Updated: Nov 24, 2020
The Civil War is the most written about subject in American history. The focus from a theater perspective in heavily weighted to the east. Seemingly there are dozens of books published each year about the Battle of Gettysburg, every possible aspect of the campaign and battle is covered ad nauseam, the latest offering being Horse Poop and the Flies of Gettysburg. Okay, I obviously jest, but only a little. Why is Gettysburg so talked about when after the battle the two armies are still fighting over the same ninety miles they were fighting over the first two years of the war?
If you are reading this blog entry, then chances are you might have the same impression of the Western Theater as I do - often overlooked, yet vastly more important than the east. Commanders here have to plan logistical operations that spanned hundreds of miles, with supply lines being far more susceptible to disruption via mounted raids. The armies in the west were often supplied with inferior weaponry as compared to their eastern counterparts, particularly in the beginning phases of the war. In some cases, Confederate generals not good enough to serve under Robert E. Lee were sent packing to the west, a proverbial dumping ground for castaway officers. And then the border state concerns and realities carried far more impact in the west and Trans-Mississippi than in the east...how many times was Delaware or Maryland really an issue for the Northern war effort? Ever heard of the 1st Delaware (CSA) Volunteer Infantry Regiment? Of course not, yet while Delaware was a border state, and while small amounts of Confederates were raised in Maryland, these two states were fairly ensconced under the Union banner. In Kentucky and Missouri thousands of men rushed to the colors (or were conscripted) and served on both sides. Politically complex, strategically important, the western border states were opportunities won and lost.
As I reside in Cincinnati, I can be in the Commonwealth of Kentucky in about ten minutes via my SUV. Most of my Civil War "expertise" lies in Ohio troops and Kentucky battlefields. I've led numerous tours at Perryville and Cynthiana, and have also hosted tours at Wild Cat Mountain and little Augusta on the Ohio River. These are the closest battlefields can enjoy, and hence where my attention is often focused. To understand Kentucky and its impact, I offer a few titles that may be of interest. While my preference is usually focused on the tactical battle genre, I will start this series with some background and overall titles that I recommend to understand the complex nature of Kentucky.
At the beginning of the conflict Kentucky voted to maintain a state of neutrality, a tenuous position, and one that was violated by both sides prior to Kentucky joining the Northern cause. Being a slave state with strong economic ties with the north, Kentucky's importance is often mentioned as an afterthought by most historians. This Kentucky "neutrality" phase is well covered by James W. Finck's Divided Loyalties - Kentucky's Struggle for Armed Neutrality in the Civil War. Published by Savas Beatie in 2012 and coming in just under 250 pages, Finck does an excellent job in detailing the turbulent time of April until early September 1861. Using numerous newspaper accounts along with first person narrative, he provides insight to the difficulties both sides encountered in trying to respect Kentucky's neutrality, while also trying to organize Kentucky units. It was interesting to read accounts in Kentucky's newspapers, calling for Abraham Lincoln's assassination - in 1860 and 1861!
Border Wars - The Civil War in Tennessee and Kentucky (edited by Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker, and W. Calvin Dickinson), is a collection of essays covering a wide variety of topics by authors known (Sword, Hess, Cooling, and Engle) and not as well known. Published by The Kent State University Press in 2015, its 300+ pages has thirteen essays, including one I found fascinating on Felix Zollicoffer and the effects of weather and terrain on his campaigns. Subjects cover both Kentucky and Tennessee, but there are several on the Bluegrass State that make this a worthy addition for those wanting specific and deeper dives on various topics.
The last title for this entry is another collection of essays, The Civil War in Kentucky - Battle for the Bluegrass State, edited by Kent Masterson Brown (Savas, 2000). Ten essays cover both political and military topics by fairly known authors such as Wiley Sword writing about Patrick Cleburne earning his later reputation during the 1862 Heartland Campaign. Some essays move away from the battlefield and discuss Kentucky's political history. This collection of essays would serve one well to obtain snapshots of Kentucky's Civil War history.
These three titles provide a foundation to study Kentucky's confused neutrality stance and some of her military involvement during the war. I would also like to mention two local Civil War histories as examples of the conflicts that were faced in smaller portions of Kentucky. While most students of the war may find such a deep dive beyond their own scope of interest, these two examples provide how the war was seen and experienced in small communities, and therefore are worth reading.
Betty Gorin's Morgan Is Coming! - Confederate Raiders in the Heartland of Kentucky was published by Harmony House Publishers in 2006. Coming in around 450 pages, it is a detailed account of not only the Battle of Tebbs Bend (July 4th, 1863) but also the Civil War history of Taylor County. Profusely illustrated with maps, illustrations, and photographs, this is a local history tour de force. If it occurred within the region, Ms. Gorin covers it, along with listing the 400 men who served during the war from the area.
William Penn offered us Rattling Spurs and Broad-Brimmed Hats - The Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County, Kentucky in 1995. Penn expanded this work as Kentucky Rebel Town - The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County (University Press of Kentucky) in 2016. This expanded work not only covers in great detail the two battles of Cynthiana, but Penn writes about such topics as Lincoln guns being sent via the Kentucky Central Railroad during the neutrality phase, to the recruiting of black soldiers later in the war, and every Civil War related story in between. Penn is a fine story teller, weaving details into a flowing narrative. Included are detailed maps for the two battles (updated from Rattling Spurs and Broad-Brimmed Hats). Penn also provides insight into as why Cynthiana, and surrounding Harrison County, was southern leaning in its political makeup, although just sixty miles from Cincinnati.
Such detailed treatises may not be everyone's choice for Civil War study, but both of these efforts offer deep insight to the Civil War impact on two specific regions in Kentucky. If you want to understand the way from a regional view, then I suggest reading either of these books.
In Part II we'll talk a bout a few titles that focus on the early military campaigns that took place in Kentucky.