Friday, November 4, 2016

Review of Cashon - "PADUCAH AND THE CIVIL WAR"

[Paducah and the Civil War by John Philip Cashon (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2016). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:119/140. ISBN-978-1-46713-696-9. $21.99]

When the Confederacy ended Kentucky's dubious neutrality by entering the Jackson Purchase in early September 1861 and occupying Columbus, they left untouched what many historians consider an even richer prize, the city of Paducah. Strategically situated on the Ohio River and adjacent to the mouth of the Tennessee River, Paducah controlled the gateway to one of the war's great inland waterway invasion routes. Though periodically threatened, Union forces would hold the town for the duration of the war. How the town and its inhabitants were affected by the conflict is the subject of John Philip Cashon's Paducah and the Civil War.

The book begins with a solid summary of the 1860-61 political situation in western Kentucky's Jackson Purchase during the Secession Winter and the early months of the war. As a pair of recent specialized studies* have confirmed, pro-Confederate sentiment was widespread in the Purchase, which was physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the state by the Tennessee River. One of the region's key urban centers, Paducah gained a reputation as a southern city even though it was tucked into the most northern reaches of the Purchase, with some even calling it the "Charleston of Kentucky."

Two significant military events occurred at Paducah during the war, and the book describes both well. U.S. Grant's capture of Paducah on September 6, 1861 was a bloodless affair with far reaching strategic importance. Quickly fortified, the city became impervious to mere raids and, while it wasn't a major military depot, holding it was necessary for the safety of operations south. The March 25, 1864 Battle of Paducah, on the other hand, was costly in both property destruction and human life. In the attack, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry command quickly secured most of the city but was bloodily repulsed in its attack on Fort Anderson, Paducah's chief defense installation. Like other writers, Cashon is critical of Forrest's poor reconnaissance and rash decision to attack the rather formidable fort, which possessed steep, thick walls and was surrounded by a deep moat. In the unlikely event Fort Anderson was taken or surrendered, the author wonders whether the bi-racial garrison would have suffered the same fate that Fort Pillow did less than three weeks later. Others have suggested that the signal failure at Fort Anderson played some part in fueling Confederate rage in West Tennessee. The book also discusses the guerrilla problem around Paducah and how it was a major factor (in conjunction with Forrest's attack) in 1864's return of harsh military rule to the city.

Military occupation deeply concerned Kentuckians of all political stripes, and Cashon's book effectively contrasts the moderate martial rule of U.S. Grant, C.F. Smith, and Solomon Merideth, with the extremes of malice wielded by Eleazer Paine. In his two Paducah stints, Paine, whose punitive policies included economic sanctions, banishment, financial levies, and unauthorized executions, drew such ire from all sides that he was twice removed from command.

Cashon also discusses at some length the enforcement in Paducah of Grant's infamous General Orders, No. 11 and Paducah merchant Cesar Kaskel's role in getting it revoked in a relatively short time. Grant's most vocal critics often take his order expelling the Jews as a class from his department as evidence of malicious bigotry and a major character defect. On the other side of the debate, the general's defenders insist that the episode was an isolated incident, a grossly unfortunate knee-jerk reaction against a single group stemming from boiled up anger and frustration with cotton speculators in general. Cashon's own assessment lies more toward the latter interpretation.

There's been a bit of a revival  in quality Civil War city studies of late. While Cashon's Paducah and the Civil War is a slim volume directed primarily toward a popular audience and is not a comprehensive scholarly monograph, it is a solidly researched selective survey of many of the major individuals and events associated with the city's wartime experience.

* - The two Jackson Purchase studies referenced in the review:
"Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase" by Berry Craig.
"The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862: The Pro-Confederate Struggle and Defeat in Southwest Kentucky" by Dan Lee.


  1. Drew, what are the two recent studies you refer to in your second paragraph?
    Thanks -
    Phil LeDuc

    1. "Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase" by Berry Craig.

      "The Civil War in the Jackson Purchase, 1861-1862: The Pro-Confederate Struggle and Defeat in Southwest Kentucky" by Dan Lee.

      I'll put these links in the main article. Probably should have done it originally.


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