The Battle of Bowling Green
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
In February 1862 the great battle of the Western Theater, the Battle of Bowling Green, Kentucky, was (almost) fought. Bowling Green was at the center of Albert S. Johnston's defensive line that stretched from Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi River (and beyond), and was where Johnston kept his headquarters and a large portion of his forces. The main force along this line was the Army of Central Kentucky, under command of first Simon B. Buckner, then under Johnston himself. Even William J. Hardee commanded this nascent force, for a short stint, after his small army from Arkansas had joined the army being organized in Kentucky. On the day after Christmas 1861, a portion of the Army of the Kanawha was assigned as well, that portion under John B. Floyd. Future notables such as Daniel Govan, Patrick Cleburne, John Breckenridge, and Thomas Hindman all served in this force.
Bowling Green is situated along the south bank of the Barren River. Not only did the river provide a defensive position, but several pieces of elevation were suitable for defensive works. Bowling Green was also the Confederate capital of Kentucky as decided by the convention held in Russellville in November 1861. Therefore not only was it the center of Johnston's Department #2 and was somewhat defensible, but also important politically. Bowling Green's location was forced upon Johnston by the advanced flanks of Felix Zollicoffer operating near Cumberland Gap and later Mill Springs in the east, while the advanced position of Leonidas Polk at Columbus to the west could be easily outflanked if Bowling Green was not held (and indeed was outflanked by the river movements of one Hiram U. Grant). While Nashville might have been a more suitable linchpin to defend the Confederate heartland, there were fertile lands north of Nashville that were important to the Confederate war effort. Coupled with Buckner's push for aggressive action in central Kentucky, Johnston's dealt hand was not a good one. And as a leader Johnston was not effective in dealing with subordinates, or looking at his department from a command level needed to provide a more cohesive defense. He became almost fixated on the Bowling Green area. Yet Bowling Green was to be given up without a fight.
David P. Doughtery was a soldier in the Thirteenth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Hailing from Circleville, Ohio, Doughtery would join the Thirteenth as a second lieutenant on October 3rd, 1861. Doughtery was a well spoken man, as evidenced in his letters home to his wife Rebecca. On February 12th, 1862 he would pen this missive:
Camp Madison, Feb. 12th, 1862
My Dear Wife,
After some delay I am once more permitted to acknowledge the receipt of your thrice welcomed letter, together with the kind encumbrances in the shape of "Substantials," and I do tell you it was a great treat of which we all partook with a hearty relish, bestowing showers of blessings on you My Dear Wife, and the generous givers who so kindly remember the soldiers. Give my sincere thanks to Mrs. Millet for I know she had a hand in it of course, and to Mr. Millet for the boots, tell him they are just the thing, also to George & May Davenport, for their kind remembrances to me. The box, and the letter, arrived last Saturday, and on Sunday we had our feast, and early yesterday (Monday) morning we struck tents and took up the line of march towards Dixie's Land, and today (Tuesday) after crossing the Green River, we halted, about noon, where we have pitched our tents. We are camped on the grounds where the battle was fought some two months ago, called the battle of Munfordsville I believe, the town however is on the other side of the river. Here too is where Buckner, the rebel general was camped for a long time. We consider ourselves now fairly in the enemy's country, we are the first troops to cross the river since that battle was fought. There was fifteen thousand troops crossed the river here since yesterday morning and there is about thirty thousand on the other side yet to cross. I tell you it is a grand sight to get where one can have a fair view of this immense army, and see it scattered in every direction as far as the eye can reach, in this beautiful Valley of [the] Green River. There was a report came in camp since dark that there was some fighting done a few miles from here today which probably is true. There was five companies of the 10th Ohio sent out this morning with a hundred wagons, a "foraging," and the report now is that they came across the enemy and had to fight, the result we have not got, and there may be nothing of it at all, but one thing is certain we now have to be on the look out, since we have got on this side of the river and so close to them.(1)
