Kentucky’s Neutrality is Officially Violated

Tuesday, September 3, 1861

Kentucky was, as much as it was possible, neutral. Both the Union and the Confederacy made a show of respecting that neutrality, but both also made secret plans to win the state (by force, if necessary) for their own cause. Kentucky troops had entered both the Union and Confederate armies, but only the North had established a camp within its borders. While the state government complained to Lincoln about the camp, Lincoln claimed that it was made up completely of the state’s citizens and so did not violate the state’s neutrality.

On August 28, Union General Fremont, commander of the Western Department, ordered General Grant to “occupy Columbus, Ky., as soon as possible.”1 This would, of course, be a clear violation of Kentucky’s neutrality. Perhaps because of this, Fremont failed to mention his intentions to Lincoln.

A few days later, General Polk, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department (for the time being, called “Department No. 2”), wrote to Kentucky’s governor, expressing his concern that he “should be ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah.”2 This would also violate Kentucky’s neutrality.

Polk noticed that Union forces had established a battery across the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky, at Baldwins. On this date, Confederate General Pillow, commanding troops at New Madrid, Missouri, received orders from Polk to load his men onto boats, steam up river and occupy Columbus. This was a direct order to violate the neutrality. However, Polk was convinced that the presence of Union forces opposite Columbus meant that they had their minds set upon taking the town themselves (which was true).

General Pillow, well aware of Union cannon and entrenchments opposite Columbus, landed at and occupied Hickman, Kentucky, just south of the target city.3


Continued Aggression Along the Gauley River

In Western Virginia, the skirmishes of the day before, that were drawn to a close by nightfall, were resumed when the sun rose. General Wise, who was commanding the Rebel advance against Union forces near Gauley Bridge, found Federals, 1,250 strong, in fortified positions near Big Creek. Having only 900 infantry, Wise split his force, sending 300 on a round-about route to attack the enemy’s flank.

Wise threw a few companies at the Union’s advance guard, pushing them west, up and over the side of a steep mountain. Along the way, the retreating Federals dropped guns, canteens and other nonessentials as they scrambled back to their camp.

As Wise, along with most of his men, reached the summit of the mountain, he peered down into the Union camp, viewing tents, cannons and a baggage train. As they kept up a skirmish fire upon the Union pickets, Wise’s artillery unlimbered atop the mountain and began to shell the camp. The Rebel fire was quickly answered by Union artillery and Wise saw enemy reinforcements marching towards the camp from Gauley Bridge.

Shortly, Wise began to see that he was out of his depths. He waited as long as he could for the flank attack to materialize, but before too long, he learned that the 300 troops sent to assail the Union left flank had gotten lost and had to find their way back the way they came.

Unable to maintain his advance position, Wise decided to fall back to Hawks Nest, on the east side of Turkey Creek, occupy Miller’s Ferry and try to coordinate something with the Confederate militia, under Generals Beckley and Chapman, on the other side of New River.4

Also, throughout the day, Union forces near Gauley Bridge were kept busy by Beckley’s militia, who drove the Federal pickets on the south side of the New River back to the water’s edge. General Cox, commanding the Union troops at Gauley, was convinced that Wise and Beckley had acted in some coordinated effort. More than anything, however, it was coincidence and luck.

About General Floyd at Carnifex Ferry to the northeast, Cox was confused. Due to conflicting reports, he was under the impression that Floyd had given up Carnifex and joined Wise in the attack.5 Floyd did no such thing and was actually growing in number thanks to two regiments of reinforcements.

With Floyd and Wise taking up secure positions, a lull fell over the Western Virginia approaches to the Gauley River. The lull would be punctuated by almost daily picket fire and skirmishing.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p142. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p179. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p179-180. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p125-126. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (part 1), p468-469. []
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9 thoughts on “Kentucky’s Neutrality is Officially Violated

  1. I love the cat with the skull and crossbones. One of the nice things about having a large collection of public domain books is that you can scan all sorts of interesting old images.

    Speaking of public domain works, have you checked out If you look under their text section you’ll find hundreds of old Civil War books, including some real rarities. Most are scanned into multiple formats (PDF, Kindle, etc.) and are free to download.

    1. I’m a huge fan of, but mostly plunder the Prelinger Archives for public domain films and Grateful Dead shows (seriously). For primary CW sources, I usually use Google books. I have used for some CW sources, but probably not as many as I should. I definitely need to get on that. Are they searchable? That’s the big thing for me. The sources need to be searchable. Otherwise, I’ll basically go insane.


      1. They’re searchable once you’ve downloaded them. The books come in various formats such as Mobi (for the Kindle) and PDF.
        Yes, is a great for old movies!
        A deadhead, eh? Did you know the term “deadhead” was in use in the Civil War? Confederate Missouri Governor Thomas Reynolds called Price’s motley army during the 1864 raid “a rabble of deadheads.”

        1. I’ll have to try that. I think I downloaded a pdf from there once, but it wasn’t searchable. I’ll have to look into this more. The more sources the better.

          Well… not exactly a deadhead, no. I just like the Dead. I wouldn’t, say, follow them around the country, selling grilled cheese sandwiches from my VW bus. I have friends that did that though, so who knows!

