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  • “A Blood Stained Sin”: Slavery, Freedom, and Guerrilla Warfare in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, 1863–65

In early September 1867, the outgoing Kentucky governor, Union Democrat Thomas Bramlette, delivered a farewell address in which he patted himself on the back a bit, but also issued a sharp rebuke to Republicans throughout the United States, particularly those who, like William G. “Parson” Brownlow of Tennessee, now held high office in former Confederate states. He proclaimed such Republicans to be men who would

subordinate every interest, mental, moral, and physical, public, private, and social, to their own base and inordinate thirst [to hold] office. This party, led on by these demagogues, propose to ‘reconstruct’ the governments of the Southern States, so as to enfranchise the negro and disfranchise the white men not of their party in those States. They hope thereby to build up a negro party in the South, which will perpetuate political power in their hands.

Such a party, Bramlette postulated, would create political competition [End Page 553] that would eventually “force a conflict of races,” which could only lead to the extermination of the “weaker” race. Finally, he accused these “demagogues” of pretending that “it is only their purpose to ‘punish treason and protect loyalty,’” while “they make war upon our Constitutional Union more ruthlessly, but with less manly courage, than did those whom they would punish.” He concluded this passage by openly proclaiming that “We can respect the manhood of those who, though erring in purpose and in judgment, struck boldly and bravely for separating the Southern States into an independent government,” but “we have no respect for those who pervert the powers of a free government” in order to accomplish “the destruction of the rights and the liberties of the Southern white men.”1 This speech was from the mouth of the unconditional Unionist governor of the commonwealth who served during the last two years of the Civil War.

Like the nation as a whole, Bramlette’s Kentucky tried, but failed, to avoid a civil war. As secession turned into civil war, leaders in the commonwealth, including states’ rights governor Beriah Magoffin, sought a position of neutrality. In the end, war came to Kentucky as both the Union and the Confederacy moved to secure this vital state, or at least part of it, within their lines. Although the Kentucky legislature refused to call a secession convention, the state produced a number of Confederates, including at least twenty-five thousand regular soldiers, along with prominent leaders such as John C. Breckinridge. Yet politically and militarily, the commonwealth proved to be a far more significant supporter of the Union war effort. By most estimates, nearly twice as many white Kentuckians served in the ranks of the Union army as joined the Confederacy, along with approximately twenty-four-thousand African American soldiers.2 The [End Page 554] commonwealth also made a very significant contribution to the Union in terms of numerous military and civilian leaders, as well as large amounts of food (particularly corn, beef, pork, and animal fodder), cloth and clothing, manufactured goods, oxen, mules, and horses. Why, then, would the outgoing governor be so hard on Republicans? Simply put, Thomas Bramlette had been a proslavery loyalist, like most of his constituents. Federal abolition of slavery in Kentucky, both through wartime policy and the Thirteenth Amendment, which Kentucky refused to ratify, infuriated such men, and now they were being asked to face the unthinkable: black equality.3

For many white residents of the Bluegrass region of central Kentucky, the war they hoped to observe from a distance instead became very personal, beginning in earnest with the Confederate invasion of 1862, massive Union mobilization efforts thereafter, Confederate raiding in the commonwealth, and, by the autumn of 1863, the imposition of martial law. Still, these factors paled in comparison to what began in 1864: the recruitment of Kentucky slaves for the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). As recruitment escalated, so too did guerrilla warfare, much of which had little or no direct connection to the Confederate war effort. Many guerrillas evinced intense hatred of both black recruits and unconditional Unionists who remained loyal to the United States despite its military policies regarding slavery.

Far from an anomaly, the wartime experience of Kentucky may serve as a case study by which to understand the larger national conflict, not in the traditional dichotomy—a war between states or even a war between two distinct entities, North and South—but as a war in which many participants in fact fought against federal authority, particularly where that authority might be used to interfere [End Page 555] with or perhaps even abolish the institution of slavery. By taking this approach, one may better understand the perceived shifting loyalties of many Kentuckians, including Bramlette, over the course of the war. In a very real sense, those loyalties did not shift at all: believing slavery, both as a labor regime and as a means of racial control, could best be defended within the Union, many Kentuckians had resisted secession and in some cases either served in the Union army or at least declared their unconditional support. But their true loyalty, to the maintenance of slavery, had by 1864 put many of them at odds with the Abraham Lincoln administration and federal wartime policy regarding slavery in the commonwealth, and so they rebelled as best they could at that late date, mostly tacitly, but sometimes by taking up arms.

For his part, Thomas Bramlette had not been neutral when war came to Kentucky. He organized a regiment in the first year of the war, but he resigned his commission as a colonel in 1862 to accept President Lincoln’s appointment as United States district attorney for Kentucky. The following year, Bramlette was offered a commission as a general. He instead accepted the Union Democratic Party’s nomination for the regular quadrennial gubernatorial election in 1863, having been nominated after Joshua Fry Bell withdrew his name from consideration. A former Whig, Bramlette helped build a coalition of both Unionist Democrats and former Whigs into a dominant prowar party that easily defeated the other Democrat in the gubernatorial race, Charles A. Wickliffe. His campaign benefited from federal military policy, which in effect silenced some of his competitors, along with numerous political dissenters in the commonwealth, and suppressed voter turnout. Wickliffe received only about 17,500 votes, while Bramlette garnered more than 68,400 votes. Despite widespread claims of voter intimidation, it is difficult to imagine a scenario, given wartime reality in August 1863, in which Wickliffe could have won. Federal military policy played a significant role in making the election so one-sided, but the outcome likely would still have been a Union Democratic victory. Bramlette pledged unconditional loyalty to the Union, as did a great many of his supporters, but he quickly found [End Page 556] himself at odds with the Lincoln administration.4

Governor Bramlette and his allies in the state legislature repeatedly petitioned for cooperation from Washington, both in the form of payment for public and private reparation claims resulting from Confederate John Hunt Morgan’s raids and in the form of support for raising a large state militia to defend against any future raids. Additionally, Bramlette personally asked for Stephen G. Burbridge, a brash thirty-two-year-old Scott County slaveholder who had proven himself a capable field officer, to be appointed as commander of the Military District of Kentucky. Lincoln agreed and appointed Burbridge. But by September 1864, no payment of claims was forthcoming, and he had lived to regret his endorsement of Burbridge.5 In a strident letter to President Lincoln, he laid out his principal complaints, and in so doing alienated himself from both Burbridge and the Lincoln administration for the rest of the war. Above all, he challenged the administration’s role in shifting the war from a fight to restore the Union to a war to end slavery:

We are for the restoration of our Government throughout our entire limits regardless of what may happen to the negro. We reject as spurious, the Unionism of all who make the Status of the negro a sine qua non to peace and unity. We are not willing to imperil the life liberty and happiness of our own race and people for the freedom or slavery of the negro. To permit the question of the freedom or slavery of the negro, to obstruct the restoration of National authority and [End Page 557] unity is a blood stained sin. Those whose sons are involved in this strife demand, as they have the right to do, that the negro be ignored in all questions of settlement, and not make his condition—whether it shall be free or slave, an obstacle to the restoration of national unity & peace. Such are the sentiments of the loyal masses of Kentucky. Why therefore are unequal burdens laid upon the people of Kentucky?6

Clearly the most “unequal” of these burdens involved federal policies that were undermining slavery in the commonwealth, with little hope of compensation for slaveholders. Thus, the ongoing national conflict over the future of slavery was at the heart of the wartime experience of Kentuckians. While any number of modern-day individuals and groups continue to downplay the importance of slavery in explaining the actions of Civil War participants, those participants proved far less reserved in making it clear exactly what they were fighting for or against. As historian Chandra Manning explains:

to many of its participants, the Civil War was nothing less than a clash between competing ideas about how Americans should interpret and enact their founding ideals. The problem, as soldiers on both sides saw it, was that the opposing side threatened self-government. It threatened liberty and equality. It threatened the virtue necessary to sustain a republic. It threatened the proper balance between God, government, society, the family, and the individual. And no matter which side of the divide a Civil War soldier stood on, he knew that the heart of the threat, and the reason that the war came, was the other side’s stance on slavery. From first [End Page 558] to last, slavery defined the soldiers’ war among both Union and Confederate troops, though how it did so would change over time.

