Digital History Spotlight: Civil War Governors of Kentucky Interview

The Kentucky Historical Society’s Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition may not have a name that rolls off the tongue easily, but what it does have is an excellently executed digital source repository and interpretation for some of those records. Serving dual purposes as both archive as well as learning opportunity, it embraces the strengths of the digital platform. This short spotlight, combined with an interview with Project Director Chuck Welsko, only scratches the surface of the project’s potential.

The front page of the CWGK webpage, a gateway to a wide range of sources and stories. http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/

In a time where archive access is greatly limited, the project helps researchers find new stories in a variety of sources. Beyond academic researchers, it also provides historical information for website visitors as well as lesson plans for use in the classroom. Digitizing a vast number of sources, it tells the stories of average individuals through transcribed documents, annotations, subject guides, blogs, teaching material, and exhibits.

The Civil War Governors of Kentucky project, or CWGK, is based around repositories of documents related to the five governors of Kentucky during the Civil War period. Beriah Magoffin was the governor when the war began, serving through 1862, and was followed by the official Union governors James Robinson in 1862 and 1863 and Thomas Bramlette from 1863 onward. However, George Johnson served as secessionist governor-in-exile in 1861 and 1862 and was followed by Richard Hawes.[1] For a time, Kentucky had both Unionist governors as well as exiled pro-secession candidates, complicating the political situation and showing the borderland nature of the state. This project compiles documents related to the governors in some way. To be included, it must have been created between November 1860 and December 1865 and “have been to, from, or endorsed by a governor, have been to or from a governor’s secretary or assistant, be an official response to a document sent to a governor but referred elsewhere for reply, report a governor’s words not captured elsewhere, such as the transcript of a speech, [or] have been an enclosure to an in-scope document.”[2]

CWGK compiles documents from a wide range of physical archives, including these.

The documents are taken from collections primarily at the Kentucky Historical Society, but also from various other repositories. However, this does not mean that the project focuses solely on the high ranking positions, as although it centers on those documents it is designed to tell the stories of the everyday Kentuckians whose stories are briefly hinted at in those papers. For example, letters from private citizens and soldiers sent to the office of the governor are included, showing what was important to them at the time. These documents are transcribed and annotated with extra webpages created for people and places where additional primary and secondary sources are cited to create a brief biography. Perhaps the coolest part of the annotation is the complex “web” each entry has. Color coded by the type of connection, it shows how the person, place, or organization is connected to other entries. It shows members of groups, family relationships, political connects, and many other ties.

An excerpt from the annotation for Edward Henry Hobson, detailing his various connections to other entries in the CWGK repository.

These digitally available, transcribed, and annotated sources are a veritable gold mine for researchers as it allows them to view primary sources without travel to a repository in Kentucky as well as easily view related individuals and topics. In 2020, COVID restrictions have led to most archives closing to visitors. This left researchers severely handicapped in their ability to conduct original research without access to primary source documents. CWGK’s digital access means that people can access these sources for use in lessons or writing projects even in a pandemic. After all, primary sources are the best pathway to understanding the past, and CWGK’s hard work means that documents by everyday Kentuckians can be easily accessed and learned from.

CWGK goes a step beyond that, not only providing sources but also interpreting many of them. They provide subject guides to introduce topics and themes within sources and prepare exhibits and classroom guides that use the sources as teaching tools. These topics include a wide variety, including mental health, guerilla warfare, refugees, slavery and capitalism, women, and immigration. For example, the Caroline Chronicles exhibit explores the complex documents related to the struggles of Caroline Dennant, an African American woman who fled from slavery. Through exhibits and lesson plans, including a fascinating classroom activity on the 1864 Presidential election, CWGK can help individuals and teachers relate past issues to the modern-day debates.

Overall, I continue to be impressed with CWGK as it scans, transcribes, and annotates hundreds of documents that provide insight into everyday Americans caught in the midst of the Civil War. As an example of the variety, my own work with the project has included transcription of militia recruitment records, annotation of petitions, checking court record transcripts, and piecing together detailed accounts of promotion drama within the 13th Kentucky Infantry. The project has been in motion for several years, and a robust combination of staff, volunteers, and graduate student workers means that it will only continue to improve with more sources and interpretive material. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here’s an interview I conducted with Chuck Welsko, Project Director of Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition:

JT: In your own words, what is CWGK?

CRW: Thanks Jon for the opportunity to talk with ECW about the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition. CWGK is the evolution of documentary editing for the twenty-first century. At its core, the project operates from a simple premise. We use the office of Kentucky’s five wartime governors  (three Unionists and two Confederates) to explore how ordinary Kentuckians experienced the throes of civil strife. It is important to note, however, that the project is not about those five men. The state’s chief executives sat at the intersection of everyday life in the mid-nineteenth century—interceding in the criminal, civil, and political matters of the states citizenry, as they also mobilized armies, confronted the exigencies of brutal guerrilla warfare, and responded to the uneven process of emancipation. The office of Kentucky’s governors thus affords readers the ability to explore how ordinary people lived, fought, struggled, and died in Civil War Kentucky between Lincoln’s election (November 1860) and the end of slavery in the Commonwealth (December 1865).

