The Civil War in Kentucky

By Nicky Hughes

While the Civil War was tragic everywhere, the war inflicted a unique brand of suffering on border-state Kentucky. When the secession crisis of 1860 and 1861 tore the nation apart, Kentuckians faced especially challenging decisions.

Commercial, family, and political ties pulled them toward both North and South. In an attitude that appears paradoxical from the perspective of the 21st Century, the majority of Kentuckians wanted to preserve the Union and keep Kentucky in that Union while also preserving the institution of slavery and keeping their slaves. The majority of white Kentuckians felt that way, that is – nobody consulted the black ones.

Kentucky declares neutrality in 1861

Responding to this dilemma and hoping to avoid the state’s becoming a battlefield, in 1861 Kentucky state government declared neutrality and professed its willingness to oppose any troops – Union or Confederate – who might march across the state’s borders. The enormous pressures of the times doomed this peculiar policy to a quick end. President Lincoln established a Union Army recruiting camp at Camp Dick Robinson, and Confederate troops seized Columbus on the Mississippi River.

The Kentucky General Assembly took up the Union cause. Soldiers in blue occupied much of the state, while men in gray manned a line across the southern portion of Kentucky. The government in Frankfort remained loyal to the Union for the rest of the war – although the relationship with Washington and the United States Army was often extremely turbulent. Delegates to a convention in Russellville declared Kentucky’s secession from the Union and formed a Confederate government for the state. So, by autumn of 1861 Kentucky had a star in both flags.

And Kentucky had soldiers in both armies. Estimates of the numbers of Kentuckians who enlisted vary greatly, but perhaps 40,000 joined the Confederate Army and about 100,000 joined the Union Army. Some 30,000 Kentuckians lost their lives.

As the nature of the ongoing war changed, so did the attitudes of many Kentuckians.

The enthusiasm for the Union espoused by the majority early in the war dimmed as they perceived the war goals of the Lincoln administration changing from just preservation of the Union to include the destruction of slavery. Thousands of black Kentuckians responded to Lincoln’s calls for African-American volunteers – a development that outraged Kentuckians fearful of disruption of racial relationships that had lasted for generations and of the economic costs of losing their human property.

Mr. Lincoln had never been at all popular in the state of his birth, and even though he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in a way that excluded Kentucky slaves, by 1864 he had few friends or followers in the Commonwealth. Slave-holding Kentucky kept its traditions alive as long as possible; slavery remained perfectly legal in the state until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution – months after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the firing of the war’s last gunshot.

Many gunshots were fired in Kentucky during the four years of the Civil War. Especially tragic was the guerrilla warfare that pitted neighbor against neighbor and gave Kentucky a lasting reputation for thoughtless violence. Battles, skirmishes, raids, and other episodes of fighting occurred all across the state – from Perryville to Frankfort; Paducah to Ivy Mountain; Mill Springs to Munfordville; Richmond to Sacramento; Tebbs Bend to Wildcat Mountain.

The Kentucky Civil War Sites Association preserves those many blood-stained fields and interprets them to new generations of Americans.

Lewis Nichols “Nicky” Hughes is curator of historic sites for the city of Frankfort, Kentucky. Hughes has co-authored two books: “Historical Images of Frankfort” and “Frankfort Cemetery—The Westminster Abbey of Kentucky”. During his 27-year career with Kentucky state government, Hughes was curator of the Kentucky Military History Museum, curator of the Old State Capitol, and museums division manager for the Kentucky Historical Society. Later, he was historic preservation specialist for the Division of Historic Properties. He is also a partner in Victoria & Albert Historical Consultants.

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