Further, she asserts, “Non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers regarded black slavery as vital to the protection of their families, interests, and very identities as men, and they relied on it to prevent race war. Perceived northern attempts to destroy it had to be stopped.”7

If, as William W. Freehling has argued, more than two-thirds of white male Kentuckians of military age were unwilling to commit to either Union or Confederate armies, many of them proved willing to challenge federal policy and, in the end, defy federal authority in an effort to protect slavery in their “loyal” state.8 Voters counted on Bramlette to stand firm against federal interference in the commonwealth and lead the way in challenging federal policy. He faced an uphill battle from the start: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation not only had made the loss of slave property the price for ongoing rebellion, it also allowed for the recruitment of African Americans as soldiers. Further, it sent shock waves throughout America’s enslaved population, where it was clearly understood that freedom for all slaves now hung in the balance. Although remaining unwilling to join the ranks of the Confederacy, particularly after Robert E. Lee’s failure at Gettysburg and Ulysses S. Grant’s success at Vicksburg, numerous [End Page 559] white Kentuckians nonetheless took up arms in more irregular ways.

Guerrilla raids reached epidemic proportions in the year following the election of Bramlette. In some ways the spawn of John Hunt Morgan’s “Great Raid” of 1863, localized guerrilla bands became more numerous and more ruthless in the last year of the war.9 By the summer of 1864, the guerrilla war in central Kentucky was less a component of the larger war between states but rather a blossoming revolution against federal authority. It involved both poorly organized and well-defined units, prominent and obscure leaders, and enigmatic individuals compelled simultaneously by the highest and lowest of motivations, all mounted and heavily armed.10 Although guerrillas conducted numerous raids with intent to sabotage and frustrate the federal military effort, they increasingly targeted black recruits for cold-blooded murder.

When the federal government began recruiting black troops in 1863, Kentucky received an exemption, a clear sign of the desire by federal policymakers to retain the loyalty of Unionist slaveholders. Initially, many slaves in southern and western Kentucky simply ran away to Tennessee to join the ranks of the USCT, while some slaves from central and northern Kentucky made their way across the Ohio River to enlist in Ohio and Indiana. Although Kentucky slaveholders and their political allies vigorously protested, recruiting officers in neighboring states appear to have ignored them. Additionally, some white Kentuckians, especially non-slaveholders without the means to [End Page 560] buy their way out of the draft, looked favorably on black enlistment as a way to fill the state’s quota. Even as pressure built within the state to allow recruitment of Kentucky slaves, Bramlette and other prominent Kentuckians, including Colonel Frank Wolford, remained vehemently opposed. In March 1864, Congress, not of a mood to continue handling Kentucky slaveholders with kid gloves, simply amended the Enrollment Act to include slaves in the draft, thus clearing the way for full-scale recruitment in the commonwealth. White Kentuckians, by failing to meet federal enlistment quotas, assured that enlistment of black soldiers would begin in earnest throughout the commonwealth, including the Bluegrass region.11

Initially, recruitment focused on western Kentucky, where slaves were enlisted for artillery regiments slated for garrison duty in key river forts in the Mississippi Valley. But in April 1864, Burbridge opened the door to slave recruitment throughout the commonwealth. White Kentuckians had not been forthcoming in sufficient numbers to fill county quotas, and so the district commander sought to make up the difference with a carefully controlled enlistment process for black soldiers. He attempted to appease slaveholders by decreeing that only free blacks and those slaves who had permission from their masters would be accepted at recruiting stations. Slaves who showed up without proof of permission would be sent back home, ostensibly to obtain it. All black enlistees would count toward county quotas, as well, a happy note for the numerous white Kentuckians who, by 1864, wanted no part of Lincoln’s war. Further, assistant provost marshals would oversee the process to make sure that Kentucky slaveholders had no cause for complaint and were duly compensated for the slaves they allowed to enlist. Finally, all new black recruits would quickly be removed from the state for equipping and training, thus sparing white Kentuckians the terrible sight of armed black men marching [End Page 561] through their communities and thus encouraging still more slaves to join their ranks.12

In May, many runaway slaves who attempted to enlist were returned to their masters because they did not have adequate proof of permission to join the army. As Union officers witnessed firsthand the brutal reception awaiting these would-be enlistees, any sympathy they may have had toward slaveholders seemed to evaporate. For example, a provost marshal stationed in Lebanon, Marion County, reported that a group of some seventeen African Americans were turned away from the recruiting office in that town for not having permission. Given passes to assure their safe passage back to their farms, they nonetheless came under attack by a mob of local citizens who “seized them and whipped them most unmercifully with cowhides.” Similarly, reports from Nelson and Spencer counties stated that some African Americans had been severely beaten and a few killed for trying to enlist. Finally, the provost marshal reported that even ostensibly loyal Kentucky troops, namely the Thirteenth Kentucky Cavalry, had openly opposed efforts to recruit black soldiers. At one point, this provost marshal actually came under fire from a would-be assassin, a portent of things to come in the southern Bluegrass. He concluded that “the treatment of the slaves in Ky, during the summer of 1864, the indignities offered the executors of the law of the land; the denunciations of the President and the machination of slave holders for the benefit of treason during the same time, admirably exemplified the barbarities of slavery.”13

Thomas Butler of the Sanitary Commission reported similar actions on the part of white citizens in the southern Bluegrass. A [End Page 562] group of some two-hundred-fifty black recruits started on foot from Danville, home to Centre College, to Camp Nelson, the massive supply depot on a bluff above the Kentucky River in southern Jessamine County, on May 23, 1864. As they left Danville, the men came under attack by rock throwing “citizens and students of that educational and moral center,” and they also received incoming fire from revolvers. Upon arrival at Camp Nelson, these recruits, some of whom needed medical attention, received a cold shoulder from the camp commander, who had not yet been instructed to take them in. Instead, the Sanitary Commission cared for them, dressing their wounds and bruises. By early June, the commission had some fifteen-hundred such recruits under its care at the camp, though they had yet to be enlisted. Non-commissioned officers took it upon themselves to begin organizing and drilling what amounted to a full regiment of volunteers.14

For his part, Burbridge quickly amended his policy and by June 1864 virtually any young male slave who reached a recruiting station received a warm welcome. Although many Kentuckians thought Burbridge was a dictatorial, cold-blooded brute, in reality he was an unconditional Unionist who did everything in his power to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion, as did a number of other loyal Kentuckians. Although he attempted to protect slavery, he became enraged at what he considered disloyal behavior by numerous slaveholders. Additionally, he recognized the vast untapped military resource embodied in the slave population, a resource that would allow him to protect his native state from the draft and thereby preserve at least a semblance of peace in his district. By late summer, approximately fourteen-thousand African Americans had enlisted under Burbridge’s more lenient policy. By the end of the war, that number swelled to [End Page 563] about twenty-four thousand, or more than half of the able-bodied black men of military age in the commonwealth, a lasting testimony to the reality that this had become a war of liberation for slaves, who were more than willing to take up arms and thus help assure victory in a conflict they most certainly believed they could not afford to lose.15

As recruiting picked up pace in Kentucky, numerous problems surfaced, one of which involved ongoing confusion relating to slaves fleeing north from Confederate masters. These contrabands needed no permission either to hire on as camp laborers or to enlist in the USCT. Both state and federal authorities had difficulty discerning between Confederate contrabands and Kentucky slaves. Further, some enterprising individuals found opportunities to exploit this confusion. No doubt some Kentucky runaways were clever enough to pose as contrabands. On the other hand, local authorities in Louisville had a reputation for seizing “vagrant” African Americans and selling them at auction, caring little as to their legal status. By the summer of 1864, reports surfaced across the river from Louisville of recruiters from eastern states enticing black men to go back with them and serve as substitutes. The adjutant general of Indiana complained to U.S. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas that these agents, working for substitute brokers in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere, were preying on contrabands and runaways from Tennessee and Kentucky. He accused these agents not only of carrying off contrabands to other states, but even enticing enlisted men to “doff their clothes [uniforms] and clothe themselves in citizens’ dress and go East and enter as substitutes.”16

Just as the initiative of Kentucky slaves in seeking to enlist had helped force the hand of Burbridge, so too did their eagerness lead to a decisive change in policy regarding where these thousands of new recruits would be organized and trained. With the backing of Secretary [End Page 564] of War Edwin M. Stanton, Adjutant General Thomas ordered the establishment of eight camps in Kentucky for housing these volunteers as they made the transition from slave to soldier. His reasoning seems to have been two-fold. From a sheer logistical standpoint, the army simply could not quickly remove so many thousands of volunteers from the state. Additionally, Thomas, like many federal officials, was growing increasingly unsympathetic toward belligerent Kentucky slaveholders. Of these training camps, none was more important than Camp Nelson, where slaves showed up in such large numbers that some had to wait weeks just to enlist. Named after William “Bull” Nelson and first established as a recruiting center for loyal white Kentuckians, Camp Nelson also served as a major staging area for impressed black work gangs. As a result, it already had become a focal point for the wrath of Bluegrass slaveholders. Now, it would become a center, both real and symbolic, for the freedom struggle in which slaves engaged, and thus the center of national controversy and local heartbreak concerning the growing number of black refugees fleeing their Bluegrass masters.17

