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.