How the South Lost Kentucky


October 11, 2012, 12:30 PM



As John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry dashed across central Kentucky in July 1862, this scion of the Bluegrass, the man known as the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy, promised local citizens that he would respect their private property and target only the Federal military supply lines and depots guarded by poorly trained Home Guard units.

If the Paris, Ky., Western Citizen newspaper is any guide, Morgan failed to keep up his end of the bargain: “Did Morgan keep his word to protect private property? Pshaw, not he! Four thousand dollars would not pay the amount of his stealing, in horse, buggies, etc. Not a Union man within his reach escaped him.” Even more egregious a crime, in the minds of Kentucky Unionists in the tense late summer of 1862, was the command to use only Confederate dollars – mere scrip, as locals put it – despite the inflated value of Southern currency. A landowner in Lexington complained that Morgan’s men offered to “pay” civilians for his loot with Confederate currency, thus adding insult to injury.

Though the Confederate Army launched a bold and potentially decisive invasion of Unionist Kentucky in the summer of 1862, its leaders discovered by early October 1862 that citizens of even the state’s most pro-Southern sections, like the Bluegrass region around Lexington, viewed the Confederates not as liberators but as rascally and illegitimate invaders to be treated with contempt.

When local citizens refused to embrace the feeble Confederate economy as their own, the rebel officers imposed it on them. Kentucky civilians responded to Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s call for tens of thousands of volunteers with numbers in the mere hundreds. Despite threatening Louisville and Cincinnati, occupying Lexington and even installing a Confederate governor in command, the great Southern invasion of Kentucky in 1862 produced nothing more than a few wagons, horses, guns and barrels of whiskey. The great Kentucky gamble failed and the state would remain in Union hands for the rest of the war. To a great extent, the Confederates had only themselves to blame.

In retrospect, it is remarkable how quickly the Confederate Army had turned the military tide in the Western theater in the summer of 1862. After a string of humiliating defeats beginning with Mill Springs in eastern Kentucky and Fort Donelson along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, the Confederate Army found itself pressed deep into Mississippi with its highest-ranking general, Albert Sidney Johnston, killed at the decisive Battle of Shiloh. The Union army successfully occupied Middle and West Tennessee, controlled the railroad crossing at Corinth, Miss., and prepared itself for a grand push down the Mississippi River.

But a change in command in the Confederate Army in the West placed the harsh and still-respected Braxton Bragg in charge of the main force, and he quickly moved his supply train east to Chattanooga. In Knoxville, Edmund Kirby Smith took command of a smaller but equally vital Confederate force. Bragg and Smith planned a daring two-pronged movement across Tennessee and into Kentucky. They hoped to bring the Bluegrass State into the Confederacy just as General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in the east. A few months before the Congressional elections of November 1862, a successful Confederate advance in the Eastern and Western theaters could change the trajectory of the war.

John Hunt Morgan’s destructive raid in July gave a preview of what Kentuckians could expect. In mid-August, Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky moved north from Knoxville into eastern Kentucky, easily scaling the Cumberland Mountains and gathering momentum as it plunged into the state’s heartland. Smith’s forces confronted and decimated a poorly organized federal force at Richmond, Ky., opening the way for the occupation of Lexington. After taking the Bluegrass city amid crowds of cheering spectators, Smith continued his push northward toward the Ohio River. The citizens of Cincinnati feared an invasion and quickly rushed to build defenses for the city.

Far larger but slower were the forces under General Bragg, who crossed the karst country of middle Tennessee, bypassed Nashville and followed the path of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad toward Louisville. Union General Don Carlos Buell, the hero of Shiloh, quickly moved his stunned troops northward to meet Bragg’s invading army. A heroic, though small-scale, Union stand and defeat at the town of Munfordville delayed Bragg’s army long enough to give the citizens of Louisville time to prepare their city for imminent Confederate attack.

In the first week of October, Bragg stopped at the capital city of Frankfort and installed Kentucky’s shadow Confederate governor, Richard Hawes, to the tune of marching bands. But it wasn’t merely pomp and circumstance: the purpose of this rump inauguration was to enforce the Confederate Conscription Act, and thus forcibly enroll Kentuckians into the Confederate Army, which they had voluntarily avoided up to that point.

Within minutes of the ceremony, General Buell’s artillery appeared within range of the festivities and the Confederates quickly abandoned Frankfort. The only Confederate occupation of a Union capital proved more farce than revolution. Just days later, Bragg’s men, stretched out in a defensive position across central Kentucky and unable to coordinate with Smith, finally engaged Buell in a major battle outside the town of Perryville.

The Battle of Perryville, Oct. 8, 1862.
Library of Congress: The Battle of Perryville, Oct. 8, 1862.

Bragg and Smith would abandon Kentucky after the bloody and inconclusive battle, but the disappointing refusal of Kentucky civilians to join the Confederate Army proved to be the most influential factor in Bragg’s decision to retreat into Tennessee.

The failure of Kentuckians to meet the Confederate call to service that summer and fall was a decisive moment in the war. Had tens of thousands joined Bragg’s and Smith’s armies, the Confederacy could have secured the Bluegrass State and pushed the nascent republic’s boundaries to the Ohio River. Cincinnati would remain under constant threat of invasion and the river would have been lost to the federal government as a highway of commerce and communication — not to mention an entryway to the Mississippi and the Deep South.

Though many Kentuckians adopted a nostalgic, pro-Confederate identity after the war, why did the state’s citizens summarily reject the Confederate call at this critical hour? The answer is a matter of timing and contingency. Kentucky Unionism was strong and deep in the early months of the war. But one central issue was already threatening the Unionist coalition in the state: emancipation. Kentuckians supported the Union because they believed it would best protect slavery. Even in mid-1862, they did not believe that President Lincoln, a native Kentuckian, would turn a war for the Union into a war for emancipation.

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