By July 1, 1864, Adjutant General Thomas reported that he had “at Camp Nelson 3000 negroes, and they will be organized as soon as I can get officers.” Families of recruits often ran away to army camps to be near their men and to escape reprisals from their masters, but in these camps they faced an uncertain future. By the summer of 1864, refugee women and children suffered greatly from hunger and disease. On June 20, 1864, Burbridge ordered the establishment of a contraband camp at Nelson, stating, “women and children cannot be left to starve.” But Thomas, responding to the pleas of a camp commander who was constantly harassed by slaveholders looking for their runaways, ordered the return of as many women and children as possible to their loyal Kentucky owners, arguing that “in this State, where slavery exists, I conceive I have only to do with those who can be put in the army.” These two somewhat conflicting policies [End Page 565] resulted from the ongoing ambiguity of federal policy for dealing with refugees. The plight of women and children at Camp Nelson was further complicated when Brigadier General Speed S. Fry took over command of the camp in July 1864.18

After inspecting his new post, Fry made the following observation: “If some means are not soon devised to return them to their homes we shall not only have war in the land but pestilence and famine in camp.” Throughout that summer, Fry tried to purge his camp of Kentucky refugees. His subordinate, Lieutenant George A. Hanaford, described one drawback in trying to disperse runaway slaves when he stated, “there is not one among two hundred (200) that want to [return home].” He further noted that these persons were “laboring under the impression that they will be Killed by their masters if they return, and can not be assured to the contrary.”19 No doubt rumors had spread like wildfire among the refugees, based on the very real murders of some slaves who had attempted to enlist. As recruiting for black troops hit full stride, the guerrilla war escalated, suggesting a causal relationship between the two. By this stage of the war, many guerrillas in the Bluegrass had little real connection to the Confederacy, other than a common hatred and bitterness toward the federal government. These guerrillas, by all appearances, also possessed an abiding hatred of unconditional, and unapologetic, Unionists, whom they blamed for remaining loyal to the Union even as it waged war on the institution of slavery. Finally, some embittered proslavery Unionists no doubt tacitly, and in some cases actively, supported these guerrillas in their campaign, sharing with them a common ideology.20 [End Page 566]

At this point, according to one historian, “differences between regular forces, partisan rangers, guerrillas, and civil resistance melded,” and thus “broke down finely constructed legal walls.” Such was the bitterness surrounding this irregular conflict that even legitimate units such as the Tenth Kentucky Cavalry (C.S.A.) came to be considered as part of a class of outlaws subject to the severe consequences outlined in “Lieber’s Code” (technically General Orders No. 100), specifically sections four and five on partisans and spies. This lengthy document set the policy and tone for the last two years of the war, establishing federal rules for occupying enemy territory and prosecuting the war against raiders and guerrillas. Most raiders and guerrillas, if caught, could be deemed spies and summarily executed along with any non-combatants rendering them aid or comfort. Property could be seized, suspected collaborators arrested, and, on occasion, prisoners executed in reprisal for guerrilla depredations, particularly the murder of Unionists. As commander of the Military District of Kentucky from February 1864 to February 1865, Burbridge was ruthless in his application of this federal policy, although he proved utterly ineffective at properly coordinating his command and making an end to the costly guerrilla war.21 [End Page 567]

The Kentucky Home Guard at times proved more effective at combating guerrillas than federal troops, if equally effective at offending slaveholders in the commonwealth and the commanding officer of the Military District of Kentucky. Local units of Home Guardsmen, often pejoratively called the Republican Home Guard, had been organized early in the war as Unionist counterparts to the decidedly proslavery, Confederate-leaning State Guard, which Beriah Magoffin had formed in the aftermath of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. With the collapse of Kentucky neutrality, the commander of the State Guard, Simon Bolivar Buckner, went south to join the Confederacy, taking with him many State Guardsmen. Home Guard units, such as the one led by James H. Bridgewater, frequently clashed with Confederate raiders in 1863, often pitting Kentuckian against Kentuckian. In 1864, Governor Bramlette sought to build a more cohesive Home Guard, which he could use to combat guerrillas, marauders, and outlaws operating in Kentucky. State Adjutant General Daniel W. Lindsey commanded this makeshift organization from July 1864 through the end of the war.22

Unionist civilians in Kentucky declared that they needed the services of Lindsey’s Home Guardsmen. As one citizen noted, guerrillas were “robing stores taking arms and ammunition, taking horses and money from Loyal and peacable citizens and have hung some worthy citizens till they were almost dead.” To combat these guerrillas, guardsmen were forced to become guerrillas themselves. In other words, they had to be mounted, highly mobile, able to live off the available resources, and capable of meeting violence with violence, day or night. Like the guerrilla bands trying to evade federal cavalry, small groups [End Page 568] of Home Guardsmen also had to face the possibility that in any given encounter they might be heavily outnumbered. In June 1864, Morgan’s raiders, including a large unit commanded by George M. Jessee, had not only seized horses and tack from Bluegrass Unionists but also staged an attack on a supply train running along the Lexington and Frankfort Railroad, all while successfully eluding several federal cavalry units and twenty-five Home Guardsmen from the Louisville Dragoons. Jessee’s unit, numbering between one-hundred-fifty and three-hundred men at any given time, constituted a serious threat to Unionists throughout the summer and fall of 1864.23

From his office in Paris, the county seat of Bourbon, J. L. Walker, editor of the Western Citizen, frequently reported stories of outrages committed by guerrillas. For example, a “Cut throat Gang” allegedly accosted and robbed several residents in the neighborhood of Pond Creek, about ten miles outside of Paris, on August 20. The marauders got away with several horses and hundreds of dollars, and they employed terror tactics in hopes of gaining more loot. A man named Horn, who was “an old respected citizen . . . of staunch loyalty,” refused to tell them the whereabouts of further valuables, so “they procured a rope, formed a noose, placed it around his neck, and hung him up to the limb of a tree no less than three different times.” A man named Arnold, “another respected citizen,” received the same rough treatment. Guerrillas frequently used mock lynching both to extract information from their victims and as a clear warning to others in a given community not to resist them. In this case, the marauders [End Page 569] may have been mere outlaws, but other reports in the Western Citizen document the actions of known Confederate raiders. In particular, the editor of this newspaper was obsessed with reporting the actions of Jessee’s men, who had become a terror to Bluegrass Unionists and federal troops alike.24

As autumn came to the Bluegrass, frustrated slaveholders continued to petition for whatever redress they could receive regarding male runaways. In October, a citizens’ group from Madison County complained that anywhere from fifty to one-hundred-fifty young male slaves fled without permission to Camp Nelson seeking employment. Realizing the dim prospects of seeing these slaves returned, the group instead asked that the slaves be enlisted and proper credit be given their county for this number of recruits. This credit would mean that fewer white men would have to enlist to fill their draft quota, and loyal slaveholders still hoped to receive promised federal reimbursement of up to eight-hundred dollars for their slaves who enlisted. Garrard County and Lincoln County slaveholders filed similar grievances.25 Some white residents of the Bluegrass apparently took even more desperate measures to fill draft quotas. On October 7, the Western Citizen reported that “the Provost Marshal of Louisville and all his assistants” had been arrested allegedly for kidnapping runaways and selling them as substitutes.26

As evidenced by these reports, General Burbridge had failed in the eyes of many Kentucky slaveholders to maintain control over both the hiring and enlisting of Kentucky slaves, with the result that more of their bound laborers were disappearing from farm and field. At the same time, Burbridge continued to prove unsuccessful in combating the roving bands of guerrillas that plagued the commonwealth. [End Page 570] On October 14, the Western Citizen reported an attack on the vital Kentucky Central Railroad in which guerrillas led by Pete Everett tore up track and then stopped, robbed, and destroyed the morning train bound south from Covington to Lexington. H. H. Haviland of Harrison County corroborated the account of Everett’s attack in a letter to his sweetheart, and he also noted, “the Guerrillas are keeping us in a perfect boil of excitement.” Haviland, his brother, and numerous other citizens of Havilandsville were robbed “very politely,” as was the local general store. Additionally, he reported that virtually every male slave in the community had already enlisted in the USCT. Harrison County, with well over three-thousand slaves in 1860, listed over six-hundred enslaved men between the ages of fifteen and forty. Perhaps Pete Everett was exacting some revenge on this community for letting so many of those men go off to join the USCT. Bands of “guerrilla desperadoes” often hit fast in Bluegrass counties then retreated to the outlying knobs and hills to hide from their pursuers. For example, one group stopped off at Leesburg, Harrison County, and “laid in a supply of boots, shoes, and other articles as were necessary for a short journey, without paying the cash,” then headed east toward the protection of the Pottsville Escarpment.27

