A Short Campaign up the Green River in 1861
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
One of my future projects, quite the major one, is a work on the events of 1861 in western Kentucky. Mainly of the events west of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to Cairo, Illinois. I am of the opinion that this portion of the "Kentucky Line" gets ignored or placed in the footnotes in studies that happen to spend any significant time in this part of the war. Cairo has its fair share, but rarely do you read anything on the massive troop movements along that portion of the Green River and the frequent skirmishes along its shores. During my research, I came across this wonderful story of a "short campaign" up the Green River in 1861 by some Indiana soldiers. Rumor had it that Confederate General, and Kentuckian, Simon Bolivar Buckner, was on his way north to destroy Lock Number One on the Green River, and then attack and capture Owensboro, Henderson, or even Evansville. The destruction of the lock would potentially derail any sort of swift Federal movement into the central area of western Kentucky by boat and the easy resupply of any such force. This small contingent of Hoosiers had themselves a piece of the war that we might consider to be quite insignificant, but for these men, they were about to go on the adventure of their lives, at least up to that point. Just weeks after this excursion, thousands of Federal troops, under the command of General Thomas L. Crittenden, descended up on the region to safeguard it once and for all from any sort of Confederate threat or advance from Bowling Green. Below will give you a snapshot of a different kind of war, one that has rarely been studied.
Evansville Daily Journal
September 28 and 30, 1861
A Short Campaign
The interception of General Buckner's letter to parties in Owensboro, urging them to destroy the locks on Green river, called for prompt action on the part of the military authorities in our city, and we are happy to state they took steps which prevented the consummation of the foul deed. On Sunday afternoon Capt. Cochran, of the Union artillery, was directed to have a detachment of his company with one gun in readiness for marching orders. In the evening the command was given to march and with an old white coat swinging on our arm we joined the "squad," and started on our first campaign. Horace Greely wears an old white coat, but Horace never joins artillery companies. Our gun was placed on the W.V. Gillum where we were joined by two companies of Col. Cruft's regiment which had been encamped on the river bank. The city was full of all kinds of rumors and not a few of the boys left the wharf under a painful apprehension that they gazed upon many familiar objects for the last time. The boat shoved out and away we went--Indianians to protect the property Kentuckians from the ravages of Kentuckians.
Cols. Jones and Cruft both accompanied the expedition, as did also engineer Sanders. The infantry companies were commanded respectively, by Capts. Arne and Smith. Without accident of any kind the boat arrived at lock No. 1, Spottsville, when we were received with music and three rousing cheers by two companies of gallant Kentucky Home Guards from Rumsey and Henderson. They had anticipated us somewhat is providing defense for the lock, but were apprehensive of an attack at the time of our arrival and were much relieved by the sight of our cannon. Our forces were landed immediately at attaching a rope to our gun we commenced dragging it up the steep hill somewhat after the style in the pictures representing Bonaparte crossing the Alps, but minus his prancing charger. It was a long pull--but with a strong pull and a pull altogether, we succeeded in gaining the summit where we bivouacked for the remainder of the night. The next morning Colonel Jones and the other officers made a reconnaissance and selected a location for our camp. It was on a beautiful hill which overlooked the locks and dam and could only be approached in such a manner as to give our little gun squad an excellent opportunity to receive our friends with cordial greetings, or our enemies with a plentiful supply of grape and cannister. The Gillum returned to Evansville and with her our two Colonels, leaving Captain Arne in command of the post.
Our first meal was obtained under difficulties. We had plenty of meat and bread, coffee and sugar, but not a single vessel of any kind in which to make--or out of which to drink--coffee, or cook the meat. A citizen of the village volunteered to make our coffee, and with commendable perseverance and by not being at all particular as to the account of ashes eaten with it, we succeeded in broiling a sufficient quantity of bacon to satisfy hunger. We need not enter into particulars as to the quantity. By dinner time, we succeeded in borrowing a large, old-fashioned iron soap or wash kettle, in which we boiled our meat and potatoes.
