My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans by Rusty Williams. University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 0813125820. $34.95.
Since Bell Irvin Wiley published The Life of Johnny Reb in 1943, historians have worked tirelessly to shed light on the lives of ordinary Civil War soldiers. However, because many studies conclude with the surrenders at Appomattox and Bennett Place, scholars have only now begun to examine the post-war lives of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb in Gilded Age America. In addition to exploring old soldiers’ involvement in Civil War commemorations and sectional reconciliation efforts, historians have also examined the veterans’ home movement. Freelance writer and amateur historian Rusty Williams’s study—My Old Confederate Home—augments the works of R. B. Rosenburg, Jeffrey McClurken, and Patrick Kelly, by tracing the institutional life of a single veterans’ institution, the Kentucky Confederate Home. Established in the small town of Pewee Valley, on the outskirts of Louisville, the Kentucky home served roughly one thousand impoverished or enfeebled former Rebels from 1902 to 1934. According to Williams, “the Kentucky Confederate home was, by the end of 1907, the brightest jewel in a necklace of Confederate veterans’ homes draped across the South and the border states” (178).
Organized chronologically and thematically, Williams’s work not only sketches the home’s founding, daily operation, and eventual closure, but also delves into the institution’s benefactors and its socio-political significance in post-war Kentucky. As a fire in 1920 destroyed many of the home’s records, Williams pieced together the home’s history after combing through various archives across the Bluegrass State. He employs contemporary newspapers and periodicals, personal correspondence, and operational documents to provide brief biographies of the residents and furnish readers with glimpses into daily life at the home. While he does not put forward an analytical argument, Williams claims that the home’s story does “provide insight into early-twentieth-century attitudes toward honor, duty, aging, the role of women, social welfare, and the mythology of the Lost Cause” (5).
The opening chapters of Williams’s study detail the planning, fundraising, and political wrangling that surrounded the Kentucky home’s establishment. According to Williams, the institution’s success depended upon “a unified and energetic statewide Confederate veterans’ group, a sympathetic and enthusiastic public, and a generous government,” which coalesced in Kentucky (41). Forty thousand white Kentuckians had donned Confederate gray, and within a few decades of the war’s conclusion, many were unable to support themselves because of old age and lingering physical injuries and psychological traumas. Williams explains that affluent members of the United Confederate Veterans, the Confederate Veteran Association, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied elected officials on behalf of indigent and ailing former Rebels. Despite squabbling among chapter members over the best means of supporting needy veterans, sympathetic state lawmakers eventually passed legislation establishing the Kentucky home, providing appropriations for the institution, and creating a board of trustees to oversee its operation. After undertaking intense fundraising campaigns and scouring the state for potential locales, the trustees procured the luxurious and spacious Villa Ridge Inn, in the small resort town of Pewee Valley. On 23 October 1902, the Kentucky home opened its doors.
Besides detailing the administrative, disciplinary, and financial issues that were all part of the home’s day-to-day operations, Williams illustrates how the Lost Cause permeated daily life. Not only did the home’s administrators host annual reunions for various Confederate regiments and veterans’ organizations, but officials also expected each resident to embody an idealized image of a Confederate veteran on a daily basis. Once supervisors admitted an aging veteran into the home, they expected the inmate—the official term for a resident of the home—to abide by austere policies. Officials required inmates to maintain the utmost hygiene and dress in gray quasi-military uniforms. They also forbade inmates from leaving the grounds unaccompanied and prohibited them from possessing alcohol or imbibing. According to Williams, officials had “no tolerance for drunken behavior that spilled outside the gates of the Home and threatened to besmirch the public image of a noble and worthy Johnny Reb” (148). Overseers reprimanded, and sometimes even dismissed, those who failed to abide by the rules. Though inmates struggled with recurrent episodes of drunkenness, violence, and mental breakdowns, administrators maintained the romantic Confederate veneer and the home “became a living museum of sorts, a twentieth century repository of animate Lost Cause relics” (188).
Supplementing Karen Cox’s work on the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Williams also details the prominent role of women—especially UDC members—in the development of the Kentucky home. He claims, “despite their involvement in so many other state and national projects—completing the Jefferson Davis Monument in Hopkinsville; supporting needy Confederate widows; reviewing school curriculums…[and] lobbying for the Jefferson Davis Highway—the Daughters maintained their steadfast support of the living relics at the Home” (246). Not only were UDC members at the forefront of the home’s many fundraisers, but Mrs. L. Z. Duke’s financial contributions also prompted the construction of Duke Hall, an entertainment venue for inmates to enjoy lectures and performances. UDC members were also committed to maintaining the home’s upkeep. Williams explains that in 1918 the board of trustees established a women’s advisory committee to oversee the domestic issues in the Kentucky home. Members of this committee inspected the home weekly and submitted suggestions to the board of trustees. They helped oversee the care of inmates until financial problems and dwindling numbers of residents forced the home to close in the summer of 1934.
My Old Confederate Home is an insightful work that offers much to general and scholarly readers alike. However, Williams may have expanded upon several issues to bolster an otherwise fine work. He casts issues of race in post-war Kentucky to the periphery. He does devote a few pages to describing the issues surrounding William Pete, an African American who was Joseph Wheeler’s servant during the war and applied for admission as an inmate. The brief description of Pete’s admittance into the home as an employee who resided in segregated quarters will leave some readers thirsting for greater insight. Though Williams makes fleeting references to Union veterans’ involvement in various aspects of life at the home, one wonders how former Unionists and Grand Army of the Republic members in Kentucky perceived the home and its residents. Despite these quibbles, this study will prove valuable to students of Civil War veterans, the Lost Cause, Confederate veterans’ associations, and Civil War-era Kentucky.
Samuel B. McGuire is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Georgia.