Tag Archives: Civil War

A Confederate Rail-Splitter

Alexander Morse's letter from Bowling Green

Alexander Morse’s letter from Bowling Green

Our collection of Bowling Green-related Civil War resources in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections continues to grow with the addition of an 1861 letter of Confederate cavalryman Alexander P. Morse.

Camped near Bowling Green, Morse, a member of the First Louisiana Cavalry, tells his father of the influx of some 20,000 Southern forces to the area, with another 15,000 in striking range.  “We see nobody but soldiers, and nothing but guns & ammunition,” he wrote from his perch on a “well graduated hill.”  Despite the prevalence of measles among the men, he was “as well and hearty as a buck,” chopping wood with “as much ‘sang froid’ as Abe Lincoln or any other rail splitter,” and catching sleep on a mattress not yet consigned to the sick.

Although he noted that a force of Texas Rangers was attempting to engage Union troops at Green River, Morse was more excited by his dinner conversation with a fellow Louisianan who had witnessed the Battle of Belmont near Columbus, Kentucky.  Over a “great treat” of a meal, Lieut. Col. Daniel Beltzhoover showed Morse the sword he used in the fight, cut through with a minie ball just as he drew it.

An interesting postscript: After the war, Morse became a prominent lawyer.  One of his clients was Louisiana Judge John H. Ferguson, the defendant in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation laws until overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education.  Morse’s principal contribution to legal scholarship, a treatise on the meaning of the phrase “natural-born citizen,” is best left to discussion in other blogs.

Click here to access a finding aid and typescript of Alexander Morse’s letter, and here to browse our Civil War collections.  For more of our manuscript collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Woman’s View of the Fight

Union and Confederate letterheadsIn Kentucky, the imminent breakup of the Union in 1861 and the approach of civil war sparked lively intra-family debates.  In the Brown Family Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, a transcribed letter to Charles Ewing Nourse (the Browns were his in-laws) from his older sister Sarah (“Sally”) Doom, the wife of a Nelson County tanner, eloquently shows her struggle to make sense of the war.

Was it a purely political question of states’ rights, Sally wondered, versus an intrusive federal authority?  “I cannot,” she wrote, “look upon the disruption of the most glorious Government that man ever saw, with any sympathy or pleasure.”  The whole, she believed, was greater than the sum of its parts, and the initial secession of South Carolina would lead to “the privilege of all to secede into innumerable petty states which can and will be overthrown and enslaved by any Foreign power that may desire it.”  Insisting that she was “very green to try to talk politics,” Sally nevertheless declared that “if I were a man I would devote myself to my country (if I had the sense).”

But she wanted to dig deeper into the matter.  “We ought to weigh the thing better than we have,” she continued.  To those claiming that secession would remedy the current crisis, and that it was worthwhile to “throw away” the benefits of a federal government, she cut to the chase:

Could I believe the South were actuated by noble feelings, I could sympathize with them.  But the grand moving object of ‘our noble progenitors’ is the survival of the African slave trade . . . in my opinion the most degrading, despicable occupation a people could engage in.

Click here to access a finding aid for Sally’s letter.  For more collections on the Civil War and slavery, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.  Click here to browse a list of our Civil War collections.

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Tearing Up the Roads

Minute obstacles can cause huge delays when moving armies.  If anyone doubts this, they need only see how a small accident or distraction can stymy traffic on a major interstate.  During wars, strategic transportation routes are often heavily reconnitored or destroyed in order to impede an army’s progress.  In Kentucky roads and railroads were of major importance for moving troops and supplies during the Civil War, particularly in the interior.  Steamboats were more significant on the Commonwealth’s perimeters.

A Civil War era illustration from Frank Leslie's.

A Civil War era illustration from Frank Leslie’s.

In a letter recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives unit of the Department of Library Special Collections, Confederate J.J. Williams writes to his wife Emeline about how the southern army had played menace with the Louisville and Nashville railroad, which had only recently been completed through Bowling Green.  To disable the railroad, Williams wrote, “our men had torn up the rail road some 5 or 6 miles and Blowed up the tunnel and burnt the ties[,] beat the rails to pieces with a Sledg[e].”  They wreaked further havoc by blockading the Louisville and Nashville road “by cutting the trees a cross it for a bout 3 miles and Some other Place they have plowed up the road so they can not haul a thing a long it.” To see the finding aid for this small collection and a typescript of the letter, click here.

To search finding aids for hundreds of other Civil War letters in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives unit, click here.

