Munfordville, Kentucky, proudly preserves its Civil War heritage–including, some say, a wartime ghost.
By Darleen Francisco
Visitors to Munfordville, a small town in central Kentucky about 70 miles south of Louis-ville, are in for a pleasant surprise. The Hart County village is living proof that, as the old saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” For the events that took place in the sleepy little town in 1862 were perhaps more decisive than previously has been thought. Certainly, they were quite dramatic–some might even say haunting.
As most armchair historians know, when the Civil War began, Kentucky had chosen a position of “armed neutrality.” But it still contained strong loyalists for both the North and the South, and a Confederate Kentucky would have thrown open the entire southern frontier of the Ohio River–including portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois–where 2,600,000 persons had deep sentimental attachments to the South.
At the beginning of the war, President Abraham Lincoln, himself a native Kentuckian, was quoted as saying that “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” His emphasis on the importance of Kentucky was not misplaced, because the state was the most crucial of the border states. The Confederate lines of defense extended from Columbus through Munfordville to the Cumberland Gap, with the Confederate headquarters located at Bowling Green. If the Confederates could control Kentucky, they would also control the principal avenues–waterways and railways–for invading and waging war in the central United States.
The Green River Bridge in Munfordville was a vital bridge for both armies to control. In early October 1861, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston gave a Munfordville native, Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, a direct order to destroy the bridge in order to prevent Union forces from attacking Bowling Green. Knowing that the bridge had been built in part by local people, Buckner protested vehemently, but to no avail. John W. Key and his sons, also residents of Munfordville, had originally been the chief stonemasons for the bridge, and, ironically, it was these same men who placed the explosive charges beneath the southernmost piers. The charge was detonated, and the Keys watched glumly as two spans of the bridge dropped, extensively damaging their masterpiece.
In December 1861, Union-leaning workers arrived to repair the bridge, but on December 17, a short, intensive battle was fought, known as the Battle of Rowlett’s Station. After the battle and the temporary repair of the bridge, Union Brig. Gens. Alexander McCook and James S. Negley arrived to protect the Green River Bridge from further Rebel attacks. McCook quickly ordered the construction of what was to be a five-point fort about 800 yards east of the bridge, to be named Fort Craig. A rifle trench surrounded the work, and to protect the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks and bridge against further attacks, he had a stockade of heavy logs and banked earth erected at the south end of the bridge. This would ensure that Union forces had a
continuous line of communication between their forces in the South and their base at Louisville.
Before the task was completed, however, McCook was ordered to leave, and the job passed to Colonel John T. Wilder. Although he was not a professional soldier and lacked military training and experience, Wilder was determined to devote all his efforts to maintaining and holding the all-important railroad. He strengthened the wooden and earthen stockades and constructed the star-shaped earthen fort that is still visible today.
On September 15, 1862, news of Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky reached Munfordville, and the town was thrown into a state of turmoil. The next day, Bragg moved his entire force of 30,000 men into the area and prepared to capture the Union position.
Wilder was a very conscientious, intelligent man. He began to suspect that his troops were no match for Bragg’s superior forces, and he arrived at an unorthodox
solution when asked to surrender. Knowing that General Buckner was commanding
a division of Bragg’s forces, and believing him to be an honorable man, Wilder went into the Confederate camp under a flag of truce to ask Buckner’s advice, one gentleman to another.
When the two men met, Buckner at first protested, telling Wilder that “wars are not fought this way.” Yet the more the bewildered Kentuckian contemplated it, the more irresistible he found the idea, and he personally escorted Wilder on a tour of the Confederate lines. Seeing that Bragg’s forces were just as they had been reported, Wilder surrendered the garrison at 6 a.m. on September 17.
These events are but a few of the many fascinating occurrences that took place in Munfordville during the war. Dashing young cavalry captain John Hunt Morgan was first sworn into the Confederate Army on the steps of a church in Munfordville that is still standing, and the home of Union General Thomas J. Wood sits gracefully tucked away, surrounded by trees. Wood and Simon Buckner played along the banks of the Green River as boyhood friends, and Buckner stayed at the Wood home on many occasions. When the Civil War began, Buckner cast his lot with the Confederacy, while Wood remained loyal to the Union. After the war, the two resumed their friendship, despite the fact that they had commanded troops that were pitted against one another at Chickamauga and other battlefields.
In 1994, the Wood house was the focal point for an intriguing episode. The Hart County News Herald had previously reported that the county attorney who had his offices in the house had implied that it was haunted. When Munfordville held its annual Civil War Days in September 1994, a young girl dressed in period costume had her picture taken behind the Wood house. The temperature that day was reported to have been in the high 80s, yet the girl noticed several spots that felt “icy-cold” to her–so cold, in fact, that it made her uncomfortable, despite the heat.
When the photos were later developed, the man who shot them noticed three small clouds of fog close to the ground, exactly where the girl said she had felt the cold spots. The photographer stated that there were no flaws of any kind on any other
pictures in that roll of film. An author writing about the episode concluded that “if there truly are ghosts in the house, perhaps they looked out and saw what they perceived as familiar figures, dressed in a way they had known.”
While in Munfordville, visitors can tour the Hart County Museum, which houses a genealogy department and local artifacts of the period, as well as the Old Munfordville Inn and other area attractions. Plans are in the works to use a federal grant to restore local Civil War sites and, with the generous cooperation of three area landowners, to renovate one of the homes overlooking the battlefield to use as a visitor’s center and a bed-and-breakfast inn. Leaders hope to construct walkways over Fort Craig and across the battlefield, ending at the large granite monument to Confederate Colonel Robert Smith, which is near the railroad bridge.
Each September, Munfordvillians host annual re-enactments of the battles there. Among recent events were period concerts, movie screenings, a silent auction, a quilt show, children’s games, artillery night-firing, a parade, an authentic Civil War encampment, and other history-related activities. For more information about annual events held in the area, telephone the Hart County Historical Society (502-524-0101) and speak with Mary Branstetter.