More sinister was the growing number of murders committed by guerrillas and the response to them by the district commander. On July 27, 1864, Captain J. E. Merritt was ordered by the Provost Marshal’s Office to procure two coffins, proceed with two prisoners, G. Wooten and William Woods, to the vicinity of Georgetown, and execute them by firing squad in retaliation for the murder of a man named Robinson in that Scott County community. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, himself a Kentuckian, argued in a letter to Secretary of War Stanton that such executions “cannot fail to produce the happiest effect in mitigating these atrocities.”28 On October 26, [End Page 571] Burbridge ordered, “Hereafter no guerrillas will be received as prisoners.” This was, in effect, license to kill any and all guerrillas who dared surface in his district. Those already captive also faced an uncertain future. On October 28, he ordered eight guerrilla prisoners to be executed, four in Henry County and four in Franklin County, in retaliation for the murders of a known Unionist and two “unarmed negroes,” respectively, in those counties. On November 2, he ordered four guerrilla prisoners “to be shot nine miles from Bardstown, Ky., in retaliation for the murder of two negroes,” and “four to be shot at Midway, Ky., in retaliation for the recent murder” of a Unionist there. By late 1864, such tactics had generated an even more pervasive anti-Union backlash in the Bluegrass, the brunt of which was felt by the victims of both guerrillas and vindictive slaveholders alike.29

By the autumn of 1864, the issue of recruitment of slaves had become a political powder keg in Kentucky, and thus the national election became a state referendum on federal policy. United States Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky had begun the year with a flurry of resolutions condemning the war measures of the Lincoln administration and in turn faced the threat of expulsion from that august body. In the meantime, Lieutenant Governor Richard T. Jacob publicly called Lincoln a tyrant, and he urged Kentuckians to come to the polls armed, lest federal authorities attempt to keep them from voting against the incumbent president. Further, he called for armed resistance to the recruitment of slaves for the USCT. Alarmed by such rhetoric, General Burbridge, military commander of the District of Kentucky, had ordered the lieutenant governor arrested, along with an outspoken former commander of Union cavalry. Colonel Frank Wolford, with Bramlette’s blessing, toured the Ohio Valley stirring up resentment toward the USCT. He, too, was not above encouraging his listeners to stage armed resistance against recruiting officers. [End Page 572] Burbridge had Wolford arrested several times, including his arrest in conjunction with that of Jacob. In Lexington, Burbridge ordered the election-day arrest of highly regarded state legislator John B. Huston, an acquaintance of Lincoln and senior partner of the prestigious Huston & Downey law firm. “General Huston,” as Lincoln referred to him in a reply to Governor Bramlette’s letter expressing great consternation over this arrest, was a leading figure in the Union Democratic Party, and as such was outspoken in calling on Kentucky voters to reject Lincoln’s reelection bid in 1864. Burbridge accused him of disloyalty, but, as Bramlette counter-argued, his “disloyalty” consisted of nothing more than a strong desire to see Lincoln defeated. Ultimately, Bramlette browbeat Burbridge into dropping the accusations against General Huston.30

Lieutenant Governor Jacob, on the other hand, was sent under military guard via the Kanawha Valley to Virginia, and thus exiled from Kentucky under mandate from Burbridge “not to return during war under penalty of death.” To Democrats on both sides of the Ohio, this was both a petty and tyrannical act. Jacob, after all, was in many ways simply a Democrat, not a secessionist. As a prewar Democrat, he had favored local over state and state over federal authority, and his presence in Frankfort no doubt eased concerns that Bramlette, the former Whig, might not do enough to oppose what many surely deemed federal infringement upon civil rights in the commonwealth. As Jacob saw it, if government, particularly that imposed by military rule, became destructive of state and local autonomy and interfered with the basic rights of loyal citizens, then voices of protest had to be raised. Like-minded Colonel Wolford, who had organized the First Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.) and spent much time during the war pursuing John Hunt Morgan’s raiders, was dishonorably discharged in March 1864 for his public criticism of Lincoln and now found himself detained in Covington for raising the same objections. In [End Page 573] point of fact, both men went more than a bit beyond the pale in their rhetorical attacks and calls for armed resistance, but they represented a great many northern Democrats in their resentment and bitterness over how the war affected their society. For example, Democratic members of Congress openly called for opposition to Lincoln in the summer of 1864, citing, among other things, “corruption of race” as a result of his wartime policy. In the end, Lincoln intervened on behalf of both of these outspoken dissenters, hoping to diffuse the wrath their rhetoric and arrests had unleashed in the commonwealth. His magnanimity went for naught, at least as far as disgruntled Unionist Kentucky slaveholders were concerned.31

Military authorities almost certainly attempted to tamper with the presidential election in Kentucky in 1864 as they had with the gubernatorial election in 1863, both through intimidation and by disallowing suspected Confederates from voting, even if the individuals had taken the loyalty oath and been vouched for by a reliable Unionist. That noted, these authorities were correct in their concern over the large number of former Confederates who returned to Kentucky that fall and rejoined the commonwealth’s body politic. As early as January 1864, William E. Hughes, editor of the Commonwealth in Frankfort, expressed concern regarding a policy that allowed known Confederate Kentuckians to return to the state. General Burbridge amassed evidence that many of these men had, in fact, used intimidation to obtain favorable references from known Union men in order to gain amnesty. Thus, he reported to his superiors that President Lincoln’s amnesty policy, whereby former Confederates and southern sympathizers could sign loyalty oaths, be vouched for, and then vote, was in effect never worth the paper on which the forms were printed. [End Page 574]

Citing Burbridge’s report, Judge Advocate General Holt concluded that “the rebels have used this proclamation, and the oath under it, only as a means for returning to the State, visiting their friends, making observations upon our military affairs, and then arming, mounting, and equipping themselves either for the Confederate service or for the career of robbers and cut-throats.” Nonetheless, Burbridge received harsh criticism from prominent Kentuckians for his actions during the 1864 election, even though Lincoln managed to garner only 30 percent of the vote. In particular, his arrest of General Huston and exile of Lieutenant Governor Jacob galled Governor Bramlette, who demanded that Burbridge be relieved of his command. In the end, vote totals were down some fifty-four-thousand votes from the more than one-hundred-forty-six-thousand votes cast in the election of 1860, but this in and of itself should not be surprising, given some voter intimidation coupled with the exigencies and casualties of war. Still, the reality that federal authorities, chiefly Burbridge, had openly interfered with a second Kentucky election further fueled the fires of anti-Lincoln and, indeed, anti-Union sentiment in the commonwealth.32

Perhaps finding things a bit hot in the Bluegrass despite unseasonably cold temperatures, after the election Burbridge took charge of all the spare mounted troops he could muster and headed southeast to the Cumberland Gap. He had been ordered to aid military operations in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, where cavalry was desperately needed to combat Confederate units commanded by Kentuckians John C. Breckinridge and Basil Duke. Above all, Burbridge’s units would be responsible for defending the gap against potential Confederate attack. His actions in mustering this force complied with orders from General George Stoneman of the Department of the Ohio, and in the past he had led the cavalry under his command on such campaigns. For the rest of 1864 he commanded his district from the field, leaving Brigadier General Speed S. Fry and others to [End Page 575] manage affairs in the commonwealth.33

In the latter part of November, even as Camp Nelson quartermasters, blacksmiths, farriers, and others continued to work nonstop to equip the last of Burbridge’s troops and horses for their redeployment, camp commandant Fry ordered the destruction of the shantytown that provided nominal shelter for refugees. The shanties, also reportedly home to various types of both vice and vermin, had been a source of controversy since Fry assumed command of the camp, and he resolved to deal with this problem once and for all. On Tuesday night, November 22, women in the camp apparently were warned that they would be expelled the next day, a warning that most seem not to have taken too seriously. However, the following morning, November 23, mounted patrols made the rounds, going from tent to tent and ordering women and children out into the cold. Some guards threatened the use of force if anyone, including husbands or fathers, resisted. Probably accustomed to this particular drill, the women and children got on board wagons and were hauled beyond the camp’s lines to the north, within a few miles of Nicholasville, where they may have assumed that their men would come to retrieve them once things calmed down. Unfortunately, winter had come early to the Bluegrass in 1864. As a result, a tragedy occurred, one that cost many refugees their lives and forced a dramatic change in federal policy regarding dependents of black soldiers.34

