People often ask me when we will know everything about the Civil War and when we can stop writing books about it. I tell them that, for my own sake, I hope it isn’t soon and that in my work on the Kentucky Historical Society’s Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition I am doing my best to stir the pot for at least another generation. That project will keep the conversation lively by bringing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of new voices to the table. What new stories will they allow us to tell? How will they force us to reconsider how we tell familiar stories about the past?
The essays in this issue ask us to reconsider what many people consider the most dramatic moment in Kentucky’s Civil War history, the Confederate invasion in the summer and fall of 1862. They show us where the evidence we rely on to tell our Civil War stories—the voices we let speak for the past—fall short and have hidden important lessons from us. In Thomas M. Grace’s article, the diaries and letters written by Confederate soldiers on the march into Kentucky are, understandably, not as vivid and detailed as the memories they would record about the battle that followed. For a traditional Civil War scholarship built on battle histories, months of human experience have been obscured by a blazing few hours of combat. We need Grace’s trained eye to pick out the small details about dusty railroad towns, patriotic ladies’ picnics, and the curious experience of moving across a nation in a matter of weeks. We need a historian’s skill to overlay this spotty testimonial evidence with the perspective of generals, engineers, and staff officers who worked tirelessly to make one of the largest, longest, and most complex troop movements in American military history seem like just so much walking or riding on a boxcar to the men in the ranks.
Grace shows us a Confederacy that is still under construction—a [End Page 1] fragile Deep South industrial base under threat of invasion, a rail network being pieced together on the fly by thousands of slaves impressed to work by a state dedicated to the protection of the private property rights of masters, and a nation struggling to win the allegiance of citizens in the swamps of Mississippi, the cotton fields of the black belt, and the Unionist towns of the Cumberland Plateau. On one level, it is striking that the young Confederate nation could achieve any of these things. But Grace also reminds us that we have lived with the idea of a Confederate nation—with widely varying degrees of comfort—for 150 years now, while the people in 1862 had only seen it born the year before.
Donald A. Clark certainly shows us the limited appeal of the Confederate cause, as Joshua Taylor Bradford and the leading citizens of Augusta—loyal southern slave owners who drove abolitionist native son John G. Fee out of town—rallied to defend their town from the advance of Rebel Kentuckians under Basil Duke. Using the court-martial records of the steamboat captains, whose role in the September 1862 battle was both brief and controversial, Clark shows us far more than the fifteen-minute fight for the town. We see weeks of rumors, preparations, and false alarms as the citizens of Bracken and neighboring counties prepared to meet the Rebel invasion. We also gain a new, more intimate perspective on what invasion means. It did not take a major field army of tens of thousands of troops to bring violence and destruction to Kentucky doorsteps. A handful of cavalrymen and a few dozen citizen militia could visit just as much destruction on picturesque little Augusta as could forces much larger. And in the battle’s aftermath, we are reminded how dependant historians are on faulty human memory and the impulse to seek praise and place blame. The conflicting and contradictory testimony in the court-martial cases reminds us that, as historians, we cannot reconstruct the absolute truth of any event but can only hope to use the imperfect historical record left...