The Forgotten Ones

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

Morgan RaidBy Nichole Caskey, Harrison County High School, Cynthiana, KY

Stories of war tend to expound the tales of the soldiers battling on the front lines, facing death head on.  Journals, letters, poetry—a plethora of sources can be found describing the grief of watching a fellow soldier die, the fear as bullets sound through the night, the loneliness of war.  But these stories are just one side of the picture.  What about the stories of the souls that are left behind to wonder about their loved ones? These stories often do not make it into the history books.  However, these stories help to paint a clearer picture of the war and its effects, especially in Kentucky during the Civil War.

The Bluegrass State in the Civil War was a hotbed of conflict and chaos.  Although Kentucky declared its neutrality at the beginning of the war, it was unable to hold on to this status.  Kentucky’s politicians attempted to keep their beloved state out of the war but failed to do so, eventually declaring it to be with the Union.  Kentucky’s slave status and its ties to the Confederacy kept it from being wholly Union, but nor was it wholly Confederate.  The state, like the country was ripped in two.  And in the middle of it all were the citizens—the inhabitants who were forced to continue to live some semblance of a normal life while loved ones were fighting and dying in their backyards.

“Normal” is a relative term in the border state of Kentucky.  Citizens who had not joined a side and were not soldiers often found themselves in a position where they were fighting for their towns and farms against guerrilla attacks.  The citizens of Kentucky tell stories of troubled economic times, illness, and fear of raids by the infamous John Hunt Morgan.  The Civil War raged in their back yards and on their streets.  The illustration of townspeople preparing for a raid by John Hunt Morgan captures the hardship and fear of Kentucky’s citizens left to defend their livelihood against the man who in his own words had “come to liberate [them]  from the despotism of a tyrannical faction …”[1] 

Guerrilla warfare was common in Kentucky.  Although there were some major battles fought in the Bluegrass State, most of the fighting was small-scale guerrilla attacks that reaped large consequences.  This is evident in the image as Kentuckians prepare to meet Morgan’s forces with armed militia (drawn in the background of the photo).  The fear in the women’s faces, although an illustration, paints an eerie picture of how life was for those left behind during the War Between the States.  Several journal entries and letters, including that of J.M. Douglass to Mrs. Maggie Harris also document the troublesome raids by Morgan and the impact on the town’s economy.   J.M. Douglass writes in his letter of April 11, 1865, “…all but two stores is burned the loss was estimated at 90,000 dollars.”[2]  Another letter from D.C. Humphreys to Alexander John “Alec” Alexander on July 20, 1864 describes a low turnout for buyers of horses due to the Covington Railway being disrupted by Morgan’s men.[3]  Morgan’s raids took their toll on the courthouses of several cities including Olive Hill, Morehead, Cynthiana and Frankfort, destroying records and wreaking havoc on the people of those quiet towns. 

Morgan and the Rebels were not the only threat to the citizens of Kentucky though.  Union soldiers were also known for atrocities.  One account comes from Rowan County, Kentucky where Ray Smedley writes of his grandfather, Samuel Smedley’s, demise.  The men [Union soldiers] come to the house and asked for food. They were fed good.  They then shot Samuel in the hip and his wife Mary ran over to help him and they ran a bayonet thru her belly.”[4]  It is not known if the Smedleys supported the Confederacy or the Union; the account does not divulge that information.  But one thing is clear, the government that was supposed to protect them, in this case, did not.  With both sides attacking the citizens and pillaging property, it seems that Kentucky did not seem to belong to either side (indicative of its border state status).            

Citizens in Kentucky were left to defend themselves against groups of wandering rascals.  Families could not visit one another out of fear of guerrilla bands.  J.M. Douglass writes, “we don’t know when we lie down at night but what we will be killed by Gurrilles before the Sun rises next morning.”[5]  Thus was the life in a border state.  The economy was impacted by guerrilla destruction and theft, people’s lives were ended although they were not on a battlefield and the citizens lived in fear of their towns/homes being burned and pillaged.  Even after the war was over, the divisiveness in Kentucky did not end.  The feelings of the people that persisted after the war were manifested in family feuds like the Stamper-Underwood Feud in Carter County, KY and the Martin-Tolliver Feud in Rowan County, KY.  These stories are the forgotten pieces of the Civil War much like the state itself has become a forgotten, yet once integral, piece of the Civil War.



[1] “John Hunt Morgan Handbill, 1863.” KHS Digital Collections. Special Collections 763. SC763_DM.tif

[2] “Letter from J.M. Douglass to Mrs. Maggie Harris, April 11, 1865.” KHS Digital Collections. SC1069, pg 3.

[3] Letter from D.C. Humphreys to Alexander John “Alec” Alexander 20 July, 1864.” KHS Digital Collections MSS93, pg 1.

[4] Blair, Juanita and Brown, Fred. Days of Anger, Days of Tears: The History of the Rowan County War. Wind Publications, 2007. Pg 17.

[5] “Letter from J.M. Douglass to Mrs. Maggie Harris, April 11, 1865.”, KHS Digital Collections. SC1069. pg 3.

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