Tag Archives: Civil War

Four from Illinois

Henry Gardner describes the Battle of Stones River

Volunteering for Civil War service, three of the young men enlisted at Atlanta – but not with the Confederate Army, for this was Atlanta, Illinois, a tiny town about 45 miles from Springfield, where the fourth had enlisted.  Two of them served in the same regiment, and all probably knew each other.  Three wrote letters home to the same friend, a local farmer whom one entrusted with his pay and the settlement of some debts.  Three survived the war; the fourth did not.

Letters of these four from Illinois – Edgar Brooks, Henry Gardner, William Lawless, and Jefferson Sullivan – were recently loaned to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections for scanning and posting to TopSCHOLAR, our digital repository.  They give us a vivid glimpse of each writer’s experience of the war after he found himself thrust into the heart of Confederate America.

Serving with the 7th Illinois Infantry, Brooks and Lawless wrote from Tilton, Georgia and Corinth, Mississippi.  Brooks chronicled his movements in June 1862 through Tennessee, remarking on the fortifications, both natural and man made, around the embattled city of Chattanooga.  General William T. Sherman, he marveled, “had to fight over nearly all of this god forsaken Country.”  Confederate raiders were attacking the railroads and setting fire to nearby bridges; nevertheless, Brooks witnessed two or three trains “every day loaded with our wounded a going north and also two or three trains loaded with Rebel Prisoners.”  Two months later, his comrade Lawless reported from camp near Corinth of the same problem with “Gurillass” tearing up the tracks, but had resolved to take a risk and send his pay home on the train rather than “spend it and get sick on trash.”  He had mixed feelings about the handful of young men still at home, supposing they had stayed to get married and tend to their farms, but “if I was a girl I would not have them they should show their spunk first.”

William Lawless writes of guerrilla warfare

Though Gardner and Sullivan were not as literate as the other two, their letters were no less evocative.  Like Lawless, Sullivan was envious of the folks at home.  From Camp Stuart in Virginia, he worried that his wheat crop would fail—“if that is so I am Busted”—and that the local girls had forsaken all the young men who had gone off to war.  Then, some four months later, came Gardner’s letter, written early in January 1863 at Murfreesboro, Tennessee in the aftermath of the Battle of Stones River.  “I have just gon thro one of the moste terable Battle that has ever bin fought,” he told his father and sister.  He described at length the “mitey worke” of death across the broad battlefield: the hissing bullets, the “oful peals of the monster cannon,” the men with mangled limbs, and the bodies “tourn in peases” as Confederate forces ran into the “Blast of leade and hail” brought to bear by Union General William Rosecrans.  Despite some “clost escapes,” Gardner had not suffered “a marke of eny kind from my enemy.”  He would, however, die of wounds the following October, possibly suffered at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Click on the links to access finding aids, full-text scans and typescripts of these letters.  For more Civil War collections, browse here or 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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Closings and Reopenings

His letter written 158 years ago today showed the 22-year-old negotiating life in fits and starts. 

“People have not yet gained full confidence”

After graduating from New York’s Hamilton College in 1859, Hector Voltaire Loving had returned to his home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  For the next year, he confessed in a letter to a classmate, “I did nothing but run around and enjoy myself,” hoping that such leisure would allow him to “build up my health and strength.” 

Finally, Hector roused himself to begin law studies in Louisville, but at the close of the 1861 school year returned again to Bowling Green to find the city in turmoil.  Civil war was bearing down on Kentucky, “the public mind was very much excited,” and “discussions were growing very violent.”  The young man was repelled by the “storm of fanaticism and treason” and by “the secessionists in our midst, who sugar coated their treason with the euphonious title of ‘Southern Rights.’”  Despite growing intimidation by rebel troops who “strolled through our town” from military encampments across the Tennessee line, he had resolved to speak out against the “Secesh.”

After the Confederates occupied Bowling Green in September 1861, however, Southern sympathizers gained “unlimited license.”  Hector’s father, worried that his son would be forced into the ranks of the rebel army, had urged him to make his way back to Louisville and finish his law degree.  Hector succeeded, only to come home again early in 1862 just after “the evacuation of this place by the Rebels” had ended the occupation.  He was dismayed at the state of “my once beautiful town.”  Bowling Green was left “partially burned, many of the fences totally destroyed, almost all of the beautiful groves cut down, and the sidewalks and streets in a very filthy condition.” 

