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The Civil War Comes to Floyds Fork

| Bob Hill

A little more than 150 years after a panicked Louisville feared it was lost to the Confederates in the Civil War, the historical evidence shows some of that brief military struggle occurred in two places along and above Floyds Fork.

The physical evidence has been a lot harder to come by – save an old shallow trench in Beckley Creek Park off Shelbyville Road that falls dramatically off into Floyds Fork and the words spoken to David Miles by his father, William, who bought the land as a worn-out farm in the 1960s.

“I don’t even recall Dad saying where he learned what he learned about all that,” said David Miles, pointing to the trench near the Oxbow Overlook at Beckley Creek Park. “I just know that he said the trench back here was a Civil War trench.”

The premise makes sense; the Union and Confederate troops had been clashing with each other all up and down what was then Shelbyville Pike and into Middletown in late September, 1862 – with the Confederates often retreating into the low hills on the east side of Floyds Fork, the Union chasing after.

That Floyds Fork bottomland where Miles stood has long since been plowed, reworked, been used to raise hay and graze cattle and even had a road built over it, Yet there’s little to suggest any sort of natural drainage or erosion that would have created the more shallow areas of the trench where many larger trees have now grown – although the deeper part of the trench near Floyds Fork could be water-related.

From a military point of view, a trench a few hundred yards long across the neck of a Floyds Fork loop called “The Oxbow” would have given Confederate soldiers a forward defense area with other troops stationed on the higher ground just behind – and the records show troops were there.

    “Whether it was an actual Civil War trench or not, who knows?” said Miles, “but there it is.”

There’s also no physical evidence found – at least not yet – of the skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops at Floyds Fork and the present Bardstown Road at the far southern end of The Parklands of Floyds Fork, but those skirmishes have also been documented by Louisville attorney and Civil War historian J. Andrew White.

His well-researched manuscript LOUISVILLE: ON THE FINGERTIPS OF AN INVASION – Civil War Engagements in Jefferson County, Kentucky during the 1862 Confederate Invasion, reads, in part:

    “At about the same time that (Confederate) Colonel John Scott was harassing the Federals in Middletown, Colonel John A. Wharton’s (Confederate) brigade was causing similar mischief on the Bardstown Pike.

 “The Bardstown Pike is roughly equivalent to present day Bardstown Road,” White wrote, “although there are numerous deviations from the original roadbed, just as with Shelbyville Road. It is reasonable to assume that Scott’s men and Wharton’s men were in communication with each other as each camped along Floyds Fork…The Fork runs for many miles around the perimeter of Jefferson County…”

What led to these skirmishes along Floyds Fork and the panic that seized  Louisville – then one of the ten biggest cities in the country – and sent it citizens fleeing to Indiana is part of the larger Civil War story.

White wrote that early in the war Kentucky had tried to strike a pose of “armed neutrality,” a hopeless position given the fact its governor was a secessionist, its legislature mostly unionist and its citizens well-armed and passionately divided.

Louisville, the headquarters of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, had become a huge base of Union operations and supply – along with Jeffersonville across the river.  It was about this time that President Lincoln allowed that he hoped God was on his side, but that he must have Kentucky.

By late summer of 1862 the Confederacy was winning battles and campaigns in the eastern theatre of the war, but was not doing well in what was then the western theatre; Kentucky and Tennessee.

So General Braxton Bragg, Commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and General Edmund Kirby Smith, Confederate Commander of the Department of East Tennessee, decided to launch a bold, risky two-pronged attack  into Kentucky, Bragg through central Tennessee and Smith through the Cumberland Gap.

Their hope was to occupy Kentucky, bring it into the Confederacy and add soldiers, weapons and supplies to their cause – as well as disrupting Union supply lines.

Smith’s initial advance went very well; his soldiers took the Cumberland Gap, routed Union troops near Richmond, moved into an undefended Lexington and then took Frankfort, the only capitol of an officially Union state to be occupied during the war – and only 55 miles from Louisville.

Bragg’s forces moved steadily north through Kentucky and into Glasgow on Sept. 13, 1862, and then won a battle and took 4,000 Union prisoners at Munfordville – barely 70 miles from Louisville.

None of this was lost on the Union forces and General Don Carlos Buell, a veteran of the Seminole and Mexican American War, who had led his Army of the Ohio in the capture of Nashville and fought with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh in Tennessee.

Buell quickly  hustled his Union army north from Chattanooga toward lightly defended Louisville in a frantic attempt to beat Bragg’s to the city – with Bragg’s forces already well north of him in Kentucky.

But after his victory at Munfordville, Bragg worried about his supply lines and thought his soldiers might be too tired and battle weary to take on Buell, or Louisville.  He instead headed more northeast to Bardstown – allowing Buell’s equally exhausted forces to reach Louisville first; the two armies narrowly passing each other near Munfordville.

Even then Confederate cavalry was soon roaming the areas east and south of Louisville, taking up positions in and near Middletown and Mt. Washington – and making raids into the far edges of the city, with some citizens in near panic.

      “The military authorities in Louisville ordered evacuation of the city’s women and children into southern Indiana in anticipation of the arrival of the Confederates,” wrote White. “Many civilian men were pressed into service as a citizen’s militia and were issued obsolete Belgian muskets said to be as dangerous to the user as the target.”

Early in the war Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman – whose later total warfare march through South Carolina and Georgia would earn him enduring respect and hatred – was commanding officer in Louisville. He would seek to protect rail and boat traffic with the establishment of Fort Duffield, which can still be seen at West Point, KY – a fort which later aided the Union cause.

As the Confederate raiders pushed north in September, 1862, makeshift rifle pits and crude earthworks were dug in Louisville, a large one stretching across Cave Hill cemetery, disturbing many of the graves. And trees were felled across what’s now Brownsboro Road to slow any Confederate advance.

