“Get your report in”

Things were simpler back then . . . not.  As we race to conclude the current (though extended) tax filing season, here’s how a member of the Carley family of Georgetown, Kentucky once puzzled through the process of “rendering unto Caesar.”

A native of Ontario, Canada, George Carley took his family to Kentucky via Pennsylvania in the 1870s.  One daughter, Lizzie, remained at home and another, Georgia, married and moved to Arkansas.  As World War I unfolded, the family saw income taxes rise dramatically to accommodate the costs of American involvement in the conflict (a war for which Georgia’s cousin Maggie Fortune, still living in Canada, had some choice words).  In any event, on March 1, 1919, Georgia wrote sister Lizzie of her attempts to understand the Revenue Act of 1918.  The revised law imposed a “normal” tax of 6% on the lowest bracket and 12% on higher incomes, but the real pain came with an additional, graduated surtax: on 1918 incomes over $1 million, it brought the government’s bite to a whopping 77%.  The Act promised some relief for 1919 incomes, but not much: the normal tax would drop by a few percentage points, while the surtax remained intact.

Georgia carefully studied the helpful information provided by her bank, not only to understand her own obligations but to assess what emotions—jealousy, sympathy, or schadenfreude—she should reserve for better-off Americans.  “What we have is bad enough,” she wrote Lizzie, “but aren’t you thankful your income is not a million.”  She had checked the charts and discovered that “those poor unfortunates” would have a normal tax bill of $119,640 and a surtax of $583,510, “leaving the owner of such wealth only $296,850 out of which he must live and pay his state county and city tax.  Well I don’t envy him.” 

Given that $296,850 had the purchasing power that $5.2 million does today, Georgia was probably being sarcastic.  However, at a normal rate of 6% and a surtax rate of zero, the grab on her own income (which we can deduce was less than $4000) was “not so bad”—and the next year, she reported, “it will only be 4% for small people like me.”  She gave a gentle reminder to her sister to “get your report in before March 15”—a date that would remain the deadline for tax filers until changed in 1954 to April.

The Carley family’s letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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“Fire it back promptly”

Hal Bryant’s journalism

For almost 44 years, Lexington, Kentucky native Hal Farnsworth Bryant (1888-1975) labored as a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, first in West Virginia and then in Louisville.  In his youth, however, he spent a rollicking few years as a reporter for the Lexington Leader.  Not content merely to serve the audience in his home town, Bryant partnered with a Leader editor to offer stories and photographs for syndication to newspapers and magazines around the country.

From intrigues in Frankfort to social and political gossip across the state, Bryant and his colleague churned out copy and sent it off with instructions to editors to either “remit at your customary rate” or “fire it back promptly with postage herein.”  Early 20th-century doings in the Bluegrass State provided lots of fodder.  There was horse breeding, railroad construction, tobacco markets, the Night Riders, colorful public figures, and the seemingly endless feuds and violence roiling eastern Kentucky.  Human interest stories abounded:  for example, that of a “greybeard ‘Yank’” and an “old ‘Johnny Reb,’” two former officers on opposite sides of the Civil War, who operated a peach orchard together near Cumberland Gap.  There was the clergyman who served both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Clifton, Tennessee, and who wrote Bryant a touching personal letter explaining the arrangement and the difficult life he had led up to that time.

Other stories had more of a tabloid flavor.  There was the legend of Colonel John Bartlett, a Revolutionary War veteran and Nelson County planter who watched his daughter endure the persistent and unwelcome attentions of a fellow officer.  Long story short: the pesky suitor became a gruesome part of the Bartlett agricultural output, having been churned up in a cotton baler and shipped off to a mill in Boston.  And then there was Lexington’s beautiful Mason “Macie” Talbott, engaged to marry a family boarder, a Canadian book salesman who the family found quite unsuitable.  The next anyone knew, the preacher and wedding guests had been sent home, the gifts all returned, and Miss Talbott whisked off by her brother for a lengthy tour of Europe.

