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Chapter 4:

Before entering upon an account of the military operations which eventuated in the evacuation of Kentucky, it will be well to note briefly the political movements at this period. When the reign of terror was inaugurated in central Kentucky by the arrest of Southern men and their transportation to Northern prisons, a large number of leading Kentuckians, including some members of the legislature, sought safety in the Confederate lines, and most of them entered the army. Senator Breckinridge, upon his arrival in Bowling Green on the 8th of October, issued an address to the people of Kentucky, in which he reviewed the events of the past year and exposed the duplicity and usurpation which had placed Kentucky in the deplorable condition she then was, and closed by resigning his seat in the United States Senate. ‘To defend your birthright and mine,’ said he, ‘which is more precious than domestic ease or [52] property or life, I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier.’ How fully he vindicated his title to the honors with which Kentucky had wreathed his young brow, is shown in a military record as brilliant as that of his civil life; and how gratefully Kentucky recognized his sacrifices in her behalf is attested by the statue in imperishable bronze erected at Lexington a quarter of a century from that time, by the legislature of the State and his admiring fellow citizens.

On the 18th of November, 1861, a convention was held at Russellville, Ky., composed of delegates from the counties within the Confederate lines, and of refugees from many other counties within the Federal lines, comprising over two hundred members representing sixty-five counties. It was in session three days and adopted an ordinance of secession and a provisional form of State government. George W. Johnson, of Scott county, was chosen governor, and other executive officers named. Henry C. Burnett, Wm. E. Simms and William Preston were sent to Richmond as commissioners to negotiate an alliance with the Confederates, and as the result the Congress of the Confederate States admitted the State as a member of the Confederacy on the 10th of December, 1861. Two senators and twelve members of Congress were then elected provisionally by the executive council, and during the war a congressional ticket was elected biennially by the soldiers from Kentucky.1 On the 14th of November Senator Breckinridge, who had been meantime commissioned brigadier-general, was assigned to the command of the Kentucky brigade, Buckner's division, and on the 16th he assumed command, with the following staff: Capt. Geo. B. Hodge, A. A. G.; Maj. Alfred Boyd, A. Q. M.; Capt. Clint McCarty, A. C. S.; and Capt. T. T. Hawkins, A. D. C. [53]

With the accession of General Buell to the Federal command came a change of policy, looking to the shortening of lines and the greater concentration of troops in the direction of Bowling Green. General Thomas, who had been operating toward Cumberland Gap, was moved to Somerset and also occupied points on the upper Green river upon General Johnston's right flank. Preparations were also made for an advance upon the latter's front by repairing the Green river bridge at Munfordville. The condition of the roads on the Cumberland Gap line rendering movements there by either army impracticable, General Zollicoffer's command was transferred to Monticello, placing him in closer connection with General Johnston and looking to the better protection of the right flank. His force was also increased, and Maj.-Gen. Geo. B. Crittenden assigned to its command. Evidences of increased Federal activity were shown on General Johnston's left. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, which had been low, were made navigable for gunboats by the early winter rains; and General Johnston, who early foresaw the danger of having his line penetrated by a movement in force up those rivers, thus threatening Nashville and passing between him and General Polk, took every precaution to guard against such result. The best engineers had been sent to the narrow strip which separates these two rivers just south of the Tennessee and Kentucky line, and fortifications erected at Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland rivers. Similar fortifications had been made at Clarksville, Tenn., to which place Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, who had been stationed with a force of observation at Hopkinsville, was assigned. Subsequently he was placed in charge of Fort Henry.