The salutation of J.J. Williams' letter to his wife, 13 January 1862.

The salutation of J.J. Williams’ letter to his wife, 13 January 1862.

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Fortress Bowling Green

When Union troops arrived in Bowling Green, Kentucky in February, 1862 after a 5-month-long Confederate occupation, they found a town stripped of its timber, livestock and foodstuffs, its railroad depot set afire, its Barren River bridges destroyed, its secessionist sympathizers in flight, and its Northern sympathizers relieved but still apprehensive at the sight of another occupying force.

Bowling Green defenses, 1863

Bowling Green defenses, 1863

Despite the destruction, the troops also found a daunting array of Confederate fortifications.  Bowling Green, at the confluence of road, rail and river routes into the South, was considered a prize by both sides, and the defenses constructed during their occupation had emboldened the Confederates.  We “are too well fixed for the Yankees to come here,” Tennessee volunteer James McWhirter boasted to his sister.  “If they ever come we will give them a genteel whipping.”

The Confederates, nevertheless, had evacuated without a major clash ever taking place, a stroke of luck that left the Union forces relieved.  “I don’t think it would pay them to attack this place from the looks of the forts around here,” Erasmus Shull wrote his aunt.  Lieutenant Colonel George Jouett was similarly impressed, calling Bowling Green a “city of fortifications.”  The College Hill fort was “an almost unapproachable fortress,” he wrote his mother, and Baker Hill is “quite as strong and perfect.”  Ohio infantryman George Jarvis notified his family of “a glorious but bloodless victory” that “gives us possession of one of the strongholds of this state.”

Accounts of the war came to describe fortified Bowling Green as the “Gibraltar of Kentucky.”  Two of the above letters, however, confirm that this was a contemporary characterization, even if the correspondents were a little unsure of their spelling.  George Jouett found Bowling Green a “Gibralter which could not be taken by assault,” and George Jarvis agreed that “in fact it is the Gibralter of Kentucky.”  Only lack of supplies, illness, and setbacks elsewhere (losses at Mill Springs and Fort Henry, and pressure at Fort Donelson) had convinced the Confederates to withdraw before a serious test of its defenses.

These letters about Bowling Green’s Civil War fortifications are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click on the links to access finding aids, and click here to browse a list of our Civil War collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Passage to India

Benjamin Covington Grider; Edwin Barter's letter

Benjamin Covington Grider; Edwin Barter’s letter

The acquaintance of Edwin Barter and Colonel Benjamin Covington Grider of Bowling Green dated back to the first year of the Civil War, during Grider’s command of the Union’s 9th Kentucky Infantry.  When Grider next heard from him, Barter had left his home in England to pursue the cotton and coffee trade in India.

In an August, 1865 letter from Madras Province, Barter observed that America had finally turned a page.  “The war for Southern rights is well nigh over, and ‘subjugation’ ‘Coercion’ and ‘precipitation’ are words buried,” he declared.  Now it was time to “count the cost” of “3/4 century’s folly and vice.”  Barter had heard that a local judge was out to get Robert E. Lee, but couldn’t imagine Americans being vindictive toward the Confederate general.

Once in India, however, Barter struck a more mercenary tone toward its brown-skinned inhabitants.  Regarding them with an air of superiority common to many in the West, he likened them to primitives who “draw water from the well and cook their simple food after the same style as their ancestors who lived before Britain was known to the Romans.”  He scorned the natives at length as mendacious, lacking in “go-a-headativeness,” and seemingly immune to attempts to introduce them to the benefits of Christianity and European civilization.  India, he remarked, has “180 million of inhabitants who are governed by 3 or 4 hundred thousand Britains [sic] who exile themselves for a certain number of years, never, or very seldom indeed, permanently settling in the Country, but ever looking forward to the day when they will have pocketed enough to turn their faces towards home.”  Barter described his own prospects as good, but agreed that he was not “at home.”  “How long residence?” he asked tersely–wondering, perhaps, about the political costs awaiting Britain in three-quarters of a century.

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

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Memorial Civil War Sheet Music

U. S. Park Ranger explains that this is the true grave of the boy honored by the song.

U. S. Park Ranger explains that this is the true grave of the boy honored by the song, Memorial Day 2015.

By Associate Professor Sue Lynn McDaniel, Library Special Collections

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the Shiloh National Cemetery located on the Shiloh Battlefield within our national park. Our ranger took us to the grave of the young boy commemorated in a rare piece of sheet music which we hold in Library Special Collections. The title is “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.”  She told us that immediately following the Civil War, another boy was mistakenly named as the soldier about whom the song had been written and he did not correct the general public, but instead enjoyed the publicity. The lyrics tell that the drummer boy died on the battlefield.  Later, historians researching Shiloh identified J. D. Holmes to be its true soldier hero.