Perhaps the strangest story Bryant covered is only hinted at in his papers.  It’s a photograph of a baby, labelled on the back as a Bourbon County infant, “raffled off Paris Opera House.”  Indeed, in September 1910,  a standing-room-only crowd watched as this child of destitute parents was awarded to the winning ticket holder, a local police officer.  “As soon as the necessary adoption papers can be secured,” reported the Bourbon News, “he will come into legal possession of the cherubin.” 

Hal Farnsworth Bryant’s journalism is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Man For All Seasons

John E. Younglove and his weather records for March

When John E. Younglove (1826-1917) came to Bowling Green in 1844, the town gained a curious and inquiring citizen.  Over his long life as a druggist, town trustee and cemetery commissioner, Younglove collected rare books, archaeological specimens and tales of local history.  He also collected weather.

From 1849-50 and 1851-52, Younglove kept daily records of temperature (four readings a day), “clearness of the sky,” wind, and clouds.  A member of a national network of volunteer observers, he forwarded his data to the Smithsonian Institution for use in its new meteorology program, then tackling “the problem of American storms” and how to predict them. 

Younglove added other remarks to his notations, usually concerning the intensity of rainfall.  But his entries for June and July 1849 included another phenomenon that deserved close attention.  Early in the year, a wave of cholera had begun to make its way from India and across Europe.  Everyone knew that it would soon arrive in America – and that the nation was unprepared.  On June 9, 1849, Younglove’s weather notes recorded three deaths from cholera, “the first we have had.”  In a month characterized by high heat and excessive rain, the steady drip of deaths continued: one on the 14th, one on the 19th, two on the 22nd, five on the 23rd, and so on. 

Younglove’s record-keeping grew less frequent until 1886, when he resumed in earnest.  Through 1901, he filled his ledger with four-times-daily temperature readings, kept for the Department of Agriculture’s Climatological Service.  In addition to contemporary records, he preserved stories of weather and atmospheric phenomena gathered from his own experience and that of old-timers: the reverberations of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake; a magnificent meteor shower in 1833; the 18-below-zero day in February 1835 and the 24-below-zero chill in January 1877; the total eclipse of 1869; an 1870 tornado that destroyed Cave City; the 28-inch snowfall that buried Bowling Green in February 1886; and various record-breaking storms, killer frosts, locust infestations and river rises.  When an even deadlier visitation of cholera arrived in 1854, courtesy of the infected members of a travelling circus company, Younglove suspected that the outbreak was made worse by heavy rainfall during a performance “which caused the steam to arise” inside the crowded tent.  His chronicle was wide-ranging and unique: in annual narratives covering 1870 through 1909, Younglove looked back on each year’s weather patterns as they brought prosperity or hardship to the gardeners and farmers of his community – and formed a backdrop, in a few cases, to serious public health crises.

John E. Younglove’s meteorological record is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Golden Injection

With the growth of the temperance movement in the late 19th century came a tide of programs for the treatment of addiction, not just to alcohol but to tobacco and drugs.  Some were faith driven, but others were from the medical community and became so popular that they evolved into business franchises.  One of these was the Hagey Institute, an enterprise that made an appearance in Bowling Green in the 1890s.

Only a few years earlier, in 1889, William Henry Harrison Hagey, a physician and chemist, had opened the first institute in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Like several other aspiring addiction specialists, he touted bichloride of gold, a remedy that would supposedly eliminate the craving for alcohol and tobacco and for drugs like morphine and opium.  Patients drank a tonic and also received injections of the compound which, it was said, left a gold stain on the upper arm.  Hagey Institutes soon opened in California and as far away as Australia.

Bowling Green’s Hagey Institute was established no later than July 1892, when the Todd County Progress advised those “addicted to the liquor or morphine habit” to seek a cure there.  The principals were local pharmacist Gilson E. Townsend and Glasgow’s Dr. Charles T. Grinstead (“Physician in Charge”).  An advertisement assured patients of a “guaranteed” solution for “the Terrible Morphine Disease.”  As for the “liquor habit,” the Institute did not sermonize; like drug addiction, it was a disease rather than a moral failing, “fully as much to be dreaded as consumption, or any chronic or hereditary ailment.”  The ad further offered “$100 in gold” to anyone who, at the end of three weeks of treatment, confounded the cure by managing to keep down a drink of liquor.

