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  • Kentucky’s Last Cavalier: General William Preston, 1816-1887
  • Stuart Sanders
Kentucky’s Last Cavalier: General William Preston, 1816-1887. By Peter J. Sehlinger. (Lexington: Kentucky Historical Society [distributed by the University Press of Kentucky], 2004. Pp. 309. $33.95.)

Kentuckian William Preston was a lawyer, soldier, politician, and diplomat. He served President James Buchanan as minister to Spain, and was, during the Civil War, named the Confederate "envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the court of Emperor Maxmilian of Mexico" (168). Because of Preston's diplomatic duties, his biographer needs an extensive knowledge of nineteenth-century Latin American and North American history. Fortunately, Peter J. Sehlinger, professor emeritus of Latin American and United States history at Indiana University, has ably captured Preston's varied career in Kentucky's Last Cavalier: General William Preston, 1816–1887.

"For three decades," Sehlinger writes, Preston "defended the interests of the antebellum South, both in Kentucky and in Washington" (xiv). A wealthy Mexican War veteran, Preston was a prominent Whig and Democratic politician who supported the rights of immigrants and Catholics while advocating a stringent pro-slavery platform in Congress. As Buchanan's minister to Spain, Preston negotiated Amistad claims and failed to purchase Cuba for the United States. "However," the author asserts, "Preston's appeal to the Monroe Doctrine, when protesting Spain's occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1861, marked one of the first times that the United States would invoke this doctrine abroad to assert its foreign policy" (98). Although unsuccessful in acquiring Cuba, which was his primary goal, Preston laid the foundations for future American diplomatic policies.

When the Civil War erupted, Preston fled Kentucky to avoid arrest and joined the Confederacy. He became an aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, and held Johnston in his arms when that general bled to death at the Battle of Shiloh. Given command of a Confederate brigade, Preston was recognized for his bravery at Stones River and Chickamauga. After becoming embroiled in the officer corps feud against Army of Tennessee commander General Braxton Bragg, Preston was transferred to southwestern Virginia. Preston's diplomatic experience was soon needed, however, and the Kentuckian was appointed minister to Mexico, where he worked to secure foreign recognition. His lack of success in acquiring Cuba and his wartime failure to induce Maximilian to recognize the Confederacy made him "a diplomat of lost causes" (xv). He ended the war exiled in Canada, but eventually he returned to Kentucky to become a state legislator and Democratic political activist.

Kentucky's Last Cavalier is a comprehensive look at Preston's life. Rich in details and ably researched in archives from five different countries, the study does not solely rest upon Preston's Civil War service. While there is a strong analysis of Preston's role during the Battle of Chickamauga, which proved to be the "high point" of his military career (153), more details are needed about his actions during the Battle of Stones River and his presence in his native state during the 1862 Kentucky campaign. Furthermore, as a prominent ringleader [End Page 204] of the anti-Bragg factions, further analysis of his role against Bragg's leadership would strengthen the book.

While information about Preston's Civil War service could be expanded, Sehlinger's research is particularly interesting regarding Preston's diplomatic career and the stumbling blocks he faced while negotiating the purchase of Cuba or for Confederate recognition. In addition, there is excellent analysis pertaining to Preston's postwar activism and his role in forging a compromise that gave the 1877 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

Sechlinger's broad study also presents an intriguing portrait of Preston's wife, Margaret Wickliffe Preston. Economically and socially independent and a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, Mrs. Preston was a compelling figure in her own right. As the daughter of Robert Wickliffe Sr., Kentucky's largest slave owner, who "possessed perhaps the greatest fortune in antebellum Kentucky" (35), Margaret gave her husband both unwavering support and, in later life, great conflict. In the end, the debt-ridden couple separated.

Sehlinger's book fills a void in the study of the Civil...


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