There was good reason for the work. On Sept. 26, 1862 about 400 to 500 Confederate cavalry appeared on the Frankfort Turnpike only four miles from Middletown and about ten miles from Louisville.

On Sept 27th a larger Confederate force drove Union forces a mile past Middletown toward Louisville, with skirmishes back and forth. There are also accounts of soldiers from both sides taking pause at the Davis Tavern or Wetherby House, which was later renovated into the Middletown City Hall – although the legend is that the tavern owner hid the booze from both Union and Confederate cavalry.

On Sept 29th and 30th elements of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry moved even further west down Shelbyville Road into what’s now St. Matthews and Crescent Hill (near Oxmoor) before running into larger concentrations of Union soldiers and retreating back to Middletown – with occasional skirmishes along the way.

On Sept. 30 the Union and Confederate forces skirmished near what’s now Douglas Hills outside Middletown, with Union soldiers driving the rebels back to Floyds Fork.

By then General Buell had been able to reinforce and resupply his army. He was ready to drive the Confederates out of the area by moving east and south out of Louisville along both Frankfort Pike and Bardstown Pike.

Union soldiers under the command of General Joshua Sill began moving west along Frankfort Pike and Shelbyville Pike to dislodge the rebels. White estimates several thousand soldiers and reserves from both sides were involved in the subsequent skirmishes:

 “As General Sill’s division approached the Confederates on the 1st of October, 1862, the rebels were posted on the heights just east of Floyds Fork. During the evening hours, rebel pickets first engaged with a squadron of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, apparently on the west side of Floyds Fork.

 “This skirmish commenced at approximately the point where the Midland Trail Golf Course is presently situated. After a brief engagement the rebels fell back onto the main body of Confederate forces which were posted in the hills opposite the crossing of Floyds Fork”

(That area would roughly be the location of William F. Miles Lakes – and the shallow trench.)

  “The infantry was successful in pushing the Confederates from their position” continued White, “and the rebels mounted and fled the encampment.

  “The rebels apparently began to regroup and return three miles east of Floyds Fork and were once again engaged from a distance of 1,000 yards by a battery under the leadership of Captain Eagerton. Finally the federal cavalry charged once again and drove the southern cavalry further from their position.

  “The Confederates, in their haste to abandon their position before the federals arrived, left behind a large quantity of small arms ammunition (40,000 rounds) that they had stored in an abandoned house.”

White wrote that both armies had soldiers killed and wounded during the running battles, but there are no newspaper or military records of the casualties.

At the same time Union and Confederate soldiers were clashing along Floyds Fork near Middletown, other units in Buell’s army were heading south along Bardstown Pike to push out Bragg’s cavalry who had set up camp near Mt. Washington and Shepherdsville.

At the same time Bragg had sent out cavalry to find Buell’s forces – which were camped near Bardstown Pike and Taylorsville Road. The two sides clashed several times along Bardstown Pike a few miles southeast of Louisville.

The story of one skirmish was told by a Marshall P. Thatcher, who was with the Union’s 2nd Michigan Cavalry:

  “On one of those darkest of Southern nights we took the Bardstown Pike, and found the enemy posted within a few miles of the city. We crept up as close as possible and received a raking fire of grape shot from a battery, but fortunately they fired low and only one man was killed...”

As the Union forces moved further south along Bardstown Pike they ran into a Confederate force stationed near Floyds Fork in the general vicinity of what is now the Oakland Hills subdivision – a development near Bardstown Road owned by the 21st Century Parks Endowment to be used over time to provide operational funding for the park.

Union soldiers with the 3rd Wisconsin Battery began shelling the Confederates from their high ground:

  “Rebels, in their shirt sleeves,” White wrote, “were reported massed in the vicinity of the ford of Floyds Fork nearest to the Bardstown Pike, the bridge having been destroyed.

  “The Federal artillery posted itself on a prominent hill overlooking the Fork and fired in an effort to scatter the rebels. The rebels escaped the shelling leaving behind two dead on the field.”

Then came a second shelling at Floyds Fork:

  “Later in the evening between 10 to 11 o’clock the armies again engaged near that portion of Floyds Fork that intersects the Bardstown Pike. Casualties were heavier in the second battle, the Federals losing 17 as killed, wounded and captured.

 “The rebel casualties were unknown, but eyewitnesses again described seeing in the moonlight mounted Confederates tumbling from their horses upon being shot.

  “The Federals were under orders to avoid a general engagement and, thus, fell back in order to break off the second encounter. When the Federal Army crossed the creek at last it was found that the rebels had fallen back to Mt. Washington leaving only two dying horses behind.”

A week later, on October 7th, the Union and Confederate forces finally clashed in the small Kentucky town of Perryville while both sides were in desperate search for water. The Union lost 4,276 killed wounded or captured; the Confederates 3,401.

Bragg was considered the tactical winner at Perryville – Buell was a few miles behind the initial action and unaware of the battle until late in the day – but the battle halted the Kentucky invasion.

Bragg’s Confederate forces headed back into Tennessee; he believed his supply line was too long and the Kentucky recruits he had hoped to receive didn’t come. He would receive sustained criticism for not engaging with Buell near Munfordville earlier in September when he might have had a good chance to win Kentucky.   

Buell conducted a half-hearted pursuit of Bragg – a problem with many Union generals – before calling off the chase. President Lincoln relieved him of his command as a result.

The Civil War lasted another two and one-half years, with 600,000 soldiers dead, another 400,000 wounded, the South in ruins and the failure of Reconstruction to follow.

Historians still argue over the respective legacies of Buell and Bragg and the wisdom and tactics of the failed Kentucky campaign – with The Parklands of Floyds Fork now once and forever a small piece of that argument.

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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