MARSHALL: Creating a Confederate Kentucky (2010)

Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State by Anne E. Marshall. University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 080783436X. $35.00.

Nowhere is the cliché that the North won the Civil War while the South won the peace more true than in Kentucky. Historian Anne E. Marshall’s elegantly crafted Creating a Confederate Kentucky tells us exactly how that happened. Most significantly, she reminds us that the contests over memory in postwar Kentucky were not binary, not only between pro-Union and pro-Confederate whites. Rather, African Americans had their own memory of wartime service and events, and they demanded public recognition.

Marshall opens by exploring the reasons that Kentucky remained in the Union, even as its voters repeatedly rejected the Republican Party. Too, Kentucky was not only a slave state but the last Union state to abandon slavery. Thus as emancipation became an increasingly important war aim, many white Kentuckians felt as though they had been betrayed by the federal government, victims of a sort of bait and switch. Indeed by the end of the war, the commonwealth’s white residents seemed to be more united by their anger at the Republicans in Washington than divided by their wartime allegiances.

This local white reunification only increased during the years of Reconstruction. Because it had not seceded, Kentucky was not subject to the Reconstruction Acts, including the temporary disfranchisement of ex-Confederates. That did not, however translate into support for the federal government. Rather, the Democratic Party served as an agent of reunion, a place where wartime allegiances mattered less than resentment of black freedom and enfranchisement.  Too, as the Republican Party became increasingly identified with African Americans, whites deserted it in droves By the late 1860s, men who had worn Confederate gray were more likely to be elected to local and statewide offices than former Union soldiers.

Marshall’s work is particularly compelling when she looks at the competing images of Kentucky during the Gilded Age. Marshall describes New South boosters like Henry Watterson, the living embodiment of the Kentucky Colonel stereotype who turned his Louisville Courier-Journal into a national newspaper, with over three times the circulation of its regional rival, the Atlanta Constitution (53). Watterson urged a progressive stance on racial matters, even as his paper emphasized the differences between the supposedly genteel (and Confederate) Bluegrass region and the savage violence of (Unionist) Appalachia. As Watterson’s paper grew in national stature, so too did its home city of Louisville, which became the metropolitan embodiment of reunion. Louisville hosted a United Confederate Veterans reunion in 1900, with the full support and participation of white Union veterans. Indeed, these former Federals seemed almost more engaged in the Confederate reunion, than in the GAR encampment in the city in 1895. The Confederate memory of the war, as measured by participation in memorial events and organizations, and in the disproportionate number of Confederate versus Union monuments, dominated Kentucky.

But Kentucky defied easy categorization. While sectional reconciliation seemed to have occurred on pro-Confederate terms, a potent counter-memory remained. Union supporters made much of Kentucky as Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, resulting in the creation of Lincoln National Historical Park. More significantly, these efforts were interracial, however grudgingly. African American veterans did much to keep the memory of emancipation, and the role of African Americans soldiers in winning the war, alive. Consequently, Kentucky is the home to one of only four monuments to African American troops in the nation.

Not only does Marshall pay close attention to the ways that ex-Confederates, white Unionists, and African Americans tried to shape the memory of the Civil War in Kentucky, but she also emphasizes the importance of state geography. The idea of Appalachia as a distinctive place out of time emerged in this period, in no small way, Marshall seems to argue, as a scapegoat for the racial and political violence that engulfed the commonwealth during the late nineteenth century. The flip side of Bluegrass grace and honor was the savage violence of the mountaineer. Local colorists and early anthropologists together created a mythic Appalachia populated by fiercely independent white Unionists, completely ignoring the presence of African Americans. As Marshall elegantly explains, making the Unionist region the other and outsider normalized the pro-Confederate regions of the state, thus normalizing Kentucky’s Lost Cause identity.

The public faces of postwar Kentucky were thus easily stereotyped. The Hatfields and McCoys with their brutal feud was one view, one that New South boosters hoped to shunt aside. Another image of Kentucky, much more in line with its new identification as a deeply Southern place were the incredibly popular Little Colonel stories. While today we know them through the Shirley Temple film, these mythic embodiments of the Old South, full of misty nostalgia and romantic imagery (particularly where African Americans were concerned) were best-sellers around the turn of the century. But, Marshall reminds us, Kentucky was also home to one of the leading African American writers of the period: Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar often wrote about Kentucky in his stories and poems, painting a picture often at odds with Lost Cause literature.

Creating a Confederate Kentucky is an excellent book: tightly argued, richly detailed, and elegantly written. It is a model of what a state study can do, showing the importance of not just race, but also place, to the story of the Lost Cause.
Anne Sarah Rubin is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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