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The Crittenden Brothers and the American Civil War in Kentucky

PDGreenwell enjoys exploring history through reading and writing.

Kentucky was one of several so-called "border states" in the American Civil War.

Kentucky was one of several so-called "border states" in the American Civil War.

Conflicting Loyalties of the Border States

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was a particularly bloody war in which the United States was essentially forced to address the unfinished business of slavery and other issues regarding the precedence of federal versus states' rights that remained unresolved after the formation of the United States less than 100 years earlier.

The war was fought on U.S. soil, primarily in the Southern states after 11 slave states in the South (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) seceded from the United States government. Five slave states, all bordering the North, chose not to secede and remained within the Union: Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia (which was actually formed during the Civil War when some counties in the northwest area of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy), and Kentucky.

Although it would be inaccurate to argue that no individuals in the North sympathized with or fought for the Confederacy or that no individuals in the South sympathized with or fought for the Union, the fact remains that citizens living in the border states experienced greater personal conflict with their families and neighbors and had to live with the consequences of their political differences on a daily basis during the war as compared to those who lived in clearly defined Union or Confederate states.

Kentucky's Strategic Importance

Kentucky was one of the most important of these conflicted border states because it was a major agricultural producer of tobacco, corn, wheat, flax, and hemp—all important commodities to the economy of the nation and the war effort.

The Ohio River, which runs the length of the state and pours into the Mississippi River to the west, also made Kentucky particularly significant because whoever controlled the river would control the movement of troops as well as resources into and out of the Confederacy.

Kentucky was viewed as so important that Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

As the war began, Kentucky declared neutrality, choosing to support neither side. As both the Union and Confederacy desperately needed Kentucky’s support (soldiers, resources, access to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers), this neutrality was largely ignored.

Within the first months of the war, Confederate forces began to enter the state, occupying various cities, although no occupation was permanent. Even the Union ignored Kentucky’s efforts to remain neutral and recruited soldiers from within the state without the state’s permission.

In October 1861, Confederate sympathizers convened at Russellville, Kentucky (the Russellville Convention) and formed their own Confederate state government. This government entered the Confederacy in December 1863, however, it never replaced the official Kentucky state government, which remained active and aligned with the Union.

Kentucky’s governor and legislature served as a political expression of border-state ambiguity by largely agreeing with the South’s opinion that the Federal Government violated states’ right in its efforts to block the expansion of slavery into new territories and states, even as they sought to remain within the Union.

Citizens themselves had differing opinions on these matters, with central and western Kentucky largely favoring the Confederacy, and the east, particularly the Appalachian counties, favoring the Union position. These regional preferences were not hard and fast, however, and opinions differed greatly between neighbors in any given area.

The John J. Crittenden Family

This ambiguity played itself out within the confines of the family as well. One notable example of how the Civil War would divide families into Union and Confederate camps is that of the John J. Crittenden family.

John J. Crittenden (1787–1863) was born in Versailles, Woodford County, Kentucky, into a notable early American family. His father, Revolutionary War veteran John Jordan Crittenden (1754–1806) had been a Major in the Continental Army as well as a member of the House of Burgesses (1790–1805).

John J. Crittenden became a lawyer as well as an important politician on the state and federal level. Crittenden served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and served two terms as the U.S. Attorney General. He was also elected as the 17th Governor of Kentucky, serving from 1848 to 1850. He was encouraged to run for the presidency in his lifetime but never consented to nomination.

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As a Senator, Crittenden sought a compromise between the Southern slave states and the Federal Government. His Crittenden Compromise was rejected by the federal legislature, however, because he recommended compromises that strongly favored the slave states.

After this, Crittenden returned to Kentucky in 1861 to convince the state leaders not to secede from the Union and to remain neutral. To substantiate his political beliefs, John J. Crittenden enlisted in the Home Guard as a private.

Lest one believe that Crittenden’s allegiances were solely aligned with the North and its largely abolitionist convictions, it should be understood that Crittenden, who was still a member of the Senate when he died in 1863, was a slaveowner and opposed the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the admission of West Virginia to the Union on the basis that Virginia had not approved this secession.

Still, he believed in preserving the Union and felt that compromise was the most appropriate solution to the nation’s problems.

Thomas Leonidas Crittenden

Two of Crittenden’s sons would serve as Generals in the Civil War. Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (1819–1893) was a lawyer and politician like his father. After studying law with his father and being admitted to the bar, Thomas joined the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War as a volunteer, served General Zachary Taylor, and later served as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Third Kentucky Volunteer Army. After this, he served as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool, England.

Thomas chose to support the Union and was commissioned into the Union Army on September 27, 1861, and promoted to Major General in July of 1862. Prior to resigning in December 1864, Thomas Crittenden fought at Shiloh, Perryville, Stone’s River, and Chickamauga.

Crittenden and another commander were blamed for the losses at Chickamauga and were relieved of duty. Soon after this, they were exonerated and acquitted of the charges. Following this, Thomas continued to command in the field through the Battle of Cold Harbor.