WKU’s Library Special Collections has over one hundred war songs in its 4228 pieces of sheet music.  In our collection of Civil War ballads, WKU has nine titles by Will S. Hays of Louisville, Kentucky, including “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.”  Although a Unionist who was publishing titles like “The Union forever, for me!” and “Sherman and his gallant boys in blue” through a Louisville publishing house during the Civil War, Hays wrote many lyrics between 1861 and 1865 which stirred the heart strings of Yankees and Rebels.  A good example is “I am dying, Mother, dying.”  During the two day battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, more Americans died in combat than the total of all wars to that date.  It was the first of many Civil War battles with unthinkable numbers of casualties.

J. D. Holmes, the Drummer Boy of Shiloh

J. D. Holmes, the Drummer Boy of Shiloh

This beautiful ballad, dedicated to Miss Annie Cannon of Louisville, reads:

“On Shiloh’s dark and bloody ground, The dead and wounded lay;  Amongst them was a drummer boy, Who beat the drum that day.  A wounded soldier held him up His drum was by his side; He clasp’d his hands,  then rais’d his eyes, And prayed before he died.

Look down upon the battle field, ‘Oh, Thou our Heavenly Friend!  Have mercy on our sinful souls!’ The soldier’s cried ‘Amen!’ For gathered ’round a little group, Each brave man knelt and cried; They listened to the drummer boy, Who prayed before he died.

‘Oh, mother,” said the dying boy, ‘Look down from heavn on me, Receive me to thy fond embrace — Oh, take me home to thee.  I’ve loved my country as my God; To serve them both I’ve tried.’ He smiled, shook hands — death seized the boy Who prayed before he died.

Each solder wept, then, like a child —

Kentuckian Will S. Hays wrote numerous Civil War songs.

Kentuckian Will S. Hays wrote numerous Civil War songs.

Stout hearts were they, and brave; The flag his winding — sheet — God’s Book The key unto his grave.  They wrote upon a simple board These words; ‘This is a guide To thoses who’d mourn the drummer boy Who prayed before he died.’

Ye angels ’round the Throne of Grace, Look down upon the braves, Who fought and died on Shiloh’s plain, Now slumb’ring in their graves!  How many homes made desolate — How many hearts have sighed — How many, like that drummer boy Who prayer before they died!

Our sheet music collection includes more than 118 pieces of music published by composer & lyricist William Shakespeare Hays; many of them from Louisville, Kentucky publishing companies.  To learn more about historic sheet music at WKU, please visit kencat.wku.edu


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A Stormy Inauguration

Lyrics sung to the tune "Yankee Doodle" alluded to the pre-inauguration plot against Lincoln (SC 2264)

Lyrics sung to the tune “Yankee Doodle” alluded to the pre-inauguration plot against Lincoln (SC 2264)

Prior to 1937, Inauguration Day for U.S. presidents was March 4.  On that day in 1861, there was great excitement, but also grave uncertainty.  Abraham Lincoln took office at a time of national crisis, with the South in the midst of secession and Lincoln himself the recent subject of a rumored assassination plot.  Soon after his swearing-in, tensions only escalated with the attack on Fort Sumter and the secession of Virginia in April.

Collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections afford a glimpse at the mixed emotions the new president elicited from Americans.  In August, a letter to Barren County, Kentucky merchant Wade Veluzat from a Lincoln voter denied that either he or his candidate were abolitionists.  “But,” he wrote, “if the people of the South will make war on us because we vote for whom we please for President, then let it come.”  In September, a defiant secessionist in Russellville, Kentucky took up the challenge in a letter sent to Ohio.  “We are not afraid of the Lincoln Negro Party, we say whip us if you can.”