          A rabble of deadheads? Odd. I wonder where the word originated. (A quick google later…) In the 1840s (and earlier?), it meant a nonpaying spectator. Of course, it’s also an empty train.

          1. @ Eric: With all the books I’ve seen, the PDFs are photographs of the original pages. The txt files are uncorrected scans, so there are some horrendous mistakes and you’d have to take that into account when searching. At least, that’s been the case with the 20-30 books I’ve looked at.

  2. I never knew there was that much military action in the Gauley Bridge/Hawks Nest area during the War. Back in the 1980’s I used to drive US 60 between GB and HN every weekend, going home to Ohio and then back to work in Virginia (before I-64 was completed east of Beckley, WV). The only CW history I knew about was that General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s family lived in Anstead, WV, where Hawks Nest is located. There is a historical marker in front of their family house, which is alongside the highway.

    1. I lived in WV for a bit in the mid-90s and, while I visited Phillipi and a few other places, I knew nothing of the whole Gauley Bridge/Kanawha campaign prior to this project.

      I didn’t even know the Jackson had family there. I knew that he had some in Parkersburg, where I spent a lot of time, but not near Hawks Nest.

      Being in Seattle makes getting back east pretty tough, but when I do, I want to tour as much of WV as I possibly can.

  3. I just received an email from reader Kenneth Kellogg, who let me know that I missed something on this date. He couldn’t have been more right.

    On the night of this date, September 3, a train loaded with Federal troops was en route to Fort Leavensworth, when a bridge they were crossing, east of St. Joseph, Missouri, collapsed due to sabotage by rebel bushwackers.

    Around 20 people died and over 100 were injured.

    There isn’t much about this incident, unfortunately. A quick check of the OR (Vol. 3) gives not even a mention of it.

    One of the books that I have (but don’t use due to lack of citations), Black Flag; Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border by Thomas Goodrich, has an account of the accident by Sidney Clark, a passenger on the train (possibly the same Sidney Clark who was a US Representative from Kansas after the War).

    Though the author of the book cites no source and admits that he “edited some of the excerpts,” I thought I’d share some of Clark’s recollections:

    After leaving Easton I went into the back end of the middle car, and taking a seat some three or four seats form the door, laid down to sleep, with my head on my carpet bag. I had just assumed this position when the terrific crash came. Quicker than I thought I found myself buried beneath a mass of ruins, bound hand and foot.

    My first sensation was that the car had run off the track, and was being dragged at a furious rate across the ties. Have stunned and stupefied by the shock I commenced to struggle for relief, all the time experiencing a sensation as if impelled along at a rapid rate.

    This was undoubtedly owing to the fact of my head being near the boiler of the engine from which the steam was escaping with a loud roar. By this time I had relieved my hands and one of my feet, and by making violent struggles, succeeded in relieving the other foot, and began to crawl upward among the ruins.

    The night was very dark and I was surrounded by the dead and dying, clasping me on all sides. I made my way through the top of the car, only to witness a terrible scene, which God forbid I should never witness again. I saw that we had been precipitated from a stone abutment 30 feet high into the water, and among the charred ruins of a bridge.

    As one of my hands was useless, and not knowing how deep the water might be, I remained in this position some five minutes, during which the groans of the dying and screeches of wounded for relief, only were to be heard …. I was enabled to escape form my position onto a sand bar in the middle of the river, and commenced to labor for the relief of the wounded….

    Out of about one hundred persons contained in the two passenger cars, there were but three or four of us who were able to render assistance to the wounded. Dispatching a messenger to St. Joseph for relief, we continued to labor for four long hours….

    We built fires on the ends of the abutments as signals to approaching trains, and also a large fire at the right of the precipice … so that we might be enabled to work effectually in taking out the dead and wounded.

    At this point, a new horror was added to the scene – the cry went forth, “The train is on fire,” from at least twenty voices, mostly confined to the lower part of the ruined mass. I rushed across the stream to the northern bank, and the first person I saw standing was Capt. Carpenter… covered with blood from head to foot, and presenting a frightful appearance. I recognized him, and shouted to him, “For God’s sake, put out that fire.”

    With heroism I shall never forget, [he] rushed to the water’s edge, and seizing the hat of a dead man by his side, commenced to throw water on the fire, and did it vigorously until it was extinguished….

    Soon after we hear the whistle of the train from St. Joseph, which it seems had been delayed for an hour or more, to repair a bridge two miles back, which had but recently been lighted by the torches of the fiends. The train soon came up, bringing a large number of citizens, and relief….

    Wet and exhausted, I crawled up the bank of the river, and resting a few moments by the fire, found my limbs so stiff that I was unable to render any further assistance, other than to point out to those just arrived the location of those still entangle in the wreck.

    A hundred men were now at work – the dead were rapidly taken out, and daylight broke upon the scene as if to intensify the horrors of the night. Both the dead and the wounded were taken upon the train, and in an hour more… we were ready to move for St. Joseph, carrying with us thirteen dead bodies, and about seventy-five wounded, and doubtless leaving some of the dead still buried in the ruins at the place of the disaster.

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