After purging his camp of refugees, Fry ordered the shantytown burned to the ground. As his provost guard carried out this task, the refugees, more than four hundred in all, stumbled along the cold road to Nicholasville or tried to find some shelter from the bitter winds in the roadside woods. During the course of the next few days, over one hundred died of exposure. Almost immediately an investigation began into this incident, driven in large measure by a telegram [End Page 576] sent to the assistant adjutant general for the District of Kentucky, J. Bates Dickson, by Captain T. E. Hall, who had been in Lexington that fateful Wednesday and so was unable to intervene in time to stop the expulsion. Hall and other assistant quartermasters at Camp Nelson, with the help and full support of their immediate superior, Quartermaster E. B. W. Restieaux, compiled affidavits concerning the expulsion, the whole of which produced a heart-wrenching story of inhumane actions on the part of the camp commandant. The most poignant of the lot was that of Joseph Miller, a Lincoln County enlistee. Miller’s wife had been forced from his tent in the morning, along with their children, and taken by wagon toward Nicholasville, where he located them later that night in “an old meeting house belonging to the colored people.” His son had already died of exposure, and his other dependents, crowded into the building with many other refugees, had neither heat nor food. These refugees, seeking shelter in what must have been their church, remained there for some days after the expulsion, having nowhere else to go. Others made their way as far as Lexington in their search for shelter and food. Captain Hall frantically tried to intercede on behalf of the starving refugees, even taking the extraordinary and commendable initiative to buy some two-hundred rations of bread, meat, coffee, and sugar with his own money from the camp commissary to give to them.35

On November 27, General Burbridge had a telegram sent to Hall, instructing him to begin formal relief efforts with his blessing. The next day, Burbridge formally ordered Fry not only to stop turning these dependents out of camp, but also to provide Hall with assistance in bringing them back. Indeed, the assistant quartermaster was placed in charge of establishing a refugee camp, with instructions to “give them quarters and if necessary erect buildings for them and allow all back who have been turned out.” Not content to let this matter be [End Page 577] lost amidst the piles of military paperwork just waiting to be bundled and tied up with red tape, Captain Hall penned a long, highly critical letter to the New York Tribune under the pseudonym “Humanitas,” additionally enclosing Miller’s affidavit. Both the Tribune and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator printed the letter and affidavit, quickly turning the tragedy at Camp Nelson into a national embarrassment for the War Department.36 In the aftermath of the Camp Nelson expulsion, Lieutenant Colonel L. H. Carpenter of the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry received orders to assume temporary command as commandant of the camp, while Fry, relieved of that post, took on increased responsibility for combating guerrillas.37

Apart from risks and hardships suffered by refugees and soldiers, women who remained enslaved when their husbands enlisted often paid a heavy price at the hands of vindictive Bluegrass slaveholders. Patsey Leach’s husband, Julius, enlisted in the fall of 1864 and became a member of the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry. Although he did not own Julius, Patsey’s master nonetheless took his frustration out on her. On one occasion he beat her with a cowhide for “looking at them darned Nigger Soldiers,” because she watched a company of USCT march past her master’s Woodford County home. Her husband, who had belonged to a Scott County resident, was killed in action at the Battle of Saltville in Virginia soon thereafter, and once again Patsey’s master turned on her, whipping her on several occasions while expressing his hope “that the last one of the nigger soldiers would be Killed.” Fearing for her life, Patsey finally took the youngest of her five children and ran away to Lexington, seeking to escape the man she called “a Rebel Sympathizer.” As a direct consequence of the Camp Nelson tragedy and the abuse of the families of black recruits by Kentucky slaveholders, in March 1865 Congress passed a law that freed the [End Page 578] dependents of soldiers serving in the USCT. This legislation granted immediate freedom to tens of thousands of women and children in the commonwealth. At that time Patsey Leach sought the aid of federal authorities in an effort to liberate her other children under the provisions of the new law.38

In response to growing concern over the efficacy of Burbridge, the plight of refugees, and the general chaos that seemed to be enveloping Kentucky, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton dispatched several teams of inspectors to investigate. Assistant Inspector-General E. H. Ludington completed an inspection of Burbridge’s district and summarized the state of affairs in the commonwealth in a report, noting that there was “scarcely any security for person or property” due to the ravages of guerrillas who were “destroying the property and taking the lives of all who have been, or now are, in the U.S. armies. The citizens are so bitterly arrayed against each other as to afford immunity, if not assistance, to these desperadoes, for each party is glad to see men of the other murdered.” He stated his belief that “from this intestine hatred guerrillas have their origin and maintenance.” Further, Ludington observed, “Kentucky had remained in the Union to preserve slavery and avoid becoming a theater of war . . . but the moment that Government attempted to draft men or enlist negroes, the true feeling of these people was evinced.” He came to the conclusion that “a large majority of Kentuckians are today undoubtedly disloyal.”39

Ludington additionally noted the scattered, disorganized nature of troops in the military district, and he recommended that no Kentuckians be allowed to serve in their native state. He argued that state troops did “little to punish guerrillas—much against personal enemies. They capture few men in arms, but show their zeal in seizing unarmed people. They plunder largely at their own discretion” with [End Page 579] the result that everyone involved had “become exasperated against the Government.” While he reserved his harshest criticism for Governor Bramlette, a man of “slender capacity, great vanity, and greater ambition” who “knows his people are disloyal, and so qualifies his Unionism,” Ludington also concluded that in the case of Burbridge, “the substitution of a man stronger in capacity and character would be an advantage.” Finally, he urged Stanton to consider deploying a garrison of “100 good troops from another State, mounted and well officered,” in each county suffering from guerrilla depredations.40

Almost on cue for corroborating this report, on December 9, the Western Citizen reported that a band of guerrillas had attacked two freight trains on the Frankfort and Louisville Railroad. Aside from destroying some rolling stock, the guerrillas attacked a recruiting officer and some twenty black recruits, killing fifteen. The editor also noted the murder of a lieutenant colonel of the Home Guard in Washington County, apparently in reprisal for the executions of several fellow guerrillas, as ordered by General Burbridge.41 This county appears to have been all but besieged in late 1864, as J. A. Morrison of the Thirteenth Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.) reported: “The guerrillas are around here in several squads committing atrocious deeds of murder of citizens and soldiers. Thirteen citizens were murdered yesterday in the vicinity of Springfield.” Other reports indicated that these squads had also cut telegraph wires and otherwise disrupted lines of communication in the area.42

Throughout the winter of 1864–65, guerrillas, including the so-called girl guerrilla, Sue Mundy, ravaged the Bluegrass. The exploits of Mundy, the she-devil whose daring and ruthlessness both embarrassed military authorities and shocked and titillated the readers of George D. Prentice’s Louisville Journal, were based on the real [End Page 580] activities of a diminutive, long-haired, smooth-faced young man named Jerome Clarke. Looking feminine enough to be mistaken for a woman by some eyewitnesses, Clarke had served as one of John Hunt Morgan’s lieutenants during the summer of 1864, after which he chose to stay in Kentucky as the leader of his own guerrilla band. As Prentice’s Sue Mundy, he quickly gained infamy for his brazenness and brutality. While Prentice certainly played to the infatuation of readers with the idea of women taking up arms, as well as their need for a sensationalized narrative of the war, as opposed to yet more casualty lists, his reports of atrocities were no laughing matter. On January 25, he reported that Mundy’s band attacked and scattered a herd of federal cattle near La Grange, in Oldham County, killing some thirty-five black enlisted men serving as drovers and guards, an incident for which two companies of the Twelfth Kentucky were dispatched to the area.43

Within six weeks Clarke stood on the gallows in Louisville, where he reportedly called himself “a regular Confederate soldier” who captured “many federal prisoners and have always treated them kindly.” His statement notwithstanding, during that January raid men under his command certainly took no black prisoners. All told, since mid-1864 Kentucky guerrillas had butchered dozens of black enlistees and recruits in similar fashion. Guerrilla hunters in Kentucky imposed their own version of justice when provided an opportunity. A few days after the La Grange raid, a guerrilla captain, “the notorious Dick Taylor, who was the leader of the gang that killed the negroes a few days since below Simpsonville” was killed in a savage fight with a Home Guardsman that ended in a clash of bowie knives.44

The ruthlessness of this guerrilla war cannot be exaggerated. Black [End Page 581] soldiers and recruits seldom received quarter from guerrillas, and numerous white Unionists were assassinated. Additionally, several reports mentioned captured guerrillas who were shot while trying to escape, likely meaning they were removed from public view and summarily executed by their captors. Burbridge sanctioned such actions, issuing orders that clearly exempted guerrillas from the usual protection accorded to legitimate Confederate prisoners of war. Adding to the intensity of the guerrilla war in early 1865, William Clarke Quantrill, going by the moniker “Captain Clarke,” and a band of Missouri guerrillas arrived in the Bluegrass. Having worn out their welcome in their home state, they slinked across the Mississippi under cover of darkness and headed to Kentucky, donning the blue uniform of the Fourth Missouri Cavalry (U.S.) to avoid suspicion.45 In the case of “Captain Clarke,” Brigadier General Fry was unequivocal: “Order your men not to take any prisoners.” This was a perfectly legitimate order, given that the guerrillas had, at times, disguised themselves as Union cavalry and killed unsuspecting federal soldiers who offered them assistance in finding their way through the Kentucky countryside. Federal commanders knew within two days that “Clarke” was Quantrill, and Fry did not want his subordinates to show any quarter or take any chances in dealing with the infamous sacker of Lawrence, Kansas.46 Still, it would be the much-maligned Home Guard that would take down Quantrill, not Fry’s federal cavalry units.

