Historical Themes

Antebellum Kentucky – In the eyes of some, the antebellum years were perhaps Kentucky’s finest. A booming agricultural trade with neighbors in both the North and South and with statesmen such as Henry Clay, Richard M. Johnson, John C. Breckinridge and John J. Crittenden, Kentucky appeared to be a rising star in antebellum America. Kentucky’s vehement commitment to the Union, slavery and compromise, came from years of experience in dealing with sectional issues its “in-between” geographical location brought and from noted service to the nation in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. As the nation moved toward civil war, Kentucky and the other border states found themselves in an unenviable position that ensured they would have a unique Civil War experience.

Civil War Kentucky – The Bluegrass State saw a level of division experienced by few others in the Union when war finally arrived. Kentucky and the border states were a microcosm of the nation. Kentuckians were not only divided on which sectional side they should support, but they also split over which faction of which side they would support. Allegiance was sometimes tenuous. Although the state ultimately declared its support for the Union in September 1861, political schisms over racial issues such as the Emancipation Proclamation and African-American enlistments highlighted disagreements between the state and the federal government. The state’s rich resources of manpower, crops and farm animals were fought over by both sides in the first years of the war, and by bands of raiders and guerillas until well after the contest was finally decided. The war left a lasting influence on Kentucky that is still seen and felt today.

Reconstruction and Post-War Kentucky – What many saw as the commonwealth’s firm stance against the 13th Amendment, and its constant opposition to the ruling Republican Party, led to difficult post-war years for the state. Kentucky’s attitude toward federal interference and its approach in regard to the freed people aligned the state more with Confederate orthodoxy than with the Union it felt had betrayed them during the war. The efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Kentucky to educate and protect former slaves were disdained and opposed by both legal and extralegal actions. Additionally, political success was often ensured during the last half of the 19th century only if one could claim Confederate wartime service. Largely because of these factors, the Lost Cause became entrenched in Kentucky. Numerous monuments to the Confederacy and its soldiers were erected on the state’s landscape, while few were raised to honor the Union and its fighting men.