December 1861 found Confederate forces with a tenuous hold on Kentucky, but the issue remained very much in doubt.
Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, a West Point graduate who had been born in 1803 in Washington, in Mason County, was in command of the South’s “Department No. 2,” or the “Western Department,” which extended west from the Appalachian Mountains.
While Kentucky’s neutrality remained in place in the summer of 1861, the rebels had built Fort Henry and Fort Donelson along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers just south of the Kentucky border to control the waterways that led to Nashville and the southern interior.
Once neutrality was broken in September, however, Johnston established his headquarters in Nashville and ordered Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner—the just-resigned former adjutant general of Kentucky—to take Bowling Green, Ky. Johnston moved his headquarters there in October and, by the end of the month, more than 200 Southern sympathizers representing 65 counties had met to establish a Confederate Kentucky with Bowling Green as its capital.
Johnston fortified militarily desirable locations, from the Cumberland Gap in the east to Columbus, along the Mississippi River in Hickman County, to the west. By October, he had more than 20,000 rebel troops in Columbus, with mounted cannons commanding the river and about 20,000 more in the vicinity of Bowling Green.
Buckner had been ordered to send a force to his hometown of Munfordville, mainly to secure what amounted to about half of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and the new rebel line reached northward to the Green River. Thus, Johnston—a brilliant military tactician with vast experience—had sought to control the railroads and waterways that were vital for control of the region.
The federals countered by occupying Paducah and Louisville, and small-scale skirmishing had begun all along the Union and Confederate strongholds and wherever even a few members of opposing forces came into sight of one another.
Frenzy in Louisville
Buckner’s actions had thrown Louisville into a frenzy of activity, as people decided which side they were on and made their preparations for the conflict. Facing arrest for his Southern sympathies, Louisville Courier publisher Walter N. Haldeman—who had served as surveyor of customs in the recently concluded Buchanan administration—fled to Bowling Green and soon was publishing the paper in absentia in Nashville. Meanwhile, the Louisville Daily Democrat began running advertisements for new Union recruits. The pay was $13 per month.
The city’s celebrated infantry company, the 2,000-strong Louisville Legion, was federalized into the Union army and the Union commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson, sent it to Muldraugh Hill, along the Jefferson-Bullitt county line, to guard the Southern approach to city. Anderson placed Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in charge of the local Home Guard, which consisted of about 2,000 meagerly trained citizens.
As they waited for either an advance or retreat, the city’s defenders dug in, erecting military entrenchments and training for battle.
Battle for Eastern Kentucky
In mid-October, newly commissioned Union Brig. Gen. William O. “Bull” Nelson had been ordered to secure the Big Sandy Valley, watershed of the Big Sandy River, roughly encompassing much of the present-day counties of Boyd, Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Martin and Pike, along with portions of Magoffin, Knott and Letcher.
About 1,000 Confederates spread throughout the valley concentrated near what is now Pikeville as Nelson rushed to the scene. Confederate Capt. Andrew Jackson May, retreating from Prestonsburg toward Pikeville, attempted to engage Nelson in a delaying action at Ivy Mountain, a spot near the confluence of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River and Ivy Creek.
Nelson responded by attacking May on Nov. 8 with his main force while sending a detachment against Pikeville, which was held by troops under rebel Col. John S. Williams. In less than 90 minutes, Nelson outflanked and defeated May, and the Confederates retreated from the area and from Pikeville, fleeing into Virginia via Pound Gap. About 2,000 Confederates under Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall returned to the area and were routed at Middle Creek in Floyd County by a smaller force under Union Col. James A. Garfield, a future president, on Jan. 10, 1862.
After Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer’s retreat to Pineville following the Battle of Wildcat Mountain on Oct. 21, his next foray into the Kentucky interior had begun in late November. The Confederates marched more than 240 miles along the Wilderness Road, which led to a small village called Mill Springs, on the south bank of the Cumberland River near Somerset, in Pulaski County.
Ordered by Gen. George B. Crittenden to hold the position, Zollicoffer established strong defenses and encamped. When several weeks passed without a Union challenge, the brigadier general dropped his guard a bit, moving a portion of his command across the Cumberland and establishing a winter camp at a place called Beech Grove, in a less defensible position and contrary to his orders.
Union Gen. George H. Thomas—who had been ordered to contain Zollicoffer—meanwhile was driving his men toward the Confederates as fast as he could. Unfortunately for the Union commander, winter rains had reduced his progress to a slippery crawl.
When Thomas finally arrived in the area on Jan. 17, 1862, he established his camp at a little town called Logan’s Crossroads, which put him about eight miles north of the Confederates. Brig. Gen. Albin F. Schoepf and his brigade joined him the next day, giving Thomas about 4,000 men.
With Zollicoffer’s force in a weak position, his forces divided and even more Union reinforcements expected at any moment, Crittenden took command and launched a surprise attack on the rainy morning of Jan. 19.
Death of Zollicoffer
Leading his infantry on horseback, his spectacles swimming in the rain, a confused Zollicoffer rode across enemy lines and into a hail of Union gunfire, and both he and an aide fell fatally wounded. Contemporary accounts have it that the general’s body was propped up against an oak tree and foully treated by Union troops until it was secured by Thomas and returned to the Zollicoffer family in Nashville for burial.
Zollicoffer’s blunder helped secure a Union victory in what came to be known at the Battle of Mill Springs, and Crittenden ordered a frantic nighttime retreat back into Tennessee. The Union dead totaled 39, with 207 wounded, while the Confederates lost 125, with 309 wounded and 99 missing.
With his forces run out of eastern Kentucky, Johnston had one last chance to hold the state, which was to prevent the capture of Bowling Green and the southern portion of the L&N Railroad.
Federal military officials, on the other hand, were determined to dislodge Buckner from Munfordville and retake the L&N.
In November, Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell had taken over the Union’s Army of the Ohio based in Louisville after his two predecessors—Anderson and Sherman—both had suffered nervous breakdowns.
Buell sent Brig. Gen. Alexander McCook’s 2nd Division south to confront the Confederates. As they approached, rebel Brig. Gen. Thomas Hindman ordered the demolition of the L&N’s bridge over the Green River and, as Union troops constructed pontoon bridges to get across, the two sides stared at each other from either side.
When the bridge was completed on Dec. 17, Union troops poured over, and the Confederates began their assault, which included a foolhardy cavalry charge against the dug-in and well-disciplined 32nd Indiana Infantry. In the end, the federals held the bridge and the rebels retreated.
Buell also had sent Union Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden (Confederate Gen. George B. Crittenden’s brother) to Calhoun in McLean County to control a lock and dam there and to secure the Ohio River, as well as to threaten Johnston. His troops numbered about 10,000. Anxious to learn the disposition of Crittenden’s troops, Johnston sent Lt. Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest and 300 men on a reconnoitering mission that turned into a running battle on Dec. 28. The action, which took place about nine miles south of Calhoun near the town of Sacramento, went a long way toward introducing Forrest to friends and enemies alike as a “wizard of the saddle.”
Meanwhile, Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who held Paducah and had commanded the federals in the indecisive Battle of Columbus-Belmont in November, had been busy. Aiming to outflank Johnston, Grant had ordered the construction of a flotilla of ironclad gunboats and began assembling steamboats to move his army by water to attack forts Henry and Donelson.
Grant received approval of his plan in late January, and as he prepared to move, the stage was set for a battle for Kentucky.