Both Union and Confederates Pour More Troops into Kentucky

Sunday, September 22, 1861

Since the opening guns at Fort Sumter, war had erupted in eastern and western Virginia, all across Missouri, along the Atlantic coast and as far southwest as New Mexico. For a time, Kentuckians believed they could keep the war out of their state. Though their boys had gone both North and South, a claimed neutrality, it was hoped, would keep scenes like those at Manassas, far from her borders. That was, at best, wishful thinking.

Confederates presently occupied a thin line from Cumberland Gap west to the Missouri River, while Union General Robert Anderson chose Louisville as his headquarters, raising more and more troops inside Kentucky.

The previous day, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi, called upon Tennessee to give 30,000 volunteers to the Confederate cause. On this date, he expanded the request to both Mississippi and Arkansas.

The wording of both requests was nearly identical as that to Tennessee, including Johnston’s desire for long-term enlistments and an added request for the troops to bring their own guns.

There were, however, a few differences. While Tennessee was asked for 30,000, both Mississippi and Arkansas were asked to supply only 10,000. Tennessee’s volunteers, according to Johnston, would be used throughout his Trans-Mississippi Department, while Mississippi’s troops would be moved to “the frontier,” and Arkansas’ would march “to the Missouri frontier of your state.”

As in Kentucky, both Mississippi and Arkansas had designated recruitment cities and soon, hoped Johnston, they would be filled with Confederate volunteers.1

Also understanding that Kentucky would be the new point of contention, Union General Anderson was scrambling to acquire more troops for his Department of Kentucky. A few days prior, Anderson took notice of Confederates under General Simon Bolivar Buckner at Bowling Green, about 100 miles south. Louisville was defended by only 3,000 Union troops, and it was rumored that Buckner had nearly 10,000.

While that was nearly double the actual figures, Anderson asked Indiana’s governor, O.P. Morton, for as many troops as he could spare. Morton supplied four regiments (probably around 3,000 men) and then wrote to General Fremont, Union commander in Missouri (who had himself requested troops from Indiana) and asked to borrow 5,000 muskets.

Meanwhile, General Anderson was doing what he could to keep his Kentucky garrisons supplied with troops. On this day, he sent four regiments to Camp Dick Robinson, near Danville. He could not, however, obtain any artillery.

Fifty miles from Louisville, it was reported that newly–recruited Rebels were gathering in Anderson County and had already captured the armory in Lawrenceburg.2

Along the Mississippi River, Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant had been probing south from Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky, attempting to discover the most northern town occupied by the Confederates. The march, which was supported by two gunboats, revealed the Rebels to be no farther north than Columbus.

That afternoon, however, along Mayfield Creek, between Columbus and Paducah, a Union infantry outpost was attacked by 100 Confederate cavalry. The Rebels were repulsed and a few were probably wounded.3

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Lincoln Claims that Freeing the Slaves Not a Military Necessity

United States Senator Orville Browning had voted in favor of the Confiscation Act, which declared that the slaves of secessionists were no longer slaves. While it didn’t explicitly free them, it was understood that they would be, when coming into Union lines, under the control of the US Government. General John C. Fremont’s Proclamation, which actually freed the slaves of secessionists in Missouri, overstepped the bounds of the Confiscation Act.

Lincoln ordered Fremont to abide strictly by the Act, which angered many abolitionists, including Senator Browning, who put pen to paper, addressing Lincoln.

On this day, Lincoln replied. He was “astonished” that Browning, a long time colleague and friend, had objected to him “adhering to a law, which you had assisted in making.”

The main point in Lincoln’s unusually long letter was that General Fremont’s “proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity.” Lincoln, at this point in time, believed that freeing the slaves was not a military necessity.

The President further explained that if a General needs slaves, “he can seize them, and use them; but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. That must be settled according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations.”

In his letter, Browning spoke of freeing the slaves as the only means of saving the Government. Lincoln countered that it was “itself the surrender of the government,” asking if it could be “pretended that it is any longer the government of the U.S. … wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?”

Lincoln conceded that he would support Congress passing a law such as Fremont proclaimed, but could not allow a General, or even a President, “to seize and exercise the permanent legislative functions of the government.”4

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Lee Views Wise’s Position, Still Unsure

General Robert E. Lee arrived in the Kanawha Valley to try to convince feuding Generals John Floyd and Henry Wise to work together. He established his headquarters at Meadow Bluff, a position that General Floyd chose to defend. Twelve miles closer to the Yankees, General Wise selected a ridge on Big Sewell Mountain and refused to fall back to Meadow Bluff.

Lee decided to examine Wise’s position before making a decision on whether Wise should fall back or Floyd should advance. There, he discovered that everything Wise claimed about his position was true. It afforded a view of the enemy advance from over a mile away. This advance, should it come, would have to funnel itself through a deep gorge, down the James River & Kanawha Valley Turnpike, upon which Wise was firmly entrenched.

The Union forces could attack by either frontal assault up the gorge and turnpike or a flanking maneuver, bypassing Big Sewell Mountain and Wise’s defenses entirely, hitting Floyd at Meadow Bluff. So far, no attempt to flank the Confederates had been detected.

Still unsure, Lee rode back to Meadow Bluff without issuing orders for Wise to fall back.5



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p421-423. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p266, 267-268. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p199-200. []
  4. Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Sen. Orville Browning, September 22, 1861. []
  5. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
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