Volunteer soldiers had barely gathered in training camps and organized into units in the summer of 1862 (see August 2012 feature) when Illinois Governor Richard Yates began to receive panicked messages calling for the new regiments to be sent forward to protect Kentucky against rebel invasion. Confederate armies were on the move, hoping to take back territory lost earlier in the year.
The Confederate government and its armed forces were determined to regain ground lost during the spring and summer of 1862. The capture in February by federal armies of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, Grant’s hard-won victory in April at Shiloh, and the May capture of Corinth in northern Mississippi had driven most rebel forces from Kentucky and Tennessee. Union forces also threatened to capture Chattanooga, which could then be used as a base for operations against the Deep South.
Confederates hoped to retake much of Tennessee and of Kentucky by strikes to the north, aiming for the Ohio River and important cities—Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio – that lay on its banks. Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding Confederate forces at Knoxville, Tennessee, would first attempt to clear the Cumberland Gap of federal troops. He would then link with army of General Braxton Bragg to drive the federals from middle Tennessee. Smith moved in mid-August, soon forcing Union troops in the region to retreat to the Ohio River. On September 1 he captured Lexington, in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region.
Bragg moved his army north, marching from Chattanooga on August 28. He headed for the Bluegrass, intending to link with Smith but also hoping to gain recruits and supplies for his army. Several small clashes with federal troops took place as Bragg’s federal opponent, Major General Don C. Buell, retreated northward toward Louisville, carefully keeping his army between the Confederates and the Ohio River.
Illinois responds to the growing fear
As the Confederate plan unfolded, federal commanders showed great concern. On August 24, Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the Department of the Ohio—which included the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and central and eastern Kentucky—wrote Illinois Governor Richard Yates to “Send your troops here [Louisville, Kentucky] as rapidly as possible.” Wright needed to counter the move of Smith’s Confederates, said to be “in large force” near Richmond, Kentucky. Yates responded the same day, “I am doing everything in my power to send troops.” About 50,000 Illinoisans had been recruited, but a lack of mustering officers prevented units from being organized and sent to the front. Yates reported to Wright that he hoped to be able to send from sixteen to twenty-five infantry regiments during the next two weeks.
At the same time he was appealed to for soldiers to Kentucky, Yates make efforts to secure Illinois itself from the possibility of invasion by Confederates or rebellion by disloyal citizens. On August 25 it was announced that “In order to protect the State from raids without and rebel sympathizers within,” camps would be established at Quincy, Jonesboro, Chester, and Shawneetown. “It will be seen by these dispositions of troops the Governor is protecting the flanks of the State from guerilla raids, and also looking to this possible contingency of secession sympathizers at home. The Governor originally urged this disposition of troops, but other officers did not think them necessary.”
On August 30 General Wright again telegraphed Governor Yates from Cincinnati asking, “When and how fast can regiments and batteries be forwarded from your State? Let them all go to Louisville as fast as transportation to that point is available. Buell seems to be in a tight place, and a force for his relief must be collected… The troops must do the best they can without tents till supply can be obtained.” That was followed three days later by yet another telegram, this one declaring, “It is of last importance that fifteen regiments be sent from Illinois at once. Seize all transportation and send them forward as fast as possible.” The governor responded by sending “telegraphic imperative orders to all parts of the State where troops are located” fornewly organized regiments to move for Kentucky.
Governor Yates offers advice
On September 15, as Confederate armies continued their advance in the East and the West, Governor Yates issued a proclamation to the people of Illinois, criticizing the Lincoln administration for its conduct of the war and offering suggestions for change. Firstly, the government was too soft in dealing with traitors. “By reason of the conciliatory policy of the General Government, disagreements among our Generals, or some other cause, the rebels have succeeded not only in regaining the ground they had lost in front of Washington, but have also undertaken the daring project of invading the loyal states…” He called on the federal government to create a reserve force of one million armed and equipped men, to be ready to move at any time to any place of danger. All the stops should be pulled out. “We should ever be ready to march upon the enemy with an overwhelming force. We should make the very earth tremble beneath the feet of our well trained and invincible battalions.”
In closing, Yates wrote that there might be problems aplenty, but “I shall never, so help me God, harbor any other idea than that of an unshaken faith in the re-establishment of an unbroken and perpetual union of all the States. I do not know the councils of Almighty God; but at least I may be permitted to believe, that it is not in the plans of Providence to permit the destruction of the noble fabric of government—the temple of civil and religious freedom, the beacon of light to oppressed nations, the hope of humanity now and forever.”
A turning point?
Days after Yates issued his message to the people of Illinois, one portion of the Confederate advance began to recede, when the Army of the Potomac won a victory against the Army of Northern Virginia at the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Losses on both sides were high, but the rebels retreated across the Potomac River, ending Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the loyal states.
The situation in Kentucky, however, remained grim for the friends of the Union. Bragg and Smith remained on the move, sparking panic in Ohio River cities such as Louisville and Cincinnati. General Wright continued his frantic calls on northern governors to hurry troops to the field “as fast as they can be mustered and armed. The rebels are passing rapidly northward and must be met with larger forces than we yet have. Every day is of importance.” On September 23 he again begged Yates to hasten new Illinois regiments to Kentucky, as Louisville “is seriously threatened by Bragg.” Ten days later he telegraphed, “It is of the utmost importance that the new regiments be got ready… Delay is ruinous. One regiment now is worth more than many would be a few weeks hence.” Yates and other state officials worked frantically to move the men south.
A week later, on October 8, the armies of Bragg and Buell stumbled into battle at Perryville, Kentucky. Several of the new Illinois infantry regiments took part in the action, often fighting beside more experienced troops. The 123rd Illinois Infantry was raw to the point of never having taken part in a battalion drill. Most of the new units acquitted themselves well in their first combat. At Perryville Buell won a victory, of sorts. Confederate foreces retreated to the southeast, and the invasion of Kentucky came to a close.
Interested in learning more?
A recent account of the Kentucky campaign of late 1862 is found in: Earl J. Hess, Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River. Much of the correspondence between General Wright and state officials in Springfield is found in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies… series 1, volume 16, part 2