Tuesday, September 17, 1861
Before the War, Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the United States Department of the Pacific. When word finally reached California that Texas had seceded from the Union, he joined up with the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a secessionist outfit, and headed through the desert in the middle of summer, passed through a warring New Mexico, finally arriving in Richmond in early September. There, President Davis, who had known Johnston since their days together at West Point and through the Mexican War, found him the perfect match for the much-needed commander of Department Number Two, the Trans-Mississippi.
Johnston then moved by rail to Nashville and assessed the situation. By this time, Confederate General Polk had seized Columbus on the Mississippi River and US Grant had taken Paducah on the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, both violating Kentucky’s neutrality. Kentucky’s legislature demanded both to withdraw.
It was clear that the Union forces, who had quickly built Fort Holt at Paducah, were planning on staying. Johnston then decided to move the bulk of his troops into Kentucky.
To defend Kentucky’s neutrality, Governor Beriah Magoffin appointed Simon Bolivar Buckner commander of the state militia. He was twice offered a commission as a General in the United States Army, once by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and again by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, under the orders of President Lincoln. He declined, wishing to remain neutral, like his state.
After General Polk’s Confederates took Columbus, Kentucky, Bolivar accepted a commission as Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army. Most of his militiamen followed suit.
On this date, General A.S. Johnston ordered General Buckner and his 5,000 men to board trains at Nashville and head to Bowling Green. This would flesh out the Confederate line, keeping southern Kentucky firmly in the South. Also, it would protect northern Tennessee, covering the main turnpikes and railroads through that portion of the state.
In all, General A.S. Johnston had about 30,000 troops to hold the Trans-Mississippi. He was outnumbered two to one. Geographically, the features were against him. The Mississippi River severed his command in half and the Ohio River protected the North.
Johnston devised a plan of defense. Kentucky would be the battleground. He divided the state into three parts, giving each to one of his commanders. General Felix Zollicoffer would command at Cumberland Ford in Eastern Kentucky [near modern day Pineville, close to Barbourville on the map]. Buckner commanded what would soon be known as the Army of Central Kentucky at Bowling Green. Western Kentucky and the Mississippi River were already under the command of General Polk.
Though the Confederate line was thin, the Union line wasn’t in much better shape. Union forces were split between two departments. General Fremont commanded the Western Department from St. Louis and had control over General Grant’s force at Paducah. General Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame) commanded the Department of Kentucky at Louisville and had troops at Camp Dick Robinson, near Danville.
Kentucky had gone from neutral to besieged in two short weeks.1
Not yet knowing of Albert Sidney Johnston’s push into Kentucky, President Lincoln had ordered General John Fremont in St. Louis to furnish 5,000 troops to be used in Virginia. In an attempt to comply, Fremont ordered two regiments away from General Grant.
Since moving into Kentucky, Grant’s small force had built Fort Holt at Paducah, captured Smithland and continued probing east and south. Fremont’s compliance with Lincoln’s orders, however, forced Grant to put a halt to his explorations and move his lines back to Fort Holt.
Fremont, believing that he was greatly outnumbered by Johnston’s forces and being completely overwhelmed by siege at Lexington, begged Washington to allow him to send only those two regiments.2
Union Forces Push Forward in Western Virginia
While Confederate forces in Kentucky were pushing forward, in Western Virginia, they were retreating. General Lee and the Army of the Northwest were still licking their wounds after the debacle at Cheat Mountain. Meanwhile, any working relationship had by Generals Wise and Floyd of the Army of the Kanawha was completely gone.
The previous day, General Floyd had ordered his wing of the Army to move eastward and for Wise’s wing to act as a rear guard. This day saw Floyd’s force leave Wise’s force behind. It wouldn’t be long before Floyd missed his rival.
Since the Confederates pulled back from the Gauley River, Union troops under Generals Rosecrans and Cox pushed deeper into Western Virginia, following Floyd and Wise. Cox, who had been faced off against Wise at Gauley Bridge, had established Camp Lookout a few miles west of Big Sewell Mountain and General Wise’s camp (now called Camp Defiance).
Rebel scouts had been seen on the summit of Big Sewell the previous night and Cox was determined to press his own scouts forward, even before General Rosecrans’ orders to do the same had arrived.3
In Western Virginia, it was mostly a day of rest. Cox was waiting for his wagons to arrive and hoping that the Confederates would not attack. The Confederates were either in their well-hidden fortifications (Wise) or, unknown to the Union commanders, marching away from the enemy (Floyd).