Tag Archives: Civil War

Lincoln and Secession


In conjunction with the Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War traveling exhibition hosted in the Kentucky Museum, Dr. Glenn LaFantansie, WKU’s Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History, gave a talk on “Lincoln and Secession” at the museum’s Western Room on the evening of November 9, 2011. His talk drew a large crowd and triggered a lively discussion among the audience.

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150 Years Ago Today

Remnants of the Civil War fort on WKU's campus, about 1907

Remnants of the Civil War fort on WKU’s campus, about 1907

On September 22, 1861, William Howard wrote a letter to his family in Caldwell County.  A private in the 3rd Kentucky Infantry, Howard was with the first wave of Confederate troops who arrived in Bowling Green four days earlier from Camp Boone, Tennessee to begin a five-month occupation of the city.  “We are encamped at Bolen Green in Ky. Warren Co.,” he reported, and thanked his family for the socks he had received just prior to departing from Camp Boone.

Of Bowling Green, Howard wrote that “Union men here are as thick as dog hair”; nevertheless, he pronounced himself ready for a fight against the “Lincolnites.”  Over the next few months, he vividly depicted the trials of camp life for the ordinary soldier.  Like many of his comrades, Howard grew tired and ill as he helped to build fortifications in cold, rainy weather, and he watched as the “heep of sickness in camp” took its toll.  Early in November, he reported that deaths in his brigade were averaging about one per day, with 38 dead since their arrival.  The Yankees never showed up for battle, but in January 1862 Howard still believed that there would “be a big fight in Ky” before too long, “and then peace.”

When he wrote on September 22, Howard was apprehensive about the future, telling his family that “its extremely doubtful about us ever meeting again.”  He was right.  He died in Mississippi on February 12, 1863.

The letters of William B. Howard are part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more on our extensive Civil War collections, click here or search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Civil War Sesquicentennial Events at Kentucky Library & Museum

Martial law broadside, Kentucky Library Collections

Martial law broadside, Kentucky Library Collections

Visit the Special Collections Library tomorrow, Saturday, September 17, as we join in a city-wide series of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War.  Featured will be hands-on children’s activities, a film screening, speakers, photography and military demonstrations, and more.  The Kentucky Museum’s exhibit, A Star in Each Flag: Conflict in Kentucky, is also a must-see.

All events are free and open to the public, and refreshments will be available for purchase.  Click here for a full list of events.

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Van Meter Diary Describes Flight from Bowling Green

Harper's Weekly depicted the scene after departing Confederates destroyed bridges across the Barren River at Bowling Green, February 1862. (Kentucky Library & Museum)

Harper’s Weekly depicted the scene after departing Confederates destroyed bridges across the Barren River at Bowling Green, February 1862. (Kentucky Library & Museum)

As a large force of Union troops prepared to drive the Confederates from Bowling Green in February 1862, one of the town’s residents confided her anguish to her diary.  Virginia native Mary Elizabeth Van Meter (1828-1893), the daughter-in-law of Jacob and Martha Van Meter, was a Southern loyalist who decided that she and her family had to seek safety by evacuating along with the soldiers.  A typescript of Mary’s diary at WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections vividly documents her flight from Bowling Green, her travels through Kentucky and Tennessee, and her eventual return home.

Gathering a few belongings, Mary and her family left Bowling Green amid the boom of cannon, “our troops . . . having waited long enough to burn both bridges, some mills, the railroad depot, and other houses containing military stores.”  Near Columbia, they find refuge with a friend who had once invited them to stay “if ever we were driven from our home by the vile Yankees.”  She rails at “would-be King Lincoln” when she hears that a relative has died in a Federal prison.  Throughout her odyssey, Mary anxiously follows news of every battle, her spirits rising and falling with the fortunes of the South.  A year after departing, she finally returns to Bowling Green, but not before enduring a boat trip with some soldiers wearing the “hateful blue coats.”  Although her home has survived, Mary finds the rest of the town, and her world, changed forever.  “I now sit by my window all day,” she wrote, “and scarcely recognize a familiar face.”

