Bluegrass and Volunteer—Sister States or Enemy States?
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Bluegrass and Volunteer—Sister States or Enemy States?

Were Kentucky and Tennessee sister yet also enemy states during the Civil War and Reconstruction? One recent book uses that theme. Sister States, Enemy States is an anthology edited by Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker, and W. Calvin Dickinson. It is catchy in title and assuredly rich in content. It provides a convenient springboard for revisiting the subject matter of Bluegrass and Volunteer States in the throes of rebellion, conflict, stabilization, and reconstitution. From 1860 to 1877, regional, state, and local (even personal) history played out in ways defying simplification. Kentucky and Tennessee illustrated the point. Suggestions of similarities and differences raise the questions of where to begin, where to end, how deep to posthole the subject, and what to conclude from it all. These issues have been written and discussed over the years; however, the sesquicentennial generation should be excited about revisiting old themes, topics, personalities, and judgments. The proverbial old wine in new bottles can be found, for instance, in recent works by Lincoln scholar William C. Harris and Kentucky reconstruction historian Anne Marshall as [End Page 439] well as Elizabeth Leonard and Aaron Astor.1

The realities of the era were laid down long ago in official documents, diaries, letters, and reminiscences. Many have found publication; others await discovery. Decades of interpretive layering by scholars, the public, and descendants still have not exhausted questions seeking answers. Archives and attics across the two states and beyond continue to hold keys to the past. So, too, do the physical landscapes of battlefields and other cultural resources. Thanks to the National Park Service and state and local equivalents or the Civil War Trust (formerly the Civil War Preservation Trust), and even here and there a sensitive private landowner, the sesquicentennial generation may gain a sense of places like the Water Battery at Fort Donelson, Peach Orchard at Shiloh, the H. P. Bottom farm at Perryville, and the Carter House at Franklin. It is to be hoped that this array of "tools" will evoke more curiosity and respect than mere armchair entertainment or historical tourism. With such recognition will always come more questions than answers and more thrill and frustration than satisfaction to excite the future as they inform the present.

Moreover, evidence combines with generational interests. Civil War interpretation for Kentucky and Tennessee long ago affected historical waves of Union triumphalism and Lost Cause exceptionalism. Then the twentieth-century penchant of "using" history for domestic and international purposes conveniently advanced liberal democracy and nation-building by our forefathers for shaping continued American acceptance of a political and economic system in the face of totalitarianism. Our contemporary predilection for nation-building and humanitarian interventionism offers fresh opportunities for exploring past events and people in the dark and bloody ground of rebellious and destabilized states such as Kentucky and Tennessee. [End Page 440] Thus, we may use our recent experiences in the Middle East and southwest Asia to explore Civil War-era Bluegrass and Volunteer States. This approach suggests various areas of interest: (1) failing and failed states; (2) paroxysms of violence; (3) social dislocation and revolution; (4) privation and destruction; and (5) reconstitution and readjustment. My approach is suggestive, not definitive.

The Anatomy of Success Turned Failure

The United States of America by the close of 1860 was a "failing" state. Within the year, it passed to the category of "failed state." In a recent study, David Goldfield posits a very traditional yet reawakened realization. The Civil War, he observes, was both the completion of the American Revolution and the beginning of a modern nation. It was "also America's greatest failure." Tennessee and Kentucky were microcosms of such success and failure. Although they had contributed to a rising nation before the 1850s, failure set in by 1861 for a Tennessee that continued under brief Confederate suzerainty and Federal occupation from 1862 to 1865 and for a Kentucky that disintegrated in similar if not precise comparison, while remaining part of the Union. The two helped populate a failed-state chapter of our national story. But what exactly is meant by these terms—"failing" and "failed state"? How might...


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