Book Review: New Perspectives on Civil War-Era Kentucky

New Perspectives on Civil War-Era Kentucky. Edited by John David Smith. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2023. 360 pp, softcover $20.00, hardcover $30.00.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Scholarship on Civil War era Kentucky has flourished over the last 20 years or so. This is perhaps not surprising considering the state’s central geographical location (virtually at the “heart” of Civil War America), and the importance of and desire for Kentucky’s resources by both the United States and Confederate States governments. Throw in its fascinating role as a slaveholding yet non-seceding Border State, and one has the makings for numerous intriguing topics for investigation and interpretation.

Recognizing the increasing interest and scholarship about the Bluegrass State’s Civil War experience, the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, the long-running scholarly journal of that organization, published a special edition in 2012 titled “New Perspectives on Civil War-Era Kentucky,” guest edited by noted historian Dr. John David Smith. Featuring ten essays by scholars who have devoted a significant amount of their careers focusing on Kentucky history, it has since served as a “must read” for those looking to better comprehend the Commonwealth’s civil war within the American Civil War.

Understanding the importance of increasing the reach of these essays, The University Press of Kentucky published them in book form this year. Now, more Civil War enthusiasts will have the opportunity to learn from the contributing scholars and their insights.

One difference between the journal version and the book version is Dr. Smith’s Introduction, titled “Truly a House Divided during the Civil War.” Updated to include a thorough historiography of Civil War Kentucky scholarship, including numerous articles and books published since the publication of the 2012 journal version, Smith’s introduction not only informs readers what is currently available to explore, but he also makes several topic suggestions for scholars to consider for future studies.

What would a book on Civil War era Kentucky be without some comments on Henry Clay’s legacy? Not to worry, James Klotter, Kentucky’s State Historian, provides an insightful opening article detailing Clay’s Unionism and its long-lasting influence on his adopted state when war came in 1861.

In fact, aspects of the state’s political history, so important in a Kentucky that held such sway on the national political scene in the first half of the nineteenth century, makes up a significant part of the book. Luke Harlow and Aaron Astor each provide important looks at Kentucky’s proslavery Unionism. While Harlow examines politics through religion’s influence, Astor shows how slavery shaped politics and how the enslaved served as agents of change for the state’s post war politics. Senator Garrett Davis, a largely overlooked political personality who exemplified proslavery Kentucky, receives deserved attention from Christopher Waldrep, who examines the bumpy relationship between Davis and Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth Leonard shares an article about another wartime Kentucky-Lincoln connection, that of the president’s judge advocate general, Joseph Holt. A former enslaver, Holt evolved into a staunch defender of Lincoln and the president’s Emancipation Proclamation. Peter Wallenstein contributes to the collection with an essay about “Pioneer Black Legislators from Kentucky, 1860s-1960s.” Although Kentuckians did not elect its first African American state legislator until the 1930s, Black men born in Kentucky served in several other states’ governments in both the South and the North. Black women from Kentucky eventually joined the political ranks, too, most notably, Georgia Davis Powers, who was elected as a Kentucky state senator in 1967.

The other selections include an article covering the Federal army’s occupation of Kentucky during the Civil War by Christopher Philips; a fascinating look at the war-time similarities and differences of Kentucky and Tennessee with, “Sister States or Enemy States,” by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Anne E. Marshall’s intriguing look at Kentucky women diarists and how their writings have contributed toward a fuller understanding of the state’s Civil War; and finally, Patricia A. Hoskins’s tragic but important study of the Freedman’s Bureau in the Jackson Purchase section of the state from 1866-1868.

Each of the essays are well-researched and written with excellent footnote citations available for quick reference. The book does have a couple of shortcomings. First, none of the articles provide any images of the people they refer to, events they describe, or maps of the places they discuss. Secondly, an index would have helped make an excellent book even better. Regardless, New Perspectives on Civil War-Era Kentucky successfully adds to the ever-growing body of scholarship about the Bluegrass State’s Civil War experience.

