Tag Archives: Civil War

“O how horrible”

The town of Perryville, Kentucky, from Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 1, 1862

Everyone seems to agree that the most haunted town in Kentucky is Perryville, especially the Civil War field where, on October 8, 1862, some 7,600 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in a battle that ranked as the second bloodiest in the Western theater up to that date.

While some 36,000 troops actually fought each other, twice that number were in the area at the time.  One of the soldiers who narrowly missed the fighting was John H. Gray of the 101st Indiana Infantry, but his impressions of the battle’s gruesome aftermath can indeed make us think about the paranormal byproducts of such carnage.

Gray had arrived in Perryville exhausted and hungry, having subsisted for several days on virtually no rations.  He and his comrades had lived off handfuls of wet cornmeal fried in a skillet (“corn kake”) some “fat meat” of undetermined origin, and a “coffee pot full of honey,” said to have been bought but more likely stolen.  Gray’s constitution was not the only one to collapse on such a diet.  He found the road from Springfield to Perryville “well perfumed,” as many of the men “had the ‘quick step.’”  Gray himself, weak with diarrhea and vomiting, rode the last few miles in an ambulance.

As his regiment straggled into Perryville and collapsed to recuperate, Gray described the scene in two letters to his parents and siblings.  “The horrors of War are apparent everywhere,” he wrote.  He was particularly shaken at the sight of a “dead rebel this morning lying on the ground,” his face blackened with decay.  “O how horrible,” Gray exclaimed, “a man left upon the field to rot unknown & uncared for.”  Gray was “in a comfortable house attended by a good Doctor,” but all around him were other houses filled with wounded and dying men.  He visited two hospitals, one treating Confederates and the other Federals, and was appalled by the “awful agony the intense suffering and the inexpressible pain of the occupants.”  Those able to rise from their beds were “lame & wounded hobbling about as though this was a world of cripples.” 

Accompanying the men’s physical pain was mental anguish.  Gray spoke with Confederates who cried that they were tired of war, and were ready to vote to “lay down their arms and be as they were.”  Some of these men, no doubt, died with Gray’s sarcastic observation—lovely war—on their lips.  They may or may not haunt Perryville today, but they surely haunted the memories of the men, like Gray, who survived.

John Gray’s two letters written in the aftermath of the Battle of Perryville are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here and here for finding aids. For more Civil War collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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8th of August Emancipation Celebration

On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln placed pen to paper and wrote the following executive order,

The first page of the Emancipation Proclamation. Handwritten document.
The Emancipation Proclamation
(Courtesy of the National Archives)

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

As an authoritative wartime measure, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans who remained under control by the Confederate government in ten southern states—not including the “border states” and those already under Union occupation.

While the proclamation, which was contingent upon a Union victory, may have ignited a firestorm of criticism from white southern sympathizers and praise from anti-abolitionists, its implementation was slow to take root, especially in Texas.

Seceding from the United States on February 1, 1861, Texas became the fourth state admitted into the Confederacy. Throughout the course of the Civil War, slaveholders from eastern states, notably Arkansas and Louisiana, routinely brought slaves to Texas in order to avoid emancipation, which significantly increased the number of slaves across the state. When the Emancipation Proclamation was made official in 1863, however, it took nearly two and a half years before the order was enforced. While theories abound in order to explain this severe lag—ranging from murder to deliberate miscommunication—history itself is quite clear.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger and his troops landed on the beaches of Galveston Island and declared Texas under federal occupation. Granger read Lincoln’s executive order, thereby liberating the nearly 250,000 slaves living in Texas. “Juneteenth,” then, has come to be recognized as the “traditional end of slavery in Texas.” The day has become established as a state-recognized holiday, while other states may observe Juneteenth in other forms of ceremonial remembrance. The underpinnings of Juneteenth rest on the celebration of Black pride, solidarity, and cultural heritage.

Akin to Juneteenth festivities, the 8th of August is another emancipation-related holiday observed by African American communities in both western Kentucky and Tennessee. While the reasons for celebrating August 8th remain unclear, the lasting impact it has had on the region is decidedly obvious. Every year, the city of Paducah, Kentucky hosts its 8th of August Homecoming Emancipation Celebration. The Homecoming seeks to honor exceptional members of the African American community, both past and present, through memorial services, picnics, music performances, and church assemblies.