Fortunately, wrote Hector, a clean-up effort and some cleansing rains had now restored the city to “much of its former attractiveness.”  He had entered into partnership with an established lawyer and even gained appointment as the town’s attorney.  “I am in a position to do very well and enjoy myself when the war is over,” he declared, but was still conscious that “owing to the uncertain condition of affairs and the feverish excitement constantly prevailing people have not yet gained full confidence.”  Indeed, there was much to be resolved about the comeback.  The Confederates had been driven no farther away than Tennessee.  Hector’s own father, a prominent lawyer, legislator and judge, maintained enslaved labor on his farm.  And another of Hector’s Hamilton College classmates was back home in Bowling Green, too, planning to go North to law school despite being a “very violent ‘Secesh.’”

A finding aid and typescript of Hector V. Loving’s letter can be accessed by clicking here.  For more collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Slowing the Spread

A military encampment at Bowling Green: a challenge to “social distancing”

As we know, accompanying the usual physical sufferings from an outbreak of infectious disease are fear and uncertainty, rumors and half-truths, and a search for scapegoats.  Such was the case when the 119th U.S. Colored Infantry set up camp near Bowling Green, Kentucky in March 1866.  Most of its members were recruited from Lexington, and they comprised one of 23 such volunteer regiments organized in Kentucky between 1863 and 1865.  

Unfortunately, the 119th’s presence coincided with an epidemic of smallpox in the town.  This appears to have prompted a local newspaper to accuse the African-American troops of introducing or spreading the disease among the citizens.  Its editor seemed to have little evidence, however, being satisfied to attribute the contagion only to “careless Negro Soldiery.”

This casual condemnation rankled the detachment commander, Captain William T. Y. Schenck.  “What you mean by ‘careless Negro Soldiery’ I do not know,” he wrote the editor, inviting him “or any other person” to visit the camp and inspect it for order and cleanliness.  Just “a few inquiries,” he pointed out, would have revealed that “this disease had shown itself in town at least two weeks before we had a single case of it here.”  It seemed just as likely that his men had become infected by the local civilians, not the other way around.

Schenck then assured the editor that he had quickly taken steps to “flatten the curve” of infection.  Upon learning of the outbreak, he “had all the men vaccinated” and, with few exceptions, allowed no one to leave the camp, “not in fear of the disease being carried from here, as we had none, but if possible to keep it without the limits of this camp.”  Despite his efforts, about 20 of the men fell ill, but they were being isolated in a “secluded building” and the threat was now “very much on the decrease.”  He concluded with a request to the paper to print his response “in order to do justice before the public to me & my fellow officers.”

A finding aid and typescript for Captain Schenck’s letter can be downloaded here.  To browse Civil War collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

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“We had to turn out in full strength”

Claim form for victims of Morgan’s Ohio Raid

The surrender of Confederate cavalry leader John Hunt Morgan on July 26, 1863, marked the end of the “Great Raid,” his 18-day charge from Kentucky into Indiana that veered east into southern Ohio.  There was “a great scare here,” reported infantryman Aaron Stuver in a letter to his sister from Cincinnati, “and we had to turn out in full strength” as the state militia scrambled to defend the area against Morgan and his raiders. 

Morgan ultimately brushed past Cincinnati—“or we might have had an interview with the rebels,” wrote Stuver.  Splitting up his troops, he then caused havoc as he charged through southern Ohio ahead of a major battle in Meigs County, at Buffington Island on the Ohio River.  The largest Civil War engagement in Ohio, the battle memorably witnessed the death of Major Daniel McCook, one of fifteen in his family who saw service with the Union.  The patriarch of the “Fighting McCooks,” as they were known, was buried in Cincinnati after a large funeral in which four companies of Stuver’s regiment participated as escorts.  During the ceremonies, both enlisted men and officers, wrote Stuver, stood up to a soaking rain “like good soldiers.”  McCook, he observed, “was a Paymaster in the Army, and went voluntarily after Morgan, he was 60 years old.”

While the Great Raid accomplished little lasting good for the Confederates, it succeeded for a time in siphoning off Union forces from important offensive measures in east Tennessee.  It also caused fear and uncertainty among civilians in Indiana and Ohio, many of whom suffered loss and damage to property that had been seized by Morgan or otherwise caught in the crossfire.  Eight months later, the Ohio legislature created a commission to assess claims, and in April 1869 authorized the payment of compensation.  The final cost Morgan extracted for the Great Raid was the printing of special forms for “Morgan Raid Claims,” on which farmers like Asahel Skinner of Meigs County certified their losses.  Skinner received a total of $220 for two horses, bridles and other provisions, and for the death of a colt.

Aaron Stuver’s letter and Asahel Skinner’s damage claim from the Great Raid are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click on the links to access finding aids.  For more Civil War collections, click here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“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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