June 9, 1861: Kentucky’s neutrality

Kentucky's neutrality
Governor Magoffin’s neutrality means holding the cock of the walk (Uncle Sam) while the confederate cat (Jeff Davis) kills off his chickens — Cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, June, 1861

Kentucky did not secede; as a border state, its position was one of neutrality. The exact terms of that neutrality were a bit contentious, as we see from this incident near Cairo.

From the New York Times’ Illinois correspondent, “Zouave”:

CAMP DEFIANCE, CAIRO, Sunday, June 9, 1861.

Last evening, Gen. PRENTISS was honored by a communication from another of those patriotic sons of Kentucky, who are so eager to protect her “Sacred soil” from pollution by the presence of the lawful troops of the Government to which her citizens owes paramount allegiance, while they tolerate so amiably the invasion and occupancy of armed traitors, avowedly nursing disloyal sentiments and inaugurating enterprises whose fit punishment is the gallows. In this case, however, the fool so palpably predominates over the hypocrite, that the latter gravitates into the realm of the ridiculous. A doctor in Paducah, to whom Gov. MAGOFFIN once wrote a letter concerning a Mass-meeting to be held in his neighborhood, has succeeded, through a miraculous elasticity of logic, in so extending his “little brief authority,” as to furnish him a warrant for controlling the movements of the army of the United States.

The letter, with Gen. PRENTISS’ reply, so well illustrates the folly of those instruments employed by rebellion, and the practical good sense with which their impertinences are met, that I subjoin both.

PADUCAH, Ky., Saturday, June 8, 1861.
To Gen. Prentiss, commanding forces at Cairo, Illinois.

SIR: Inclosed please find a copy of my instructions from His Excellency, the Governor of Kentucky, which, among other things, required that I shall “restrain any infraction of the attitude of self-defence as assumed by the State. Especially you will restrain all movements looking to a disregard of the authority of the State in her sovereign relations.”

The immediate occasion of the note is this: I have received positive information that a large body of the troops under your command, with arms in their hands, and under command of United States officers, crossed over from Cairo on Thursday last to disperse a body of unarmed militia, which had assembled for military instruction, in the county of Ballard, agreeably to the laws of this State; that they place guards around the houses and over the persons of our citizens on their march, to prevent intelligence of their approach from being communicated and other steps, all wearing the appearance of hostile intentions.

The Governor and people of Kentucky had hoped that after the declaration of their neutrality they would have been left free from menace or taunt, to solve for themselves the momentous questions which so imminently threaten the peace of the State, and which in other States has resulted in the overthrow of the civil and the substitution of the military authority, and carrying in their train of evils bloodshed and anarchy.

I shall hope to hear from you by the return of Lieut. GERARD, the bearer hereof.

I have the honor to be, &c., &c.,

The following is a copy of the instructions of Gov. MAGOFFIN to Dr. JOHNSON, to which he refers in the above letter.


DEAR SIR: Rumors have reached me to the effect that a mass meeting of the Southern portion of the State will be held at May field on Monday next, the 27th inst., and apprehending that measures may be taken detrimental to the domestic peace of this State, you are requested to attend its session, and lay before the citizens assembled there my proclamation of the 20th May, and enjoin upon them a true and sincere observance of its recommendations. You will please exert your utmost influence to induce, upon the part of those citizens and others in that region of the State, a respect for the position held by Kentucky, as set out in that proclamation, and to restrain from any infraction of the attitude of self defence as assumed by the State. Especially you will restrain all movements looking to a disregard of the authority of the State in her sovereign relations.

Report to me what you do in the premises. Respectfully yours,

(Signed) B. MAGOFFIN.

To these State Sovereignty documents, Gen. PRENTISS returned the following pointed reply:

To Dr. J.M. Johnson:

SIR: I received your letter of this date, and have read it carefully. Permit me to say that I hold myself responsible to my Government for my official acts.

Trusting you will assure Union citizens of Kentucky that I am ready to render aid to them at all times when solicited, and believing that my Government will approve of my course in this, I remain,

Yours respectfully, B.M. PRENTISS,
Brig.-Gen. First Brig. Ill. Volunteers.

Last evening a deputation of citizens of Mound City, a few miles above Cairo, on the Ohio, visited Gen. PRENTISS, and stated that a plan had been revealed, by which the rebels intended to make a night raid on the town, destroying the Marine Railway there, and a foundry capable of being used, if needed, for Government purposes. To guard against any such contingency, ten companies from Col. COOK’S Regiment were sent up to-day, under command of Capt. JOSLYN, to occupy the point.

There was a dispatch received to-day, from St. Louis, to the effect that JEFF. THOMPSON would arrive here on the Meteor steamer. An examination was instituted, on the arrival of the Meteor, but the disunion ex-Mayor of St. Joseph proved to be non est.

Since the stoppage of the malls South, we get news from that quarter with more difficulty. Appearances indicate that all eyes are turned on Virginia, except so far as defence is undertaken against a threatened attack from Cairo.


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