Program booklet for the 2008 8th of August Emancipation celebration
Program booklet for the 2008 8th of August Emancipation Celebration

WKU’s Manuscripts and Folklife Archives contains a collection (FA 635) of materials gathered together from Paducah’s 2008 8th of August Homecoming Emancipation Celebration titled “A Journey by Faith.” In his program introduction, Robert Coleman, President of the W.C. Young Community Center Board of Directors, writes,

“America’s struggle, rise, and triumph from slavery to equal rights for all is a living testament to the power of deep, personal faith for Americans of all colors. That deep well of faith from the darkest days of slavery sets the African American experience of religion apart.”

The program itself includes articles describing the accomplishments of distinguished members of the Black community, advertisements for local businesses and churches, and a schedule of the weekend’s events. The collection also contains photographs of the celebration, vendor information, business cards, and two interviews with James Dawson, a member of the First Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, that were recorded on digital videocassette tapes.

For more information on African American folklore, material culture, foodways, and achievements throughout the state of Kentucky and beyond, visit TopSCHOLAR or browse through KenCat, a searchable database featuring manuscripts, photographs, and other non-book objects housed in the Department of Library Special Collections! Post written by WKU Folk Studies graduate student Delainey Bowers

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Side by Side

As we have seen, Edward R. Weir, Sr. (1816-1891) of Greenville, Kentucky took an active role in advocating, arming and funding the Union cause during the Civil War.  His entire family, in fact, opposed secession.  Weir’s wife Harriet defiantly nailed the U.S. flag to a tree when Confederate Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner toured Muhlenberg County.  Weir’s daughter Anna helped raise volunteer home guards and made pocket needle-and-thread cases for soldiers’ kits.  Weir’s son Edward, Jr. served as an officer in two Kentucky infantry regiments, and saw action at Shiloh, Corinth, and Saltville, Virginia. 

But Edward Weir Sr. was also the owner of some 100 slaves, and therein lies the tale of another family.  Weir’s youngest son Miller (1859-1935) recalled the patriarch of this family, known as “Copper John.”  Copper John’s daughter Amy was Miller’s nurse and maid to his mother Harriet.  Amy’s four sisters also worked in the Weir mansion, the centerpiece of a 1,200-acre plantation. 

Four sisters, all servants in the Weir household

The sisters had two brothers, Silas and Jesse (or Jessey).  It was the latter who, as cook, manservant and companion, made Edward, Jr.’s life considerably more bearable after he entered military service.  Writing from Camp Calhoun in McLean County, Edward described his tent, a spartan but comfortable space.  “I have a grand time & live like a king all alone with Jessey,” he told his family. “I sleep on one side & Jessey on the other,” with a small stove for warmth.  His modest dinner table, with its tin cups and plates (and one china plate “for the Captain” as Jessey said), was evidently a source of pride and comfort for Edward.  Even when he was ill and out of sorts at Corinth, Mississippi, he boasted of Jessey’s culinary skills and his ability to make biscuits just as good as those back home.

Amy, maid to Harriet Weir and nurse to Miller Weir

With the exception of Amy, who died in Chicago, the later lives of the children of “Copper John” are unrecorded.  Edward Weir, Sr., however, praised the intelligence and resourcefulness of his former slaves; one became a missionary, another attended Oberlin College, and others became teachers.  And during the upheaval of the Civil War, he gratefully remembered, they “watched over me and mine, with a devotion which I shall never forget.”

The Weir Family Collection of letters and photographs is 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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The Generosity of Jeff

James F. Keel (1827-1883) and his father-in-law William C. Pool were enterprising Kentuckians whose business interests were concentrated in Edmonton, Kentucky, but also took them to Hart and Warren counties and to Nashville, Tennessee.  Late in July 1862, Keel, a Civil War partisan of “southern rights,” found himself in Nashville, undeterred by the city’s fall to Union forces the previous February.  “The excitement here,” he wrote his brother, “has quieted down again but how long it will continue no one knows.” 

Keel reported that the victorious Union troops were keeping a close eye on Confederates banished to the other side of the Cumberland River.  “The pickets converse with each other across the river every day,” he noted, “both armies having agreed not to shoot their pickets unless they should get into close quarters & attempt to escape.” 

