Tag Archives: Civil War

A Summer of Anxiety

On May 20, 1861, the Commonwealth of Kentucky officially declared itself neutral in the growing Civil War.  Neutral?  In the words of “Aunt Jane,” the fictional elderly storyteller created decades later by Bowling Green author Eliza Calvert Hall, “You might as well put two game-roosters in the same pen and tell ’em not to fight as to start up a war between the North and the South and tell Kentucky to keep out of it.”

Robert Rodes and his warning letter

Robert Rodes and his warning letter

Indeed, by August 1861, with armies on both sides recruiting volunteers, Kentucky’s neutrality was in danger of collapse.  In Bowling Green, lawyer and Union supporter Robert Rodes (1824-1913) wrote two letters to his colleague, Joseph Rogers Underwood, then serving in the state legislature, setting out his fears of invasion.  “We are growing a little feverish here just now,” he admitted.  He was particularly agitated over the news of thousands of Southern troops camped just across the Tennessee state line.  Were they to acquire sufficient arms, he insisted to a skeptical Underwood, “you would see my predictions verified to the letter and all the territory south of Green River, in the Confederate power before the end of a week.”  Enemy occupation, he reminded Underwood, would result in “the necessary scattering of families; foraging of scouts & quartering of troops will follow and we will be at the mercy of one of the most merciless & audacious Rebellions on Record.”

A few days later, Rodes believed that the threat was serious enough to justify bringing Federal troops into the region to pre-empt a rebel attack.  The time for negotiation and petty arguing about “who first violated Kys Neutrality” was past.  Rodes saw infrastructure–roads, bridges, railroads–in peril, but he also saw a “moral danger” in the form of economic opportunism.  Demoralized by their government’s inaction, some Unionists had become content to buy up cattle and provisions, smuggle contraband, and sell their services to the Confederates.  Soon, Rodes warned, “we will find ourselves. . . seized, held & bound by an army of traitors.”  Four days after he wrote this letter, Confederate troops arrived to begin a five-month occupation of Bowling Green.

Robert Rodes’s letters are part of the Rodes Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other collections relating to the Rodes and Underwood families, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Waiting to Cross

Vincent Trago's letter

Vincent Trago’s letter

As Union troops neared Bowling Green in the wake of the Confederate withdrawal in February 1862, they found that the departing enemy had destroyed foot and railroad bridges leading over the Barren River into the town.  Camped on the north side, waiting for their turn either to ford the river or cross on makeshift bridges, some of the soldiers took time to write a line home.  Among several such letters in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library is one from Vincent T. Trago, a 24-year-old corporal serving with the 15th Ohio Infantry.

Unbowed by the rigors of military life, Trago assured his correspondent that “I am well as usual [and] can eat my share of rations yet.”  During the 20-mile march to Bowling Green he had avoided the fate of some of his comrades, whose “feet got verry sore so that they took off their boots and went bare footed for 6 or 7 miles.”  Local reception of the marching men also cheered Trago.  The “Kentucky girls were fix up in their Sunday best and were standing by the road side smiling and looking as pleasant as they could,” he wrote, and their African-American counterparts seemed equally delighted with the passing soldiers.  The only sour note had come from within the ranks, where some of the men had shot off their pistols and committed other breaches of discipline, and been ordered to carry rails as punishment.

A finding aid and typescript of Vincent Trago’s letter can be downloaded here.  For more of our Civil War collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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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.

Photo Album | Audio | Podcast

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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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