During the Civil War, Kentucky — a border state — declared neutrality. Its people felt differently and considered military service honorable. The nearly 150,000 Kentuckian soldiers rarely saw home, despite battles, raids, and guerrillas that ravaged their state.
Despite neutrality declarations, Kentucky was battle-ready with their State Guard commanded by General Simon Bolivar Buckner. In May 1861, Unionists secretly planned with President Abraham Lincoln to arm Kentuckians. Lieutenant William Nelson distributed "Lincoln Guns" to civilian Home Guards, inspiring additional organization for local defense.
Attempted neutrality did not last. In July, Union forces established Camp Dick Robinson (Garrard County). Lincoln denied Governor Beriah Magoffin’s disbandment requests. Confederates organized Camp Boone just inside Tennessee and, by September, occupied Bowling Green. Soon after, Gen. Buckner and some Guardsmen defected to the Confederacy.
Other camps emerged, accepting volunteers and, eventually, draftees, including controversial African-American troops. Other states accepted runaway slaves and freedmen before Kentucky admitted freedmen in their ranks (1864), and reported to Camp Nelson (Jessamine County). The state contributed 13% of African-American Union soldiers.
Fruitful battle preparations assisted with interstate skirmishes and battles. A significant turning point occurred in 1862. Confederate Major General Edmund Kirby Smith captured Cumberland Gap in August, before his Richmond victory. This allowed Confederate occupation of Frankfort, by September. With scarce civilian support, General Braxton Bragg abandoned the city when Union shelling began in early October. The following battle was Kentucky’s bloodiest.
General Don Carlos Buell ordered the Frankfort shelling upon leaving Louisville. Neither General knew the other’s position or numbers, but both needed water. Seeking rivers, the forces clashed nearby Perryville. After a long, bloody battle, the Confederates retreated through Cumberland Gap. Gen. Bragg’s escape caused Gen. Buell to lose his command. Nevertheless, Union forces now officially occupied Kentucky, making it difficult for Rebels to visit Kentucky kin.
Soldiers led difficult lives, carrying smaller necessities, such as hardtack, and personal items in a haversack, while also carrying their canteen, blanket, tent, and weapons. Men wore personal clothing, unless civilians donated uniforms, often not "blue" or "gray." They often slept outside or shared tents, using guns as poles. After completing military duties, soldiers played games or music, and wrote letters. Unsanitary "Camp Misery" hospitals provided medical care. Though infected battle wounds commonly led to amputations and sometimes death, illnesses from everyday life caused many more casualties.
African-Americans and officers were extreme cases of soldier lifestyles. African-Americans faced prejudice including segregated regiments and fewer wages. Confederates forbade arming them and made them build forts and repair railroads. Conversely, officers lived in large furniture-filled tents, with wagons transporting personal items, and riding horses while infantrymen walked. However, some soldiers escaped these standards — raiders.
Raids distracted enemy troops and disrupted supply lines, while securing horses and supplies, and allowing visits to loved ones. Confederate raider General John Hunt Morgan effected confusion and frustration when his telegrapher, George "Lightning" Ellsworth, sent deceptive orders and taunts to Union commanders and would-be captors, including General Henry W. Halleck. Morgan’s "Great Raid" (1863) through Indiana and Ohio, despite orders to raid Louisville, resulted in his capture. However, he escaped, resumed his command, and disobeyed orders while raiding Cynthiana (1864). Union officers shot and killed the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy" when he disobeyed direct orders in September 1864.
Guerrillas often raided without discretion. The Union equated Rebel raiders, guerrillas. However, "bushwhackers" were Unionists — sometimes under orders — who shot Rebel volunteers before enlistment. Most guerrillas, though, were outlaws from both sides. Attempting control, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette implemented an 1863 law that essentially punished civilians for unreported attacks; but victims faced retaliation if they turned in guerrillas. By 1864, General Stephen Burbridge, charged with control, ordered four guerrilla prisoners shot for each Unionist killed. Indiscriminate enforcement caused executions of legitimate Confederate prisoners.
<i>Louisville Journal</i> editor George Prentice mocked Gen. Burbridge by "reporting" fictional guerrilla Sue Mundy’s escapades. Despite Prentice’s denial, many believe Confederate guerrilla M. Jerome Clarke (hanged in 1865) inspired him. Gen. Burbridge never obtained control, and guerrillas plagued Kentucky even after the war.
Ravages of the Civil War afflicted Kentucky into the Reconstruction era. People attempted to repair communities destroyed by a broken economy and a death toll of approximately 11,000 soldiers, though politics still divided many relationships. Despite attempted neutrality, warfare wounded the land and society, and Kentucky again became "dark and bloody ground."