The standoff, however, gave the two sides opportunities for some nineteenth-century-style trolling.  In one incident, a Union officer in need of a boat spied an unattended one on the rebels’ side of the river.  After making sure the coast was clear, he stripped and swam over to it.  Just as he began to row away, a voice ordered him to halt, come ashore “& partake of the hospitalities of Jeff Davis, which of course he had to do without a rag of clothes to hide his nakedness.”  The poor fellow had to convince his captors to send someone back under a flag of truce to retrieve his garments.

In another incident, Keel wrote, Confederate pickets called over to their Union counterparts with a friendly offer of “a little good whisky.”  To their surprise, it was accepted.  This time, two men stripped down, swam across the river for their reward, and were duly taken prisoner.  Again, they delivered a request for their clothing under a flag of truce, but this time their commanding officer “sent them word back to go to hell” for their foolishness.  For all he cared, they could “go naked for the balance of their lives.”  Keel concluded with satisfaction that these men would have no recourse but “to appeal to the generosity of Jeff to hide their posteriors.”

James Keel’s letter is part of the Howard and Anne Doll Collection in 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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“You will ask me, what is going on at Washington?”

Kentuckian Edward R. Weir, slaveowner and abolitionist

Lawyer, legislator and merchant Edward Rumsey Weir (1816-1891) was a prominent citizen and one of the largest slaveholders of Greenville, Kentucky.  In that contradictory fashion common to many Civil War-era Kentuckians, he was also an abolitionist and a supporter of the Union.  As the war approached, Weir was vocal in his animus toward secession.  But he would do much more, putting his time and money to work recruiting and equipping home guards to defend Muhlenberg County and helping to raise troops for the regular army. 

January 20, 1861 found Weir in Washington, D.C., just ahead of the admission of “bleeding Kansas” as the newest member of the fracturing United States.  Observing the tensions of the capital, he wrote his son Edward, Jr. of his impressions in terms we could apply today to the current impasse in its political culture.

After a quick look around, Weir pronounced Washington “a queer city,” its “acute angles,” “sharp ended houses & squares” and “streets that seem to go no where & end no where” guaranteed to mystify and frustrate the stranger.  Lodged at the famed Willard Hotel, Weir spied “six or eight Senators & fifteen or twenty members” of the House among his fellow guests.  Though they all appeared “quiet, orderly & sober,” they did not strike him as “men of commanding talent.”

Weir knew his son would be curious to know “what is going on at Washington,” but answered only “that the newspapers will keep you better advised” than anyone in the city.  There was, in fact, a strange silence on the subject of war: “No man would dream,” he wrote, “that the country was in a state of revolution, from the conduct and appearance of our public men.”  Only the occasional rants of  “some half drunken fellow” gave a clue that anything was wrong. 

Weir, sadly, concluded only “one thing – a peaceful separation is positively impossible.”  More than ever pledged to the cause of Union, he nevertheless feared for Kentucky’s future if his countrymen were to “kill off our friends in the North.”

Click here to download a finding aid for the Weir Family Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For other Civil War collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Hickman’s War

One of Lucy Ligon's Civil War correspondents

One of Lucy Ligon’s Civil War correspondents

If we have to die had we not better die together?”  That was the question members of the Parker family of Hickman, Kentucky asked each other in spring 1861.  Lucy Robbins, the recently widowed daughter of Josiah and Lucy Parker, was staying with her brother-in-law near Memphis, Tennessee, but her parents were desperate to have her and their young grandson come home.  Letters to Lucy, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, provide a vivid picture of lives upended by the Civil War.

At the outbreak of war, the Mississippi River town of Hickman was still recovering from a fire so destructive that it was seen from Cairo, Illinois, some 40 miles away.  But now Cairo itself posed the threat, with rumors of soldiers massing there to mount an invasion from the North.  Lucy’s father had heard of still more troops gathering at New Madrid, Missouri.  Caught between these two armies, Josiah Parker feared that Kentucky “will again become the dark and bloody ground.”  Lucy’s mother wrote of the anguish of Hickman’s women: watching in fear as their husbands and sons chose sides and enlisted, many had packed up their households and were ready to “go to woods” if the enemy should appear.  “O what shall we do pray to god for our country,” she cried.

