- Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase by Berry Craig
Kentucky has gained notoriety over the last 150 years as the state that, to paraphrase E. Merton Coulter, waited until after the Civil War to secede from the Union. Those who repeat this adage are, of course, referring to Kentuckians’ adherence to white supremacy and conservative racial politics as the cultural invocation of the Lost Cause. All of this made white Kentuckians, most of whom had sided with the Union during the war, look and sound a lot like their counterparts in states that actually had seceded in 1860 and 1861.
In their fascination with this postwar behavior, people often forget that there was a portion of the Bluegrass State—the Jackson Purchase—that did attempt to secede from the Union, and which provides some real legitimacy for Kentucky’s star on the Confederate battle flag. Fortunately, Berry Craig has published a new and thorough examination of this Kentucky region and its critical role in the political and military operations of the war.
As Craig explains, the Purchase region, which comprises Kentucky’s westernmost counties, did not even become part of the state until 1818, more than twenty-five years after statehood. Over the next thirty years, the region became a major tobacco-growing area oriented toward the southern Mississippi River markets. Voters in the Purchase were supporters of “Old Hickory,” as opposed to the other areas of Kentucky, which, while not unanimous in support of Whig principles, hewed to the politics of native son Henry Clay. In 1860, most voters in the region cast their ballots for southern Democrat John Breckinridge, in opposition to central and eastern Kentucky voters, who stood behind John Bell.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that whites in the Purchase region reacted differently during and after the secession crisis. Craig offers a fascinating look at their efforts to cast their lot with the Confederacy. In May 1861, Purchase politicos convened a meeting dubbed the Mayfield Convention, where they professed their intent to secede from both Kentucky and the Union and cast their lot with secessionists in western Tennessee. This plan failed for several reasons, the biggest of which was Tennessee’s decision to join the Confederacy (as an intact state) the next month. But civilians in the Purchase region continued to cause no end of trouble for the Union troops who broke the Federal pledge of neutrality to occupy Paducah and Columbus in fall 1861, and they continued to do so throughout the war.
Berry Craig does a very nice job of explaining the singular, and often disregarded, narrative of the Civil War in this corner of the Bluegrass State. He makes good use of a wide array of diaries, newspaper accounts, and personal letters, and his lively prose keeps the book moving along nicely even as he gets into detailed political and military machinations. The result is a vivid portrait of military and civilian actions and popular [End Page 90] sentiment in an overlooked but important section of the Civil War West. Furthermore, Craig’s fully developed picture of the social, economic, and political development of the region offers readers more than just a standard Civil War chronicle. Kentucky Confederates certainly stands as the definitive account of this maverick portion of the Bluegrass state during the Civil War era.