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Civil War Dispatch - Western Kentucky University

By Todd Hatton / Berry Craig

Murray, KY – This week on the Kentucky Civil Dispatch... we visit a Western Kentucky University landmark that was once part of the Civil War defenses that protected the rebel capital of the Commonwealth.

On this date in 1861, the Confederate army was well established in Bowling Green, having fortified the Warren County seat against an expected Union attack which never came.

The Rebels mostly dug in atop hills, including College Heights, the main high ground on today's Western Kentucky University campus.

A Confederate trench still furrows College Heights. It's a campus walkway and a sometimes lover's lane.

The late WKU historian and author Lowell Harrison once said, "The College Heights Herald, the student newspaper, will have an article about it every few years or so. But I doubt a lot of students know the path dates from the Civil War." The flagstone footway follows the bottom of a stone-walled trench Rebels dug after they occupied Bowling Green in September, 1861.

Bowling Green helped anchor the Confederates' Kentucky defense line, which stretched from Columbus on the Mississippi River to the Cumberland Gap. Harrison said the College Heights trench was part of one of the smaller forts in town. Even so, the College Heights strongpoint was strategically sited. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad ran by on the west. And on east side of the hill ran the main highway connecting the two cities.

The campus walkway is about 75 yards long and spanned by a little concrete bridge. According to Harrison, it's the best preserved of Bowling Green's Civil War fortifications.

Chattanooga Free Press copy editor and former College Heights Herald reporter Barry Rose says the path is also one of only about two places on campus where you can walk with your date and be alone.

After Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee in February, 1862, the Confederates abandoned Bowling Green, which had been the Rebel "capital" of the Bluegrass State. Yankee troops took the town not long after.

The Federal soldiers named the fort on College Heights, called Vinegar Hill during the Civil War, Fort Lytle. But in the 1920s, somebody at Western decided the fort needed a Confederate name. (Never mind that Bowling Green was mainly pro-Union.)

Western officials started calling the bastion Fort Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnson was a Kentucky-born general who commanded Confederate forces in the western theatre of the war. He was killed at the battle of Shiloh in April, 1862.

Harrison said, "If the Confederates actually named [the fort] , we don't know what the name was." His campus office was a short walk from the path.

Union troops bolstered the Rebel defense works, a measure that deterred any attempt to retake the city. Harrison said, "Bowling Green was so strongly fortified that the Confederates didn't try to take it any time during the war." Indeed, when General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky in the autumn of 1862, he gave Bowling Green a wide berth.

WKMS produces Kentucky Civil War Dispatches from West Kentucky Community and Technical College history professor Berry Craig. The Murray State alumnus is the author of Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers, True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon, and Burgoo, and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. For WKMS News, I'm Todd Hatton.