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“The necessity justifies the action”—Polk’s blunder into Kentucky


COL (RET) Ed Lowe

The smoke over Fort Sumter had barely subsided when President Lincoln issued his call for troops. As more southern states joined the nascent Confederate cause, the risk of all-out conflict seemed almost inevitable. State governors adopted and pushed their policies, either supporting the southern effort, remaining entrenched in the Union, or positioning itself as neutral. Decidedly, Kentucky raised its flag of neutrality, clearly visible to authorities in both the North and the South. As Earl Hess claimed, “Kentucky adopted a unique approach to the sectional crisis that inhibited both belligerents from setting foot on its soil for months.” Yet, Kentucky in terms of its geographic importance was not lost to either President Lincoln or President Davis. As Lincoln viewed it, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” And so, as the summer of 1861 came into view, both sides postured for a showdown in Kentucky. The question was: Who would violate the neutrality claims first?

Opposed to neither slavery nor the right to secede, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin did not support Lincoln’s call for troops, claiming a neutral position that the state’s legislature ostensibly endorsed with resolutions passed in May. However, over the coming weeks, the seeds of Pro-Union support grew stronger, in particular in the southern, central, and northeast portions of the state; Secessionists remained firmly committed in the western portion of Kentucky. Consequently, the fragile support for neutrality took a hit in early August when Pro-Union candidates took a majority of the state’s legislature’s seats, in both the house and senate. The state was now divided with a governor holding onto a neutral position and the state legislature tossing its support to Lincoln and his administration.

Kentucky “would provide an impenetrable shield for the heartland of the South,” stated Steven Woodworth. And this was certainly something Tennessee Governor, Isham Harris, fully understood, both politically and militarily. However, a chink in the armor might be the mighty Mississippi River that Governor Harris feared Yankee gunboats could skirt past Kentucky and attack the city of Memphis. He also recognized that the best defensive high ground south of Cairo, Illinois that might prevent such a threat was in Columbus. Unfortunately, Columbus was on the Kentucky side of the river. And so long as Kentucky remained neutral, that coveted key terrain in Columbus would remain out of reach to the Confederacy.

Union recruitment efforts in Kentucky seemed to embroil the already tense situation, as Governor Harris maintained the position that Confederate troops posted in North Tennessee were there simply to defend the border. And Confederate posturing indicated a seemingly clear right to intervene in Kentucky if the Union pursued aggressive actions in Kentucky. Two Confederate officers became the center of attention in this delicate situation that was Kentucky. There was a Tennessee hero in Gideon J. Pillow and North Carolinian, West Point educated, and friend of Jefferson Davis in Leonidas Polk.

The South’s first Secretary of War, LeRoy Walker, dispatched the Episcopalian minister Leonidas Polk to command the South’s Department No. 2 in mid-July 1861. Eventually, Governor Harris directed that the Tennessee troops fall under Polk’s command.

Recognizing the strongpoint that was Columbus, Kentucky, as early as May, Pillow had advanced the idea of making a move against that potential stronghold. However, both Governor Magoffin and President Davis demurred, hoping to keep the neutrality of Kentucky fully intact. And once Polk arrived to take command, he too saw the benefit of Columbus and its high hills overlooking the Mississippi River. Initially attracted to the situation in Missouri, Polk soon set his eyes on Columbus and, as Steve Woodworth noted, “Polk soon made the idea his own” of occupying that important town. Yet, as rumblings occurred that a Confederate advance on Columbus might occur, Davis, on August 28, reassured the Kentucky government that the Confederacy would honor the state’s neutral position.

The already tense situation became worse at the end of August when John C. Fremont, Union commander for the western region, indicated the end of slavery and to hang Confederates who had taken up arms against the Union. He also ordered one of his subordinates, U.S. Grant, to move troops and take the Kentucky town of Columbus. Fremont’s actions alone might very well have nudged Kentucky over into the Confederacy, dealing a strong military and political blow to Lincoln. Governor Harris recognized a potential opening, urging Polk to hold tight on any offensive actions until Kentucky decided on how to handle Freemont’s declarations. Polk, however, took matters in his own hands.

Recognizing Grant’s movements toward Belmont, which was directly opposite of Columbus, Polk not only saw the threat to that town, but also to Paducah, another Kentucky town further north on the Ohio River. On the first of September, Polk wrote Governor Magoffin that it was “of the greatest consequences to the Southern cause in Kentucky or elsewhere that I should go ahead of the enemy in occupying Columbus and Paducah.” Avoiding the batteries that Grant had established at Belmont, under the orders of Polk, Pillow soon occupied Columbus and immediately began establishing a defensive network.

A flurry of dispatches soon made their way across the Confederate landscape, calling for Polk’s immediate withdraw. Remarkably, Polk seemed completely ignorant of the Confederate position toward Kentucky and its neutrality. However, President Davis trembled with the political repercussions that he now confronted with Polk’ actions. Davis informed his general on September 4 that “the necessity justifies the action,” seemingly unable to grasp the political consequences of this move in Kentucky. Polk responded to Governor Magoffin that he would withdraw if the Union troops also withdrew and promised not to enter or occupy any part of Kentucky in the future.

Soon, another Confederate general made his appearance, Albert Sidney Johnston who remarked that Polk could not withdraw because it could threaten Tennessee with invasion. Just two weeks after Polk’s actions, Johnston replaced Polk and assumed command of Department No. 2. As Donald Stoker concluded, “Rebel impetuosity and lack of firm direction from the top broadened the war to a theater the South could not adequately defend.” While Polk certainly bears some responsibility, it was Jefferson Davis as the Confederate President who had to weigh the political repercussions to military actions; this he failed to do. As Archer Jones opined, Polk’s actions “destroy(ed) Kentucky’s neutrality and remov(ed) the state as a valuable military buffer for the Confederacy.”

As Confederates established themselves along the Mississippi River, Cumberland Gap, Mill Springs, and Bowling Green, the Union occupied Paducah, Lexington, and other places across the state. Earl Hess concluded, “The battle lines in the west had been firmly drawn.” Polk’s invasion had opened the floodgates to multiple avenues of approach into Tennessee for Union invasion, eventually allowing Union access to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and to the South’s deep interior. Polk actions proved one of the most disastrous military actions of the war, sending ripples across the Confederacy that could not be recalled.


Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. 2 Volumes. New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885.

Hess, Earl J. The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. Chapel Hill: University of NC Press, 2012.

Jones, Archer. Civil War Command & Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat. New York: Free Press, 1992.

McPherson, James. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. New York: The Penguin Press, 2014.

Stoker, Donald. The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Woodworth, Steven. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

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