“The Weeds and The Flowers Are Closely Mixed”: Allegiance, Law, And White Supremacy in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, 1861-1865
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“The Weeds and The Flowers Are Closely Mixed”:
Allegiance, Law, And White Supremacy in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, 1861-1865

Historians have previously described the unique nature of the Civil War in Kentucky by referring to citizens’ divided loyalties.1 Although many students of the Civil War era take this assertion at face value, recent scholarship has revealed the various factors influencing Kentuckians’ allegiances. Current scholarship places the political and economic aspects of slavery at the center of conservative Unionism in the state.2 However, the complexity of loyalty in Kentucky also lies in the fact that most citizens, whether they were Unionists, Confederates, [End Page 563] or attempting to stay neutral, embraced white supremacy. Both Unionists and Confederates believed that their course of action protected it. In areas with significant numbers of slaves and slaveholders, such as the Bluegrass, citizens supported slavery as part of the racial hierarchy that allowed white men to progress and prosper.3 During the war, Unionists used the law to punish disloyalty, but these legal measures were always tempered by the concern for upholding white citizens’ right to property. Kentucky representative George H. Yeaman summed up the problem posed by using emancipation as a way to end the war, noting that although such a policy might punish Confederates, it would also affect Unionists, because “the weeds and the flowers are closely mixed.”4 Many Kentucky Unionists agreed with Yeaman’s contention, recognizing that emancipation challenged the system of racial hierarchy that benefited all white citizens.

The Kentucky Bluegrass region presents a unique dynamic because local economies benefited from both the continuance of slavery and their proximity to the commercial centers along the Ohio River, including Cincinnati and Louisville. The town of Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, serves as an example of a politically aware community with strong Unionist sentiment. Frankfort and Franklin County provide an excellent subject for this study, because if Kentucky Confederates ever faced legal retribution on the local level, it would occur at the center of the Unionist state government. Additionally, Franklin County had both ardent secessionists and Unionists, with a majority of citizens remaining uncommitted. The town was also located in the heart of the Bluegrass, surrounded by communities with [End Page 564] significant secessionist populations, including Lexington and Cynthiana. Franklin County, while home to the Union elite of Frankfort, also contained a substantial number of slaveholders, many of whom supported the Union on the condition that slavery remain intact.5

The most important issue dividing Bluegrass Kentuckians was not the question of whether or not to end slavery but rather the disagreement over whether the Republican administration threatened slavery and by extension white supremacy. Citizens chose their allegiance not just by their slaveholding status but also by their concerns for how the collapse of slavery would affect the racial hierarchy. Some Kentucky slaveholders believed that white supremacy was secure as long as their state remained in the Union, which had always protected slavery and the rights of white citizens through compromise.6 These Unionists viewed their secessionist neighbors as a threat, but Kentucky loyalists rejected the idea of punishing their disloyal neighbors by confiscating property or slaves.

Kentuckians who believed the fire-eater conspiracy theories and feared that Abraham Lincoln would move to abolish slavery as soon as he took office acted quickly to challenge the perceived Republican threat to the continuation of slavery. Although the Kentucky legislature pursued a policy of neutrality until September 1861, both Unionists and secessionists gathered their forces and lobbied for support. In [End Page 565] one example of this open attitude towards choosing allegiances, S. I. M. Major, editor of the staunchly Democratic Kentucky Yeoman, let enthusiastic secessionists know where to meet with like-minded folk and leave the state to join the Confederate army. Indeed, by April 20, 1861, Blanton Duncan had organized a regiment in Louisville but sought to gather a total of eighteen hundred men before he headed south.7 According to Duncan, “abolition hordes” were poised to invade all of the slave states, including Kentucky. Duncan led other secessionists to Virginia where they could help preempt the war of emancipation they so strongly believed was about...