The Barren River Defensive
The Opening of Tennessee to Invasion

     When General Albert Sydney Johnston assumed command in the western department his chief objective was to block the mounting federals from western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee from threatening the safety of the valley of Mississippi. The Union army would utilize the winter in the west to collect such a large force and take advantage of the river systems throughout the Volunteer State, welcoming the columns of soldiers marching inland from the east.

     The department commander had noted the strong defensive position of Bowling Green, however; in an effort to defend the Barren River which flowed before it, a large force would be required to hold it. The second highest ranking general in the Confederate States had only about 17,000 men with him. Calls had been made upon the governor of Mississippi as well as other states but the response had been such as to meet the emergency with insufficient numbers.

     The federal commanders had collected themselves such a force in withdrawing their troops from Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky in addition to the new levies from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, that perhaps seventy five thousand would be mounted against him. The Barren River defense could not be given up without leaving the door wide open into Tennessee while forfeiting precious ground to their adversary.

     Writing to Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi for an additional ten to fifteen thousand men induced with the same ardor that enjoined them all in their struggle for independence, would give the Confederate general a sufficient enough force to go out and meet the enemy, holding the line proposed.

     On Christmas Day of 1861, General Johnston warned Isham G. Harris, the Governor of Tennessee about the accumulation of federal numbers in his front intended on invading his state along the route of Nashville. The Confederate forces along the interior had been spread thin and could not be spared from the roles they were playing in protecting the lines of communication between Mississippi and the Atlantic seacoast. Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer was not only protecting the eastern portion of the state, he was poised to put down any revolts from a vast number of union loyalists who desired to take action against secessionist combatants. The direct route to Nashville was the most vulnerable.

     As the year was coming to an end, Major General Leonidas Polk managed to send forward the command of Colonel John S. Bowen along with various regiments and commands which bolstered the line another five thousand men. Grateful for the manpower, it was all that could be sent from the quarter of Columbus, Kentucky.

     The governor of Tennessee responded from Nashville on the last day of the year that laborers were being collected to construct the fortifications around the capital and was hopeful that within a few days he would have employed a couple hundred negro men making altogether about five hundred in number. Volunteers had presently been in camp, under orders to move to the rendezvous. There were enough companies to form six additional infantry regiments along with two battalions of cavalry.

     Harris had drawn troops from two separate sections of his state, the western portion recruited in droves for the Confederate armies, and the eastern half, making up one third of the state's population had been slower to yield in its overwhelming desire to remain within the union. The governor still believed that given a little more time, the revolts in that portion would soon be put down and drawing manpower from that quarter should increase. With no arsenal within the state which could have armed new conscripts rapidly, the weapons that came along had to first be inspected by the local gunsmith's before being approved for Confederate service. Under the present emergency, Tennessee would experience these difficulties in providing the manpower asked for.

     During the first week of 1862, General Johnston reported to the Confederate War Department that the brigade of Brigadier General John B. Floyd had joined his command, and at that moment his defense force amounted to roughly twenty three thousand. Fifty thousand bushels of corn were ordered to the immediate vicinity along with five to eight thousand hogs, salt beef and pork, to provision his army for the next four months.

     With great disappointment, however; the department commander was in receipt of a telegram on January 7th, from Governor Pettus of Mississippi for General Johnston to send all companies raised under his call to Major General Mansfield Lovell. The general was of the opinion, however that the greatest danger to Mississippi was the great invasion now being mounted in his front near Bowling Green. All the troops Johnston could spare had already been sent to the gulf to remedy the possibility of a coastal landing, and all re-enforcements were now required to be with him.

     Flustered with the insufficiency of numbers in his quarter, he made one last effort of petitioning Judah P. Benjamin, the Secretary of War for sufficient forces to cover the line along the Barren River. Equality of numbers was something unnecessarily required to hold the position the general felt so strongly about; but in hopes that it could be accomplished the present army of twenty three thousand would stand a greater chance of success if an additional twenty seven thousand could be added to it. If the War Department permitted a brigade here or there from the other armies serving in the field, such numbers would be replaced by new levies as this bought them time they did not have at that moment.

     The Adjutant General of Tennessee, Washington Curran Whitthorne had published an order that no companies, battalions or regiments be mustered in for service without having been properly armed first. Tennessee, as an interior state had no arsenals to speak of prior to the outbreak of war. For this reason, volunteers had been accepted previously as they presented themselves. The sparse population of the state and the inability to arm them caused Tennessee to impress the private arms of citizens into the service. Those which were serviceable were issued to the volunteers.

     The states of Tennessee, Mississippi and the Confederate government as a whole could not meet the demand fast enough, however. Just before midday on February 6, 1862, the soldiers in blue that General Johnston had hoped to keep out of Tennessee had moved forward with the precise objective previously feared; straight up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers pushing all Confederate resistance out of Kentucky altogether. The Barren River, abandoned by lack of numbers, left the invasion of the Volunteer State wide open. The rebel forces would have collect at a later time spilling much of their blood in an effort to control it once again.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2006

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at