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The Civil War in Kentucky

By Duane Bolin • Ledger Columnist 

For the next four years, we citizens in the United States will remember in various ways and in numerous venues the American Civil War.

The war raged from 1861 to 1865, so 2011 to 2015 represents the conflict’s sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary.

This will be in no way a celebration, of course, but it will be a remembrance.  As Shelby Foote, the late, great Civil War historian and novelist, put it in an interview during Ken Burns’ poignant Civil War documentary, “The Civil War was the crossroads in our nation’s being. . . .  And it was a helluva crossroads.”

Sonya Gabrielle Baker, the Assistant Dean of Murray State’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts, a member of the university’s Department of Music, and a soprano whose voice will at once break your heart and lift you up in joy, recently asked me to join colleagues in the Department of Music and Department of Theatre in a program of remembrance of the Civil War on our campus.

To say the least, I felt intimidated to even appear on the Performing Arts Hall stage with Baker, and the other vocalists:  Randall Black, tenor, Tana Field, mezzo-soprano, and Christopher Mitchell, bass-baritone;  the superb pianist, Angela Wu;  Daryl Phillipy, an actor from the Department of Theatre;  and student fiddler, Gracie Wallace.

For my part, I wrote a brief narrative about the Civil War in Kentucky that I read in parts during the program.  If nothing else, I think my readings allowed the audience members to catch their breaths between what were truly breathtaking musical and dramatic performances.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to reproduce those performances here in this “Home and Away” column, but I thought I could at least share with you in several installments, the brief narrative of “The Civil War in Kentucky.”  So, let us remember.

Perhaps the division and heartache of the Civil War was more evident in Kentucky than in any other state.

Coveted by both sides, the Commonwealth identified with the South as a slave state and with the North with its strong stand for union.

Confederate John Mosby said, “I always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about.  I never heard of any other cause of that quarrel than slavery.”

Yet, in 1850 the state had emblazoned on the Washington Monument the words:  “Under the auspices of heaven and the precepts of Washington, Kentucky will be the last to give up the union.”

With the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, and President Lincoln’s call for troops, Beriah Magoffin, Kentucky’s pro-southern governor declared, “I say emphatically, Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.”  But with a pro-union legislature, as state after state left the Union, Kentucky remained—divided, confused, uncertain—but still in the Union.

President Lincoln certainly recognized the importance of the land of his birth.  “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” he said.  And an abolitionist stated it even more succinctly:  “Mr. Lincoln would like to have God on his side, but he must have Kentucky.”

Thus divided, Kentucky officially declared neutrality in May, 1861, or as one Kentucky lawyer put it, “My native state . . . solemnly voted to take neither side in the Civil war . . .  and maintained her consistency . . .  by taking both.”  Both sides sought troops here;  both set up recruiting stations in or near the state.  But as much as Kentucky is viewed by some as a southern state, over 100,000 Kentuckians (23,000 African Americans among them) wore Union Blue, and no more than 40,000 fought in Confederate Gray.

Duane Bolin, who had ancestors who fought in Union Blue and Confederate Gray, teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University.  Contact him at JBolin@murraystate.edu

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