Whither Kentucky Civil War and Reconstruction Scholarship?
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Whither Kentucky Civil War and Reconstruction Scholarship?

For all its salience, the broad and symbolic importance of Kentucky in the Civil War has received surprisingly little attention from professional historians, whether traditional academics or those who engage directly with the public. Fortunately, this lacuna is being filled by a wealth of recent studies, a trend that began in the mid-1970s. To a certain degree, we are on the cusp of a “new” Kentucky Civil War and Reconstruction historiography. These works increasingly treat the Kentucky Civil War experience comparatively and through the lens of politics, economics, law, gender, and the military. This article suggests where scholarship on Civil War-era Kentucky stands today and notes possible avenues for future investigation. I hope that [End Page 223] it will stimulate even more dynamic research by those interested in Kentucky in the Civil War era.

Serious historical writing on Kentucky during the Civil War period has seen a renaissance in the last thirty-five years. Before that, E. Merton Coulter’s oft-maligned but still incredibly important The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (1926) dominated the field. In 1988, I traced the publishing history and importance of that book in the Register.1 The big question has always been: Why has Coulter held sway for so long? As graduate students in the 1970s, we recognized the serious flaws and limitations of Coulter’s work, which was inspired by William A. Dunning of Columbia University, but none of us did anything to come close to replacing it.

Coulter described—but failed to explain—the early neutrality of Kentucky as civil war dissolved the Union, and he overstated its alleged pro-southern sympathies. Coulter largely ignored military campaigns in the state and accepted and perpetuated Jim Crow-era stereotypes of African Americans and their white supporters, especially Freedmen’s Bureau agents. White historians of Coulter’s generation generally considered emancipation an unfortunate by-product of Confederate defeat, a deleterious step that unleashed black assertiveness and the so-called “horrors” of Reconstruction. Coulter sympathized openly with the Democrats’ ascendancy during and after what he termed the state’s “readjustment.”

For decades, American historiography has rejected much of the ideological and methodological assumptions that undergirded Coulter’s work; nevertheless his book has dominated the field largely because no revisionist or revisionist school of Kentucky historians challenged his Dunningite interpretations head-on. Have conditions changed so that someone can write a book that thoroughly revises and replaces Coulter? Unquestionably yes. To be sure, scholars have made great strides in supplementing, if not replacing, Coulter. A great deal of scholarship, providing fresh consideration of Kentucky’s [End Page 224] multifaceted experiences in the secession crisis, the Civil War, and the post–Civil War years, has appeared, or soon will appear.

The modern study of Kentucky in the Civil War period began with the publication of three important books—Lowell H. Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (1975); Ross A. Webb, Kentucky in the Reconstruction Era (1979); and Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (1983).2 Soon after, a number of works, including Richard D. Sears, “A Practical Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man”: John G. Fee and the Camp Nelson Experience (1986); Ira Berlin, ed., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series II: The Black Military Experience (1982); Berlin, ed., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series I, Volume I: The Destruction of Slavery (1985); and Berlin, ed., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series I, Volume II: The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (1993), extended the reach of Howard’s monograph.

As the new century unfolded, several valuable books appeared, including Lowell H. Harrison, Lincoln of Kentucky (2000); Earl J. Hess, Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River (2000); and Kent Masterson Brown, ed., The Civil War in Kentucky: Battle for the Bluegrass State (2000). Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (2002) and Darrel E. Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (2006) provided new research on the emancipation process in Kentucky...


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