rob him, and he will despise and hate you.”
Without Clay’s vote, the 13th Amendment passed the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865. The next month, the Kentucky legislature voted to reject it: 56-18 in the House and 23-10 in the Senate.
Nevertheless, the 13th Amendment was ratified by the necessary three-fourths majority of states and was officially adopted in December 1865. Kentucky, meanwhile, came to identify itself more with the Confederacy after the war than it did during the war. Between 1867 and 1894, Kentucky elected six governors who had been Confederates or Confederate sympathizers.
Kentucky did not move to ratify the 13th Amendment until state Rep. Mae Street Kidd, D-Louisville, one of three blacks then in the Kentucky legislature, filed a resolution to do so in 1976.
The resolution passed the Kentucky House by a 77-0 vote, and it passed the Kentucky Senate by a voice vote on March 18, 1976. The vote was symbolic – Kentucky’s ratification wasn’t needed for the amendment to be added to the U.S. Constitution – but it was a symbol with power.