Kentucky was Pivotal State in the Civil War

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Kentucky was Pivotal State in the Civil War


This year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Kentucky was a pivotal state in this conflict.

Here are some events from that long-ago war; a war what was, particularly for Kentuckians, the conflict of “a house divided.”

In early 1862 Confederate troops lost battles at Mill Springs (in Wayne County) and Middle Creek (in Floyd County). They might have won both these engagements. Confederate Gen. Felix Zollicoffer was winning at Mill Springs when he mistook Federal troops for Southern forces, rode up to them, was shot and lost the battle.

At Middle Creek the Confederates were winning under the leadership of Gen. Humphrey Marshall. A Northern relief column on its way from Paintsville could not find the battle until the sound of Confederate artillery helped them to arrive, and the North won the battle.

On July 4, 1862, Confederate cavalrymen, mostly from Lexington, led their first raid into Kentucky. It was very successful and cavalry leader John Hunt Morgan picked up 300 recruits along the way. The success of Morgan’s raid led some in the South to believe that an invasion of Kentucky would be received by a joyous population and result in a mass of volunteers to the southern colors.

Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith was suppose to seize Cumberland Gap and then go west to join General Braxton Bragg and, combining their forces, capture Nashville. Smith did not obey his orders. He bypassed the well entrenched Union forces at Cumberland Gap, invaded Kentucky first at Barbourville and marched quickly north.

Union Gen. William Nelson ordered Gen. Mahlon Manson, stationed near Richmond, not to engage Smith’s forces. Despite his orders. Manson and his Union troops became part of the rapidly unfolding battle of Richmond. He was routed and fled, giving the South its biggest victory of the entire war. Smith’s troops went on to capture Lexington and Frankfort, where they briefly installed a Confederate governor.

In the meantime, Bragg’s Southern troops marched toward Louisville. However, a Union force led by the inexperienced Col. John T. Wilder delayed them at the Battle of Munfordville.

Bragg never made it to Louisville and suffered defeat at the Battle of Perryville. Both Bragg and Smith then retreated back into Tennessee.

Contrary to Southern hopes and expectations, Kentuckians did not widely flock to the Confederate cause, although Col. James Waller Chenault raised a cavalry troop in Madison County after the Battle of Richmond. Kentucky stayed safely in the Union.

By the way, Kentucky’s Confederate governor installed in Frankfort on October 4, 1862, was Richard Hawes. He fled Frankfort the same day, however, as Union troops approached and began shelling the city.


Dr. Fred Engle




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Dr. Fred Engle, “Kentucky was Pivotal State in the Civil War,” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed January 20, 2022,