One hundred-fifty years ago, the War Between the States in Kentucky essentially ended in October 1862 with the tactical Confederate victory at the Battle of Perryville that, ironically, resulted in a strategic victory for the Federal forces. To be sure, Lexington’s Gen. John Hunt Morgan would continue his non-traditional cavalry raids as late as June 1864, and the infamous guerilla William Quantrill carried out a raid on Feb. 2, 1865. But the rearview mirror of history tells us that Kentucky was solidly secured for the North (and not the “neutral” state Gov. Beriah Magoffin had hoped for).
That’s one of the problems with history: we know how the story ends. Not so those who lived in the moment. Only after Perryville did the Federal forces apparently come to appreciate Lexington’s strategic importance as a rail center.
As William M. Ambrose observes in his unpublished manuscript, “Defenses of the Bluegrass,” the railroads had come into their own during the decade before the war, and by 1861 Kentucky had 450 miles of rail, most converging in Lexington.
“The importance of railroads in the supply chain is reflected in the following statistics,” Ambrose writes. “An army of 100,000 men required 1,600 tons of supplies per day. A traditional military horse wagon could haul one ton of supplies 10 miles per day. The wagon required a teamster with four horses. An army 100 miles from its supply base required 1,600 wagons per day. One boxcar could hold 10 tons of goods, 40 soldiers, or eight horses. One train of 10 boxcars had the capacity to ship 100 tons over 100 miles per day. The train could be operated with five men. An army could be supplied by 16 trains per day.”
Lexington is located at the center of a state that would serve as the gateway to the Upper South and ensure control of the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers. Lexington was also at the junction of the Kentucky Central Railroad to Cincinnati and the combined operations of the Lexington & Frankfort and Louisville & Frankfort railways to the River City.
Once Maj. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s Rebel army was pushed out of Kentucky, Lexington was well-suited as the railhead for supplies shipped downriver from Pittsburgh and Wheeling. A fourth railroad, the Lexington & Danville, extended six miles south of Nicholasville. (Funding for a bridge across the Kentucky River to be built by John A. Roebling of Brooklyn Bridge fame ran out in 1855.) As a result, Camp Nelson was established in June 1863 as a supply head for military operations in central Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, as well as a training camp for the “U.S. Colored Troops.”
Following the Confederate retreat in October 1862, Federal presence in Lexington was substantially increased. Gen. Green Clay Smith commanded a training garrison of 3,000 new recruits, joining police officers from Cincinnati to patrol the town’s streets. After repairs were made to the miles of track torn up during the invasion, the 118th Ohio Infantry was assigned to protect the Kentucky Central north of Lexington, and from October until the day after Christmas 1862, the 18th Ohio Independent Light Artillery occupied Lexington.
At the same time, Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore was assigned the task of overseeing constructing defenses for the railroads in central Kentucky – Gillmore would go on to command the Department of the South, and is remembered for commanding the assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. While in Kentucky, however, he designed and implemented a series of blockhouses to guard railroad bridges, the first being at Paris on the north side of Houston Creek between the railroad and the Cynthiana Pike. Similar forts protected bridges all the way north to Covington.
To protect the vital railroad junction at Lexington, but not the town itself, Fort Clay was built on what was called Constitution Hill just south of the Versailles Road, overlooking the junction (above what is now the Norfolk Southern yards). The fort, a rectangular design oriented north and south, had a magazine, well and drawbridge. Completed in April 1863, it was surrounded by a ditch protected by pointed stakes to repulse a cavalry charge. Armament included eight 20-pound Parrott cannons, a six-pound rifled James cannon, a 12-pound brass howitzer and two 10-mortars.
Initially, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry was assigned to the fort. Other Yankee units in and around Lexington included the 9th New Hampshire Infantry, 7th Rhode Island Infantry and 47th Kentucky Mounted Infantry.
In June 1864, Gen. Morgan received permission to raid Kentucky with the express purpose of destroying the Kentucky Central. The raiders first captured Mt. Sterling, but quickly left for Lexington on June 10, with the Federals in hot pursuit. That evening, Morgan demanded the surrender of Fort Clay, but was shelled “vigorously” in defense of the rail lines. The raiders were successful in igniting a fire near the Lunatic Asylum (Eastern State Hospital) and the government corral (today’s Corral Street behind Central Christian Church.)
The following day, Morgan left for Cynthiana, with more than $10,000 from the Branch Bank of Kentucky and a number of Ashland’s Thoroughbreds. Two days later, Union Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge defeated Morgan handily at Cynthiana, forcing his retreat to Virginia.
In what was a classic example of “closing the barn after the horses had escaped,” Fort Crittenden was ordered constructed near today’s Breckinridge and Shropshire streets. It would not be fully completed before the war ended in April 1865. Two other earthworks were started at Clay’s Ferry and lower Tates Creek Road, but likewise never completed.
On August 30, 1865, the last Federal troops in Lexington were mustered out.