In the afternoon we dug down the side of the hill and threw up the dirt in the form of a breast-work, in front of the gun, which presented to the eyes of young campaigners quite a formidable appearance, and which our boys insisted they could hold against very superior numbers. We were assisted in our labors by detachments from the infantry companies. Our little plateau and embankment was unanimously christened "Fort Cochran," in honor of our gallant captain. The camp was called Camp Arne, we believe, in honor of Capt. Arne. We also erected during the afternoon a board shed to keep off the dew, which we found here to be almost equal to rain--wetting through the thickest of blankets and overcoats. Our shelter set upon four dogwood forks, kept off the dew. Our bedding consisted of loose fodder gathered in an adjoining cornfield. For cover we had only a few comforts and overcoats. To keep warm we were compelled to lie close together.
We had but on alarm during the night. This was occasioned by the discharge of a pistol within the lines of our sentries by some thoughtless soldier. There was no drum in camp to beat the long roll, but the artillery boys were roused from their slumbers by their captain who commanded them to spring to their posts. This was done promptly. There was considerable chattering of teeth in the little party, which of course, could only be attributed to the cold. The source of the alarm ascertained, the boys again returned to their slumbers and were not disturbed any more during the night.
Tuesday afternoon was spent in drilling and fixing matters comfortable in camp. We had a great many visitors from the adjoining country, most of who were enthusiastically for the Union. The cannon appeared to be the principle object of curiosity many of the visitors having never seen anything of the kind before. It was to them an object of dread as well as curiosity and more confidence appeared to be manifested in its ability to defend them and their property than in several companies of soldiers.
A large cornfield which lined one side of the encampment was pronounced dangerous by the officers, as an enemy might approach our lines without being discovered and thus make an attack upon us suddenly, throw us into confusion and drive us from our position. The cornfield was doomed. The boys sharpened their saber bayonets belonging to their Enfield rifles, and cleared five acres of standing corn with a rapidity that was astonishing.
By the time this was accomplished, the rumors gathered thick and fast of a night attack. We felt sure old Gen. D.M. White was marching upon us with a force of four or five thousand men, and, the Lord only knew hoe many pieces of artillery. Retreat was impracticable, and if fighting had to be done at odds we preferred fighting under cover. So immediately after supper seizing their picks and shovels the Hoosiers set to work and by 11 o'clock had thrown up a heavy breastwork about on hundred and fifty yards in length, with a ditch on the outside of the same length and from nine to twelve feed in width and six or eight feet in depth. This accomplished they felt comparatively safe. As some of them pressed it, with a good rest, such as the embankment afforded, they could make every shot tell.
In order to give variety to their usual fare, the boys occasionally went foraging. In one of their expeditions a party came across a persimmon tree. The tempting appearance of the fruit at once arrested their attention, and they determined on appropriating it. Their joy at finding a tree full of Kentucky plums was great. We need hardly add, to those who have tasted green persimmons, that the party was unable to do aught but whistle for some time afterwards. Their mouths were considerably puckered. Some of them, no doubt, thought they were "pizened."
On Wednesday evening the Mattie Cook arrived with a company of soldiers under Col. Cruft, and another squad of the Union artillery with a gun on board. The boat was on its way to Rumsey to take the Rumsey Guards home. It was anticipated that she might be attack, on her way up by the inevitable General D.M. White. Captain Cochran took charge of the gun, and ourself and one another exchanged places with a couple who came up on the boat and thus participated in the expedition. But of this we will speak again.
September 30, 1861
The Mattie Cook was crowded with men when she loosed from the landing at Spottsville and turned her nose up stream. Besides some 250 belonging to the 31st regiment and our little gun squad of five men, there were about 80 of the Rumsey Home Guards. Every available nook of the boat was appropriated by the soldiers, and our force must have appeared much stronger to the people on the shore than it really was. Our departure was cheered by the enthusiastic shouts of those on board and at the landing, the thrilling tones of the drum and fife, and the prospect of a brush with the rebels.