7 Responses to Book Review: New Perspectives on Civil War-Era Kentucky

  1. As a graduate of Centre College in the southern Bluegrass, this book will be of great interest. I’m also amused how the discussion of the “unique institution” has embraced the fashionable enslaved v. slave terminology wars. Frankly, I find the former term acts to linguistically disempower the real agency that many slaves had, creating a vision of mindless, utterly helpless automatons.

      1. I am referring to Mr. Pryor’s use of the word agency. To suggest that the enslaved had any meaningful “agency” regarding their circumstances leaves me speechless. I did enjoy your book review and put the book on my ever-growing wish list.

  2. Mr. Sinclair,
    While I do not agree with Mr. Pryor’s apparent issues with incorporating the terms “enslaved” and “enslaver” in current scholarship, I do agree that the enslaved–through through their decisions and actions–were active agents in bringing about meaningful change. That is how I define agency.

    Some of the change that the enslaved influenced were retributive laws that were enacted by the federal, free state, and slave state governments, especially during the antebellum decades. For example, would there have been a need for the Fugitive Slave Act if enslaved people did not decide to, and then act upon, their desire to be free by fleeing bondage? Would there have been a need to pass laws in Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois that attempted to forbid self-emancipated Black people from entering those states if they were not doing so in sufficient enough of numbers for those White mid-westerners to want to curb it?

    Similarly, when Frank Baker, Shepard Malory, and James Townsend exercised agency by fleeing their Confederate enslaver and came to federally-held Fort Monroe in May of 1861, they (and thousands of others) created an issue that had to be dealt with. Gen. Benjamin Butler coined the term “contraband” as a label to deal with the immediacy of the issue, but their decisions and actions led to Congress passing the First Confiscation Act (August 1861), which led to the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act of 1862, which encouraged President Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which of course led to the final Emancipation Proclamation. Starting largely with those three men’s agency, and then the thousands who followed, a sea change occurred during the Civil War.

    As it turned out, and as White Southerners (and yes some Northerners, too) feared for generations, it was indeed a slippery slope. Black men could serve in the Army; Black men sacrificed their lives for the United States and in hope of a better future for their race; Black men deserved rights for their service (thus the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments).

    Numerous other examples of enslaved agency abound throughout slavery’s long history, and the four years of the Civil War. Some were well publicized events like those instances above, while countless others happened on personal levels between an enslaved individual and his or her enslaver that played out on a daily basis. Big events like Nat Turner’s Rebellion led to retributive and strengthened state slavery laws in Virginia, but it is still agency. The simple acts of an enslaved person breaking his or her tools or feigning illness in order to have a few moments under their own control is agency; and it was meaningful to that person that exercised it.

    May I suggest adding a few other reading materials to your “ever-growing wishlist’ that will perhaps provide additional evidence to show the agency of the enslaved?

    Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurry (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012)

    Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning (Knopf, 2016)

    Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867 by Patricia C. Click, (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2001)

    Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps by Amy Murrell Taylor (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2018)

    “How a Cold Snap in Kentucky Led to Freedom for Thousands: An Environmental Story of Emancipation” by Amy Murrell Taylor in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, edited by Stephen Berry (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2011)

    Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)

    Freedmen and Southern Society Project:

    1. Mr. Talbott: Thank you for this exposition of your views, but you and I have very different ideas about agency. Slavery is the antithesis of agency. What agency did an enslaved person have to break his/her enslaver’s rules when the penalty could be beating, whipping, other torture or even death? What agency did an enslaved person have when his/her entire family could be sold and sent away, never to be seen again, on the slightest whim of their enslaver? Sure, there were brave souls who breached these obstacles to run away. For most, however, running away was not a realistic option (at least until the nearby presence of federal armies made it realistic). To suggest the enslaved nevertheless had the “agency” to do so casts an unfair judgment on those not willing to risk their lives or those in their families. I have and read two of the books you mention – Troubled Refuge and the Robert Smalls (a fascinating and uniquely skilled man under the circumstances) books.

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