But a serious disaster occurred on General Johnston's right flank in the defeat of General Crittenden at Fishing Creek, Pulaski county, Ky., on the 19th of January, 1862. Mill Springs is a small hamlet on the south side of the [54] Cumberland river just above which Fishing Creek, which flows from the north, empties into the Cumberland. On the 17th General Crittenden was occupying Mill Springs with the Seventeenth, Twenty-eighth and Thirty-seventh Tennessee regiments, the First battalion Tennessee cavalry, two companies of the Third battalion Tennessee cavalry and four pieces of artillery. At the same time he had at Beech Grove, directly opposite, on the north side of the river, the Fifteenth Mississippi, Sixteenth Alabama, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-fifth and Twenty-ninth Tennessee regiments, two battalions of Tennessee cavalry, two independent cavalry companies and twelve pieces of artillery, a total of about 4,000 men. For some time the army of General Thomas had occupied Somerset, 18 miles north-easterly, with eight regiments of infantry, and Columbia, 35 miles to the northwest, with five regiments of infantry. Having learned on the 18th that the Columbia force was camped at Logan's Cross Roads, ten miles north of Beech Grove, in expectation of effecting a junction with the Somerset force, and that this would be retarded by the high stage of water in the creek, he determined to attack before the junction could be effected. He therefore united his forces on the north side, and at midnight on the 18th having previously learned that the enemy was advancing, he moved against him. His force of two brigades, commanded by Gen. F. K. Zollicoffer and Gen. W. H. Carroll, marched northward on the road leading to Logan's Cross Roads and at daylight the cavalry advance came in contact with the enemy's pickets. A line of battle being formed, the skirmishers were soon engaged. The enemy was not taken by surprise as was hoped, and besides his forces had effected the junction. Rain was falling, and the morning was so dark that General Zollicoffer, mistaking a Federal regiment for one of his own, rode into it and was killed, as General Crittenden states, ‘within bayonet reach,’ by the pistol shot of a Federal officer. This had a dispiriting effect on the [55] Confederate forces, and although they behaved with gallantry for several hours against a greatly superior force, they finally retreated to their camp on the Cumberland pursued by the enemy, but not attacked after reaching Beech Grove. During the night General Crittenden crossed his army to the south side, but with the loss of his artillery, wagons and animals, stores, ammunition, etc. He retreated in a demoralized condition to Gainesboro, Tenn., eighty miles lower down on the Cumberland. In his report (Rebellion Records, Vol. VII, page 205), he states his loss at 126 killed, 309 wounded and 95 missing, and estimates the Federal loss at 700, while General Thomas in his report estimates the Confederate force at 12,000, and states his own loss at 39 killed and 207 wounded.

Under all the circumstances the death of General Zollicoffer and the disaster of Fishing Creek came as a severe blow to the Confederates. It greatly cheered the Federalists in Kentucky and cast a gloom over the opposite side. Its strategic effect was of the most serious character, as it wholly uncovered General Johnston's right flank and rendered his advanced position at Bowling Green still more critical. General Buell's plan from the start was to menace him in front until he could dislodge him by a flank movement. He had no idea of moving on him in his intrenched position and putting Green river at his back. He had great difficulty in resisting importunities from Washington to push Thomas into East Tennessee through Cumberland Gap, and adhered to his own plan in his operations, which resulted in the defeat of Crittenden. Mr. Lincoln, barring his eagerness to please Brownlow and Andrew Johnson, in a letter to General Buell of January 13, 1862 (Rebellion Records, Vol. VII, page 929), expresses in his homely way a comprehension of the true strategy: ‘My idea is that Halleck shall menace Columbus and “ down-river” generally, while you menace Bowling Green and East Tennessee. [56] If the enemy shall concentrate at Bowling Green, do not retire from his front, yet do not fight him there either, but seize Columbus and East Tennessee, one or both, left exposed by the concentration at Bowling Green. It is a matter of no small anxiety to me, and which I am sure you will not overlook, that the East Tennessee line is so long and over so bad a road.’ Buell was not a politician, and from a military standpoint never regarded the occupation of East Tennessee as a paramount necessity. His failure to pander to this sentiment was an important factor in his ultimate downfall, as we shall see in time.

With the success of General Thomas on the right flank of the Confederate army of occupation, evidences of a formidable movement on the left soon became apparent On the 6th of February a heavy attack was made upon Fort Henry by a gunboat expedition, and after a bombardment in which the Confederate batteries were greatly damaged, Gen. Lloyd Tilghman was forced to surrender after a gallant defense, with eighty men, his infantry numbering nearly 3,000 men, under Colonel Heiman, falling back on Fort Donelson. To the defense of this position, the attack on which now became imminent, General Johnston sent General Pillow with his command of 4,000 on the 9th of February, and on the 12th reinforced him with the commands of Generals Floyd and Buckner, 8,000 more, making the garrison force in the aggregate nominally 15,000 men, but really several thousand less, excluding sick left behind. At the same time recognizing the danger to which he would be exposed at Bowling Green by the depletion of his force and the necessity of covering Nashville, he began the evacuation of the former place on the evening of the 11th, General Buell reaching Bowling Green on the evening of the 12th and General Johns-ton's army being in front of Nashville on the 15th, the withdrawal being made without loss of any material and in perfect order. [57]

1 For the Provisional government, with members of Congress, see Appendix A.

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