The cheers of our troops as they passed various points, attracted the attention of those living on the river bank, and in most instances the men, women, and children responded to the shouts of our soldiers with every demonstration of gladness and enthusiasm. There were exceptions--when we were greeted with scowling looks--and in one instance by positive cheers for Jeff. Davis. This was from an old fellow who had taken a position on the river bank underneath an archway formed by the branches of willows and trees. The spot seemed to be a private landing, whether belonging to the individual who then occupied it, we did not learn. On the approach of the boat, our boys discovered the old fellow and gave three cheers for the Union. This was more than he could stand. Jerking off his hat he swung it in the air and cheered for Jeff. Davis with power of voice that could be distinctly heard above the din on board the boat. The rage of some of the boys at this insult to their flag overcame their sense of propriety and snatching up their guns, three or four of them blazed away at the secessionist. The boat, turned a point on land [illegible as there was a crease in the paper]...that the man was seriously wounded.
The scenery on the banks of the Green River, so far as we went, is not particularly attractive. The river is of an unvarying width, without islands of any description, the banks of uniform height, covered with a thick forest of trees and undergrowth, with here and there a small log cabin, surrounded by a little field of corn, scooped out as it were from the forest. The villages generally presented a dilapidated appearance, and some of them could not boast of more than a dozen houses of any and all descriptions. The few fields of tobacco, that could be seen from the boat, presented a thrifty appearance and indicated to our eye, that the crop will prove as good this year as usual.
We arrived at Curdsville two or three hours before dark. Here we obtained startling intelligence that Gen. D.M. White (the same old White) had that day crossed the river with 400 troops, and marched on Rumsey for the purpose of destroying Lock No. 2. Our informants obtained the intelligence from sources they considered perfectly reliable. This news occasioned considerable flutter among the troops all of whom, however, announced their desire to meet the enemy. Shortly after leaving Curdsville, Col. Cruft made his arrangements for the night. The soldiers were commanded to lie down in rows in the cabin and on the lower deck, and to remain perfectly quiet. The gun squad, with their gun, were stationed on the fore deck. The cannon was loaded with cannister, and we were commanded to keep a careful lookout and if we saw the flash of a gun, to rake the woods where the enemy was supposed to be concealed. Thus stationed, the gloom of night commenced to thicken around us; the trees threw lengthened shadows over the water, and visions of masked batteries and ambuscades fitted uneasily through our minds. Capt. Cochran kept the gun bearing upon all points where danger was most suspicioned, a screen was let down in front of the furnaces, and we were gliding noiselessly up the river, when suddenly a lamp, situated in a narrow ravine, threw a brilliant flash of light across our pathway and far up the stream. No one could be discovered near it. The appearance was altogether unusual and mysterious. An indescribably feeling of impending danger ran through the troops, and low whispers as to the meaning of the phenomenon were unsatisfactorily exchanged. To add to our perplexity, a brilliant light suddenly burst about a mile above us, and the conclusion among all parties was that we "were in for it at last." On approaching the light above us, it was ascertained to proceed from a large raft of saw-logs, which was slowly wending its way to some saw mill below. We cannot speak for others, but for ourself, we were altogether satisfied that it turned out to be only a raft.
About 8 o'clock we approached Ashbysburg, the headquarters of General White. Our Captain, ever wide awake called the attention of the gunners to several squads of men standing on the river bank by the remark, "Boys, I guess we will get a shot here." Steadily he kept the gun bearing on the group, until one of the firemen threw open a furnace door, and a flood of light gleamed on our gun. No sooner had the crowd on shore got a glance at the thing than they made "Bull's Run speed" for a large warehouse a short distance off, and were soon under cover. The Captain's expectations of getting a shot were thus disappointed. It wouldn't do to shoot cannister at unarmed, running men, however bitter secessionists they might be. Ashbysburg was the only point where danger was really apprehended between the two docks.
