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  • Texts and Textiles in Civil War Kentucky
  • Amy Murrell Taylor (bio)

William W. Boswell, the twenty-six-year-old keeper of the St. Charles Hotel in Covington, Kentucky, learned the hard way that looks could indeed be deceiving. It happened when he was fined in 1863 for making the mistake of selling liquor to a man attired in "citizen's dress or clothes." The man in question was a "Stranger" to Boswell up to that moment. For that reason, Boswell claimed to have no idea that the man was actually a soldier and that he himself had run afoul of state regulations prohibiting the sale of alcohol to soldiers. This was not Boswell's first offense; the hotelkeeper had previously gotten into trouble for selling liquor to minors, and in those cases, like this one, he believed the fault lay with the customers who had not made their true identities known. In a petition to Governor James F. Robinson about this latest case, Boswell defended himself on the grounds that the "Stranger" was deceitfully—or at least unhelpfully—attired in civilian clothing. "[I]f in this one instance he did Sell to a man who had no distinguishing mark of a Soldier," his petition read, "he Should be pardoned the offence."1 [End Page 229]

The man had no "distinguishing mark"—no visible, outward sign of his status—something that mattered for reasons that went beyond Boswell's particular case. The upheaval of civil war, as is almost a historical truism, threw social and political identities into continual flux, especially in a divided border state like Kentucky. Confederates became Unionists and Unionists became Confederates; enslaved people became "contraband" and soldiers and freed people; neighbors became enemies, or worse, guerrillas; wives became widows, while children became orphans or grew too quickly into adults; and some of the previously wealthy began to fear they were slipping into the ranks of the poor, or at least into the middling. Clothing offered the sort of "distinguishing mark" of position that could sort people out in this ambiguous context, and thus could determine how one was perceived, how one was treated, and sometimes, whether one could survive this war at all. (Or, in Boswell's case, whether one had broken the law.) All of this, in addition to basic need, helped make clothing at times an especially valuable possession—and conflicts over clothing a frequent cause for commentary, even legal action, in the records of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK).

That appeals to state authorities in a time of war would bother to talk about clothing suggests it was no mere accessory, so to speak, to the larger conflict. And that, in turn, reinforces what historians of the war have increasingly come to acknowledge: that the material world—things, spaces, and structures—was no mere backdrop but was deeply implicated in, and often determinative of, the ways in which humans lived and survived the war. Studies of landscapes, of ruins and relics, and of disease and bodies, all informed by the interdisciplinary findings of cultural geographers and anthropologists, not only have exposed the grim realities of war with new clarity, but, in the most provocative lines of analysis, have suggested that material things can exert agency too. Clothing, I would suggest, deserves a prominent [End Page 230] place in this conversation, in no small part because of its sheer ubiquity in peoples' lives. This essay is an attempt to give it such a place, although not so much through the analysis of objects themselves but through an examination of the ways that Civil War Kentuckians talked about them—the "textualization of things," as Leora Auslander put it. Objects, of course, do not exist only in their physical form but also in the consciousness and writings of the people who come into contact with them.2 And Civil War Kentuckians, it turns out, had quite a bit to say about their clothing and its role in their wartime lives.


By the eve of the Civil War, Americans North and South adhered to the belief that clothing was an important, visible marker of status and social identity, particularly when presenting oneself...


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pp. 229-244
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