Click here to download a finding aid for Mary’s diary, which is part of the Hobson Family Papers at the Department of Library Special Collections.  For more on the Van Meter and Hobson families, and Bowling Green during the Civil War, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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“Show Them Such Courtesies”

Varina Howell Davis and John Cox Underwood

Varina Howell Davis and John Cox Underwood

Although he grew up in Bowling Green, John Cox Underwood (1840-1913) was born in Washington DC, where his father, serving in Congress, had married the daughter of Georgetown’s mayor.  Trained as an engineer, Underwood broke with the rest of his family and supported the South during the Civil War.

After the war, as a leader of the United Confederate Veterans, Underwood sought a favor on behalf of Jefferson Davis’s widow, Varina Howell Davis, and her daughter Winnie.  In 1891 Varina had moved to New York, where she showed more interest in pursuing a literary career than in fulfilling any symbolic role as matron of the Lost Cause.  Nevertheless, Underwood was concerned that Varina and her daughter be well treated at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which they planned to visit in 1892.  Writing to Bertha Honore Palmer, a Louisville native, president of the Exposition’s Board of Lady Managers and queen of Chicago society, he asked that she and a few other prominent women show Varina and Winnie “such courtesies as they would naturally receive in London or Paris or any other large city,” in order to demonstrate that the clouds of sectional bitterness had long lifted from the region.

A copy of Underwood’s letter to Mrs. Palmer is part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  To find other collections relating to the Underwood family, search TopScholar and KenCat.


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An Ohio Soldier in Bowling Green

Lewis Gray Bowker, 1840-1863

Lewis Gray Bowker, 1840-1863

WKU’s Special Collections Library continues to acquire Civil War manuscripts that relate to Bowling Green.  Among recent additions are five letters written by Lewis Gray Bowker, a wagon maker who enlisted with the 111th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

After seeing action near Covington, Kentucky, the 111th arrived in Bowling Green in mid-October, 1862 to protect the railroad line to Nashville.  In a letter to his father, Bowker’s thoughts focused on home and what he was missing, including the birth of a child.  “I hear from several sources and reliable ones too that we have a nice little girl,” he wrote.  “She may be three years old before I see her again but I cannot think otherwise than that this terrible and unnatural rebellion will be closed before spring.”

A month later, Bowker wrote his wife Emily in a noticeably shakier hand.  In hospital suffering from headache and fever, he encouraged her to keep replying to his letters even though “the Rebbles have … tore up the track between here and Louisville,” making mail delivery uncertain.

Like so many of his fellow soldiers who came through Bowling Green, Bowker died not of wounds but of disease in January, 1863, and a comrade sent his possessions home to Ohio.  He wrote apologetically that the cold weather had made it difficult to wash and dress Bowker’s body properly, but gave assurances that his death had been peaceful.

A finding aid for Lewis Gray Bowker’s letters can be downloaded here.  For more Civil War materials, search TopScholar and KenCat.


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An Illinois Soldier in Western Kentucky

William J. Green's Union letterhead

William J. Green’s Union letterhead

In January 1862, Private William J. Green, encamped with an Illinois regiment near Paducah, Kentucky, wrote letters to his brothers, 16-year-old Samuel and 10-year-old John.  He and the “boys in my Mess” had enjoyed the “Turkeys Pies and Bread” and the “Butter and Cake” his family had sent and were pleasantly settled, notwithstanding the rain and mud, in plank-floored tents with stoves.

Although none of the local civilians “claimed to be Secesh,” William knew there were many secessionists in the area.  As a farmer’s son, he even had some favorable comments about their crops and orchards.  William told Samuel of his 11-day march through McCracken, Graves and Calloway Counties, and of the Confederate sympathizers he encountered near the town of Murray.  The people there were stubbornly convinced, he wrote, that “we will never Conquer the South” and, lacking newspapers to tell them otherwise, “say that the Rebels have thrashed us every battle.”

Although William and his brother Samuel, who also served, made it through the war, they would both die within two months of each other in 1867.

