“These Are the Times that Try Men’s Souls”

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

Bilbo womenBy Lisa Woodruff, The Frankfort Christian Academy, Frankfort, KY

Life in a border state during the Civil War was a trying time for those in Kentucky.  Much has been written about the experience of men in Kentucky during this conflict.  Although often overlooked, women in Kentucky struggled through the Civil War, facing their own unique and challenging experiences.  Kentucky women dealt with the daily threat of guerilla activity, struggling to care for family members who had been exposed to new illnesses and adjusting to the changes brought about by the occupying armies in their home towns.

Many women in Kentucky lived in the uncertainty of the constant upheaval of guerillas roaming through the land they called home.  Ellen Wallace, who lived in Hopkinsville, KY, tells of her husband being arrested by a “party of guerilla” where he was held until a family friend could “influence his release.”1  Many women felt trapped by the constant fear of guerilla activity in Kentucky. Josie Underwood, from Bowling Green, KY, was afraid to travel to visit family for fear that “John Morgan might make one of his daring raids and tear up the railroad tracks and something happen that I couldn’t get back home.”2 

Stories abound of women whose lives were forever changed by guerilla attack.  Esther Frogg became a widow after the Confederate sympathizer and guerilla troop leader, Champ Ferguson stopped by her one room cabin in Clinton County, KY.  Ferguson arrived at the family home, finding Esther’s husband lying in his sick bed beside the couple’s five month old child.  Ferguson accused William, Esther’s husband of having supported the Union by “visiting Camp Dick Robinson”.  He then turned toward William and shot him twice in the chest.3 Following the attack on Frogg, Ferguson then searched the cabin for weapons and valuables before he rode off on his horse.4  

A large percentage of Kentucky women spent the duration of the war caring for their families.  Many women spent hours nursing for family members who were exposed to sickness or wounded in conflict.  The Wallace family was exposed to sickness, possibly as a result of Confederate hospital being set up at the Baptist Seminary “not being one hundred yards from our backyard, this is very disagreeable”.5 During the next few months, Ellen Wallace cared for her family and slaves who are ill from fevers and the measles.  Mrs. Wallace worried because “this winter they [the fevers and measles] have been very fatal, terminating in pneumonia or typhoid fever”.6

Josie Underwood felt blessed that her family was able to care for her brother, Warner, who was shot through the arm at Shiloh. 7 Josie was left to care for her brother while her family was gone, she struggled to nurse and bandage his wounds which were “dirty bandages-maggots fell out and the wound itself was full of them and stunk so”.8  Josie admitted that “I had hard work to keep from fainting”. 9

Women in Kentucky were also faced with the upheaval caused by the occupation of troops during the war.  Many women faced both Confederate and Union troop occupation during the duration of the war.  Frances Peter, from Lexington, recalls that her family “kept our house shut and door locked from the day Morgan came in, afraid of the house being searched.”10  Ms. Peter’s father was arrested three times and her family’s mill was seized by the Confederates. 

When the Confederates occupied Hopkinsville, Mrs. Ellen Wallace wrote in her diary, “There are at least one thousand Confederate troops in town.  There is great fear of conscription act being forced up on the people.  Private rights are not in the least regarded. The soldiers walk into any store or house and take whatever they need…There are great many armies of both sides now trying to out general each other in Kentucky.”11   Mrs. Wallace summarized occupation by writing, “In our little town the bayonet rules.” 12

Josie Underwood, a Union sympathizer, was shocked by the treatment of her family by the Union troops which were “going to various houses demanding food and in one or two instances treating Union women with a great deal of rudeness calling them ‘Dam Rebels’ and ordering them to them something to eat ‘damn quick’.”  Ms. Underwood stated that “they (Union troops) destroyed in a few days more Union sentiment than the Rebels had been able to do in six months.” 13

