Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of Penn - "KENTUCKY REBEL TOWN: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County"

[Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County by William A. Penn (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). Hardcover, maps, illustrations, appendix, notes, index. Pages main/total:278/374. ISBN:978-0-8131-6771-8. $45]

Located in Harrison County, Kentucky thirty miles north of Lexington and with the Kentucky Central Railroad passing through it, Cynthiana was both a town of divided loyalties and a rich target for opposing military forces, with battles fought there in 1862 and 1864. Author William Penn has published numerous articles on the subject, and one full length study Rattling Spurs and Broad-Brimmed Hats (Battle Grove, 1995). Penn's new book Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County is a significant revision and expansion of his earlier work. Border State studies have exploded of late, with many important monographs examining topics such as cultural and political identity, wartime civil rights in loyal states, the impact of emancipation and black army recruitment, Reconstruction, and remembrance. Many of these issues and themes are addressed in Penn's work.

As a politically divided and strategically important town, Cynthiana is a fine candidate for studying the Border State home front experience. Penn discusses the lead up to war in the town and the surrounding county, with some citizens traveling south to join Confederate armies and others organizing themselves into pro-Union home guards. While the latter often harassed without cause those they suspected to be Confederate sympathizers, they did play an important role in guarding important enemy targets like railroad trestles and they performed fairly well at the first Cynthiana battle.

The Kentucky Central Railroad ran right through Harrison County, and a larger military presence than local home guards was needed to secure it. The book discusses at some length the influx of Ohio volunteer units into the county, where they quickly established fortified bases like Camp Frazer and erected block houses and stockades to protect the railroad, vital bridges, and themselves from guerrillas and Confederate raiders. As outsiders with little appreciation of the complexities of Border State politics and society, they periodically clashed with the locals, as well.

Martial law and suspension of civil liberties within loyal states is a common issue examined in Border State Civil War studies, and Penn's book explores in great detail the military arrests of politicians, leading citizens, and newspaper editors in Cynthiana and Harrison County. As demonstrated during the 1862 Confederate Kentucky Campaign and both John Hunt Morgan raids, civilian arrests tended to sharply increase when Confederate troops were in the vicinity. At these times, the "lurking" Confederate became a widely feared bogeyman. Though detainees were generally well treated while in custody, serial arrest and incarceration, financial indemnification, bond posting, and oath requirements were unpopular but potent weapons employed by military authorities for silencing dissent.

Penn's fine case study of Cynthiana resident Lucius Desha (a wealthy slaveholding landowner and state representative with two sons in the Confederate army but who personally committed no overt acts of support for the Confederacy) very effectively illustrates the hardening war's insidiously expanding definition of disloyalty and the ruthless means employed at rooting out those suspected of harboring enemy sympathies. On the other hand, though it was small comfort to those repeatedly detained and doesn't excuse the practice of arbitrary arrest, the fact that all five Harrison county citizens formally accused of treason during the war were released after a hearing, and none were convicted of the crime in any court, meant that Kentucky citizens were not without very real legal protections.

The book briefly addresses the provost marshal system and the matter of draft enforcement in Harrison County during the war. It also charts the gradual dissolution of slavery in the county, a process that rapidly accelerated in 1864 with the mass enlistment of slaves into the army. In all, 396 former Harrison County slaves joined several different USCT units and the navy. Though eligible masters were entitled to a $300 bounty for each slave enlistee, very few owners met the stringent requirements for federal compensation and only a handful actually received their money.

Much of the book examines the two battles fought at Cynthiana on July 17, 1862 and June 11-12, 1864. Both clashes were initiated by Kentucky Confederate general John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders. Penn's descriptions of the fighting are meticulously detailed and supported by some fine tactical maps of his own creation. In writing about the twin battles, the author incisively contrasts the Morgan of 1862 with the Morgan of 1864. During the first battle, Morgan's command was better disciplined (an achievement typically credited to the steady hand of chief subordinate Basil Duke) and concentrated primarily on military targets. The first battle showed Morgan at his raiding best, when he swiftly surrounded and overwhelmed in less than 90 minutes a mixed defending force of Union soldiers and home guards.

In describing and analyzing the 1864 battle, Penn usefully divides the two-day action into three distinct phases: (1) the direct assault upon the town on June 11, (2) the follow up engagement later that day a mile north of Cynthiana at Keller's Bridge, and (3) the June 12 battle fought just east of the town against a large relief force commanded by Union general Stephen Burbridge. During the first two successful phases, Morgan was again at his best, employing maximum shock by attacking from multiple directions and swiftly overcoming enemy resistance. On the other hand, the June 12 battle demonstrated Morgan at his worst, when it came to conducting a set piece battle. Though Morgan was never a great organizer or disciplinarian to begin with, his 1864 command was composed of different material than his 1862 band of brothers. Plundering freely and shockingly lacking in battlefield discipline, the quality of the 1864 raiders contrasted sharply with Morgan's first command. To make matters worse, Morgan's poor judgment and indifferent attention to command and control significantly lessened the chances for victory on the 12th. Accepting battle against Burbridge even with the knowledge that ammunition stocks were depleted, Morgan swiftly lost what little control he had over his units, who were quickly routed from the field and scattered across the countryside. In the wake of the defeat, many small groups of Confederate survivors deserted the army entirely and reemerged as guerrilla fighters for the rest of the war. Though much of the guerrilla literature for Kentucky already focuses on the state's northern and western regions, Penn might fruitfully have devoted more space in the book to Harrison County's irregular war.

With much of the heart of Cynthiana in ashes after the June 1864 battle, Kentucky Rebel Town traces the efforts of property owners to obtain compensation from the federal government. Like many other northern and border communities affected by the physical ravages of enemy invasion, the Claims Commission rejected any kind of financial award for Cynthiana property owners on the grounds that the Confederates caused the damage.

After the war, Kentuckians generally opposed granting full citizenship rights to blacks, and Penn discusses the efforts of the local Freedmen's Bureau office to protect ex-slaves and establish schools. He also briefly looks at the activities of Union and Confederate veteran groups in Harrison County and the erection of Cynthiana's Confederate cemetery and memorial.

Though the volume inexplicably lacks a bibliography, the notes indicate a significant degree of original manuscript research, as well as wide investigation into all the other avenues of source material (including a large number of newspapers) one expects to find in modern Civil War scholarship. The detailed orders of battle compiled in the appendix should also be greatly appreciated by students of both battles. As noted before, the maps are more than fine overall, but a detailed drawing of the historical landscape east of Cynthiana (in addition to the one tracing the action atop a modern topo map) would have greatly aided reader comprehension of the dynamics of the June 12, 1864 battle.

Though focusing heavily on Cynthiana itself, there is enough broader material in Kentucky Rebel Town to consider it a commendably useful county history, as well. As mentioned above, all the major social and political issues of greatest interest to today's scholars are addressed in Penn's study to some degree. The book is clearly the best military treatment of the Cynthiana battles in the literature, and anyone specifically interested in Morgan's Kentucky raids will find it a rich resource. Among the great battleground states of the western theater, Kentucky's military historiography remains one of the thinnest, and Penn's contribution goes a long way toward filling in some of the remaining gaps. Kentucky Rebel Town is highly recommended.

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  1. Thank you for this comprehensive review. On the battlefield maps I did include period roads and buildings on the overlay as noted in the map key. As to the lack of a bibliography, I submitted one with the manuscript but the U. Press of Ky. decided not to include it. William A. Penn, Midway, Ky.

    1. On the map issue, I was referring more to tactical landscape features like field, fences, woodlots, etc. I was really glad to see your new edition get published. It will definitely stay in my home library.


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