One of the most significant pieces of State legislation was enacted in 1860 when the Kentucky Legislature made provisions for the organization of the Kentucky Militia into a State Guard. These new acts divided the entire Militia into three classes: active or voluntary Militia to be known as the State Guard, the enrolled Militia, and the Militia of reserve. The passage of the State Guard law and the unsettled condition of national affairs at the same time stimulated the organization of these State Guard companies. This active drilling was conducted with such fervor that what once had been ridiculed, as a "corn stalk Militia" became the best-drilled troops in the West.
A report made by the Kentucky Adjutant General in 1861 showed 45 companies' "admirable drilled in rifle tactics, handsomely uniformed, fully armed and equipped." During the same time further emphasis was placed on the State's Guard when the Legislature appropriated three-quarters million dollars for the Guard's munitions with the explicit stipulation that none of these munitions were to be used against the United States or the Confederate States except to repel invasions by one or the other. The assertion of States rights by the Confederacy, through secession, brought Kentucky face to face with the problem of allegiance to one of the two counterpart contenders, though for some time she had assumed an outward appearance of neutrality.
Numerous public addresses, resolutions of State legislature, actions by municipalities, looking toward neutrality or belligerence, and official visits to Kentucky, as well as tempting offers for private gain, were at work determining the factual allegiance of Kentuckians. In 1861, these individual allegiances were manifested by individuals and groups leaving one state to join the Union Army on one hand, or the Confederate forces on the other.
Because of the strategic importance of Kentucky, and because of the internal discord, many unusual and unprecedented events, which had a direct effect on the Kentucky State Guard, took place during the early years of the Civil War. One such event occurred in 1861 when the Federal government sent 5,000 muskets into Kentucky for distribution to what was termed as "faithful and reliable Union men." Because this had been done without any authority of the State, the Kentucky Legislature considered this an offensive act, and an investigation of this action, as well as an investigation of pro-Confederate activity within the State, ensued. In conjunction with this came the appropriation by the Legislature for $75,000 to purchase arms and accouterments, to be equitably divided between the State and the home Guard. These home Guards were exclusively for home defense and were not subject to call to service outside of its county. The intended purpose of this bolstering of the Guard was to ensure that Kentucky's Arms Neutrality Proclamation was enforced. This was evidenced by reiterated legislative decree that neither the Militia nor the State Arms were to be used against the governments of the United States or the Confederate States, unless in protecting Kentucky soil.
However, this legislative intent was aborted when, in the spring and summer of 1861, many Kentucky militiamen and even entire companies left the State to take sides in one or the other armed forces. The importance attached by each Army to prospective Kentucky enlistees was demonstrated by the fact that the Confederate Army established Camp Boone near Clarksville, Tennessee, and the Union Army created Camp Clay across the Ohio at Newport and also Camp Joe Holt across from Louisville. The obvious appeal to Kentuckians was denoted by the Camp's name and was designed for maximum convenience to Kentuckians wishing to take up arms.
The Union Army was first to violate Kentucky's policy of neutrality by establishing Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County. The President on the basis of "urgent solicitation of many Kentuckians" justified this action which prompted much legislative debate of what action Kentucky should take. The result of this move came in September 1861 when, over the Governor's veto, the Legislature committed Kentucky to the Union cause and declared war on the Confederacy. This legislative act had the unintended effect of prompting an even heavier flow of troops, including Kentucky Militia Men, to join the Confederate Army at Camp Boone where they formed a Confederate Brigade which soon thereafter returned to occupy Bowling Green.
Also, indicative of the spontaneous reaction of Kentuckians was the action by one thousand former Guardsmen under command of John C. Breckinridge who left for service in the Confederate Army of Virginia. Hysteria prevailed and practically unlimited powers were conferred on Kentucky's State Militia Board by the Legislature, giving the Board the right to order into its own custody the State Army or to abolish the State Guard. This precaution was too late: the State Guard or active Militia had almost entirely been absorbed into the Confederate Army. The remaining State Guard, numbering about 42,000, was directed by the Legislature to be mustered out.