In early February, guerillas in separate raids burned two Bluegrass [End Page 582] train depots, robbing citizens in the process, and had federal authorities scrambling to hunt them down.47 Burbridge, who received many complaints about abuses on the part of the Home Guard, issued an order for all state troops to be disbanded, despite the fact that the best of those units, James H. Bridgewater’s, was in hot pursuit of Quantrill after he raided the town of Hustonville in eastern Lincoln County. Governor Bramlette had, at this point, had enough, railing in a telegram to Stanton against the “unwarranted assumption of power by an imbecile commander,” a move he believed had been initiated by “those who have long sought to provoke an issue with the State, and which I have prevented.” Burbridge had finally gone too far for the Lincoln administration, and so he received a hasty rebuke from Secretary of War Stanton, followed by orders effectively relieving him of command of the Military District of Kentucky by reorganizing it out from under him. Although some Unionists in Kentucky begged him to retain Burbridge, Lincoln named John M. Palmer of Illinois as the new commander over what would now be called the Military Department of Kentucky, with clear instructions from Stanton to restore order, come what may.48

Both Bramlette and D. W. Lindsey deserved some of the blame for the turbulent state of affairs in the commonwealth. Still, Burbridge ultimately failed to support efforts that might have resulted in a more coordinated defense of the state. His superiors concluded that, apart from being stubborn almost to the point of insubordination, he had been a poor manager of his military assets. Indeed, when Palmer took over, inspection reports revealed that Burbridge’s command was “in a disorganized and undisciplined condition, very much scattered, and so distributed as to be of little service, either to maintain domestic peace or afford security against the rebel military forces.” As Bramlette suggested, Burbridge seems to have been more [End Page 583] intent on picking fights with leading Unionist Democrats, including the governor, than working with them to resolve internal conflicts and build an effective military apparatus by which to combat the guerrilla menace vexing the commonwealth.49

As Palmer received notice of his new command, Bridgewater’s guard unit dealt a mortal blow to Quantrill’s band. He had already led an attack in which a dozen of the Missourians were killed or captured, and now he planned to bag the rest. After destroying a federal wagon train at New Market, south of Lebanon, Marion County, the guerrillas fled east on the road through Bradfordsville into northern Casey County. They continued east until dark, reaching Lincoln County, where they camped for the night. Bridgewater, a Lincoln County native, tracked them down near Hustonville on terrain with which he no doubt was intimately familiar. His men took even the veteran Quantrill by surprise when they attacked well past midnight. Most of the guerrillas, including “Captain Clarke,” were said to have scrambled into “the woods barefooted,” with guardsmen hot on their heels. In the dark, many guerrillas escaped, including Quantrill. Still, four were killed in the initial attack, four more in the chase, and thirty-five horses were captured. The band would never be able to regain its former strength.50

Burbridge continued in command until Palmer’s arrival in Louisville in late February, but, in a final blow to his efforts in the guerrilla war, he was stripped of most of his prize cavalry units. The Eleventh and Twelfth Kentucky, Twelfth Ohio, and Eleventh Michigan were reassigned to General George Stoneman’s command in preparation for his raid into western North Carolina. Upon assuming command, Palmer had to issue an immediate call for troops to replace the departing cavalry regiments. He and Lindsey worked together in the effort [End Page 584] to establish a reasonable force by which to carry on the war against the guerrillas, probably because he knew that his political future depended on it. One of Lindsey’s guerrilla hunters, a notorious headline grabber named Edwin Terrell, eventually captured Quantrill. Terrell, in command of the Spencer County Home Guards, reportedly was not above posing as a guerrilla when it suited him, even taking the opportunity while in disguise to rob and plunder in neighboring Nelson County. Complaints lodged against him in late January and early February likely were yet another reason for Burbridge wishing to disband the Home Guard. Palmer seems to have turned a blind eye to complaints against both Terrell and Bridgewater, perhaps realizing that to catch a guerrilla as canny as Quantrill required the services of men willing to become, if not guerrillas, at least reasonable, and at times indistinguishable, facsimiles.51

According to those who lived through it, a full-fledged guerrilla war raged through much of Kentucky in the mid-1860s. This conflict was clearly evidenced in the Bluegrass region, particularly along avenues of commerce and supply such as rivers, railroads, and wagon roads. On the surface, this guerrilla war appeared to be centered on the activities of well-known Confederate Kentuckians such as John Hunt Morgan or George M. Jessee. But beneath this veneer, a much more personal war erupted as Kentuckians took up arms not only for the Confederacy but also against a federal government seemingly intent on destroying the institution of slavery, not just in the Confederacy but also in states that had not seceded. The rise of antifederal guerrilla and outlaw bands, coupled with the hardship of war, rent in twain the curtain of civility that previously had masked community conflicts in many Bluegrass counties. In this chaotic environment, identity and loyalty seemed malleable and deceptive as opportunity for economic gain, unsanctioned mayhem, and retribution for wartime injustices, either real or perceived, became increasingly widespread and, to a degree, socially acceptable.

Adding to and taking advantage of the chaos, African Americans [End Page 585] seized the initiative in what they rightly deemed a struggle for liberation, negotiating their way through ambiguous and unevenly enforced federal policy relating to refugees and contrabands, finding opportunities to work for freedom even as they were pressed into labor for the federal war effort, and simply acting with their feet by running away when an opportunity presented itself. Finally, they volunteered in large numbers, in many cases regardless of whether or not their owners granted permission, for the ranks of the United States Colored Troops. By the end of the war, two-thirds of the enslaved population in Kentucky technically had been freed via federal policy, yet many of the dependants of soldiers in the USCT were still being held in bondage by stubborn slaveholders who refused to accept the uncompensated loss of their property. Ongoing resistance to federal policy in Kentucky received a boost from the return of thousands of heavily armed “Rebels” to the commonwealth in 1865. For the better part of two years, Kentucky had experienced intense guerrilla warfare, characterized by small mounted bands of night riders, some of which identified themselves as Confederate, some Unionist, and some of which were only loosely affiliated and thus, for all practical purposes, were gangs of common outlaws. Now, many of those who sided with the Confederacy joined ranks with numerous conditional Unionists who had grown bitter over federal policy regarding slavery and dissent, as implemented by Generals Burbridge and Palmer in the commonwealth.52

Indeed, Bluegrass slaveholders refused to accept the reality of the demise of slavery in Kentucky, even after the Thirteenth Amendment became law at the end of 1865, and they absolutely rejected any notion of racial equality. Rather, they looked for new means by which to maintain white supremacy and thus avoid the potential “race war” of which their leaders often spoke. Guerrilla warfare continued for years, with self-proclaimed “Negro Regulators” and “Judge Lynch’s Men” serving as the shock troops for Kentucky’s reunited and decidedly southern Democratic Party. Many acts of violence by Regulators, [End Page 586] particularly theft, house burning, and mock lynching, but also ambush attacks on federal troops, closely resembled terror tactics utilized by anti-Union guerrillas who operated during the war. Given the frequent references by Freedmen’s Bureau agents to Regulators as former Confederates or Rebels, it is safe to assume that many of these men had honed their skills attacking Kentucky Unionists and black recruits during the war. Caught in the middle of this fight over who would rule at home, particularly at the local level in the form of sheriffs, constables, magistrates, and judges, freed people suffered unspeakable outrages. Additionally, numerous white Unionists in the Bluegrass region paid with their lives for trying to resist this postemancipation reign of terror.53 As the irregular war raged on, many an erstwhile Kentucky Unionist did what was unthinkable in 1861: aligned himself in sympathy and identity with the now lost Confederate cause. If Thomas Bramlette did not go quite so far in his last speech as governor, he surely rose to the defense of those who had placed the maintenance of slavery and racial control, in effect the “status of the negro” about which he spoke in 1864, above loyalty to the Union, blood-stained sin and all.54 [End Page 587]

J. Michael Rhyne

J. MICHAEL RHYNE is an associate professor of history at Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio. He received his PhD from the University of Cincinnati and has contributed articles to Ohio Valley History, American Nineteenth Century History, and the Journal of Social History. His monograph, “Terror is at Hand”: Race, Violence, and the Law in Post-Emancipation Kentucky, is under advance contract with Southern Illinois University Press.