Although the Hagey treatment promised to be “perfect and pleasant,” these gold-based regimens soon fell out of favor.  It came as no surprise, perhaps, that laboratory tests showed the secret formula for the elixir to contain not gold but practically everything else, including quinine, strychnine and other poisons, and even alcohol, morphine and opium!  Rather than instituting a pleasant withdrawal, it more commonly made users nauseous, fatigued, inebriated, confused, and even “insane.”  But as the shadow of quackery began to advance over the gold cure, there is no evidence that Grinstead and Townsend’s enterprise was operating under less than good faith.  Townsend later served twice as mayor of Bowling Green, and Dr. Grinstead deployed the Institute’s impressive gold-tinted letterhead to support Barren County physician John B. White in his attempts to defend himself against the “tattlers and liars” attacking his competence.

Dr. Grinstead’s letters from the Hagey Institute of Bowling Green can be found in the Jones Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Mothers Club

Every woman that is the Mother of one child or children, should get a pension, it does not make any difference who she is, a Mother is enough.  Soldiers draw a pension, why not a Mother? 

So declared Barren County native Virginia Edmunds in a 1915 letter to her sister.  Foretelling today’s proposals to enact a “Marshall Plan for Moms” struggling with work, childcare and healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, she reminds us that over generations, Kentucky women have grappled with what most see as the greatest joy and the greatest challenge of their lives.  They have grumbled and protested, but they have also campaigned, organized, survived and even triumphed in the experience of motherhood.

Take Bowling Green native Lida Calvert Obenchain, married in 1885 and the mother of four children in ten years.  Though fiercely proud and protective of her brood, she despaired at the plight of the “tired, overworked housekeeper”—the all-in-one “cook, scullion, nurse, laundress, charwoman, dining room servant, and chambermaid” tasked with care of the “new baby that is laid in the cradle every two or three years.”  She became a convert to woman suffrage as a way to protect the interests of all such women, and cited with approval an idea of author and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman to establish cooperative kitchens to supply families with prepared food and other domestic assistance.  Like Virginia Edmunds, she called for tangible measures to back up the routine paeans her culture offered to motherhood.

Virginia, however, was quick to point out that she would have done it for free.  She had spent “the best part of this life in bringing up a family” and had “not a word to say against it, for it was my duty, and I took pleasure in it.”  On February 12, 1925, a group of Bowling Green women with the same approach organized the Mothers Club to enhance their experience of both the duties and the pleasures of raising children.  They adopted their club constitution with a view to “appreciating the advantages of friendship; believing in mental, spiritual and physical development; and recognizing the value of training our children for future citizens.”

Mothers Club yearbook, 1928-1929

Over its 73-year existence, the Mothers Club fulfilled its mission with programs, social activities, and civic uplift.  Its first year included programming on “Care of Children’s Teeth,” “Food for the Pre-School Child and School Lunches,” “Heredity and Environment,” “Music for Children,” and “Adapting Discipline to Individual Temperament.”  The club, recalled member Ruth Brown Denhardt, was “a very staid organization” when she joined in 1947.  Dressed in their hats, gloves and best dresses, members addressed each other as “Mrs.” and presented programs assigned to them by a committee, not chosen by themselves.  Children and husbands were guests at an annual picnic, and members also conducted a book exchange. 

As their children grew older and social conventions less formal, Mothers Club members turned increasingly to literary and educational pursuits at their meetings.  Through charter memberships and reunions, nevertheless, they maintained the bonds between those who had joined the club as harried young mothers and left it as grandmothers.  Like today, shared understandings in challenging times sustained them.  Harriet Downing, the wife of WKU President Dero Downing, joined the club in 1952 and valued the friendships she made as much as the “many valuable lessons on motherhood” she absorbed from the programs.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections about mothers, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“It will make you feel warm for a while”

How are you de-stressing these days?

Sick, stressed, tired, anxious – these physical and mental states are all too common as we enter the second year of the 2020s.  What to do?  Self care takes many forms but, as generations of Kentuckians tell us, some of them never change. 

