The Struggle for the Frontier States: Kentucky

The Struggle for the Frontier States: Kentucky

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Of all the states that strove to stay out of civil war, the Kentucky was the one who succeeded the longest. Its temporary neutrality was essentially the result of a political compromise within its own institutions, between the supporters of the Union, on the one hand, lined up behind the eminent Senator John Crittenden (the same one who had tried to avoid the war by submitting to the Senate a compromise protecting slavery), and on the other hand those of secession, which included among them the governor of the State, Beriah Magoffin.

Kentucky: a "buffer" state

With 1,155,684 inhabitants according to the census of 1860, Kentucky occupied in the spring of 1861 a pivotal position between the two belligerents. Neighboring the Midwestern states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois), from which it was separated only by the Ohio River, it was also close to those in the South through the Mississippi River Basin. From a pure geostrategic point of view, it represented a major stake for both camps.

In Southern hands, he would have threatened the Northern rear: an offensive from Kentucky against Ohio, for example, could have ruined communications with the West. What's more, it was also a gateway to the South. There were some of the few rail lines running north-south. In the south-eastern part of the state, the Cumberland Lock gave way through the western foothills of the Appalachians into eastern Tennessee, then Georgia. Finally, the presence of major waterways made it a real "Motorway junction" for armies in the field: Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio converged there in turn in the western part of the state before joining the Mississippi, all for only a few dozen kilometers.

The strategists of 1861 were well aware of this, starting with Abraham Lincoln. Already sentimentally attached to this state (he had been born there, and his wife was from there), the President of the Union never tired of repeating that whoever would rally Kentucky and its people to his cause would win the war. It is for this reason that, unwilling at any cost to alienate Kentuckian sympathies, Lincoln took great care to respect the neutrality of the state as long as it was possible.

He had had little success in his native state, winning less than 1% of the vote - even less than in Maryland - in the presidential election. He had been perceived as a threat to civil peace, and Kentucky voters preferred John Bell, whose "Constitutional Union Party" advocated the status quo. In fact, the issue of secession divided Kentuckians even within families. Two of Senator Crittenden's sons thus became generals during the war, each in a different camp.

This division resulted from the economic and social situation of the state. Culturally close to the South and practicing slavery, its economy was based in part on the cultivation of cotton and tobacco - especially in the far west of Kentucky, where the majority of the slave population was concentrated. The east, on the other hand, was more mountainous and, like West Virginia, slavery was little practiced there. Incidentally, the north of the state had opened up to capitalism and Louisville, in particular, had become a major industrial center. Unlike Maryland or Virginia, Kentucky did not (except around Lexington) have that landed aristocracy capable of sustaining secessionist sympathies, so much so that in those areas the Kentuckian population was rather favorable to the Union.

Map of Kentucky in 1861, annotated by the author.

The impossible neutrality

Immediately after virulently rejecting Lincoln's call to provide him with volunteers, Governor Magoffin appointed Simon Buckner, the head of the state militia (State guard), to mobilize the latter. To supplement its numbers in order to firmly uphold the neutrality of the State, another formation was also created, the Home Guard. Quite symptomatically, the State guard rather inclined in favor of secession, while the Home Guard was predominantly Unionist. The Federal Army did not have a significant base in Kentucky, so this mobilization did not result in no clashes.

Although the two men had quite divergent political opinions (Magoffin did not rule out secession while Crittenden remained loyal to the Union), the senator initially supported the governor in his action. Despite the failure of his winter peace proposals, Crittenden remained committed to the idea of ​​Kentucky serving as a mediator between North and South. Thanks to his action, the legislature voted neutrality of the state, which was officially proclaimed on May 20.

Realizing the stakes and the risk of losing Kentucky in the event of a wrong move, the federal and Confederate governments took no action that could tip the state into the opposing camp. They were content to settle, near its borders, training camps for their volunteers, which would subsequently be military bases in case the situation in Kentucky changed. These camps drained a number of Kentuckians, ignoring the neutrality of their state and enlisting clandestinely in both armies. Unlike what had happened in Virginia or Maryland, the North had no immediate interest in invading Kentucky; as for the South, it was still in a position of strength.

This was not going to last, however. Northern caution paid off: public opinion gradually shifted in favor of the Union. On June 20, an early election of Kentucky representatives to the Federal Congress gave Unionists 9 out of 10 seats. The next ballot to elect the state legislature was boycotted by many secessionists on August 5. The resulting Unionist majority was large enough to censor any governor's veto against the laws, rendering Magoffin pretty much powerless.

