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Tactically Sound, Strategically Inept: Union and Confederate Missteps in Neutral Kentucky, 1861

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Technical Report,01 Jul 2017,31 May 2018

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U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth United States

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In May 1861, Kentucky declared neutrality in the burgeoning US Civil War. Both the Union and Confederacy vied for the states loyalty by overtly respecting its neutrality and covertly currying support within it. By August 1861, the Union appeared to have the upper hand. Pro-Union supporters had won recent local elections and a Union recruitment camp was operating within the states borders. However, the Unions gains were nearly erased when Union General John C. Fremont declared all slaves in Missouri free on August 30, 1861. This proclamation caused an uproar in slave-holding Kentucky. The state threatened to tilt toward the Confederacy when, just days after Fremonts proclamation, Confederate General Leonidas Polk ordered troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky. With its neutrality overtly violated by Polk, Kentucky declared its loyalty to the Union on September 18, 1861. Both Fremonts and Polks actions were contrary to the policies of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Why did two senior military commanders ignore the strategic implications of their tactical actions Using Eliot Cohens unequal dialogue as a standard, this monograph argues that neither commander engaged in an adequate dialogue with their respective policymaker. A dialogue which adhered to Cohens model could have avoided disaster for either commander. Additionally, both commanders inexperience at military command, ignorance of Kentuckys political situation, and exclusive focus on tactical issues contributed to their mistakes. Fremonts and Polks actions serve as an important lesson for current and future military leaders charged with implementing policy.

Subject Categories:

  • Humanities and History
  • Military Forces and Organizations

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