Private William J. Green’s letters are part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more Civil War collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Unequal Justice

Johnson & Hardin, Attorneys

Johnson & Hardin, Attorneys

A memorandum prepared in 1866 by the law firm of Johnson & Hardin, recently acquired by WKU’s Special Collections Library, provides a glimpse into the post-Civil War legal status of African Americans in Kentucky.  Unlike other border states, Kentucky had not recognized the right of former slaves or free blacks to testify in court against whites.  Such resistance had attracted the attention of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which possessed the authority to operate a court system in which blacks qualified as witnesses.  The passage of a federal Civil Rights Act in April, 1866 only intensified the constitutional tug-of-war over how much justice should be afforded African Americans in Kentucky.  Not until 1872 was the issue resolved with a state law equalizing testimony rights.

That left the Johnson & Hardin firm in June, 1866 to ponder the procedural question of bringing an indictment against three men “for outrages committed on persons of color” in Nelson County.  In the absence of a grand jury, the memo explained, a county judge had no authority to indict the men.  Once in session, the grand jury could consider the matter and, “if they think it their duty to find a true bill on the testimony of colored persons,” hand down an indictment.  Rather than rely upon the Freedmen’s Bureau, however, witnesses had to present themselves in person to the grand jury.  “The papers before the Bureau,” the memo concluded, could not be used as evidence in state court.

A finding aid for the Johnson & Hardin memo can be downloaded here.

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North and South

Union support on a Civil War-era envelope

Union support on an envelope (Kentucky Library & Museum)

Letters between two brothers, part of the Furman A. Smith Collection at WKU’s Special Collections Library, demonstrate the intensity of feeling that fractured families during the Civil War.  Writing from central Illinois in 1863 to his brother Furman in Trigg County, Kentucky, William Riley Smith reported that “blood still gets hotter here for the cause of the Union.”  William himself was a believer: “I say crush the rebellion to bug dust.”  He focused most of his anger, however, on the slaves emancipated by President Lincoln’s executive order of September 22, 1862, which had taken effect on January 1, 1863.   Using a racial epithet associated more with the South, William declared bitterly that “all our troubles have grown out of the n—-r.”  He recalled his father’s prophesy that slaves “would prove a curse to our nation” because God would not allow their suffering to continue forever.  As a result, William had lost one of his best friends to rebels who, in his opinion, preferred shedding blood over the fate of slaves to preserving “our glorious government.”

Three years after the war, William was still smoldering. Writing to Furman about another brother from whom he had not heard in six months, he complained, “I suppose he thinks that if the South could not dissolve this great Union that he will dissolve friendship between himself and those that love the Union.”

For more Civil War resources, click here or search TopScholar and KenCat.


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Civil War Letter from Bowling Green is a Treasure

Frank Phelps letter, 1862

Frank Phelps letter, 1862

The Civil War came to Bowling Green in mid-September, 1861, with the arrival of General Simon Bolivar Buckner and about 1,300 Confederate soldiers.  They were soon joined by more than 20,000 troops who set up camp in and around the town.  From their fortified positions on surrounding hilltops, the Confederates looked forward to giving, in one soldier’s words, a “genteel whipping” to any Union forces foolish enough to confront them.  As winter set in, however, rainy conditions, poor food and shelter, inadequate clothing and rampant disease wore down the troops.

In mid-February 1862, facing the advance of a large Union force into the area, the Confederates decided to abandon Bowling Green.  Frank M. Phelps of the 10th Wisconsin Infantry was one of the soldiers who helped reclaim the area for the Federals.  Writing a long letter to his uncle back home, he reported crossing the Green River and camping at Munfordville before heading for Bowling Green.  During the brisk march, a “long cheer” erupted from the troops when word came that advance units were shelling the little town.  Phelps and his comrades encountered ponds that the Confederates had fouled with the carcasses of dead horses in order to deny fresh water to the enemy.  Once in Bowling Green, Phelps remarked on the extent of the fortifications, the destruction of the railroad depot, and the general disarray caused by the Confederates’ unceremonious departure.  The secessionists had “called their troops & run as fast as they could,” he wrote, “after setting fire to about 100 tins of salt pork.  [T]he streets are full of sugar salt beef & pork flour & every thing else.”  In a postscript, Phelps reported the capture of a “sesesh Captain” who had lingered behind and wore a disguise in hopes of evading detection.

This fascinating letter is now a part of WKU’s Special Collections Library manuscripts collections.  A finding aid and typescript can be downloaded here.

For more on our extensive Civil War resources, click here.


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