They can be as simple as Arthur Milem’s plan for decompressing when he returned to Covington after his World War I service in France.  “I am going to do nothing,” he declared in a letter to his girlfriend, “but eat and sleep for a month.”  For Bowling Green’s Sallie McElroy, worrying about her fiancee in Missouri and restlessly awaiting their marriage, her chronic headaches and blues could be relieved during the winter of 1858 with a walk along her beloved Drakes Creek.  There, this lover of nature found herself heartened at the thought of spring.  “Soon the birds will be warbling on every bough – the sweet flowers will awaken from their long, cold sleep, & the bright glad sunshine will play on the hilltops all day long!” she rhapsodized in her journal, the writing of which was itself a way of collecting her thoughts.

And who hasn’t felt invigorated after a long soak in the tub?  Even in 1830, when bath water came cold from the spring, Rebecca Condict wrote her sister-in-law Mary in Ohio County that a gentle dousing would work wonders.  “You must commence at your head,” she instructed.  “Put it on with your cloth or pour it on if you can stand it,” and “have some one to rub your back where you can’t rub.”  Even if bathing didn’t cure Mary’s ills, she counseled, “it will make you feel very warm for a while.”

Those desiring more formal therapy could, like WKU Director of Libraries Margie Helm, pursue a regimen prescribed by a professional.  In 1960, she received an encouraging letter from Dr. Edmund Jacobson, a director of Chicago’s Foundation for Scientific Relaxation, after she reported favorably on her progress in combatting fatigue, insomnia and social anxiety.  (In addition to Jacobson, who pioneered the techniques of progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback, the Foundation’s Board included meat and cold cut king Oscar Mayer – a nice example of synergy, comfort food lovers might say).

That the mind possessed its own healing powers was the belief of Virginia Edmunds, who in letters to her sister Laura in Barren County in the 1910s mentioned such up-to-date balms for the soul as yoga, meditation and holistic health.  Grateful for the “good Karma” that had settled upon her home in San Diego, she reflected on the wisdom of living in the moment.  “We have wished, at times,” she wrote, “for Aladdin’s lamp or for a magic ring, or for a rug on which we could be wafted away to lands of our heart’s desires.  Yet we all have a lamp and ring and rug – only, we do not use them.  The world is full of delights which are ours for the asking – but, we do not ask.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for collections containing these materials, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Better Days Ahead

St. Mihiel and the River Meuse

Like many of us at this time of year, he had to correct his typed letter by hand to change “January 5, 1918” to “1919.”  Mt. Olivet, Kentucky’s Howard Buckner had just moved to quarters on the outskirts of St. Mihiel, France, joining a long line of soldiers awaiting demobilization and return home following the end of World War I. 

Buckner and his detachment of 36 men and 3 officers found St. Mihiel inching toward recovery after four years of war.  About the size of Maysville in Buckner’s estimation, it had, he learned, been considered a “very fine place.”  But then came the occupying Germans, and repeated efforts by the French and British to retake the town.  Finally, the Americans had come along and recaptured it “in six hours,” according to Buckner.  The Yanks’ secret was their willingness to shell the town into submission, but Buckner insisted that far more damage had been done by the retreating Germans, and French families had continued to reside there throughout the war.

Nevertheless, Buckner and his men faced the immediate task of creating decent living quarters for themselves in the middle of the devastation.  Most of the “desirable ‘ruins,’” he explained, had already been taken, and “we got the ‘left-overs,’” which required the men to brush off their handyman skills.  But they had fixed up two houses, “with a stove in every room” and everything “nice and dry.”  Some of his men joked that “if their wife is cross and fussy with them upon their return home” they would be well accustomed to taking a blanket and curling up on the porch or in the woodshed.  They had yet to explore the town itself, but Buckner had heard rumors of normalcy: “lots of little stores, hotels and everything that goes to make up a real city.”  Rations were plenty, local delicacies were available to buy, and there was a YMCA with the possibility of “entertainment on tonight.”  Things were clearly looking brighter.

Buckner’s thoughts, however, were on home.  Rainy winter weather was setting in—the swelling River Meuse, he observed, resembled “the Ohio river during the 1913 flood”—and the men stood ready to depart “as soon as there’s a boat to carry us.”  Buckner declared to his family that he was determined to “be with you all again” and “do everything within my power to interest you and make things more pleasant.”  For now, he trusted that they would encounter “only the richest blessings” in the New Year. 

