The Freedmen's Bureau in the Jackson Purchase Region of Kentucky, 1866-1868
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The Freedmen's Bureau in the Jackson Purchase Region of Kentucky, 1866-1868

On July 25, 1866, a member of the Fourth United States Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA) boarded a train on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad in Columbus, Kentucky, a small town on the Mississippi River in the Jackson Purchase region of the Bluegrass State. The soldier caught the eye of two white employees of the railroad as he entered the railcar. Union soldiers were nothing new in the area. The Jackson Purchase, often referred to simply as "the Purchase," had been under Union control since February 1862 when Confederate major general Leonidas Polk abandoned the region to Union troops following the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson. As it had done during the war, the sight of an African American in Federal uniform provoked extreme ire among the white men that hot July day. Columbus almost erupted in riot when the two railway employees attacked the African American soldier. The men ordered the "colored boy" to remove the buttons from his coat. When the soldier refused, they "came to blows and from blows the white men used knives rather freely and cut and bruised the colored boy considerably." Other freedmen who witnessed the attack followed the white men off the train, where they drew the attention of "authorities." In the ensuing melee, two freedmen were severely wounded.1 [End Page 503]

The thwarted riot in Columbus that summer was nothing new to various areas of the South following the Civil War. Though a border state, Kentucky would experience continued racial unrest during the late 1860s, leading the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands or, as it was more popularly known, the Freedmen's Bureau, to locate in the state. From 1866 to 1868, the Purchase was designated one of three branches of the bureau in Kentucky.2

The road that led the bureau to the Purchase was a long and bloody one. In 1865, the region, located in the far western corner of Kentucky and separated from the rest of the state by the Tennessee River, comprised seven counties—Ballard, Calloway, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Marshall, and McCracken.3 Bounded to the north by the Ohio River and to the west by the Mississippi River, the area was a virtual peninsula. Added to Kentucky in 1819, the region developed a separate identity because of immigration patterns, agriculture, and politics. Primarily agricultural, the largest town in the area was Paducah, which served as the commercial hub for western Kentucky, western Tennessee, and southern Illinois. In stark contrast to Whig-leaning Kentucky, the voters of the Purchase were staunch Democrats in the decades leading up to war. Despite its late formation, Purchase farmers relied on slavery and became its staunch defenders. By 1840, dark-fired tobacco had become the staple crop in the area, and though the Purchase could never compete with the Bluegrass and Pennyroyal regions of the state in terms of slavery, by 1860 20 percent of the population was enslaved. With the exception of a few people in Paducah, the vast majority of Purchase citizens supported the South during the secession crisis and called for Kentucky to [End Page 504] withdraw from the Union and join the fledgling Confederacy. When the state declared neutrality, several vociferous secession supporters called for the Purchase to secede from Kentucky and join Tennessee. In the ensuing call to arms, the Purchase would contribute more soldiers to the Confederacy than any other area of Kentucky.4

The war came to the Purchase in September 1861 when Confederate major general Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus. Three days after Polk's invasion, Union brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant occupied Paducah. After the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, the Confederates withdrew from Columbus, leaving the Purchase in the grip of Federal troops for the remainder of the war. From 1862 until the end of the war, the Purchase was overrun with guerrillas, bushwhackers, and home guards, both Union and Confederate. The violence was caused when the guerrillas and bushwhackers attacked loyal families. The Union army, in turn, reacted violently when guerrillas or anyone accused of aiding them were caught...