It was the intention to land the boat about two miles below Rumsey and send out scouting parties to ascertain how matters stood before we ran up to the town. This proved unnecessary, however as we were hailed by a young fellow on shore who proved to be one of the home guards, and who informed us that all was quiet at both Rumsey and Calhoun. In a short time we landed at Rumsey; picket guards and sentinels were stationed to prevent a surprise, and the rest of us "turned in," and enjoyed a most refreshing sleep.
The river at Rumsey is considerably wider that at any point below. The dam is an exceedingly strong one, and its destruction would cause much inconvenience and positive loss to the citizens of Kentucky above that point, as well as the business men of our city. Most of the people below Bowling Green depend on Green River for the transportation of their produce and merchandise, and no other than a renegade like Buckner, or a traitor like Benedict Arnold would, contemplate so ruthless an act as the destruction of the locks and dams which are essential to the navigation of the river. Rumsey is situated on the side of the river occupied by the lock. Calhoun is located opposite, and is the county seat of McLean county. The Court House is an old brick building unworthy the wealth of the people of that county and should be replaced by a better and larger house.
Having taken a birds eye view of the situation, the gun squad began to manifest some little anxiety as to the chances of obtaining a breakfast. They were indebted to Captain Harvey for all they obtained to eat during the day. Had it not have been for his attention, the probabilities are that the squad would have passed the day hungry. Non one else appeared to manifest any interest in their behalf. Capt. Harvey's politeness and kindness was appreciated and will be remembered.
After breakfast the troops were ordered to fall into line and parade through [illegible for several lines] ...inhabitants, nearly all of whom, are those in Calhoun, are strong for the Union; so strong that they have taken up arms in its defense. We learned that within the space of a few hours some four or five hundred home guards could be concentrated in these towns, to repel the attack of an enemy.
About 10 o'clock steam was raised and we prepared to depart. As the boat swung round in the river, a salute as fired, and we started for home amid the cheers of a large crowd assembled to bid us good bye.
Nothing of note occurred until we arrived at Ashbysburg. The Colonel determined on landing at this point, and making a reconnaissance. Several men who were standing on the hill, when they saw the boat making for shore, stepped behind a large building near by, and were seen no more. The Colonel and all the officers on board had been gone sometime when one of them was discovered some distance below waving a secession flag. About the same time, Capt. Harvey came back and ordered his company to fall in, and marched them off the boat and up the hill. The boat pushed out and landed where the officer stood waving the flag, and was boarded by several other officers having guns in their hands which they captured. We then learned that a descent had been made upon the residence of General White, his house searched, add arms and papers seized. He was absent at the time. A negro stated that the General had left on the Tuesday previous, with 100 men for Hopkinsville. Some of the letters seized were from Gen. Hardee and other officers in the rebel army. Their contents we did not ascertain. IT was also determined to confiscate the tobacco found in the General's warehouse which the negro said belonged to him. He protested against its seizure, exclaiming, "Good God, massa, you ain't gwine to take all the terbacker," but the officers were inexorable. While the soldiers were busy loading the tobacco, two or three officers visited the house of another noted secessionist in the neighborhood, to make an examination for concealed arms. The search was on the oint of proving fruitless, when an old darkey, who had been an interested observer of their movements, suddenly said, "Massa hid de gun under de bed." Sure enough, on turning over the feather bed, a double-barreled shot-gun, heavily charged with buckshot, was discovered and taken possession of. It took some time to load the tobacco, of which there were 29 bbds. marked No. 1, and valued at $4,000 or $5,000. Many jocular remarks were passed as to the rage of the old General, when he found out how much his secession sympathies had cost him.
Without any other incident of interest the boat arrived at Spottsville. A few minutes were spent in going through the locks, while the boys were detailing to their companions at the camp the result of their exploits, and we started down the river, arriving home about nine o'clock. An inventory of hour share of the short campaign showed us in possession of improved health, a suit of very dirty clothes, and one secession cigar, from the plantation of General White.
Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.