The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge
By Brad Asher
University of Kentucky Press, 2021, $45.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Jon-Erik Gilot
Stephen Burbridge is not a name that leaps off the page for many Civil War enthusiasts. A middling brigade and division commander in the western theater, Burbridge performed ably at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge, and scored a resounding victory over John Hunt Morgan at the Battle of Cynthiana in June 1864 before faltering at Saltville later that year.
Though if one were to recall Burbridge, it likely has less to do with his battlefield exploits than the stigma attached to him from his tenure as military commander in Kentucky. If Braxton Bragg has been dubbed ‘The Most Hated Man in the Confederacy,’ Stephen Gano Burbridge has been similarly remembered as ‘The Most Hated Man in Kentucky.’ In a new biography by the same title, Kentucky-based historian Brad Asher reexamines Burbridge’s life, legacy, and memory.
Asher’s task was no easy one. Burbridge left no great cache of surviving personal papers or writings. Even still, the author tapped an impressive collection of federal, state, and local records, as well as manuscripts and period newspapers, a platform Burbridge was all too happy to leverage in arguing with his opponents. Through these sources, Asher does a terrific job of weaving together the military, political, social, and economic threads that made Kentucky such a complex story in and of itself during the Civil War.
A slaveholder before the war, Burbridge can be credited with playing a leading role in the ending of slavery in Kentucky. He would oversee the enlistment of African Americans who, once mustered, became legally free. Fearful of leaving their families to suffer revenge for their enlistment, many enlistees instead brought their families with them to camps at Louisville and Camp Nelson, further depleting the state’s slave population. It was perhaps as much Burbridge’s role as liberator that earned him condemnation in the Bluegrass State as it was the hard hand he took against irregular and guerrilla troops.
Between July – October 1864 Burbridge issued a series of orders which called for the public execution of four Confederate guerillas for every one unarmed Union civilian murdered; the arrest and banishment of any Confederate sympathizer living within five miles of the scene of any guerilla attack; and, eventually, that no guerillas would be taken as prisoners, but were to be killed or summarily executed. More than sixty men (each documented in a helpful appendix) would be executed as the result of these orders, and while they earned Burbridge a lasting notoriety, the author illustrates how pervasive and widespread guerilla and irregular activity was in Kentucky during Burbridge’s tenure (March 1864 – February 1865), documenting 141 distinct guerilla actions during that period. Burbridge was far from the only officer to issue such exacting orders (see Milroy, Fremont, Halleck, and Ewing among others), and he was in fact encouraged by his own commanding officer, William T. Sherman.
Asher does a terrific job examining how the Lost Cause would demonize Burbridge in the years following the war. From 1864 – 1904, monuments were erected around the state in memory of the ‘martyrs’ and ‘Confederate soldiers’ executed under Burbridge’s orders, assigning these irregulars a status that many had otherwise sidestepped during the war. These monuments, inscribed with flowery prose and painting the executions as retaliation, lament the bravery and gallantry of the fallen, while indicting Burbridge for their deaths. In demonizing Burbridge and in reiterating tales of the suffering endured under his tenure, Kentuckians rallied under the Lost Cause banner.
Following the war Burbridge was exiled as a persona non grata in Kentucky and in the Republican Party. His family suffered violence, failed investments left him bankrupt, and he was passed over for numerous government appointments. He eventually relocated to New York, where he died in 1894.
Asher notes in his conclusion that an inherent risk in writing a biography is falling in love with the subject and introducing subjectivity into your writing. To be sure, Stephen G. Burbridge is a complex character, straddling political, military, and social spheres. Despite his perceptions, earned or otherwise, there’s little to love about Stephen Burbidge. Brad Asher does a solid job of taking a largely overlooked and oft misrepresented character of the Civil War as a case study of how popular memory can impact one’s legacy in life and death.