After the war, Crittenden served as the State Treasurer of Kentucky. Crittenden had resigned his military commission in December 1864 but reentered the Army in 1867, serving until 1881. He died in Annadale, Staten Island, New York, and is buried in Frankfort, Kentucky, in the family cemetery plot at Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky.

George Bibb Crittenden

George Bibb Crittenden (1812–1880) was John J. Crittenden's oldest son and Thomas Crittenden's older brother. Like his father and brother, George was a lawyer and also served as a General in the Civil War. Unlike his father and brother, however, George Crittenden served in the Confederate Army.

George began his military career in the U.S. Army, entering West Point in 1827 at the age of sixteen. He graduated in 1832 and served as a second lieutenant (4th U.S. Infantry) in the Black Hawk War. He resigned his commission in 1833, entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and became a lawyer.

In 1842, George moved to Texas and joined the Army of the Republic of Texas. During his tenure in the Army of the Texas Republic, George was captured by the Mexican forces, with whom he remained until he was released after President Andrew Jackson interceded on his behalf. In 1846, he rejoined the U.S. Army as a captain and served in the Mexican War.

Against his father’s wishes, George Crittenden resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate Army as a Colonel; by November 1861 he had been promoted to Major General and was given command of the Southern effort to liberate Kentucky.

George fought at the Battle of Mill Springs in Kentucky as well as at Logan’s Crossroads prior to being found drunk on the battlefield. He was relocated to another post in Mississippi. After being found drunk with his troops again, he was at risk of being court-martialed. Before this could occur, George Crittenden resigned in 1862.

He did continue to serve the Confederate Army, however, as a volunteer until the war ended.

After the war, George Crittenden moved back to Kentucky and served as State Librarian. He died in Kentucky in 1880. He is buried near his father and brother in the Crittenden family plot in the Frankfort Cemetery near the State Capitol.

Difficult and Confusing Times

John J. Crittenden had nine children, at least three of whom are said to have had Confederate sympathies. The two sons who did fight in the war had very similar educations and military careers and still chose opposing sides. John’s allegiance to the Union did not preclude him from sympathizing with the Confederate position regarding states rights and, as it were, slavery.

Thomas chose to fight for the Union forces, but that did not necessitate that his sympathies were not identical to his father’s in regards to slavery or state’s rights. Given that in the 1860 Federal Census, Thomas Crittenden was reported as owning 11 slaves, it is likely he was a slave owner who chose to fight for the Union solely because he felt Federal law took precedence over state self-determination.

Nor does George’s having chosen to align himself with the Confederacy necessitate that he disagreed with his father on anything other than his father’s belief that the Union needed to be preserved at the sacrifice of states’ rights.

I believe these were difficult and confusing times for nearly everyone. In the border states, in particular, everyone had to decide upon a course that might make enemies of parents, brothers, and neighbors. In time, the war would end and families and neighbors would have to piece their lives back together.

In the Confederate states, the enemy was clearly identified as Northerners; the North could point to Southerners. In the border states, they had each other to blame.

Ultimately, the most difficult political decision to be made was the decision to end slavery with the war. This should not have been difficult, but as the institution was not addressed properly during the formation of the United States, continued weak attempts at compromise ensured that when it was addressed, it would be under painful circumstances.

Even Abraham Lincoln began the war preferring that slavery be choked out slowly by the blocking of expansion; the push for emancipation came later in the war when it was clear that winning would not be as easy as either side thought it would be.

It would have been the better course if slavery had been abolished with the formation of the new country. It would be best if it had never existed at all. The legitimate question of state versus federal precedence was sullied by the institution of slavery having not been addressed. As it were, this nation decided, like Scarlett O’Hara, to “think about it tomorrow.” In 1861, tomorrow came to our nation.


  • Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009.
  • House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,
  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Register of Cadet Applicants, 1819-1867; Microfilm Serial: M2037; Microfilm Roll: 1.
  • National Governors Association
  • United States Federal Census: Year: 1870; Census Place: Fort Sully Vicinity, Unorganized, Dakota Territory; Roll: M593_118; Page: 195B; Image: 392; Family History Library Film: 545617.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


PDGreenwell (author) from Kentucky on October 27, 2015:

Hi Chantelle - Kentucky was a difficult state to live in at that time, I'm certain.

Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on October 24, 2015:

Fascinating hub. I have an ancestor who lived in Kentucky and was faced with a similar situation. One son fought for the North and the other the South. Interesting times indeed.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on January 01, 2011:

Wonderful hub . So much information and knowledge. God Bless. Wishing You A Great New Year.

PDGreenwell (author) from Kentucky on December 31, 2010:

Arthur - We tend to think of war as fighting against an "other", which is horrible enough, but when the enemy is your own brother - what a horrible burden. Thank you all for your comments.

factasy from Sweden on December 30, 2010:

Like arthurchappell said well researched

I have probely the biggest site at the web about this topic

Chip from Cold Mountain on December 25, 2010:

I'm looking forward to the PBS "American Experience" documentary.

arthurchappell from Manchester, England on December 25, 2010:

well researched feature - I fight in English Civil War re-enactments, of events where brother fought brother. Interesting to see the effects of the US Civil War on divided families too

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