“A Blood Stained Sin”: Slavery, Freedom, and Guerrilla Warfare in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, 1863–65
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“A Blood Stained Sin”:
Slavery, Freedom, and Guerrilla Warfare in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, 1863–65

In early September 1867, the outgoing Kentucky governor, Union Democrat Thomas Bramlette, delivered a farewell address in which he patted himself on the back a bit, but also issued a sharp rebuke to Republicans throughout the United States, particularly those who, like William G. “Parson” Brownlow of Tennessee, now held high office in former Confederate states. He proclaimed such Republicans to be men who would

subordinate every interest, mental, moral, and physical, public, private, and social, to their own base and inordinate thirst [to hold] office. This party, led on by these demagogues, propose to ‘reconstruct’ the governments of the Southern States, so as to enfranchise the negro and disfranchise the white men not of their party in those States. They hope thereby to build up a negro party in the South, which will perpetuate political power in their hands.

Such a party, Bramlette postulated, would create political competition [End Page 553] that would eventually “force a conflict of races,” which could only lead to the extermination of the “weaker” race. Finally, he accused these “demagogues” of pretending that “it is only their purpose to ‘punish treason and protect loyalty,’” while “they make war upon our Constitutional Union more ruthlessly, but with less manly courage, than did those whom they would punish.” He concluded this passage by openly proclaiming that “We can respect the manhood of those who, though erring in purpose and in judgment, struck boldly and bravely for separating the Southern States into an independent government,” but “we have no respect for those who pervert the powers of a free government” in order to accomplish “the destruction of the rights and the liberties of the Southern white men.”1 This speech was from the mouth of the unconditional Unionist governor of the commonwealth who served during the last two years of the Civil War.

Like the nation as a whole, Bramlette’s Kentucky tried, but failed, to avoid a civil war. As secession turned into civil war, leaders in the commonwealth, including states’ rights governor Beriah Magoffin, sought a position of neutrality. In the end, war came to Kentucky as both the Union and the Confederacy moved to secure this vital state, or at least part of it, within their lines. Although the Kentucky legislature refused to call a secession convention, the state produced a number of Confederates, including at least twenty-five thousand regular soldiers, along with prominent leaders such as John C. Breckinridge. Yet politically and militarily, the commonwealth proved to be a far more significant supporter of the Union war effort. By most estimates, nearly twice as many white Kentuckians served in the ranks of the Union army as joined the Confederacy, along with approximately twenty-four-thousand African American soldiers.2 The [End Page 554] commonwealth also made a very significant contribution to the Union in terms of numerous military and civilian leaders, as well as large amounts of food (particularly corn, beef, pork, and animal fodder), cloth and clothing, manufactured goods, oxen, mules, and horses. Why, then, would the outgoing governor be so hard on Republicans? Simply put, Thomas Bramlette had been a proslavery loyalist, like most of his constituents. Federal abolition of slavery in Kentucky, both through wartime policy and the Thirteenth Amendment, which Kentucky refused to ratify, infuriated such men, and now they were being asked to face the unthinkable: black equality.3

For many white residents of the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky, the war they hoped to observe from a distance instead became very personal, beginning in earnest with the Confederate invasion of 1862, massive Union mobilization efforts thereafter, Confederate raiding in the commonwealth, and, by the autumn of 1863, the imposition of martial law. Still, these factors paled in comparison to what began in 1864: the recruitment of Kentucky slaves for the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). As recruitment escalated, so too did guerrilla warfare, much of which had little or no direct connection to the Confederate war effort. Many guerrillas evinced intense hatred of both black recruits and unconditional Unionists who remained loyal...


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