One of the most noticeable trends in recent scholarship on the Civil War in Kentucky is the notion that, contrary to popular belief, the commonwealth was overwhelmingly supportive of the Union during the national crisis. With a focus on the war and Reconstruction, Aaron Astor’s Rebels on the Border demonstrated that many Kentuckians only reluctantly became “belated Confederates” after it was obvious that the Union war effort would abolish slavery. Even more stunning was Anne E. Marshall’s Creating a Confederate Kentucky, in which Marshall delineated the processes by which the commonwealth “forgot” its Unionist loyalties in the sixty years that succeeded the conflict and came to embrace the mythology of the Lost Cause and its supposed Confederate heritage.
Dan Lee’s The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861–1862 reminds us that more than a few Kentuckians pledged their allegiance to the Confederate States of America long before the conclusion of the war. A regional study of the far-western counties of Kentucky, Lee’s work suggests that the Purchase identified more closely with western Tennessee than the rest of the Bluegrass State during the antebellum period and secession crisis, and that it remained staunchly pro-Confederate throughout the war. [End Page 228]
In light of the historiographical developments discussed above, this approach presents a compelling opportunity to examine the origins of Confederate sympathy in western Kentucky and its sustenance during the Civil War. And yet, despite Lee’s recognition that the Purchase’s dominant pro-Confederate tendencies were anomalous in the state as a whole, such developments are often assumed instead of scrutinized and explained. The assertion that the Purchase was simply more devoted to slavery—and thus secession—than the rest of Kentucky is not convincing.
This initial quibble aside, there is much here that deserves praise. The vast majority of The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861–1862 is dedicated to the military struggle in western Kentucky, and Lee has mined the Official Records and a multitude of published material, both old and new, in order to construct an absorbing portrait of the conflict. The central argument that the battles in late 1861 and early 1862 in the Purchase (Columbus-Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Island Number Ten) proved decisive in the Union victory in the west is ably executed and substantial.
Alongside the rise of U.S. Grant, Lee also portrays the development of the “brown-water navy” that Andrew H. Foote commanded in the climactic battles in western Kentucky (p. 34). More than anything else, supremacy on the rivers allowed Union forces to push into Tennessee and capture Fort Donelson—a victory that forced the Confederate evacuation of Columbus, Kentucky, in February 1862. With the “Gibraltar of the West” now in Union control, the “river-ine gateway” (p. 1) to the Deep South lay open. While many battles remained to be fought, Union dominance of the inland waterways established in the struggles in the Jackson Purchase was surely a harbinger of ultimate Union victory in the west.
The most captivating portions of Lee’s work detail the experiences of individuals who lived through the upheavals of war in the Jackson Purchase. Anyone looking for a rosy picture of the home front will find little solace here. The war was a shattering trial that continued long after the Union established control of the region. Violence reigned, as [End Page 229] vindictive officials, guerrillas, and bewildered citizens fought to survive as their world crumbled around them. In Lee’s telling, the citizens of the Jackson Purchase gave their all to the Confederacy—and they lost everything. One must guess, of course, that the war meant something altogether different for the 2,845 people in the Purchase whom white Confederates fought so hard to keep enslaved.
JACOB A. GLOVER is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. His current research focuses on everyday racial violence and African American intellectual history during Reconstruction.