A conflicted city within a conflicted slave state, Louisville, Kentucky assumed a critical role (especially during the early war years) in the Union military's presence in the western theater. Yet, as major city studies go, it's remained comparatively underappreciated in the literature, with the last scholarly treatment dating from the early 1960s. Bryan Bush's new book Louisville and the Civil War: A History & Guide is a brief, but comprehensive, look at the Ohio River town's wartime experience.
Bush traces Louisville's early involvement as a conduit for the secret (or not so secret) Lincoln administration plan to smuggle arms to pro-Union volunteers. The hand the Speeds (Joshua and James) played in this scheme is chronicled*. Once Kentucky's "neutrality" was finally abolished, Louisville was transformed into a vital logistical base and assembly point for a rapidly growing Union army. The author documents the passage of a number of units through Louisville, and their stay at one of the many camps ringing the city.
With the 1862 Confederate invasion, Louisville was put on a more localized war footing, with citizens drafted into militia organizations and constructing hasty defenses. The city served as the place of concentration for the burgeoning army that General Don Carlos Buell used to ultimately expel the Confederate forces from the state. Guerrilla warfare also swirled in the countryside surrounding Louisville, even penetrating the city limits on occasion. Bush details the harsh Union response, characterized by the killing of regular Confederate prisoners in retaliation for Unionist civilian and military deaths at the hands of guerrillas.
The post-war period is also discussed. Martial law and frequent lawless behavior by U.S. soldiers in the streets of Louisville led to resentment among citizens of all political stripes. Such actions, along with racial strife, contributed to a resurgent public role for ex-Confederates.
The book is not a guide in the traditional sense of providing discrete tour stops and directions. Locations of important places and events are instead sprinkled throughout the narrative. An archival map of the city, a B&W reproduction of the beautiful full color plate from the O.R. atlas, exhibits an exceptional amount of period detail, but a labeled modern map or two would really help the modern reader locate the many points of interest mentioned in the text. An appendix provides some information about the general location of known forts and camps associated with Louisville.
Heavily illustrated, Louisville and the Civil War is an attractive survey of a wartime city. It should prove to be a useful introductory tool for local history enthusiasts, but it also has enough detail to attract the attention of serious students of the western theater. Recommended.
* - Undoubtedly, readers can learn more about this relationship from Bush's recent book Lincoln and the Speeds: The Untold Story of a Devoted and Enduring Friendship (Acclaim Press, 2008).
* Lee in the Lowcountry: Defending Charleston & Savannah 1861-1862
* South Carolina Military Organizations During the War Between the States: Statewide Units, Militia & Reserves
* Andover in the Civil War: The Spirit & Sacrifice of a New England Town
* Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation