Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Review of Ullrich & Craig - "GENERAL E.A. PAINE IN WESTERN KENTUCKY: Assessing the "Reign of Terror" of the Summer of 1864"

[General E.A. Paine in Western Kentucky: Assessing the "Reign of Terror" of the Summer of 1864 by Dieter C. Ullrich & Berry Craig (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2018). Softcover, photos, illustrations, timeline, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:135/192. ISBN:978-1-4766-7143-7. $39.95]

Being assigned to Border State district command was not an enviable position for any Union general officer of conscience. In addition to contending with constant threats from Confederate raids and elusive guerrillas, commanders also had to manage local civilian populations consisting mostly of conservative proslavery Unionists who didn't look favorably upon the social revolutionary implications of Republican war aims such as emancipation and black enlistment. Civilian-military relations would become even more volatile when officers politically aligned with the Radical Republications were appointed to these positions. General Eleazer Arthur Paine was certainly one of these men, his highly controversial historical legacy discussed at length in Dieter Ullrich and Berry Craig's General E.A. Paine in Western Kentucky: Assessing the "Reign of Terror" of the Summer of 1864.

On one level, the book is a full military biography of Paine's Civil War service. As a field general, Paine put in creditable performances during the Island No. 10 and Corinth campaigns, but declining health relegated the rest of his career to largely administrative post and district commands in Confederate states and in Kentucky. He first gained a reputation as a bit of a hothead in Paducah in 1861, when he threatened civilians with death if they refused to shoe his horse or fly the U.S. flag over private property. In similar vein, he supported summary reprisals against regular prisoners for guerrilla murders. According to General Charles Ferguson Smith biographer Allen Mesch, Paine also schemed with Lew Wallace to get their superior, the well-respected Smith, dismissed from district command as an enemy sympathizer.

While in charge of Tennessee military posts at Tullahoma and Gallatin, Paine encouraged his men to freely confiscate the property of suspected secessionists. How these draconian measures against Confederate civilians would play when Paine later returned to Kentucky, where the population quite reasonably expected to have their civil rights as U.S. citizens liberally upheld, would be another story, one that would rebound to his dismay.

The primary aim of Ullrich and Craig's study is to document and analyze the most controversial stretch of Paine's Civil War service, the summer of 1864 when he was in charge of the District of Western Kentucky with headquarters at Paducah, and set the record straight. Assailed by critics for instituting a "reign of terror" against the citizenry, Paine would be removed from command and court-martialed, the proceedings of the latter constituting much of the book's content and focus. In detailed fashion, Ullrich and Craig document the trial along with Paine's spirited defense of his actions. The general would be accused of a very long list of offenses, including directing harsh words toward the state's civilian leadership, publicly denouncing a superior officer (Major General Henry W. Halleck), instituting abusive trade restrictions, allowing private citizens to use government transport, closing businesses, levying illegal "taxes" and "fees," forcibly banishing U.S. citizens to Canada, seizing property unlawfully, interfering with the banking system without cause, imposing exorbitant financial assessments on an arbitrary basis, summarily executing prisoners without any legal procedure or review, taking hostages, forcing civilians to dig fortifications (or pay heavy fines if unable to work), and unnecessarily appropriating and damaging town buildings (i.e. the Mayfield courthouse). Many of these charges were specifically addressed in Paine's court-martial, where he put up a competent self-defense that successfully branded (at least in the eyes of the presiding officers) all of his accusers as disloyal, thus invalidating their testimony. Ultimately, Paine would be judged not guilty on all the charges and specifications save one, his public cursing of General Halleck (something many other Union generals would undoubtedly have liked to do but possessed the requisite self-restraint that Paine himself lacked). The authors feel this result fully exonerates Paine, and should finally put to rest an ongoing smear campaign more than a century and a half in duration.

On the other hand, as Paine's contemporary critics were quick to point out and the authors concede, the trial pointedly failed to address two of the most serious complaints against the general, his summary executions of suspected guerrillas and his heavy-handed financial assessments. With the district under martial law during the period of time under consideration, Ullrich and Craig accept without question Paine's blanket justifications for these actions, that summary executions were necessary to maintain order and that only the 'worst' Confederate sympathizers were subjected to assessment. When it came to levying assessments, Paine did help his own case by pointing to Lincoln administration policy (though Lincoln himself did frequently withdraw support for assessments on a case by case basis, due to the fact that their very nature made abuse and corruption a strong temptation).

Before getting so eagerly attached to exoneration, some pause for reflection on the part of the authors might have been in order regarding the rather dubious record of many Civil War court-martial proceedings, which were hardly consistent paragons of exhaustive investigation and disinterested justice. The issue of loyalty itself, how it was defined and by whom, is also worthy of deeper discussion than the book allows. In their vigorous, and on many points largely convincing, defense of General Paine, the authors do pass up a good opportunity to contribute to the wider debates and discussions in the Civil War literature regarding loyalty and civil rights in wartime. As many political leaders and fellow Union military officers would do, especially from the conflict's midpoint onward, Paine adopted a decidedly Manichean outlook when it came to assessing loyalty, branding as disloyal all who might oppose (or even question) any of the Lincoln administration war aims and policies. Under such a black and white rendered definition of loyalty, even moderate Missouri and Kentucky Unionists could (and often did) find themselves denounced as traitors or Rebels.

In attacking their enemies, many partisan Civil War observers with far more literary skill than desire for objectivity proved extremely adept at employing over-the-top rhetoric and making it stick in the historical record. While troubling aspects of General Paine's tenure in Paducah remain, Ullrich and Craig clearly demonstrate that in West Kentucky Paine presided over nothing like the most infamous great terrors of world history (ex. those of Revolutionary France, Bolshevik Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, etc.). Certainly in that aspect, Paine's much-maligned place in Kentucky and Civil War history deserves significant popular revision, and this book can quite usefully aid in that process.


  1. Thank you, Drew, for this in-depth review of a book concerning a rather obscure(at least to me)figure. I always appreciate a reviewer being willing (and able) to challenge authors when appropriate. Seems like Paine and Benjamin Butler would have fought hard against each other to win last place in a military governor popularity contest. Based on his comments at a recent conference, Brian Jordan is working on a new book on Butler that may show him in a more positive light.

    1. Thanks John.

      I would welcome a new major Butler study. I'm sure that Jordan would do a very good job. Others have pushed back against the traditional portrayal of Butler's beastiness, putting forth arguments that Butler instituted many positive changes to New Orleans governance [ex. he generally cleaned up the city (which also helped with disease control), improved civil administration, and improved the lot of the poor]. No one is saying he did these things purely out of the kindness of his heart, but they are something.


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