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Rebels seize Frankfort, Lexington, threaten Louisville, Cincinnati

Rebels seize Frankfort, Lexington, threaten Louisville, Cincinnati


  (August 31, 2012) -  On this date in 1862, the Confederate flag fluttered over Frankfort, the only capital of a loyal state captured in the Civil War.

     The Unionist government was gone. Gov. James F. Robinson and the General Assembly were safely in Louisville.

     The goGeneral William Kirby Smith vernment fled on Aug. 31 after lawmakers resolved that “whenever the Governor shall deem the city of Frankfort an unsafe place for the transaction of the public business of the Commonwealth, he is hereby authorized and directed ...to cause the records and archives of the State, to be removed to any other city or town in the Commonwealth to be named by him…and he is directed also to order the public officers who by law hold their offices at the capital…to cause their records to be removed to the city or town designated by him; and the Governor and public officers shall transact the public business at such place and until such time as he believe[s] it safe to return to Frankfort.”

     Robinson chose Louisville. The General Assembly reconvened at the Jefferson County courthouse on September 2.

     The next day, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith showed up in Frankfort with 12,000 troops. He had led his army into Kentucky from Tennessee on Aug. 14.   His advent in the Bluegrass State especially frightened citizens of Cincinnati, who had believed their city was out of harm's way. Now, they worried that Kirby Smith planned to attack them.

    “The pen of man does not suffice to describe the sudden shock that befell our people when they learned that Confederate forces were received with open arms in Kentucky's Blue Grass where their ranks were swelled by volunteers as regrouping was effected to move northward against Louisville and the Queen City of the West, Cincinnati,” a Cincinnati Gazette scribed penned. “This dreadful war which had seemed so far from this area, suddenly gives promise of moving to our doorsteps.”

     The story was not entirely accurate. Southern sympathizers were indeed glad to see the invaders. But they were a minority.

    Kirby Smith’s army was not “swelled by volunteers.”  Indeed, relatively few Kentuckians would join the Rebels during their Kentucky foray, greatly distressing Kirby Smith and Gen. Braxton Bragg, who advanced into the state from Tennessee on Aug. 28 with about 28,000 men.

     “The Confederates had entered the state with the hope and feeling that the people would rise up and welcome them, anxious for relief” from Yankee occupation, E. Merton Coulter wrote in The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky. "They made ample use of propaganda proclamations."

     The PR mostly fell on deaf ears. The Confederates' invasion routes took them through strongly Unionist territory in south-central and southeastern Kentucky, the latter section the most pro-Union part of the state. The Bluegrass, which encompasses Lexington and Frankfort, leaned toward the Union side, too. 

     Nonetheless, the invasion at least began with military success. On Aug. 29-30, about 6,800 of Kirby Smith’s battle-toughened veterans routed 6,500 raw Union recruits at Richmond and killed, wounded or captured about 5,300 of the Yankees.

     The Rebels rolled onward, bagging undefended Lexington on Sept. 1. Two days later, the 1st Louisiana Cavalry led Kirby Smith's forces to Frankfort. Troopers triumphantly raised their battle flag over the capitol building.

     When Louisville Unionists heard the enemy was in Lexington and Frankfort, they fretted that “secesh” soldiers had designs on their city, too. "The panic still prevails," some Union men telegraphed President Lincoln in Washington. "....Unless the State is reinforced with veteran troops Kentucky will be overrun."

     While Louisvillians peered anxiously eastward toward Lexington and Frankfort, Cincinnati citizens gazed with equal trepidation at Covington and Newport on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

     "TO ARMS! TO ARMS!" the Gazette trumpeted. "The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is fast approaching our city. Kentucky has already been invaded and our cities for the first time since the rebellion are seriously threatened."

     The enemy Bragg planned to install a permanent state government of Southern-sympathizing Kentuckians in Frankfort. On Sept. 6, Kirby Smith made Thomas N. Lindsey the Confederate “mayor” of Frankfort, according to Lewis and Richard Collins’ History of Kentucky.

     Lindsey was an ex-state senator and a Unionist Whig turned secessionist Democrat. “A valued and frequent contributor to the press, many of his articles, published in the Democratic papers, gained a widespread circulation and brought down upon him the enmity of the military authorities in Kentucky, so that he retired from political life,” according to Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky, edited by H. Levin.

     Meanwhile, before it adjourned on Sept. 5, the legislature authorized “home guard companies, of free white male citizens between 16 and 65 years, to be organized for home and self-protection,” according to the historians Collins.

     But the most potent protector of Kentucky was Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s army. Buell's force mainly was comprised of men from the Midwest and Kentucky.

     On Sept. 6, the worst fears of Cincinnati dwellers seemed about to come true. Gen. Henry Heth and 5,000 to 6,000 men from Kirby Smith’s army were encamped “a few miles back of Covington,” according to History of Kentucky. The Civil War was indeed on the Queen City’s “doorstep.”

     Yet it remained to be seen whether the Rebels would cross the Ohio and break down the door.

-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at berry.craig@kctcs.edu.

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