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  • Guerrilla Warfare Was the NormToward a New Vision of Civil War Kentucky

Kentucky has been for sometime and is still in a deplorable condition," observed Joseph Holt. A native of the Bluegrass State and the judge advocate general of the Union army, Holt was sent to Kentucky by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to assess the situation, which, from the Union perspective, was apparently bleak. He reported, "A very large part of the state is completely overrun with guerrillas, who plunder farm-houses, and fields, and villages at will and often murder the helpless victims of their robberies." Holt told Stanton, "They are mounted on the fleetest, and best horses of the country," which allowed them to "dash rapidly from point to point, and pouncing suddenly upon country houses and small towns, encounter no opposition." To make the guerrillas even more dangerous, Holt said, "the miscreants have met with no resistance on the part of the citizens." As this report indicates, the judge advocate general of the army and the Union officials in the state believed that the Civil War in Kentucky was a guerrilla war.1

The idea that the war in Kentucky can best be understood as a guerrilla war serves as the impetus for this special issue of Ohio Valley History. On the whole, the authors of the following essays contend that to see guerilla warfare as it truly existed, its systematic nature must be explored. In doing so, the authors seek to move our collective understanding of the guerrilla war in Kentucky from one of icons, marble and cold, to one of ideas, dynamic and alive. The famous leaders are still here; there are daring raids and infamous deaths as well. But, placed in their proper context, these individuals and feats are used to explain Union and Confederate strategies as well as the day-to-day experience of war in this border state. Indeed, the Civil War in Kentucky is shown in a new light, with a depth and dimension that goes beyond anything yet published on the conflict in this state. Here, we find that the Confederate partisan ranger service was born in the Bluegrass State; we see the Union vision of the war mapped out in electric blue and red lines in a war fought without any such delineation; and we are shown the irregular conflict's end, which was brought about in a most unsatisfactory and inconclusive way.

Literally and figuratively, the book on Kentucky's guerrilla war is yet to be written. A few iconic moments and men have come to overshadow the historical interpretation of the way the war was fought. John Hunt Morgan, the legendary Confederate leader, and his epic raids spring to mind. Despite that his strategy and tactics diverged greatly from what military historians have long considered "conventional" or "regular" nineteenth-century warfare, the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy" has not typically been viewed as a practitioner of guerrilla [End Page 3] warfare. Through the efforts of his right-hand man and first biographer, Basil Duke, Morgan's place in the history of the war has always been situated alongside other famed Confederate cavalrymen. When he wrote his book about Morgan's cavalry in the immediate aftermath of the war, Duke, like many Kentuckians, was uncomfortable with the realities of the recent internecine warfare in the Bluegrass State and sought to distance himself and the legacy of the great cavalier from derogatory terms like "bushwhacker" or "unconventional." Out of this anxiety over Kentucky's experience in the conflict, Duke and some latter-day historians and writers presented their war as somehow unique but not illegitimate. They emphasized the actions of one or two men thus sidestepping the need to engage the system of warfare as a whole in Kentucky and risk having it labeled with a pejorative like "irregular."2

Andrew Fialka begins this issue with an article that demonstrates that the guerrilla war in Kentucky was sweeping and difficult for Union officers to visualize, but it was hardly irregular. In "Federal Eyes: How the Union Saw Kentucky's Civil War," Fialka uses spatiotemporal mapping to illustrate that "the North's failure was not a military one but...


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