The Crouching Lion's Fate: Slave Politics and Conservative Unionism in Kentucky
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The Crouching Lion's Fate:
Slave Politics and Conservative Unionism in Kentucky

In a letter to the Cincinnati Commercial five years after the Civil War, a Kentuckian described the vital role his native state played in the Union: "Right here, in the very center of the Mississippi Valley, lying like a crouching lion, stretched east and west, is Kentucky, the thoroughfare of the continent."1 The metaphoric crouching lion represented more than just a geographic fulcrum between east and west, and north and south. It also symbolized the political heart of the Union, with its wise and strong tradition of principled compromise. But by 1870, Kentucky had become thoroughly Confederate, both in its partisan habits and its cultural hue. As such, the metaphoric lion stands as a marker of transformation for a state that once prided itself on its spirit of conservative, proslavery Unionism and political moderation but that had become the vanguard of the post-Reconstruction South.

How could a state that fought so hard to preserve the Federal Union embrace a decidedly Confederate identity so soon after the end of the war? In his classic Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, E. Merton Coulter aptly characterized the conservative Unionism of the state during the first year of war as a product of social, economic, demographic, and political ties between Kentuckians and their neighbors [End Page 293] in all directions. But Coulter succumbed to the very myth he described—Kentucky's "secession after the war"—as he located the emerging southern identity of Kentucky with the overbearing Federal military presence in the state in the latter years of the war.2 The narrative of the destruction of states' rights made for good propaganda in the 1920s "Tragic Era" school of Reconstruction historiography, but it completely missed the real driver of change within the state: the slaves and their insistence upon casting a war of Union as a war of emancipation, regardless of what their conservative Unionist masters may have believed. By running to Union lines during the military campaign of 1862 and then enlisting en masse in the Federal army in 1864, the slaves subverted the conservative Unionist paradigm and fundamentally altered the political culture of the state.

Recent scholarship on post-Civil War Kentucky recognizes the centrality of emancipation—driven primarily by armed slaves—in the creation of a southern identity. Anne Marshall's Creating a Confederate Kentucky reveals the ideological weakness among the majority of Kentucky Unionist veterans and the powerful Confederate narrative that privileged the Confederate heritage of the state over its Unionist past.3 This ideological frailty manifested itself in the virtual abandonment of the memorial field to Confederates, especially as black Kentucky veterans cast the Union cause in emancipationist terms that most white Kentucky Unionists found repugnant. On the ground level, the result was an epidemic of racial violence, mostly targeting black soldiers and their families. J. Michael Rhyne refers to the emergence of Regulator violence in the immediate postwar years as a "rehearsal for redemption," especially as the ex-Confederate states would apply the same methods of terrorism to undermine the power of Radical Republicans.4 Historians today recognize that the [End Page 294] Kentucky regional orientation and identity shifted after the Civil War and that the emancipation of the 225,000 Kentucky slaves played a central role in that transformation.

But this remarkable shift begs even deeper questions about the nature of conservative Unionism itself. Why did a state with such a strong tradition of compromise and relative moderation on the politics of slavery take such a militant turn over emancipation? What does this reveal about the political culture of conservative, proslavery Unionism prior to the war? And to what extent did forces inside the state undermine the conservative Unionist consensus? The answer to these questions must be located amidst the slave population itself. After all, the challenge to the conservative Unionist order did not emerge out of thin air amidst a large-scale civil war. And despite the contention from outraged slaveholders, slaves did not need Yankee invaders to inform them that freedom was both attractive and attainable. In the form of continual slave resistance, this rebellious spirit...