Chuck Welsko,
Civil War Governors of Kentucky Project Manager.

JT: Who is this project useful for? How can these resources be used?

CRW: I would argue that CWGK has something useful for everyone, but you might want something more precise. Visitors have a variety of options with CWGK. Anyone can use the site to browse the over 10,000 documents that we have transcribed and imaged. You can explore documents that relate to any topic about the Civil War in Kentucky—social events, criminal cases, military affairs, emancipation, home life, and guerrilla warfare. CWGK has also created (and will continue to create) digital exhibits that interpret Kentucky’s Civil War experience. The biographies and social networks we create in those documents (with roughly 12,000 biographies already created) offer those interested in family or individual history, important information as well. Lastly, educators can also find educational materials on CWGK that range from interactive activities on agriculture or the Election of 1864 to suggested documents that educators can build into a larger activity. In short, we have a little bit of everything for everyone. 

JT: I know other similar projects have recently started. Can you talk a little about the cooperation between the various Civil War governor projects?

CRW: Sure thing. Starting in 2019, Dr. Susannah Ural at the University of Southern Mississippi (the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi ) and Drs. Lesley Gordon and Julia Brock at the University of Alabama (the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Alabama), started projects modeled off CWGK at their own institutions. Along with Dr. Patrick Lewis, former CWGK director, we created the Civil War Governors Consortium (CWGC). The CWGC has sought to build a collective framework where we can share editorial ideas and data points, to help others interpret the Civil War through the lens of diverse state governors. This has included cooperative grant writing, conversations about our editorial policies, and the ability to share data points. We have also worked together on several presentations. The first was through the Journal of the Civil War Era’s webinar series last fall. Hopefully (COVID-dependent), the Consortium looks to present at the Society of Military Historians and (if accepted) at the Southern Historical Association Conference later this year. 

JT: What is your favorite document or group of sources?

CRW: There are many great stories throughout CWGK and picking one is difficult, but I will go with one of our most well documented cases: the deadly clash between Thomas Wadlington and Milton Cartwright in Caldwell County in early 1860. You can start the story here or here. The gist is that Wadlington and Cartwright are neighbors and connected through familial ties—Wadlington’s wife Mary had been married to Cartwright’s father (James Allen) before James’ death. Both families had lived as neighbors until late 1859. The argument began when Cartwright confronted the Wadlingtons over their use of timber on their adjoining properties. Tensions continued into the next year when they reached a crescendo. Thomas, his son William, and two enslaved men cut down one of the trees in question. Cartwright and two white laborers confronted Wadlington. The survivors provided different accounts of the fray, but one thing is clear: Milton Cartwright died that cold January day. 

Local authorities eventually arrested Wadlington, his son, and at least one of the enslaved men. All three would go to separate trials that we are still digging through. Collectively, however, the entire event provides us with great interpretive possibilities about violence in the Border South, African American life, petition writing (CWGK has 87 petitions about the case), and political life in Caldwell County. CWGK contains 99 documents that all pertain to the Wadlington case—in the web address, you can change the KYR number such as the ones above (KYR-0001-020-0001) to visit those different documents from KYR-0001-020-0001 to KYR-0001-020-0100 that pertain to the case. The CWGK team will also build a digital exhibit this year about this case—so check back over the year to see how it goes. 

JT: How can people get involved and help out?

CRW: The advantage about this project being digital is that there are plenty of ways for everyone to get involved. First, on all of our documents there is a comment button at the bottom of every document and biography—this allows us to communicate with visitors to the sites, learning more information from them. Additionally, on the Kentucky Historical Society Facebook page, we post a weekly Tuesday Transcription—that allows anyone to provide feedback to help staff tackle difficult transcriptions from our documents. 

Lastly, there is our portion of FromThePage, a crowdsourced transcription platform that is free for transcribers. The goal of FromThePage is to help projects like CWGK transcribe documents with the help of the public. Roughly speaking, CWGK has 8,000 more documents that need transcribing and we aim to use FromThePage help us on that end (and we would love to gain more help from volunteer transcribers).

JT: Thanks for taking time out of your schedule for this! Any final thoughts you want to share?

CRW: Jon, thank you again for letting me talk about CWGK, I really appreciate the opportunity. As a historian of the Civil War Era, I think the last half decade has made clear the need for Americans to understand the legacies of the Civil War Era and the impact of the war’s memory on the present day. CWGK has laid the foundation to contribute to that conversation and I look forward to contributing more to that conversation. 

Lastly, please visit CWGK and see what stories you can discover by exploring our documents, biographies, and educational resources.  

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me at charles.welsko@ky.gov

[1] “Who Are the Governors?” Kentucky Historical Society Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition. https://civilwargovernors.org/who/

[2] “Document Selection,” Kentucky Historical Society Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition. http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document-selection

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