- My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans
In today’s era it is easy to assume that U.S. military veterans have always held a revered position in our government institutions. Benefits programs, the G.I. Bill, military pensions, and veterans’ hospitals are just a few of the resources available to men and women who have risked their lives in the defense of our nation. However, what happens when the soldiers in question are on the losing end of a rebellion against their own nation? Whose responsibility is it to care for these wounded, infirm, and aged veterans? In this newest book on ex-Confederate veterans, free-lance historian Rusty Williams investigates these questions as he delves into the social history of Kentucky’s most notable veterans’ home. [End Page 88]
The Kentucky Confederate Home serves as a microcosm for explaining the social and political atmosphere of a state that never joined the rebellion, yet ironically fell fully within the Lost Cause rhetoric after the war. By focusing on this particular veterans’ home, Williams is able to informatively trace how grassroots movements in the postwar period were intricately linked to broader national trends of caring for former soldiers. Those knowledgeable aboaut the era will find expected organizations, like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans, alongside a litany of unfamiliar men and women, all of whom had a hand in the story of this home.
Readers will note two main themes throughout the pages of this book. The first follows the operational trials and tribulations of the Kentucky Confederate Home, and the second reconstructs the lives of the men and women who developed, managed, worked, and lived on the estate. Williams is to be commended for his painstaking research in both of these regards given the inordinate difficulty in retrieving records after a fire in 1920 destroyed many of the official documents of the home.
Most interesting about Williams’s book is the picturesque daily lives of the inhabitants within the home. Through the story of these veteran soldiers, we find that aspects of military lifestyle did not end for these men after the war. Residents of the Kentucky Confederate Home were subject to a strict daily regimen which included roll call, approved furloughs, pseudo-military tribunals for behavioral infractions, and a “commandant” who required aged veterans to wear formal Confederate uniforms.
For all the strong points of this work, there remain some rather disheartening shortcomings. Though Williams excels at providing minutiae (billing receipts, food items, and operational costs), he glosses over substantial social and cultural elements throughout the book. Perhaps the most glaring acts of superficiality occur with his treatment of race; at one point he offhandedly refers to a “black body servant” working for a wealthy boat captain (37). Another instance arises when the Kentucky Confederate Home replaces most of its white staff with African Americans. Here Williams has a prime opportunity to investigate the cultural and social significance of black employees in a servile role to aged and infirm ex-Confederates. Instead of delving into this complex relationship, he simply states that it was cheaper to employ “part-time black women from the area” (109).
Despite these weaknesses, My Old Confederate Home serves as a useful introduction into the grassroots formation, organization, and management of Confederate homes. Through his meticulous research and a cast of lively [End Page 89] characters, Williams has indeed created a respectable place for Civil War veterans.