[Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase by Berry Craig (University Press of Kentucky, 2014). Casebound hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:294/365. ISBN:978-0-8131-4692-8 $45]
In recent decades, regional studies have comprised one of the high points of Civil War scholarship. Among of the most useful are those examining Upper South and Border State political divides. Until this year, the Jackson Purchase of Kentucky has not been the subject of this brand of specialized attention. While Dan Lee's The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862 (2014) edged out Berry Craig's Kentucky Confederates in the race to be the first to hit the presses, the latter possesses superior scholarship*. A large expanse of western Kentucky stretching south to the border with Tennessee and bounded on its west, north, and east sides by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers, the Jackson Purchase was by far the state's most pro-Confederate section, so much so that it was sometimes referred to as the "South Carolina of Kentucky."
Just what factors led men and women to support the Confederacy has been a burgeoning field of scholarly inquiry, and Border State citizens like those of Kentucky have been popular study subjects. Readers of this relatively new body of literature will not be too surprised to learn of the reasons why residents of the Purchase sympathized so strongly with the Confederacy. Craig is surely correct to emphasize the geographic isolation of the Purchase from the rest of the state as a key factor in the creation of its unique regional identity within the Kentucky body politic. With lateral communications impeded by the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, but direct rail links to the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Mobile, and New Orleans, Purchase commerce was more tightly bound to the South than the rest of Kentucky and the states of the Old Northwest. Emigration followed the same isolated pattern of southern influence, with the influx from West Tennessee predominating. In politics, unlike the rest of Kentucky, the Whigs were weak and Southern Democrats strong in the Purchase. Craig also cites Alan Bearman's research into the role played by religion, with pro-slavery evangelical Protestant churches (frequently led by southern pastors) spread throughout the region. The direction slavery was moving also shaped the attitudes of the populace. While slave ownership was lower in the Purchase than in the Bluegrass, it was growing there while waning elsewhere [Craig cites historian Patricia Hoskins's figure of a 41% increase in Purchase slave population during the 1850s]. Together, these elements offer a compelling explanation for the Purchase's uniquely pro-Confederate flavor.
The description of Kentucky Confederates rather downplays its military aspects, but for the topics it does cover — primarily the conflicts over possession of the strategically important river towns of Columbus and Paducah — it does so extensively and quite well. Craig's detailed chronicling of heightened tensions in Columbus during both the uneasy neutrality period and the build up of the fortified bastion of Columbus as the Confederacy's most forward western theater anchor point is the best available. Lesser known Kentucky State Guard actions, among them the pro-Southern militia's collusion with Tennessee Confederate forces to keep Kentucky state weapons from being transferred to arsenals outside the Purchase, are also documented. Additionally, in keeping with the more sophisticated understanding of guerrilla warfare that has emerged in recent scholarship, the author does devote a significant amount of attention to irregular operations (pro-Confederate and pro-Union) in the region. Nathan Bedford Forrest's failed Paducah raid is also treated at some length.
The lion's share of attention is directed at Purchase political figures, movements, and events. Purchase politicians were never able to convince their fellow Kentuckians that secession was the best course for its citizens to take. Instead, they found themselves just as isolated politically as they were geographically. In the past, writers and historians almost uniformly interpreted the Confederate occupation of Columbus as a colossal blunder that decisively tipped the state toward the Union cause, but this outlook has been tempered quite a bit in recent times with the recognition by most (including Craig) of just how completely the Kentucky legislature had already aligned itself with the Union cause by September 1861.
Purchase politicians also could not unite on what course they thought the region should ultimately take. Options like forming their own state or attaching themselves to Tennessee were opposed by those that held on to hopes that the state might secede as a whole. This indecision made the secession movement in the Purchase a reactive rather than proactive one. In the end military events would trump political considerations as the Union army gained a firm hold over the Purchase soon after the Confederate forward defense line was fatally punctured in early 1862 at Forts Henry and Donelson.
In his study, Craig effectively uses the sharp duels between Purchase newspaper editors and those located elsewhere in Kentucky (especially George Prentice's Louisville Journal) to illustrate the state's ideological divide, which demonstrably softened after the Emancipation Proclamation, mass federal recruitment of black soldiers within Kentucky, and harsh military repression angered pro-slavery Unionists statewide. This sets up well the book's final section dealing with Confederate remembrance and memorialization in Kentucky.
Kentucky Confederates contains more than enough unique insights to unreservedly recommend it for placement in the essential Civil War Kentucky bookshelf. In a more general sense, it's also one of the better executed regional histories in the literature of the conflict.
* - In this reviewer's opinion, Lee's book only betters Craig's in its discussion of the economic development of the Purchase. The great majority of Lee's work is directed toward military campaigns, while Craig's meatier narrative is much better balanced between military, political, and societal topics and themes. Craig also consulted a deeper and far more diverse collection of source material.
More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant
* The Union Forever: Lincoln, Grant, and the Civil War
* One of Morgan's Men: Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry
* My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans
* Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War
* Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy
* Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History
* Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee
* Kentuckians in Gray: Confederate Generals and Field Officers of the Bluegrass State
* Virginia at War, 1863
* Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia