“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” – Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps the most significant event in 1861, aside from secession itself, was the role played by Kentucky.
Picture if you will the Bluegrass State’s location. It stretches from Western Virginia clear across to the Mississippi River.
Kentucky did not secede. It simply threw a monkey wrench into the chaos by declaring itself neutral. By doing so, it shielded the heartland of the South from a direct invasion. With Kentucky blocking its path, the North would have had to advance from west of the Mississippi, along terrain not well suited for movement relying on naval support every inch of the way, and through Virginia, where the most capable Confederate forces were assembled.
At the start, neither side wanted to violate the neutrality for fear of throwing the state in the other side’s column. Lincoln was especially wary of the situation. He punctuated the importance of Kentucky’s strategic location in a letter he wrote to U S Senator Orville Browning of Illinois: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
According to author Shelby Foote, whose three-volume “The Civil War, a Narrative” is perhaps the most comprehensive history of the war ever written, Kentucky’s governor and legislature announced that the state would defend its borders north and south. The proclamation was made in the summer of 1861.
In the absence of any intervention by either side, a growing pro Union faction in Kentucky would have eventually aligned itself with the North.
However, the longer Kentucky remained neutral, the more time the Confederacy would have had to prepare defenses across the length of Tennessee.
Both sides became convinced that the other was about to violate the neutrality. The South made the first move in September 1861 when General Leonidas Polk, who was an Episcopal Bishop and a graduate of West Point, made a political blunder by occupying Columbus, Kentucky, which was located in the southwest corner of the state astride the Mississippi River. His decision may have been prompted by Grant’s posturing a little farther north in Cairo, Illinois.
It was actually more than posturing. Grant, with the blessings of General Fremont, was planning to enter Kentucky to occupy Paducah, which was located at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers – a very strategic location for combined naval and ground movement into the South’s center.
Jefferson Davis acquiesced to Polk’s request to enter Kentucky. Davis, in his role as the President of the Confederacy, was reluctant to overrule field commanders. He was of the opinion that they were in the best position to assess local situations and should be allowed to act on their own initiative.
In essence, both sides violated neutrality in quick succession, but the South had moved first and earned the ire of Kentucky’s government, who promptly authorized the expulsion of Confederate forces from its territory.
That led to the engagement at Belmont, which I described in the preceding segment. Although it was a Confederate victory, it would be overshadowed in the winter of 1862 when Grant would use Kentucky as a springboard to launch the first of several brilliant campaigns which led to regaining control of the Mississippi River and the South’s loss of Tennessee.
I can only speculate what would have transpired had Polk not moved first and Grant did. Lincoln may have kept a leash on Grant, preventing further penetration until any political fallout from the occupation of Paducah died down.
The South probably would have gained valuable time, enough to organize an effective defensive line capable of thwarting Grant’s plans or at least delaying them.
The North was already growing restless for progress in the war, especially after the stinging defeat at Bull Run. Lincoln could ill afford to lose political capital. He had not even had the luxury of a honeymoon period during his first months in office. He was the only president in our history who had to surreptitiously enter the Capitol City to assume his responsibilities. Political turmoil in Kentucky would have been the last thing he needed on his plate.
Kentucky’s official entry on the side of the Union certainly opened the door to the South, but the state still contributed significant manpower to the Confederacy. Anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 served in the Confederate Army as compared to 100,000 for the Union, with another 24,000 former slaves later in the war.
Fortunately for Kentucky, the brutal violence that gripped its neighboring border state Missouri was largely absent. Missouri endured a civil war of its own. That’s a subject for a later segment.