Under the laws of the Confederate Army, a sovereignty convention was held in Russellville, Kentucky, in November of 1861. The Kentucky militiamen were placed in the peculiar position of owing a dual Militia duty in that Militiaman could be penalized by either faction for failure to render service to the respective side. However, this had little apparent effect during the ensuing war, as many skirmishes took place between the home Guard and Kentuckians serving with the Confederate forces. Another unusual repercussion of the War was evidenced when the Secretary of War of the United States proposed that Kentucky slaves be armed and placed in the service of the Guard.
The Kentucky Legislature responded to this by petitioning the President to dismiss his Secretary of War. The significance of Kentucky to the Union side was best summed up when a Boston preacher stated in a sermon that Lincoln would like to have God on his side, but in order to win the War he must have Kentucky. The Battle of Shiloh typified the Kentucky Militia's divided stand during the War in that the First, Second and Third Kentucky Cavalry; the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Eleventh, Thirteenth, Seventeenth, Twentieth, Twenty-third, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Kentucky Infantry fought for the Union while the Third, Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Kentucky Regiments of Infantry and two Kentucky Artillery Batteries were on the side of the Confederate forces.
In this Battle, Kentucky's provisional Governor George W. Johnson was killed while serving as a private in the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry (CSA). The total contribution of Kentuckians fighting for the Confederacy was ten Regiments of Infantry, ten Regiments of several Battalions of Cavalry, and five Batteries of Artillery, while Kentuckians on the Union side composed 52 Regiments of Infantry, 15 Regiments of Cavalry, and six Batteries of Artillery. By the spring of 1862, Kentucky had virtually lost all power over her Militia; the Union had stationed a provost marshal in every Kentucky county, which controlled all intrastate military affairs. But even this measure was not adequate to prevent one of the most illustrious Kentuckians, General John Hunt Morgan, from fighting in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, conducting operations throughout Kentucky. Spectacular raids created so much fear and consternation in Kentucky that the Union Commandant of Kentucky issued an order that every able-bodied man take up arms and aid in repelling Morgan. It was further commanded that every man who did not wish to take up arms in this cause was to stay in his home or be shot down. This was to no avail since General Morgan and the 24-day raid into Kentucky, originating from Knoxville, Tennessee, with 900 men, was completed with few casualties. Three hundred recruits traveled some 1,000 miles, captured 17 Kentucky towns, destroyed all government supplies in these towns, captured 300 horses, and dispersed between 1,500 home Guard controlling 1,000 regular troops.
On a later raid in coordination with other Confederate troops, the Legislature felt that Morgan posed such an eminent threat that they retired to safety at Louisville and passed an act authorizing the formation of home Guard companies to be composed of males between 16 and 65 years of age. Despite the efforts of the Legislature, Morgan's men were welcomed into Lexington and proceeded to facilitate the setting up of a Provisional State and Confederate Capitol at Frankfort. As the War progressed and the South was forced to withdraw troops from Kentucky, more and more pressure was put on the State government to provide men.
Over 100,000 Kentuckians served in the war, 64,000 Union, 25,000 Confederate. Of these, 10,774 Union and 19,226 Confederate soldiers were casualties. Another 13,000 served as members of the Unionist Kentucky State Guard within the Commonwealth, guarding bridges and other installations. Noted Kentuckians in the war included Confederate Generals Albert Sidney Johnston, John Cabell Breckinridge, Simon Bolivar Buckner, John Hunt Morgan and Humphrey Marshall.
The Crittenden family furnished two general officers; one brother, George B., went to the Confederacy, and Thomas, to the Union. Kentucky provided nine other Union generals including William (Bull) Nelson and Jeremiah Tilford Boyle, and 23 other Confederate general officers. Major encounters and campaigns within the state were at Wildcat Mountain, Perryville, Mill Springs, Richmond, Belmont, and Cumberland Gap.
The Confederates took the state capital at Frankfort in September 1862, making it the only Union capital captured by the Confederacy during the war. The capital was threatened a second time in 1863 by John Hunt Morgan's command.