The life of John Mason Brown (1837-90), who rose to prominence in Kentucky after the Civil War as a lawyer and as a significant supporter of the Republican Party, was shaped by his experiences during the war. He spent most of the first two years of the war on two long trips (the first of some eight thousand miles, the second of five thousand miles), both for the most part in Indian country along the upper Missouri River. He then returned to Kentucky and became first a major and then a colonel in the Union cause, serving from October 1862 through late 1864, most notably as a leader in the engagements that drove Colonel John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry from Kentucky.
Brown's experiences between 1861 and 1865 illustrate the polarization of America into Union and Confederate camps, largely over the issue of slavery. In the war, nowhere was that polarization more acute than in the border states—and Kentucky was the most deeply divided of these, since slaves made up almost 20 percent of its population in 1860, which was a much higher percentage than that in Maryland (less than 13 percent), Missouri (less than 13 percent), [End Page 41] western Virginia (less than 4 percent), and Delaware (1 percent).1 Brown's experiences also reflect major changes in the Northwest, among them the continued forced relocation of Indians, the westward expansion of farming, the impact of gold rushes in Indian country, and the destruction of game.
Brown has left us written records of these developments. He recorded his travels in Indian country in two diaries. He had just turned twenty-four when he left St. Louis in May 1861 on his first trip up the Missouri, bound for Montana and beyond, and his diaries reflect a young man's curiosity and energy. By describing what he saw—the Indians, the reservations, the violence, the killing of the game, the quest for gold, the Civil War news that slowly reached the Rockies, the deeply split loyalties of Kentuckians—he opens to us a world that was radically changing as he lived in it. In addition, regimental histories and wartime correspondence by Brown and his fellow officers illustrate not only Brown's military career and the family-splitting divisions the war caused but also the fighting to expel Confederate raiders like John Hunt Morgan from Kentucky and the successful effort of the North to mobilize its soldiers to vote for Lincoln's reelection in 1864.2 [End Page 42]
John Mason Brown was born in Frankfort, the state capital of Kentucky, on April 26, 1837, in Liberty Hall, an imposing brick house built in about 1800 for his grandfather, John Brown, a leading lawyer, a U.S. congressman, and, when Kentucky became a state, one of its first two senators. John Brown's oldest son, Mason, who inherited Liberty Hall when the senator died in 1837, had been a circuit judge in Kentucky and had served as its secretary of state, and, like his father, was a substantial landowner and slaveholder.3 According to the 1860 census, Mason Brown owned fifty-one slaves—thirty-one in Franklin County (the site not only of Brown's home Liberty Hall in Frankfort but also of his farm about two miles away), and twenty in Owen County, where he had another farm in a rich farming area with the unfortunate name of Brown's Bottom. Kentucky was far from a classless society in John Mason Brown's time. The Browns, though not among the largest landowners and slaveholders in the state, were one of a small number of families, many connected by marriage or kinship, who had much of the best land and wielded much of the political influence in the state.
When Mason Brown's son John Mason Brown was nine, his right leg was badly crushed in an accident as he was playing with other boys in a gristmill. It took him over a year to recover substantial use of the injured leg—during which time, studying at home under his father's supervision, Brown became what he remained throughout his life, an omnivorous reader...