The very next day, William Nelson, a naval officer whose family was close to Lincoln, established a training camp in central Kentucky, the camp Dick Robinson, intended to form regiments devoted to the cause of the Union. The governor's protests went unheeded, and it became clear that sooner or later the state would fall into the northern camp. The Confederates, who themselves enlisted secessionist Kentuckians in Tennessee, took note.

Kentucky chooses the North

In early September 1861, Southern Major-General Leonidas Polk ordered his subordinate, Brigadier-General Gideon Pillow, to occupy the town of Columbus, at the western end of Kentucky, to establish a fortified position on the Mississippi River. Pillow complied and entered Columbus on September 4, thus violating the neutrality of Kentucky. He had his men build an imposing fortress, Fort DuRussey, while Polk had a chain several hundred yards forged to block the course of the Mississippi. However, it would quickly break under its own weight.

Simon Bolivar Buckner "/> In response, Northern General Ulysses Grant, who commanded troops based in Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, went to occupy Paducah September 6. The city was located where the Tennessee River flowed into Ohio, so whoever held it controlled the approaches to Tennessee and Cumberland, which ran deep into Confederate territory: the second led to Nashville, the capital of the state of Tennessee; the first one reached the northern states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

Magoffin called on the two armies to withdraw, but the Kentucky legislature passed a resolution on September 7 calling for only the departure of the Confederate forces. The governor vetoed it, but the assembly could legally override it. The deputies then raised the flag of the Union at the top of the Kentuckian capitol, thus symbolically proclaiming the commitment of their State in the northern camp. Attached to legality, Magoffin resigned himself to accepting this decision. He finally resigned a year later.

Not all will choose the same option. While Northerners occupied the state, Buckner moved south, and served the Confederacy with his men. He took refuge in Bowling Green, not far from the border with Tennessee. He was soon joined by other men, including several state politicians and one of John Crittenden's sons, George. There they formed a convention which, although lacking institutional legitimacy, voted to secede from the state on November 18 and joined Confederation on December 10. However, this shadow government never controlled more than a fraction of the state and was soon to be ousted.

First fights

Unable to effectively resist the occupation of the state by the Northerners, the Confederate forces, under the overall command of Albert Johnston, were confined to a very stretched defensive line on the southern fringe of Kentucky. This went from Columbus, firmly held by Polk, to the Cumberland Lock. In between, Pillow had undertaken the construction of Forts Henry and Donelson, to counter the Union presence in Paducah and to retain control of Tennessee and Cumberland, and Buckner had also fortified Bowling Green.

Only the right wing of this device was a little more offensive, leading in particular a series of incursions in eastern Kentucky to recruit volunteers. Initially commanded by Felix Zollicoffer, it found itself engaged in several skirmishes in the fall of 1861, but none proved decisive. Once subordinated to George Crittenden, Zollicoffer in turn took the defensive, while other forces, coming from Virginia, in turn carried out "recruiting tours" - until the Northerners did not stop. a term by winning the small battle of Middle Creek (January 10, 1862), where the future president of the United States James Garfield distinguished himself.

By mid-January 1862 Union forces were ready to push south to drive Confederate troops from the rest of Kentucky. Their offensive quickly put the Southerners, who found themselves stretched on a defensive line too long for their scarce numbers, in a delicate strategic position. George Crittenden then decided to mass his 6,000 men to launch them against the Northern forces before they concentrated, and ordered Zollicoffer to lead the attack against the 4,500 soldiers of George Thomas's small division, scattered around Mill Springs.

Zollicoffer assaulted one of the isolated northern brigades in very bad weather conditions at dawn on January 19. The attack was initially successful and, despite their often dilapidated weaponry (including old flintlock rifles, unusable in the rain), the larger Confederates managed to push back several northern regiments. They lost momentum, however, when Zollicoffer inadvertently galloped to a Northerner unit, thinking he was dealing with one of his own regiments, and was shot. Thomas arrived shortly after with the rest of his forces, which he threw on the right flank of the Confederates, consuming their rout.

This defeat sounded the death knell for the military career of George Crittenden, accused of being drunk in battle and relieved of his command. Above all, it helped, with the unexpected and rapid capture of forts Henry and Donelson by Grant, to render the Confederate line in southern Kentucky indefensible. Albert Johnston agreed and brought his troops back to Tennessee. Kentucky was to remain entirely under northern control until the end of the war, except during the southern offensive of Braxton Bragg, which began in August 1862 and which lasted until Bragg's defeat at Perryville (the biggest battle fought in Kentucky during the war) in October .


Video: The American Frontier. Tom Cutterham. TEDxBeechenCliffSchool (June 2022).