Sunday, July 11, 2010

Williams: "MY OLD CONFEDERATE HOME: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans"

[My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans by Rusty Williams (University Press of Kentucky, 2010). Cloth, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:285/331. ISBN:978-0-8131-2582-4 $34.95 ]

It has often been said that Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the guns fell silent. Their veterans were certainly not forgotten. Funded by a mixture of private donations and state monies and dedicated in 1902, the Kentucky Confederate Home, located 16 miles east of Louisville in Pewee Valley, housed hundreds of disabled and indigent veterans over its existence. Rusty Williams's My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans is a lively narrative history of the institution, interspersed with biographical sketches of its many inmates, administrators, staff, and major benefactors.

The author's informal writing style is unusual for an academic press non-fiction title, progressing at a staccato pace with frequent single sentence paragraphs. It takes some getting used to, but one should not confuse informality with any deficiency in scholarship. Williams's research is thorough and his work fully documented.

If any individual can be said to occupy a place at the center of the Kentucky Confederate Home, it would be Bennett Henderson Young, Kentucky United Confederate Veterans (UCV) leader and chair of the home's board of trustees. The former John Hunt Morgan and St. Albans raider was instrumental in fundraising, a combination of private subscription (mostly from veterans and their families) and state appropriation, and was a constant supporter of the institution until his death. The state deserves a great deal of credit for always responding to the home's financial needs, but Young was an extremely effective legislative lobbyist on the institution's behalf. He was also jealous of the board's prerogatives, often clashing with female groups (like the UDC). Though these generous women provided both donations and services, Young consistent denied them formal administrative or advisory roles until women's suffrage became reality and he saw the writing on the wall.

While Young and many principle donors and staff members are profiled, the inmate sketches are really the heart of the book. Williams skillfully and colorfully weaves the life stories of these old veterans into the narrative, even giving them knicknames. Not surprisingly, some men fit in well with the rather strict military style routine, while many others struggled with the discipline required, abstention from drink being particularly difficult.

The home itself was luxurious by most accounts, not surprising given its first life as a resort hotel. Williams describes the building in detail for the reader, and follows the expansion of the buildings and grounds up to the near disastrous 1920 fire. Rebuilt, but no longer beautiful, the more institutional appearing home operated until 1934, when the leanness of the Depression years, in conjunction with the passing of the Civil War generation, no longer allowed for the public funding of a retirement home with more staff than patients.

Rusty Williams's My Old Confederate Home demonstrates how the Kentucky Confederate Home in Pewee Valley was forged and maintained through a mutually beneficial partnership between government and private organizations. By profiling a shining example of how societies can and should honor and care for veterans in need, it highlights important lessons for present and future generations.

More Civil War Books and Authors reviews of U. Press of KY titles:
* 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

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