1. Kentucky Yeoman (Frankfort), September 5, 1867.

2. Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, A New History of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 1997), 186–92; William W. Freehling, The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the War (New York, 2001), 69, 131–32. Freehling argues convincingly that Kentuckians greatly influenced the outcome of the war both by what they did not do—secede, impede Union operations against forts Henry and Donelson, rally to Bragg’s army during the Confederate invasion of 1862— and what they did—supply 75,000 troops or more to the Union, along with much of the commercial production of the state.

3. For a thorough discussion of proslavery loyalists, their frustration regarding the Lincoln administration, and the impact of emancipation on politics and society in Kentucky and Missouri, see Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri Baton Rouge, 2012). See also Jacob F. Lee, “Unionism, Emancipation, and the Origins of Kentucky’s Confederate Identity, “Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (hereinafter Register) 111 (Spring 2013): 199–213.”

4. Lowell H. Harrison, “Thomas Elliott Bramlette,” and “Beriah Magoffin,” in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. John E. Kleber (Lexington, Ky., 1992), 112–13, 603; E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1926), 176–79. Coulter overstated the case for a possible Wickliffe victory. Although there were approximately 57,000 fewer votes cast than in 1859, Wickliffe needed an additional 51,000 additional votes just to equal Bramlette’s tally. Since thousands of Kentuckians had gone south to fight for the Confederacy, that does not seem plausible.

5. Kyle S. Sinisi, Sacred Debts: State Civil War Claims and American Federalism, 1861–1880 (New York, 2003), 92–96, Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 194–96; Stephen I. Rockenbach, “‘War Upon Our Border’: War and Society in Two Ohio Valley Communities, 1861–1865” (PhD dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 2005), 178–82.

6. Thomas E. Bramlette to Abraham Lincoln, September 3, 1864, letters received irregular, Office of the Secretary of War, Record Group 107 (hereinafter cited as RG 107), National Archives (hereinafter NA), Washington, D.C., reprinted with annotation in Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, ser. 1, vol. 1, The Destruction of Slavery (New York, 1985), 604–6.

7. Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York, 2007), 21, 39.

8. Freehling, The South vs. the South, 69, 131–32. My argument is at odds with Freehling’s. I make this argument based both on what occurred in 1864–65, which this essay discusses, and what comes after, about which I have published articles elsewhere. I think a significant majority of white Kentuckians were committed to maintaining slavery because they believed they had much to lose should it be abolished. A majority of voters in 1860 clearly chose a Unionist position by which to defend it (voting either for Stephen A. Douglas or John Bell, who won the electoral votes of the state). Bell did particularly well in Bluegrass counties with large slave populations. It is my opinion that Kentucky voters supported him because they believed, as did any number of Upper South old Whigs, and even the occasional Democrat such as W. W. Holden of North Carolina, that secession was a fool’s errand, bound in the end to lead to the destruction of that which it sought to preserve—the peculiar institution.

9. See James A. Ramage, Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan (Lexington, Ky., 1986), 47–50, in which he argues that Morgan viewed the Civil War as a revolution, thus justifying his use of guerrilla tactics, as well as his encouragement of others to do so. Numerous units that raided with him in 1863 and 1864 either had always been, as in the case of George M. Jessee, or afterward became localized bands of Kentucky guerrillas.

10. B. Franklin Cooling, “A People’s War: Partisan Conflict in Tennessee and Kentucky,” in Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Home Front, ed. Daniel E. Sutherland (Fayetteville, Ark., 1999), 114; Scott J. Lucas, “‘Indignities, Wrongs, and Outrages’: Military and Guerrilla Incursions on Kentucky’s Civil War Home Front,” Filson Club History Quarterly (hereinafter Filson) 73 (Oct. 1999): 371; James B. Martin, “Black Flag Over the Bluegrass: Guerrilla Warfare in Kentucky, 1863–1865,” Register 86 (Autumn 1988): 370–75; Rockenbach, “War Upon Our Border,” 179–81.

11. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy and, Leslie Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, ser. 2, The Black Military Experience (New York, 1982), 191–92; Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 199–200; Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862–1884 (Lexington, Ky., 1983), 47–63.

12. General Orders No. 34, April 18, 1864, Headquarters, District of Kentucky, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (hereinafter cited as OR) (Washington, D.C., 1880–1901), ser. 3, vol. 4, 233–34; Berlin et al, eds., Black Military Experience, 193.

13. Captain James M. Fidler, historical report, enclosed in James M. Fidler to W. H. Sidell, June 15, 1864, Kentucky Fourth District, Historical Reports, Entry 50, Provost Marshal General Central Office, RG 110 (roll 68), reprinted in Berlin et al, eds., Black Military Experience, 256–59.

14. “Reports of Mr. Butler,” John S. Newberry, The U. S. Sanitary Commission in the Valley of the Mississippi during the War of the Rebellion, 1861–1866 (Cleveland: Fairbanks, Benedict & Co., 1871), 519–21, excerpt reprinted in Richard D. Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History (Lexington, Ky., 2002), 58–59.

15. Berlin et al, eds., Black Military Experience, 193, 197; Ira Berlin, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, ser.1, vol. 2, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (New York, 1993), 629–36; Marion B. Lucas, From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891, vol. 1 of A History of Blacks in Kentucky, 2 vols. (Frankfort, Ky., 1992), 152–60.

16. Laz. Noble to L. Thomas, July 29, 1864, OR, ser. 3, vol. 4, 559–60.

17. Berlin, et al, eds., Black Military Experience, 194–96; Marion B. Lucas, “Camp Nelson, Kentucky, during the Civil War: Cradle of Liberty or Refugee Death Camp?” Filson 63 (Oct. 1989): 439–45; Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky, xix–xxxix.

18. J. Bates Dickson to T. E. Hall, June 20, 1864, Telegrams Sent, January 1864–February 1865, Entry 2168, District of Kentucky, RG 393, NA; L. Thomas to Edwin M. Stanton, July 3, 1864, OR, ser. 3, vol. 4, 467–68, both reprinted in Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky, 72–73, 89–90; Lucas, “Camp Nelson, Kentucky, during the Civil War,” 446.

19. Speed S. Fry to Stephen G. Burbridge, July 5, 1864, Letters Received by Adjutant General L. Thomas, Entry 363, CTD, RG 94, NA; George A Hanaford to J. Bates Dickson, July 6, 1864, Press Copies of Letters Sent, Entry 902, Post of Camp Nelson KY, RG 393, both reprinted in Berlin et al, eds., Wartime Genesis of Free Labor, 672–74; Lucas, From Slavery to Segregation, 156.

20. This interpretation is strongly influenced by the provocative T. J. Stiles, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (New York, 2002), as well as Michael Fellman, Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri during the Civil War (New York, 1989). Stiles argues that many Missouri guerrillas were adamantly proslavery and therefore just as ideologically motivated as partisan rangers or Confederate regulars. Fellman focuses on a specific class of Missouri guerrillas and notes their justification for brutality toward white male enemies as well as persons of color, male and female, while at the same time maintaining an air of civility and politeness, particularly toward white women. The arguments of both Stiles and Fellman seem highly applicable to many guerrillas in Kentucky, particularly by 1864.

21. Cooling, “A People’s War,” 123, 128–29; General Orders No. 100, April 24, 1863, War Department, Adjutant General’s Office, OR, ser. 3, vol. 3, 148–64; Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865 (New York, 1995), 112; Martin, “Black Flag Over the Bluegrass,” 368–70. Martin attempts to separate the actions of partisan rangers and war-Rebels from the worst guerrilla and outlaw depredations. See also Robert Russell Mackey, The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865 (Norman, Okla., 2004), 7–9, for an attempt to differentiate between “irregular warfare” in which legitimate, ideologically motivated Confederate units employed guerrilla tactics and outright guerrilla warfare with accompanying banditry, pillaging, and murder.

22. Richard G. Stone Jr., “Kentucky State Guard,” in Kentucky Encyclopedia, 513; Thomas Bramlette to Edwin M. Stanton, July 5, 1864, OR, ser. 3, vol. 4, 470. For examples of Bridgewater’s effectiveness against guerrillas, see OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 684, 694, 698. See Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 227–28, in which he describes the organization of the Home Guard as “a dangerous and unwise move” from the start. For more on James H. Bridgewater, see J. Michael Rhyne, “A ‘Murderous Affair in Lincoln County’: Politics, Violence, and Memory in a Civil War Era Kentucky Community,” American Nineteenth Century History 7 (Sept. 2006): 337–59.

