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A House Divided:

The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54


By Chris Oakley

Part 4


adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com



Summary: In the first three episodes of this series we looked at the causes of the Southern Rebellion War, the early battles of the war itself, the Union’s introduction of ironclad naval vessels in an attempt to get the upper hand over the Confederacy, and how the death of General Ethan Allen Hitchcock led to a shakeup in Millard Fillmore’s presidential cabinet. In this episode we’ll delve into the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1852 and the Union Army’s fight to turn back the invaders.


The Confederate thrust into Kentucky threw the Union Army general staff into an uproar. It wasn’t so much the invasion itself that alarmed them as where the Confederate Army had chosen to mount it; General Scott and his field commanders knew that the further the Confederates penetrated into the Bluegrass State, the more likely it was that the cities of Louisville and Frankfort(the state capital) would fall and Kentucky would defect to the Confederate side. There was also concern that Confederate forces might use Kentucky as a staging area for an attack on the rear flank of the Union armies on the Appalachian front.

Last but not least, there were grave fears that a successful Confederate occupation of Kentucky would set the stage for an attempt in the near-future by Confederate troops to seize the rich farmland of Midwestern states like Indiana and Ohio. Such a move would cripple the Union’s ability to keep its troops and civilian population supplied with food, and Union Secretary of War Philip Kearney was determined to avert that grim contingency at any cost.

Kearney ordered a swift counterattack against the Confederate invaders...


...and the Union forces in the west were only too eager to fulfill his directive. On June 19th, 1852, two weeks after the first Confederate thrust into Kentucky, Union cavalry regiments confronted the advance columns of the Confederate invasion force head-on. Both sides fought like wildcats, and in the process incurred some of the heaviest casualties which either side had yet seen in the Southern Rebellion War. Bodies stacked up like cordwood as the Confederates attempted to expand their foothold on Kentucky soil and Union troops fought to push them back.

For a while it seemed as though the battle for the Bluegrass State would be decided in favor of the Confederate Army; by July 2nd, just under a month after the invasion had started, Confederate Army regiments held a stretch of territory extending from Middlesboro to Paintsville and preliminary strategies were being drafted for a series of diversionary raids into West Virginia.

But as the old saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men can sometimes go astray-- and so it went for Confederate regiments in Kentucky. On July 7th, a regimental commander for one of the field artillery units supporting the Confederate offensive was killed in what was initially thought to be a Union sniper attack but later found to have been a "friendly fire" mishap; the loss of this commander, a battle-hardened veteran of the Mexican War and the First Battle of Petersburg, would not only deal a sharp blow to Confederate morale but also seriously disrupt the Confederate Army’s timetable for the next phase of its campaign to bring Kentucky into the CRA fold.

While the Confederates were trying to recover from this death, the Union Army marshaled its forces for a bid to retake the advantage on the Kentucky front. Even as the Confederate Army was burying its dead from the first stage of the Kentucky campaign, Union regiments in Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia were lining up to strike at the weaker points of the Confederate lines to commence the second stage. General Kearny was determined to push the rebels off Kentucky soil, no matter what the cost.

So on July 13th, 1852 Union artillery and cavalry unleashed a devastating attack against a group of tired and famished infantrymen on one of the thinner points of the western sectors of the Confederate lines in that state. It was the first salvo in a furious offensive which would ultimately shatter the Confederate front in Kentucky and deal a substantial blow to Confederate Army morale in the weeks and months ahead. Under relentless pressure from Union attacks the western portion of the C.R.1 Army’s Kentucky front gradually became weaker and weaker; in early August it collapsed altogether.

Once the western part of the Confederate lines in Kentucky broke, it was only a question of time before the central and eastern sections disintegrated as well. Throughout the remainder of August, Union Army troops kept the Confederates on the defensive, pushing them further and further back towards the Kentucky-Tennessee state line; by early September they had been driven all the way back to Dale Hollow Lake. This did not sit well with President Toombs or his generals-- they’d been counting on the Kentucky campaign to tip the scales of the war in the CRA’s favor, and instead it was turning out to be doing the cause of Southern independence more harm than good.

On September 8th Confederate forces dug in east of the Tennessee town of Eagan and prepared to ambush Union troops who were trying to reach the northern banks of Norris Lake.2 The Confederate general staff knew all too well that if Union regiments succeeded in crossing the lake, it would open the door for the dangerous possibility of a Union Army thrust on Knoxville; therefore, it was imperative that the Union forces’ southward advance be stopped, or at least slowed to a crawl. In Knoxville itself, volunteers were digging trenches and organizing home guard units in preparation for the danger of what might happen to their city should the Norris Lake ambush fail. Some civilians, unsure that any of these measures would work, had already fled Knoxville for the perceived shelter of distant Chattanooga or one of the many small towns stretched along the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Early on the afternoon of September 12th, Union Army advance units made contact with the Confederate forces dug in near Eagan. At first, the ambush tactic seemed to be working; the Union drive Norris Lake slowed to a crawl and then stopped completely. A Confederate infantry platoon commander telegraphed his superiors-- prematurely, it turned out --that the Union troops were losing the battle and would probably retreat back to the Tennessee-Kentucky border before 12 noon the next day.

But as the afternoon wore on, and then became evening, it started to become clear that the Union forces had no intention of retreating. In fact, at one or two points along the Confederate lines Union Army troops were beginning to punch through, a fact which greatly disturbed the citizens of Eagan and heartened Union commanders. Around 10:30 AM on the morning of September 13 the Confederate defenses around Eagan, frayed by hours of relentless Union rifle and artillery fire, finally collapsed and Union infantry surged forward to take Eagan itself. Just over three days later Union Army forward detachments would reach-- and then cross-- the northern edge of Norris Lake.

Before long, the flow of refugees pouring out of Knoxville would become a torrent.


It had been just over two years since the ‘Compromise of 1850’ bill was defeated when a naval skirmish took place that would change the rules of maritime warfare forever. In the short term it hardly had much effect on the course of the war; in the long run, however, it would become the first domino to fall in a chain of dominoes that would eventually climax with the death of the Confederate Republic. The Plymouth Rock, many if not all of the bugs now worked out of her system, was on a routine interdiction patrol off the Carolinas when she encountered the Confederate Navy ironclad Savannah, the first successful such warship to enter Confederate service. Plymouth Rock sighted Savannah around 3:30 PM on the afternoon of September 22nd, 1852...


To Be Continued



[1] Confederate Republic.

[2] Site of the present-day Norris Dam.


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