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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Kentucky's Importance

The Civil War divided few states as deeply as it did Kentucky. Some residents, citing the state's history of supporting compromise and nationalism, wanted to remain with the Union. Others favored the Confederacy; they concentrated on the state's ties to the South through culture--most importantly, by slave-owning--and through family. In an attempt to keep these divisions from widening further, the state legislature declared in May 1861, a month after the firing on Fort Sumter, that it had decided to "occupy a position of strict neutrality."

Those who wanted to stay out of the growing conflict failed. Both the Union and the Confederacy were trying to convince residents to support their side, for each understood how the state could help in the war. Control of Kentucky would assist in the defense of other crucial territory and provide access to key transportation routes. It had the third-largest white population of all the slave-holding states, so it contained a large number of potential soldiers, and it produced wheat and livestock, supplies both sides would need. Recognizing these factors, President Lincoln told a friend, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."

Unionists gradually came to dominate the state. Elections in May (for Congress) and August (for the state legislature) both ended with significant victories for men who favored the North. Many Kentuckians who had remained uncertain which side to support began to sympathize with the Union in September 1861, when Confederate Gen. Leonidas Polk took control of Columbus, a railroad junction that sat at the foot of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Although Union forces under the command of U.S. Grant soon occupied two other towns in the state, General Polk was the first to move, which created sympathy for the North.

Even as Kentucky tilted towards the U.S., however, it remained far from united. Each side recruited troops from the state, and these enlistments caused splits that ran through families. All but one of Mary Todd Lincoln's seven brothers and half-brothers, for example, fought against the Union that her husband was trying to preserve.

The following excerpts demonstrate how both the Union and the Confederacy attempted to win the loyalty of the citizens of Kentucky. The first is from a speech given by Col. Curren Pope, commander of the Seventh Kentucky Infantry US, at a ceremony in Louisville in October 1861. The second is from a proclamation issued by Confederate Gen. Felix Zollicoffer, a former newspaper editor and Congressman from Tennessee, to the citizens of southeastern Kentucky in December, 1861. In the fall of 1861 Zollicoffer had crossed the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky with 6,000 men, then encamped near Mill Springs.

Colonel Pope:

We behold emblazoned upon its [the United States flag's] bright folds the same stars and stripes which the eyes of Washington were accustomed to look upon, and we rejoice with joy unspeakable that it is still this day the consecrated flag of our Union. It has streamed in triumph at the mast-head of our ships, and in many a bloody field has cheered the American armies on to victory. It has waved in every breeze on land and upon the sea, and in the strong hands of our fathers who bore it aloft, it has never, lo, never dishonored. Around it have clustered the dearest hopes of every friend of human liberty in every clime, and who doubts the last shriek of freedom will rend the skies, if it shall fall forever....[t]hough others may hate and curse the land that gave them birth, the brave and loyal sons of Kentucky will never strike with parricidal hands the State that has nutured them. Sooner may the battle-field run purple with our blood, and we fall, if fall we must, in civil strife, wrapping as a winding sheet these spangled colors around us and breathing out our last sighs for our country's glory.

General Zollicoffer:

To the People of Southeastern Kentucky:
The brigade I have the honor to command is here for no purpose of war upon Kentuckians, but to repel those Northern hordes who, with arms in their hands, are attempting the subjugation of a sister Southern State....We have come to open again your rivers, to restore the ancient markets for your produce, and thereby to return to you the accustomed value of your lands and labor....We come to take you by the hand as heretofore--as friends and brothers. Their government has laid heavy taxes on you to carry on this unnatural war, one object of which is openly avowed to be to set at liberty your slaves, and the ensuing steps in which will be to put arms in their hands and give them political and social equality with yourselves. We saw these things in the beginning, and are offering our heart's blood to avert those dreadful evils which we saw the abolition leaders had deliberately planned for the South.

How long will Kentuckians close their eyes to the contemplated ruin of their present structure of society? How long will they continue to raise their arms against brothers of the South struggling for those rights and for that independence common to us all, and which was guaranteed to all by the Constitution of 1787?...We have broken their columns in almost every conflict. We have early acquired a prestige of success which has stricken terror into the Northern heart. Their "grand armies" have been held in check by comparatively few but stern hearted men, and now they would invoke Kentucky valor to aid them in beating down the true sons of the South who have stood the shock, and in bringing common ruin upon Kentucky and her kindred people. Will you play this unnatural part, Kentuckians? Heaven forbid! The memories of the past forbid! The honor of your wives and daughters, your past renown, and the fair name of your posterity forbid that you should strike for Lincoln and the abolition of slavery against those struggling for the rights and independence of your kindred race.

Strike with us for independence and the preservation of your property, and those Northern invaders of your soil will soon be driven across the Ohio.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why was Kentucky so divided over what to do when the Civil War began?

2. Why did both the Union and the Confederacy want Kentucky on their side?

3. What arguments does Pope use to side with the North? What fears does he raise? How does he describe Confederates?

4. What arguments does Zollicoffer use to induce Kentuckians to side with the South? What fears does he raise? How does he describe Northerners?

Reading 1 was compiled from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln and published by William H. Townsend, ed., Lincoln and the Bluegrass, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1955, 254); and from The War of Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol 7, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882), 787.

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