restricted access Unionism, Emancipation, and the Origins of Kentucky’s Confederate Identity
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Unionism, Emancipation, and the Origins of Kentucky’s Confederate Identity

In March 1864, Colonel Frank L. Wolford was one of the most respected Union men in Kentucky. A native of Adair County, Wolford joined the First Kentucky Cavalry (USA) shortly after the outbreak of the war. He fought at the battle of Mill Springs in 1862, and Wolford’s “Wild Riders,” as they were known, spent much of the next two years chasing Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan across Kentucky.1 Wolford was so highly esteemed that the Unionists of Fayette County desired to present him with gifts and hear him speak on affairs in Kentucky. On March 10, Wolford arrived at the Melodeon Hall in Lexington, and the loyal men of Fayette County offered him a saber, a sash, pistols, and spurs as tokens of their appreciation. Yet, in the address that followed, Wolford condemned Abraham Lincoln and his administration, stating that the president was guilty of “trampling upon the Constitution” and was in “violation of the rules of civilized warfare.” Though speaking before an [End Page 199] audience of devoted Unionists, “most rapturous applause” followed the conclusion of Wolford’s address.2

Wolford’s criticisms of the Lincoln administration echoed sentiments held by many Kentuckians. Although not his only complaint, Wolford’s primary concern was the Federal plan to enlist black soldiers in Kentucky. Like many in the commonwealth, he viewed the enlistment of black soldiers as a dangerous abolitionist scheme that would lengthen the war and undermine white supremacy. Moreover, he believed that Kentuckians, especially Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, had a duty to resist the order. Wolford specifically stated that he did not advise secession, but he could not abide “the unconstitutional and impolitic enrolment of negroes.” Because Kentucky had remained loyal, Wolford argued that the Federal government had an obligation to respect the state constitution and laws, which precluded emancipation, much less the enlistment of black soldiers. After speaking for an hour and a half, Wolford concluded that he was aware that “pimps and informers” would report his speech to government officials. Wolford hoped only that they would “report what he said faithfully” and notify Lincoln that Kentuckians thought he was “a tyrant and a usurper.” Two days later, the Lexington Observer & Reporter praised Wolford’s speech, stating that, “Our admiration [for Wolford] has been immeasurably increased.”3 Not everyone, however, was as enamored with Wolford’s statements. To the military commanders of Kentucky, the colonel crossed the line when he encouraged “forcible resistance” to the recruitment of blacks.4 On June 27, army officials arrested Wolford and charged him with treason before dishonorably discharging him.5

Wolford’s shift from staunch Unionist to ardent critic of Federal [End Page 200] emancipation policy reflects a broader trend in Kentucky society. Throughout the antebellum period, Kentuckians witnessed the continued protection and strengthening of slavery by the Federal government, and based on decades of evidence, they believed that their position within the Union offered more security for slavery than did secession.6 Initially, most Kentuckians supported the Union war effort while also opposing all Federal efforts at emancipation. Beginning in 1861, however, more and more Kentuckians found that their support for the Union and their desire to keep slaves had become mutually exclusive. Changing U.S. policy forced Kentuckians to make a decision, and for many, the choice was an easy one. Indeed, the state’s attachment to slavery was so strong that emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers led Kentuckians to denounce the Lincoln administration and in some cases even the Union. By the end of 1865, Federal emancipation policy reinforced white Kentuckians’ southern identity and led to a postwar memory of a Confederate Kentucky.7 However, the memory of the Civil War experience of Kentucky has obscured the voices of those who lived through it. The prevalent narrative acknowledges Kentucky’s ideological shift but attributes it to the presence and brutality of Union troops in the state rather than the racism and attachment to slavery that fueled resistance to emancipation and permeated Kentucky political rhetoric in the 1860s.

In almost any other state in the Union, the public would have viewed...