Despite the hardships of troop occupation, many women in Kentucky devoted themselves to providing for the occupying troops.  There are many examples of Kentucky women offering aid to both the Confederate and Union troops.  Although the Underwood family was pro-Union, they “saw three or four soldiers in gray…who reached our porch.  She (Ma) had Jake bring them cold ham and biscuits and milk and gave them fruit.”  When Mrs. Underwood spoke to these soldiers she said, “I will never refuse a hungry man food- but you must excuse me from asking into my house, men who have helped tear down our country’s flag.”14 As the war progressed, Josie wrote of her sympathy for the Confederate soldiers. “My heart goes out to them in pity.  Though all wrong from my standpoint. . . . Better for the war to be in the South for half of the soldiers have no overcoats. . . . Treason! Treason! I acknowledge my weakness.”15   After the Union soldiers took possession of Bowling Green and established a hospital for the wounded Union soldiers, Josie’s Mother helped, too. “Ma has been appointed-receiver and distributor of sanitary stores, sent by various societies throughout the north.” This effort to distribute jellies, dried fruits, wines, cordials, comforters and shirts became the primary focus of the family for the duration of the war.16

Although many women gave aid to both Union and Confederate soldiers, some Kentucky women did not feel obliged to assist those who held opposing views.  Frances Peter of Lexington told of “A lady who came here this morning stating she had lost her luggage and purse and wished to get enough money to take her home. . . . When asked if she was Union, she replied she was not anything. . . . Ma told her that in times like these people had to be very cautious how and to whom they gave money . . . and refused to give her anything.”17

By the end of the war, many women in Kentucky found that their lives were forever changed.  The Underwood family returned to Bowling Green following the Confederate occupation to find “the trees and the house were all charred and burned and that only the gable end of the house was standing . . . both orchards were cut down . . . not a fence left on the entire 1,000 acres only the barn and two cabins left of all the buildings.”18  The Underwood family was never able to fully recover from the destruction of their planation.19

Although initially pro-Union, Ellen Wallace faced changes that she appeared unable to reconcile those sentiments with the changes the war brought upon her.  As 1863 drew to an end she wrote, “Lincoln has trodden underfoot the laws of our state and usurped the entire control, he has made the negro master of the white man as far as his power [goes to] putting arms into their hands, stationing negro pickets at the toll gates and bridges where they defy their former master to pass at peril of their lives. . . . Lincoln is a greater traitor than Jeff Davis because he pretends to support the Constitution by the very means he take to destroy it.  We look upon him as a wretch only fit to rule over the most degraded part of the Negro population.”20

The Civil War changed the lives of Kentucky women.  These brave women faced challenges they had not anticipated, they learned new skills, and they showed courage that was equal to that of the soldiers of the war.  Frances Peter summed up her life in Civil War Kentucky when she wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”21


1 Wallace, Ellen. Dairy. 1861-1863, Ellen Wallace and Annie Starling Diaries MSS 52, Kentucky Historical Society Collections, August 26, 1862.

2 Baird, Nancy Disher, Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary, Lexington, KY, University of Kentucky Press, 2009. Print.  pg. 17

3 McKnight, Brian. Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia, Baton Rouge, LA, Louisianan State University Press, 2011. Print. pg. 43

4 McKnight, Confederate Outlaw. pg. 44

5 Wallace, Diary. November 9, 1861

6 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary. Pg. 172

7 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary. pg.174

8 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary. pg. 174

9 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary pg. 175

10 Cooper, William and Smith, John David, A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Dairy of Frances Peters. Lexington, KY, University of Kentucky Press, 2000. Print.  Pg. 32

11 Wallace, Diary, September 25, 1862

12 Wallace, Diary, June 21, 1863

13 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 162

14 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 101

15 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 169

16 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 178

17 Cooper and Smith, Frances Peter Diary, pg. 155

18 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 156

19 Baird, Josie Underwood Diary, pg. 22

20 Wallace, Diary, December 25, 1863

21Cooper and Smith, Frances Peter Diary, pg. 147

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