Well Becky Capt. Parker has resigned, he started home today. We are very sorry to lose him, but could not blame him for doing as he did. While he was at home the Col. and his clique Sr. Turney, took a mean, and low, advantage of the Majorship of this reg. which justly belongs to him and nothing but disability, or incompetency can prevent. Well they could not establish the pleas of incompetency, so they got up the plea of disability, and recommended a Capt. who was put under arrest yesterday, thank God, for getting drunk and noisy while on our march. I feel just like tendering my resignation also for them that can do one dirty trick can do another, and more than that Capt. Parker was my friend and I feel sore. The very day that his resignation went in Col. Smith recommended me to Governor Tod for promotion, and on Saturday last I received my commission as first Lieut. Toney received a commision the same day as Captain and is now our Capt. He is not liked by the company at all, and I expect a good deal of trouble. Now I intend if this expected fight is put off much longer, to ask for a leave of absence to come home. If it is not granted to me I will tender my resignation for I am bound to be home in three or four or five week at farthest if I live that long. Oh and Dear Becky won't it be a happy meeting. How I would like for it to be now, yes this very night. But it's getting cold and late too, and I must close by requesting toy my dear ro write soon with long letters and write often. It is much comfort for me to open a letter from you dear Wife. We look to be paid off this week, if we do I will send you some money forthwith. Yours truly, from your affectionate husband, D. P. Doughtery
P. S. Last night I did not seal up this letter and consequently it did not get off in the mornings mail and I am glad of it. For now I am permitted to inform you that we leave here early tomorrow morning, and I presume by tomorrow night we will have "smelt powder," for the long expected fight is now right at hand, and before this reaches you the telegraphic wires will be full of the news of the Battle of Bowling Green, My earnest prayer now is that we may come out more than conquerors which I believe we will. I have but little time to write at present as the Company is calling on me for one thing, and then another. Our rations have yet to be cooked and ammunition to be distributed yet tonight, which I will have to attend to. And now at all the different camps the soldiers are yelling with delight at the news of a fight. But I must "again" close, hoping to be able to write to you soon again and to be able to chronicle a "Glorious Victory." I remain your affectionate husband.
D. P. Doughtery
Four days later Doughtery would write about the "glorious victory":
Bowling Green Kentucky Feb. 16th
My Dear Wife,
We are now at last in the "Land of Dixie." That "Gibraltar of the Southern Confederacy," Bowling Green, the place that the Secesh called their back bone and could not be taken by all the Lincoln forces combined, and now we have it without a fight. We got here day before yesterday (Friday) in the afternoon. Loomises Battery in the advance. They planted their cannon on the opposite side of the river, and commenced shelling the town. There was a great many rebels in town yet, but when our fire was opened on them they just got up and flew. Before leaving they set fire to the town, burning a great portion of the best buildings. They have been leaving here for a week, or even since they got news of our advance, which was no doubt as soon as we started, as we are in an enemy's country, and must expect them to have spies. But Kentucky is now ours once more and I don't know where they will stand and fight if they won't here. You would be surprised to see the fortifications that they have made around here. I have been in two of the forts. They are very formidable indeed. There are eleven different fortifications in the vicinity of town, and besides those is miles of breastworks strung along the ridges on this side of the river. It certainly does appear to me that they never do intend to give us a fight. I certainly think that twenty thousand good men in these forts could whip one hundred thousand of the best soldiers in the world that would come against them. All I can say in the matter is, "I am completely beat," to know that they, after so much labor and preparation, have quit them without a fight. The rebels have retreated from here to Nashville, Tennessee, and it is said that they will make a stand there, and I expect that in a very short space of time we will be moving on again after them, If we are successful in driving them out of there, they will have nothing left to do by to "sue" for "Peace," for they can go no farther....
The great battle for Bowling Green and perhaps Kentucky never took place. Flag Officer Andrew Foote had accepted the surrender of Fort Henry on February 6th, and before Fort Donelson surrendered to Grant on February 16th, Johnston was already evacuating Bowling Green, knowing that his line of defense had been breached and that Nashville was now threatened. Bowling Green remains an interesting, yet little considered, what if event of the Civil War.
Bowling Green offers an eighteen stop Civil War self-guided driving tour which includes a few of the defensive positions.
(1) The battle mentioned is the Battle of Rowlett's Station, fought on December 17th, 1861.
(2) Captain Francis S. Parker was captain of Company B. He would resign on January 30th, 1862. Later he would serve as a captain in the Eighty-Fifth and then Eighty-Eighth Ohio Infantry Regiments.
(3) Colonel William Sooy Smith and Surgeon Samuel Denney Turney.
(4) Captain James E. Doney, who would resign his commission on July 8th, 1862.
(5) Battery A, First Regiment Michigan Light Artillery, commanded by Captain Cyrus O. Loomis.
American Civil War Research Database
Connelly, Thomas - Army of the Heartland
Dougherty Letters from Ohio History Connection