Channelling George Washington: How Kentucky Stayed in the Union


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“I don’t like to name names. But an historian who writes for the website Salon seems to have missed a major development in the Civil War.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  What did he say?”

“The gentleman recently wrote ‘Kentucky remained staunchly Unionist during the war years.’  I showed these words to Abe.  All we could do was shake our heads in astonishment.”

“I take it you and Mr. Lincoln are following with considerable interest the 150th anniversary of the Civil War?”

“Wasn’t that apparent to you in our recent conversation about the centrality of Robert E. Lee to understanding why the war was fought?  Abe of course is mesmerized—and more than a little dismayed—by the way things are going.  My interest remains a little more—shall we say—detached?  It’s not my war in the way that the Revolution was.”

“Why were you both astonished by the claim that Kentucky remained staunchly Unionist?”

“Because we both remember how and why Kentucky stayed in the Union.  As Abe said, very early in the contest, to lose Kentucky is to lose the whole game.  Since he had committed his heart, soul, and place in history to winning the game, it suggests he was ready to go to great lengths not to lose Kentucky.”

“Why was the state so important?

“It was crucial to the Union’s military strategy, which was worked out early in the war by West Pointers like General Sherman and General McClellan.  The plan called for attacking the Confederacy from almost every point on the compass.  Kentucky barred an assault from the west, in some ways a more crucial direction than the east.  You couldn’t get at Tennessee or Georgia or Mississippi if Kentucky barred the way.”

“How did Abe make sure Kentucky stayed in the Union?”

“First, Union soldiers led by Kentucky-born General William Nelson, whose brother was a close Lincoln friend, armed the people of Appalachia—the Cumberland ‘knobs’ as they were called.  They had a long history of hatred for the prosperous pro-southern Democrats of the Bluegrass.  The Republican governor of Indiana, Oliver Morton, sent numerous thirty- and sixty-day regiments into Kentucky to back them. The Democrats vowed to get even on election day.  Were they ever surprised…”

“What was the surprise?”

“On July 21, 1862, Union General Jerry T. Boyle threatened to arrest any Democrat who dared to run for office against a Republican without the federal government’s approval.  That meant only Democrats who were pro-war got on the ballot.  On election day, the polling places were surrounded by armed federal troops.  When a Democrat showed up to vote, the officer in command told him he would not be responsible for his safety if he voted.”

“How would they know which way a man voted?”

“This was decades before the secret ballot. You announced your vote at the polling place in an audible voice.  A great many Democrats went home without voting.  Even more never bothered to show up.  That’s how the Republicans carried Kentucky in 1862.”

“Didn’t Democratic newspapers protest?”

“They learned the hard way it was safer to keep still. No less than seventeen newspapers were wrecked and destroyed, often with Union soldiers helping or watching with warm approval.”

“Did the Democrats meet and protest?”

“They called a convention in 1863.  Colonel E. A. Gilbert of the 14th Ohio Regiment marched his men into the meeting hall at Frankfort and dispersed the assembly at bayonet point.  When leading Democratic politicians, such as former governor John Morehead, protested these tactics, they were arrested and held in various Union prisons, where they endured semi-starvation and verbal abuse until they pledged allegiance to the federal government.”

“Were there Kentuckians in the Union army who disagreed with these tactics?”

“There were quite a few, for a while.  They had a leader of sorts in the person of General Nelson.  ‘Bull,’ as he was called, was a formidable character.  He was six feet four and gigantic in all other respects, tipping the scales at three hundred pounds.  He had been responsible for keeping Kentucky in the Union during the first months of the war.  But he thought that the issue dividing the nation was secession, not slavery.  Most thinking Kentuckians felt that way.”

“Why didn’t they oppose slavery?”

“Many of them disliked it and hoped it would eventually disappear.  But in 1849, Kentucky became the only state in the Union that took a vote on whether to abolish slavery.  The voters rejected the proposal by a large margin.  General Nelson and his friends felt the people of Kentucky had made their wishes clear and the federal government had no business trying to change their decision in the middle of a war.  Nelson never realized he was risking his life by speaking his mind.”

“What happened?”

“On Monday morning, September 29, 1862, in the lobby of the fashionable Galt Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, General Nelson, in the blue and gold uniform of a commanding officer in the United States Army, was shot in the chest at point blank range by Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis of the same army.  Nelson died an hour later.  General Davis was never punished, or even put on trial for committing this horrendous act.”

“Had they quarreled before the gunfire?”

“General Davis had refused to obey orders from General Nelson, who was his superior officer.  On the morning of the murder, Davis renewed the quarrel.  He flipped a card into Nelson’s face.  Nelson slapped him.  Davis borrowed a pistol from a nearby friend who obviously knew what was going to happen and shot the unarmed Nelson while hundreds of people watched in horrified disbelief.”

“Why wasn’t General Davis at least tried for murder?”

“He was protected by Governor Oliver Morton of Indiana, who expressed warm approval of the vicious deed within minutes after Nelson’s death. Morton was an abolitionist—a group that demanded the immediate end of slavery—and he regarded anyone who didn’t share this view as immoral and despicable—and apparently worthy of virtual execution.”

“Didn’t other Union generals protest, and call for a court-martial?”

“Quite a few did.  But Morton went to Washington DC and convinced President Lincoln it was best to say or do nothing.  Abe decided he needed support of Morton and his followers and friends.  He remained silent. Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis returned to duty after a few months and served the rest of the war in that rank.  He was never promoted.  A large majority of the Union generals regarded what he had done as reprehensible, to put it mildly.”

“What did people in Kentucky think of it?”

“The message was pretty clear. The federal government was ready to do just about anything to keep Kentucky in the Union.  For the rest of the war there were only sporadic flickers of resistance by raiding rebel cavalrymen.  Most Kentuckians stayed home and minded their own business.”

“What do you think of all this, Mr. President?  Have you ever discussed it with Mr. Lincoln?”

“I’ve never discussed it with Abe.  It’s a painful subjectand he knows we think alike.  In the middle of a war, a president may have to make some very difficult decisions.  He has to balance what’s at stakethe preservation of the American nationagainst the rights and privileges the Constitution guarantees every citizen in peacetime.  In retrospect, there may be times when historians will think a president went too far.  His answer will always be:  what if it turned out I didn’t go far enough?  Harry Truman probably had it right when he remarked ‘any six year old’s hindsight is better than a president’s foresight.’”

“What about your favorite saying?  ‘We must take men as they are, not as we wish them to be.’”

“That’s a principle a lot of historians need to learn.”

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