Each successive letter from home told Lucy of the war’s shadow over her family.  Her father, a local judge, lost his livelihood when the legislature temporarily suspended the courts.  Her brother Matthew joined the Union Army (and would die in service), even as some of his neighbors cast their lot with the Confederates.  Nevertheless, some of the town’s young women, including Lucy’s sister Lockey, refused to take a furlough from the marriage market and continued to preen in new dresses and bonnets whenever they could get them from places like St. Louis.  Lucy herself returned to Hickman in 1863, where she contemplated remarrying.  When she asked her dead husband’s brother for advice, he was clear: NO secessionists.  Having been financially generous with Lucy as long as she was widowed, Curtis Robbins declared that his continued support would be jeopardized if she allowed a Rebel to raise his brother’s child.

Lucy, however, didn’t listen.  Not only was he a Rebel, but her new husband, George J. Ligon, served under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and was severely wounded at Harrisburg, Mississippi.  If this condemned Lucy in the eyes of her brother-in-law, another young man who had worked for him and who remained Lucy’s friend was more forgiving.  Writing to her in 1864 during his Union Army service, he expressed regret that Lucy’s husband had been “crippled”; “I guess he is in the Southern army”—but, he shrugged, “you know it is all the same to me.”

A finding aid for family letters to Lucy (Parker) Ligon can be accessed here.  For more Civil War collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The End Approacheth”

Portion of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Portion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

The sun rose on Independence Day, 1863, to find the Confederate States of America reeling from two disastrous engagements at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

From Pennsylvania, Charles Pennypacker wrote to his cousin Ellen Fort in Todd County, Kentucky, that his fellow citizens had “rallied as one man” to defend the state against General Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate army.  July 1, the first day of battle at Gettysburg, “was but a repetition of ‘Shiloh,’” and on the next day Lee “hurled columns after columns of troops upon our lines.”  But on July 3, Charles reported proudly, “their whole army was in full retreat” toward Richmond and “we begin to see that ‘the end approacheth.’”

Like many tide-turning battles, Gettysburg left military historians asking “what if?”  In particular, how much blame did Lieutenant General James Longstreet deserve when, on the second day of battle, he delayed executing an early-morning assault that could have given the Confederates the upper hand?  Was Longstreet, who had made clear his disagreement with Lee over tactics, merely tardy, or was he insubordinate or even treasonous?

Confederate veteran J. W. Anderson looked forward to discussing the issue with a former comrade at their 1905 reunion in Louisville, Kentucky.  A defender of Longstreet, who he occasionally saw after the war, Anderson insisted that the relations between General Lee and his subordinate commander were “always of the most cordial manner.”  But a century later, the question still bothered Laban Lacy Rice, a Webster County, Kentucky native, polymath, and former president of Cumberland University.  In 1967, he sought the opinion of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “an expert who knows Gettysburg as I know my back yard.”

Replying from his farm, where he lived in retirement near the battlefield, Eisenhower concluded that Gettysburg had been “a succession of frustrations” for General Lee, and that his decisions could not be adequately examined in a short letter.  Nevertheless, Eisenhower judged Longstreet’s failure to attack early on July 2 as “his worse error of the battle.”  As for Pickett’s Charge, the ill-fated assault on July 3 named after one of Longstreet’s generals, Eisenhower did not think it could have been successful at any time during that day.  As Charles Pennypacker observed, “the end” had approacheth.

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

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“Covered with Carnage”

Early in the morning of Sunday, April 6, 1862, Confederate soldiers surprised an encampment of troops under Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh Meeting House, two miles inland from Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.  Thus began the Battle of Shiloh, a clash that would shock the nation with its nearly 24,000 casualties—making it the costliest battle in American history up to that time.  Among those killed was Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.  The previous fall, Johnston had set up headquarters in occupied Bowling Green, Kentucky, and his name is now associated with the fortification that once occupied the Hill on WKU’s campus.

General Albert Sidney Johnston

General Albert Sidney Johnston

One of the witnesses to the destruction at Shiloh was Jacob W. Davis of McLean County, Kentucky.  After suffering the loss of his wife, the disconsolate farmer had left his small daughter in the care of his brother George and enlisted in the Union Army.  In a letter to George written a few days after the battle, Davis reported hearing the “roar of cannon” that Sunday from his camp nearby.  The next day, as Davis’s company waited to cross the Tennessee River, the battle resumed with “uncommon fury. . . and raged with all terror that can be imagined for it cannot be described.”

Finally, Davis crossed the river on Tuesday and surveyed the battle scene.  The ground “was covered with carnage,” and he was sickened “at the awful sight of men & horses in confused heaps putrifying together.”  He estimated the losses on both sides to be in the thousands, and learned from comrades that the recent battle at Fort Donelson “was nothing to this.”  Small gangs of Confederates remained in the area, he reported, shooting stragglers from the Union side and mutilating their bodies.