23. Julius Fosses to Stephen G. Burbridge, June 30, 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 1, 29–31. Additional documents in the OR pertaining to George M. Jessee reveal that he was very active in Kentucky from late spring 1864 through early 1865, primarily in the counties of Washington, Nelson, Spencer, Shelby, and Henry, with some activity in Harrison and Bourbon, as well. See Ramage, Rebel Raider, 208–25, for details of this Morgan raid. Ramage additionally provides a scathing critique of the “violations of human rights” by Burbridge (p. 212) in the form of retaliatory execution of prisoners, some of whom arguably deserved protection as legitimate Confederate prisoners of war. However, Ramage acknowledges the dehumanization caused by prolonged exposure to war and the extent to which Morgan’s units became a “dumping ground” for “loafers, bummers, and thieves—riffraff more eager for plunder than for legitimate warfare” as the war progressed (p. 208).

24. Western Citizen (Paris, Ky.), August 26 (quotation), September 2, 9, 16, 1864. A state historical marker in New Castle, county seat of Henry, marks the site of two skirmishes involving Jessee, including one with Robert Morris’s Home Guard unit on September 21, 1862, and a clash with James H. Bridgewater’s Home Guard unit on December 13, 1864. Kentucky Historical Marker Database,Marker 549 <http://migration/> (accessed July 22, 2014).

25. Berlin et al, eds., Destruction of Slavery, 607–08.

26. Western Citizen (Paris, Ky.), October 7, 1864.

27. Western Citizen (Paris, Ky.), October 14, 21, 28, 1864; H. H. Haviland to Sue T. Scrogin, October 20, 1864, Scrogin/Haviland Collection, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort.

28. George Hamilton to J. E. Merritt, July 27, 1864; Joseph Holt to Edwin M. Stanton, July 28, 1864, (quotation); and Joseph Holt to Edwin M. Stanton, July 31, 1864, all in OR, ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 2, 206–07, 208, 212–15; Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 230–34; Lowell H. Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 1975), 76–78.

29. General Orders No. 8, October 26, 1864, Headquarters, Military District of Kentucky; J. Bates Dickson to N. C. McLean, October 28 and November 2, 1864, all in OR, ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 3, 457, 491, 612.

30. Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 185–88, 199–208; William H. Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington, Ky., 1955), 333–34.

31. Stephen G. Burbridge to T. H. Bringhurst, November 15, 1864; Burbridge to N. P. Chipman, November 23, 1864, both in OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 1, 903, 1010; Mark E. Neely, The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North (Cambridge, Mass., 2002), 125–33. Although he had alienated himself from many Unionists in 1864, Jacob would alienate himself from Democrats after the war by endorsing both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments. Wolford, on the other hand, became a staunch Democrat, a successful lawyer, and a two-term U.S. congressman. Thomas D. Clark, “Richard Taylor Jacob”; and “Frank L. Wolford,” both in Kentucky Encyclopedia, 462, 963.

32. Daily Commonwealth (Frankfort, Ky.), January 29, 1864; J. Holt to Edwin M. Stanton, July 31, 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 39, pt. 2, 212–13; Rockenbach, “War Upon Our Border,” 180–83.

33. George Stoneman to George H. Thomas; Stoneman to J. Ammen; G. M. Bascom to Steven G. Burbridge, November 16, 1864, all in OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 1, 916–17.

34. Lorenzo Thomas to Edwin M. Stanton, January 2 and 3, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 2, 494–95, 503, respectively; Lucas, From Slavery to Segregation, 160–65.

35. T. E. Hall to E. B. W. Restieaux, December 16, 1864, enclosed in E. B. W. Restieaux to M. C. Meigs, December 16, 1864, “Camp Nelson, Ky.,” Consolidated Correspondence File, Entry 225, Central Records, RG 92, NA, reprinted in Berlin et al, eds., Wartime Genesis of Free Labor, 680–85. These enclosures are copies of correspondence relating to the Camp Nelson expulsion and its aftermath contained in Hall’s report to his superiors.

36. Ibid.; Liberator (Boston), December 9, 1864, reprinted in Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky, 139–40; Harrison and Klotter, New History of Kentucky, 235. See also Sears, Camp Nelson, Kentucky, 134–55, for more affidavits.

37. Special Orders No. 77, November 30, 1864, Headquarters, Military District of Kentucky, OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 1, 1197.

38. Affidavit of Patsey Leach, March 25, 1865, Registered Letters Received, Assistant Commissioner’s Office, Entry 3379, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, Tennessee, Record Group 105 (hereinafter cited as RLRACO, Entry 3379, BRFAL-TN), NA, reprinted in Berlin et al, eds., Black Military Experience, 268–69.

39. E. H. Ludington to Edwin M. Stanton, December 7, 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 2, 93–94.

40. Ibid.

41. Western Citizen (Paris, Ky.), December 9, 1864.

42. J. A. Morrison to J. S. Butler, November 28, 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 1, 1131; Speed S. Fry to J. S. Butler, December 2, 1864; W. L. Gross to Speed S. Fry, December 3, 1864; J. Bates Dickson to Stephen G. Burbridge, December 31, 1864, OR, ser. 1, vol. 45, pt. 2, 28, 41, 454, respectively.

43. J. S. Butler to Colonel Buckley, January 25, 1865; Butler to Speed S. Fry, January 26, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 582, 589; Louisville Journal, January 25, 1865. For more on the sensationalizing of guerrilla warfare in the popular press, as well as the infatuation with female spies and combatants, see Alice Fahs, The Imagined War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861–1865 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2001), 225–55.

44. Louisville Journal, March 16, 1865. D. W. Lindsey to E. H. Hobson, January 28, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 603.

45. Harrison, Civil War in Kentucky, 76–78. See Major Mahoney to J. S. Butler, January 28; and Thomas A. Howes to Major Mahoney, January 29, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 603, 612.

46. Speed S. Fry to Major Barnes, January 29, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 612. On August 21, 1863, William Quantrill led a raid of several hundred guerrillas on the town of Lawrence, where the antislavery government of Kansas had been formed in the 1850s. With “death” lists in hand, the raiders initially targeted leading citizens such as Senator Jim Lane. The senator escaped, but perhaps as many as two-hundred men and boys were massacred. Quantrill’s force scattered after the raid, as federal authorities enacted more severe anti-guerrilla policies in Missouri, from whence most of his raiders came. He retreated to Texas for the winter, and he was never able to assemble such a large guerrilla force again. For more on Quantrill, see Edward E. Leslie, The Devil Knows How to Ride: The True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders (New York, 1998).

47. Thomas A. Howes to S. B. Brown; Howes to Major Mahoney, February 2, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 634, 635.

48. Thomas E. Bramlette to Edwin M. Stanton; Stanton to Stephen G. Burbridge, February 7, 1865; Stanton to John M. Palmer, February 8, 1865; D. L. Price to Abraham Lincoln, February 11, 1865, all in OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 667, 670–73, 698, respectively.

49. Edwin M. Stanton to John M. Palmer, February 8, 1865; General Orders No. 1, February 18, 1865, Headquarters, Military Department of Kentucky; Stephen G. Burbridge to W. D. Whipple, February 18, 1865, all in OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 670–73, 741–42, respectively; Rockenbach, “‘War Upon Our Border’,” 208–13.

50. W. L. Gross to J. S. Butler, February 9, 1865, OR, ser. 1, vol. 49, pt. 1, 684; Louisville Journal, January 31 and February 1, 1865.

51. Ibid.; Leslie, Devil Knows How to Ride, 349–69.

52. Lucas, From Slavery to Segregation, 178–84.

53. Berlin et al, eds., Destruction of Slavery, 513; Victor B. Howard, “The Civil War in Kentucky: The Slave Claims His Freedom,” Journal of Negro History 67 (Autumn 1982): 251–54; Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, 286; Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge, La., 1971), 89–91; J. Michael Rhyne, “‘We are Mobed & Beat’: Regulator Violence Against Free Black Households in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, 1865–1867,” Ohio Valley History 2 (Spring 2002): 30–42.

54. For more on Kentucky politics and the embracing of a Lost Cause identity in the commonwealth, see Anne Marshall, “‘The Rebel Spirit in Kentucky’: The Politics of Readjustment in a Border State, 1865–1868,” in The Great Task Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War, eds. Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller (New York, 2010), 54–68.

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