Howard Buckner’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Until this epidemic is over”

Flu fighter: Kentucky’s Dr. Joseph N. McCormack

A looming pandemic, its dangers made vivid by the closing of churches, schools and other places of assembly.  A ramped-up campaign of “warning and advisory literature.”  A frantic effort by federal and state authorities as well as local physicians and relief workers to suppress the spread of the disease, followed by some relaxing of quarantine restrictions.

Then, a series of “celebrations and similar festivities, during which all precautions and safeguards were thrown to the winds.”  A spike in cases, and renewed calls to reinstate closures.  But then, a vaccine, ready to be distributed to states and administered first to those most at risk.

So read the summary of Dr. Joseph N. McCormack, Secretary of the Kentucky State Board of Health, published in newspapers in December 1918.  The pandemic, of course, was influenza, and the super-spreader celebrations were the parties, parades and gatherings that marked the end of World War I.

The vaccine to which McCormack referred, one of many produced during the pandemic, had been developed by Dr. Edward C. Rosenow of the Mayo Foundation’s Division of Experimental Bacteriology.  After testing it on the staff of his own institution and concluding it was safe, he offered it free to physicians and hospitals, as long as they would return questionnaires reporting on its use and results. 

McCormack responded to Kentucky doctors who requested doses of the Rosenow vaccine with a letter outlining its ingredients, giving instructions (three inoculations, one week apart), and touting its successful use in the Army—and curiously, on policy holders of the Equitable Life Insurance Company and employees of Pittsburgh’s Homestead Steel Works.  The Kentucky State Board, he advised, endorsed the vaccine for use “by every person in Kentucky who is not certain that he or she has recently had influenza.”  McCormack’s colleague Dr. Lillian H. South, who had visited the Mayo Clinic to procure a half-million doses, had charge of distributing the vaccine from the State Board’s offices in Bowling Green. 

Despite Dr. McCormack’s eminence—he is now regarded as one of the most influential public health figures in Kentucky’s history—his letter showed that vaccine development and testing was still in its infancy.  For example, like other vaccines of the time, the Rosenow vaccine was made from what one historian has described as a “witches brew” of  bacteria isolated from dead and living patients, “heat-killed,” and added to an injectable fluid (compare to today’s COVID-19 vaccines, which do not contain the virus).  Vaccine studies, moreover, suffered from what our historian has termed selection bias, unequal exposure to risk, and inadequate data collection on outcomes.  (Rosenow’s requests for responses to his questionnaire, in fact, appear to have been largely ignored). 

The Rosenow vaccine was soon subjected to a somewhat more rigorous test involving the residents of a California asylum.  While still lacking many of the methods employed in today’s clinical trials—double-blind studies, placebos, and informed consent of subjects, to name a few—this study found the vaccine to be ineffective.  The confusion nevertheless brought a significant benefit, namely the initiation of a movement in the medical profession to devise proper standards for vaccine trials.

In the meantime, even Dr. McCormack understood that vaccines were not a panacea.  In his announcement given to newspapers that December, he admonished flu-ravaged Kentuckians in now-familiar terms:

1.  Keep away from all crowds of all kinds.
2.  Keep out of the sick room and away from houses with sickness, unless your services are needed.  Keep clean and wear a mask if you do go.
3.  Cover your cough or sneeze and keep away from people who do not.
4.  Keep away from dirty eating and soft drink houses.
5.  Have and do little visiting until this epidemic is over.

Dr. Joseph N. McCormack’s letter to physicians about the Rosenow vaccine is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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History in a Holiday Letter

Beulah Strong

Who wouldn’t have wanted to experience the artistic and cultural treasures of Europe in the company of Beulah Strong?  Born in 1866, the Massachusetts native studied art in Paris, then joined the faculty at Bowling Green’s Potter College for Young Ladies, where she taught art from 1892-1901.  After three years at Nashville’s Belmont College, she moved to Smith College, where she was an associate professor of art from 1907 until her retirement in 1923. 

