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  • "What is the case of 'Willie Waller' at Maysville, Kentucky?":The Strange Tale of a Kentucky Rebel
  • J. Matthew Gallman (bio)

We know very little about young Willie Waller—but we know a bit about the Kentucky world in which he was raised. It is tantalizing to wonder how that place shaped his future before and during the Civil War. This is the story of a young man who found himself in deep trouble. It is also the story of prosperous, well-connected parents who suddenly found their lives turned upside down. It is also, then, a familiar tale of generational conflict, played out in unfamiliar terrain. And, as so often is the case, this becomes a story about power, politics, and law. Participants struggle to determine who has power, and how it can be used for their ends. Finally, this is a story about a handful of people, navigating their lives in a particular place at a particular time.

It was certainly possible to live a peaceful, quiet life in the midst of the American Civil War, attending to one's own business and personal concerns, although that was an easier path to follow in remote corners of the Union like Maine or Wisconsin. For a host of reasons, ordinary northern civilians faced a tougher challenge navigating the Civil War in the border states. That was certainly the case in Kentucky. It was, after all, a loyal state on the southern side of the Ohio River where slavery still flourished in 1860. One in five Kentuckians were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War and a quarter of white families had a direct hand in the slave system. Although Kentucky shared [End Page 1] this Peculiar Institution and a host of cultural ties with the states that would secede from the Union in 1861, they were not, by and large, rabid secessionists. In the crucial election of 1860, when the Republican Abraham Lincoln won an electoral victory that triggered waves of secession, Kentucky voters showed little interest in the upstart Republicans. Lincoln failed to receive 1 percent of the state's votes. Another native son, John C. Breckinridge—the choice of the more rabid southern Democrats—only won 36.4 percent of his own state's voters, while Tennessean John Bell, running on the hope of preserving the Union, garnered 45.2 percent of Kentucky's votes. Despite their ties with the southern states, more than three-quarters of white Kentuckians were born in their home state.1 And they could read a map. Kentucky was no place to be if the nation divided.

When war finally broke out, Kentucky, led by Governor Beriah Magoffin, attempted to maintain a stance of armed neutrality for as long as they could. Such a path would soon prove untenable, but the majority of white Kentuckians settled into an attitude that historian Aaron Astor has called "conservative unionism." They sought to preserve their established social order, including their prospering institution of slavery, and they had little patience for the radicals to their North or their South.2 Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said that he hoped to have God on his side, but he "had to have Kentucky."3 Politically and militarily, the United States was able to control the Bluegrass State throughout the war, but Confederate raiders and southern sympathizers never abandoned the field. Civil War Kentucky was a hard place to navigate.4 [End Page 2]

William S. Waller was born in Kentucky in 1838, the child of Sarah Bell Langhorne Waller, who went by "Bell," and her husband Henry. Willie's father was the son of William Smith Waller, a lawyer and respected banker. Bell Waller came from an equally prominent Kentucky family. When he was still an infant, Willie's parents purchased a farm they called Auvergne near the town of Maysville on the Ohio River in the northeastern part of the state. Willie grew up in a slave society just across the river from Ohio, a free state. In the next two decades, Henry and Bell had five more sons and four daughters.

As their family grew, the Wallers' fortunes expanded. Henry developed a prosperous legal...


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