In recent decades, a new generation of scholars has sifted through the records of Kentucky’s Civil War—era experience, uncovering new evidence, rethinking well-thumbed documentation, and challenging previous answers to long-standing questions. Scholars have focused on the nature of slavery in the antebellum commonwealth, the debate over secession, “unconditional” Unionism and its limits, and the reality and nature of an emerging Confederate identity, particularly in the years following Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In the process, these scholars have challenged traditional dichotomies: that slavery was more benign on the border than “down the river” in the Cotton Kingdom, that not seceding somehow went against the wishes of most white Kentuckians, and that there was a straightforward conflict between proslavery Kentucky Confederates and antislavery Unionists. In sum, commitment to slavery, wartime loyalty, and postemancipation identity proved far more complex and, at least on the surface, more malleable than the dichotomies often touted in popular culture and collective memory.
From his bold title on, Patrick A. Lewis sets out to provide a case study of the depth of proslavery sentiment in the Bluegrass and how that intersected with the idea that remaining in the Union was the most viable way to preserve slavery. The story of proslavery Unionist Benjamin Buckner exemplifies the complex relationship between Kentucky, slavery, and the coming of the Civil War. A slaveholder betrothed to the daughter of avowed secessionists, Buckner nonetheless stood against secession and even chose to don the uniform of the Union. As Lewis notes, proslavery Union soldiers may have been a small minority in the whole of the North, but in Kentucky they were a formidable majority once the initial flood of Confederate Kentuckians headed south. Proslavery Unionists controlled state politics during the war, electing Thomas Bramlette governor in 1863 [End Page 78] and soundly rejecting the re-election of President Lincoln in 1864. Of course by then the world these proslavery voters and leaders had hoped to protect had begun to crumble, starting with the federal confiscation acts and culminating with the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of enslaved Kentuckians for the ranks of the United States Colored Troops.
Lewis utilized a wide array of sources, particularly the archival collections housed in the Margaret I. King Library (University of Kentucky), major Kentucky newspapers from the era, extensive printed and edited primary sources, and an impressive bibliography of books, articles, theses, and dissertations. Specifically, the letters Buckner wrote to his fiancée, Helen, provided Lewis great insight into Buckner’s thoughts and feelings about shifting federal policy during the war. The young white slaveholder went to war to prove he was an appropriately masculine person of honor. Thus, even though he chose the Union, he endeavored to demonstrate to his fiancée and her family that he was a worthy match. But both the expansion of federal confiscation power and the reality of wartime opportunities for enslaved people to seek freedom in ever greater numbers left Buckner and other proslavery Unionists increasingly powerless to protect their interests and, indeed, the very foundation of their prewar world.
Based on these letters, Lewis argues that Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation led directly to Buckner’s decision to resign his commission and return home to address the political and social ramifications of the document. While the Proclamation technically freed no Kentuckians, it did serve notice that the tone of the war had changed and that, henceforth, loss of slave property would be the ultimate cost of rebellion. Such an executive order, even in the midst of a war to suppress rebellion, sent shock waves through Kentucky’s proslavery Unionist ranks. Instead of joining the collapsing Confederacy, proslavery Unionists like Buckner welcomed home former adversaries and openly defied the Lincoln administration’s wartime policies. White Kentuckians refused to ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; they fought in court and on [End Page 79] the ground with, respectively, lawyers and firearms to prevent even a modicum of postemancipation racial equality.