Four years later, Lincoln’s first-term record drew a similarly wide range of comment.  As we have previously seen, Bevie Cain of Breckinridge County had nothing but scorn for supporters of the President’s “wicked unwise rule.”  She dared a Unionist friend to “just tell me one item of good that his reign has accomplished or will accomplish.”  An Indiana man was on the other side of the fence, finding Lincoln to be, in fact, insufficiently radical.  He expected, nevertheless, to vote for the reelection of “old Abe,” observing presciently that he “is a good honest man, and has already said and done enough to make his name famous among the friends of universal Liberty everywhere and for all time.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more on Lincoln, presidents and presidential inaugurations, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Who is living and dead”

Nancy Wier's letter in search of family, 1865

Nancy Wier’s letter in search of family, 1865

It was the plaintive appeal of a woman displaced by war.  In 1865, Nancy Wier wrote from Webster County, Kentucky to the postmaster at Danville, Virginia.  A native of the area, Nancy had lost touch with her family after the outbreak of hostilities.  Her husband, a Confederate soldier, had been imprisoned at Camp Douglas, Illinois, where he died of smallpox.  Left with four children, Nancy had been teaching school but “my troubles are very great,” she explained to the postmaster.  “I wish to know who of my relatives and friends are living,” she wrote, naming her sisters, her “old father” and her brothers, who she hoped might come and “spend the last of their days with me.”

Fortunately, three years later Nancy had not only reestablished contact with her siblings, she had remarried and her children had begun lives of their own.  Nevertheless, her mother’s radar was intact.  “I can never get weaned from my children,” she wrote a sister.  “Bettie lives 18 miles from me Sarah five Virginia two and a half William ten he often comes to see me they come as often as they can.”  Equally strong was her desire to maintain contact with those lost to her during the war.  She agreed with her brother that even “if we never can see each other we must try to keep up correspondence.”  Having found out “who is living and dead,” she was determined not to loosen the ties again.

Nancy Wier’s letters and those of other family members are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here and here to access finding aids.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Thinking Man Laments

Jason Wiltse and his diary

Jason Wiltse and his diary

“Another Christmas Day has come. . . .  One year ago today we were at Bowling Green Kentucky and at picket duty,” noted Jason Wiltse in his diary on December 25, 1863.  A corporal with the 23rd Michigan Infantry, 20-year-old Wiltse had spent the past year on a tour of duty that took him through Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.  On his long marches, he observed the weather, local geography, timber, crops, road conditions, and the fortunes of his fellow soldiers as they endured heat, cold and dust, and skirmished with the Confederates.

Crossing from Clinton County, Kentucky into Tennessee, Wiltse found himself marching through the Cumberland Mountains over rough roads before arriving at Jamestown, “mostly desolate & forsaken.”  Approaching London, Tennessee, his company “commenced drawing rations of green corn, 3 ears per day for a man.”  But he wrote with satisfaction in September that “East Tennessee, long considered impenetrable by any considerable force, has been penetrated by a large army, with wagon trains and artillery, and the country is now in our possession and the loyal inhabitants relieved of the tyranny of a desperate enemy.”

The enemy, of course, was not quite vanquished, and in November 1863, Wiltse wrote, “we halted to give them battle” at Campbell’s Station.  Enduring a “murderous fire,” he and his men “lay flat upon the ground for a long time,” the attack “sending some of our comrades to eternity”: one shot through the shoulder “and probably through the heart,” another through the cheek, and another wounded in the left knee, requiring an amputation the next day.  They withdrew from the field “obliged to leave the dead unburied, though not unmourned.”  Wiltse found the battle “a terrible example of the mad passions of man,” a sight to “make a thinking man lament more deeply, if possible, the terrible condition of a once happy country.”

Corporal Jason Wiltse’s diary, recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library, is available to interested researchers.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more Civil War collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Economics of War

Henry McLean's commutation money receipt, 1864

Henry McLean’s commutation money receipt, 1864

“A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” was the often-heard complaint of military draftees during the Vietnam War.  But the cry was also raised during the Civil War, after the Enrollment Act, passed in March 1863, established a quota system for drafting men into the Union Army from each Congressional district.

The most unpopular parts of this unpopular law were its exemptions, and in particular the provisions allowing draftees to procure a substitute, or simply to avoid service by paying the government a $300 fee.  The logic behind “commutation” money was that it would not only raise funds for the war effort but keep the cost of hiring a substitute below what it cost to exempt oneself entirely.  Still, the fee (equivalent to about $5,500 today) was no small sum for the farmers, laborers and clerks who found themselves called to war.

Nevertheless, when Henry J. McLean was drafted on May 13, 1864, he quickly paid over his $300 at Owensboro, Kentucky and was issued a receipt which, according to section 13 of the Enrollment Act, discharged him from further liability under the draft.  He might have considered himself lucky, for in July the federal government eliminated the commutation fee option, effectively removing the ceiling on the price of a substitute to serve in a draftee’s place.

Henry J. McLean’s commutation money receipt is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other collections relating to compulsory military service, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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