Despite the horrors, Davis cast his mind back home to his deceased wife Katherine and their small child.  “If heaven so wills that I never get back,” he wrote George, he was to place a proper headstone on Katherine’s grave and “take special care” of “poor little Ada.”  Those duties would indeed fall to George, as Jacob now lies buried in Shiloh National Cemetery.

J. W. Davis gravestone, Shiloh National Cemetery

J. W. Davis, Shiloh National Cemetery

Jacob Davis’s letter is part of the Manuscripts and Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid and typescript can be downloaded here.  For more collections relating to the Battle of Shiloh, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.  Click here to browse all of our Civil War collections.

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Mrs. Hoffman

Mary Hoffman's Confederate service

Mary Hoffman’s Confederate service

If it wasn’t for her five children, perhaps she would have tried to enlist, disguised as a man.  Although Mary Elizabeth Hoffman never joined the unique ranks of such warriors, she didn’t allow her sex to defeat her personal crusade on behalf of the Confederacy.

Born in Boyle County, Kentucky in 1825, Mary saw her husband William, a son, and three brothers enter Confederate service during the Civil War.  At home in Cynthiana, Mary jumped into the fray, delivering food, messages, aid and comfort to local rebels.  Though auburn-haired and fair-skinned, she often managed to pass through Union lines posing as an African American.  When some Confederate soldiers at a nearby hotel were cut off from their command and in danger of capture, Mary secured their horses, removed the incriminating weapons and uniforms from their saddle bags, and with the help of another Southern sympathizer later reunited the gear with its owners.

In April 1862, Mary resolved to head south to check on the welfare of her soldier menfolk, an undertaking that involved passing through numerous blockades and towns under martial law.  With a stash of letters concealed in her clothing, she was denied a pass at Chattanooga, but wagered the commandant in charge that she would get through anyway.  She did, by way of a midnight boat trip and a mule ride over mountainous terrain.  When she arrived at her husband’s camp, she spent several months ministering to his wounded comrades.  On the way back, she earned a pass from the commandant she had outwitted on the trip down.

In February 1863, however, Mary was arrested in Lexington and detained by the federals.  Once again, she donned a disguise, climbed out a second-story window, and escaped.  The Yankees caught up with her again and sent Mary and her husband, now discharged from service, north of the Ohio River where they would presumably make less trouble.  They were eventually paroled and returned to Cynthiana, where Mary’s husband met an early death after an altercation with a Union soldier and Mary, who died in 1888, would be remembered as a determined soldier of the South.

Click here to link to a collection describing the exploits of Mary Hoffman, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to browse all of our Civil War collections, or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Dog’s Life (Part 2)

George Messer's letter

George Messer’s letter

When we last saw Civil War soldier George Messer in May 1863, the Illinois volunteer was at Camp Hobson (formerly Camp Joe Kelly) near Glasgow, Kentucky.  He was grumbling about “dog tents,” two-man canvas shelters no better suited for canines than humans.  Man’s best friend also gets a mention in another of Messer’s letters, recently added to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Writing two months earlier to his wife Lottie, Messer had been somewhat more content.  Despite the cold temperatures of early spring, he was feeling well, had put on weight, and was hopeful that the war would end soon.  He described the dramatic changes made to the local countryside by Union troops seeking to protect their position from surprise attack.  “Timber around our camp it is to be cut off clean for five hundred yards all around,” he explained, “and five hundred more to be cut down and left lay.”  So thick was the coverage of trees and brush “that when it is cut down you could not shove a dog through it backwards.”

His comrades on picket duty reminded Messer of “cows on a stormy wet day,” when they would “put their backs to the storm and turn up one side of their heads to try and shun as much of it as possible.”  Nevertheless, the sentries had some fun with a lieutenant who had returned from town without his military pass, resulting in his brief incarceration in the guard house.  Messer noted with satisfaction that such “Shoulder Strap gentlemen” were granted no easier passage than a private when they ventured outside of camp.  In his “dog tent” letter, he had also expressed little affection for these epaulette-bedecked officers and their habit of grabbing credit for “great exploits” that were in fact the work of the common soldier.

Click on the links to access finding aids and typescripts of George Messer’s letters.  Click here to browse our Civil War collections, or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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