After retiring, Miss Strong moved to Florence, Italy but still kept in close touch with her friends in Bowling Green.  Her holiday letter of December 2, 1933 showed how eagerly she had taken advantage of her proximity to Europe’s most charming destinations.  “Without taking any very long or distant trips” over the past year, she wrote, “I have had a number of small and pleasant ones.”  Small and pleasant indeed: there was the previous Christmas spent in Rome, “splendid and grand,” its vistas opened up by the cleaning up of the “mean streets.”  There was a tour of northern Italy – Pavia, Brescia, Cremona, Mantua and Parma – which she made sure not to visit at Lent because the altar-pieces in the churches would be covered up.  There was the great Franciscan monastery at La Verna, with its “precious” Della Robbia terracottas and “many picturesque nooks.”  Then, three weeks exploring the museums of Germany, with excursions to the cathedral at Bamberg, the Bavarian resort town of Tegernsee, and other “lovely little cities.”  And at home, there was gardening, concerts, and afternoons entertaining friends from the local expatriate American and English communities.

But as Depression and war loomed, ugliness was intruding upon all of this beauty.  Of immediate concern was the financial squeeze that jeopardized Miss Strong’s desire to make another holiday trip to Rome.  Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s efforts to prop up the lira were colliding with President Franklin Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar as part of his economic recovery plan.  For the time being, however, only FDR – “our dictator-president” – attracted Miss Strong’s ire for undercutting the purchasing power of her savings.

More unsettling were affairs in Germany.  Upon entering, Miss Strong had been required to disclose her money holdings – “just how much I was taking in and it was checked up as I came out.”  Even more ominous was the growing persecution of German Jews after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial powers earlier that year.  An elderly Jewish friend had asked Miss Strong to check on her family in Germany “and hear from their own lips how things were, as letters are censored, opened at the frontier.”  Some of the family had begun to experience the effects of laws excluding Jews from professions and civil service positions “and as these Government places were for life with a pension at the end, few of them saved much.”  Emigration, too, was increasingly difficult, given the restrictions on taking money out of Germany.  Still, Miss Strong remained more suspicious of Roosevelt’s fiscal policies, hoping he “won’t try that scheme! We should have to crawl home with our tails between our legs.”

Back in August 1914, while touring Europe with her mother, Beulah Strong had barely managed to secure passage back to the United States at the outbreak of World War I.  History seemed to repeat itself in 1940 when she returned again to the United States, leaving behind both the beauty and ugliness of her Italian sojourn. 

Beulah Strong’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Abe will be reelected”

Soldier William Ballew writes from Tennessee, 1864

It was November 12, 1864, and members of the 12th Kentucky Infantry were pondering the results of the presidential election held four days earlier.

Camped near Spring Hill, Tennessee, William Ballew wrote to friend Thomas Hopkins in Clinton County that his regiment had shown a strong preference for “Little Mac” – the nickname of President Abraham Lincoln’s challenger, Major General George B. McClellan.  Earlier, Lincoln had relieved McClellan of his command after becoming frustrated with his innate caution and failure to produce results on the battlefield.  Though popular with the average soldier, McClellan had run for president as the candidate of a Democratic Party hobbled by its split over what to do about the war.

While Pvt. Ballew himself was unsure which candidate would “be the best for the US,” he claimed access to a “decision desk” of his own, namely the votes of the African Americans in Nashville.  Five thousand of them, he reported, had “voted for abe.”  Ballew forecast “that if the election is carryed on every whare like it was in nashville that abe will be reelected for the negroes had the same privalege of voteing that the white man has.”

Ballew didn’t realize that what he had witnessed was only a mock election, conducted by a still-disenfranchised community demonstrating its intention to secure the “privalege” of the vote.  On Election Day, about 3,200 African Americans had assembled on College Street to participate in a symbolic poll that gave all but one of their votes to Lincoln.  The initiative came after a delegation of Tennessee freedmen returned from the National Colored Men’s Convention in Syracuse, New York determined to press their demands for equality and the abolition of slavery.  It turned out, of course, that their “votes” were prescient. While McClellan carried Kentucky, he secured only 45% of the national vote and lost the election to Lincoln.

William Ballew’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections relating to the Civil War and elections generally, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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