“We Have Trouble Enough to Distract Us”

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized


By Tim Talbott, Kentucky Historical Society

Just two days after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Kentuckian J. M. Day wrote to his niece Maggie Harris about issues affecting his small piece of the world.  In Allen County, Kentucky, which bordered neighboring Tennessee, Douglass explained that things looked bleak.[1]

 Following the Confederate Army of the Mississippi’s retreat from Kentucky after the Battle of Perryville (Oct. 8, 1862), the state had largely avoided much of the massive troop movements and occupation that states such as Tennessee and Virginia had suffered from throughout the war.  However, occasional raids by recognized bands of Confederate cavalry troops under the likes of John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest were enough to keep Kentuckians on edge.  Yet, even more fearful than the raids of these regular forces were those of the irregulars; better known as guerrillas.  These partisans, some claiming allegiance to the Union, some to the Confederacy, and some just using the war as an excuse to take out generations of old grudges on their neighbors who were not of like mind, robbed, burned, and killed with seemingly little regard for anyone other than themselves.

 Guerrilla warfare in the Civil War has largely been neglected by conventional war military historians, but the topic is currently undergoing a rediscovery.[2]  Until recently Missouri has taken the lead in coverage by scholars on guerrilla depredations, but in the past ten to fifteen years Kentucky has received its fair share of treatment.  More, however, remains to be done.[3]

 In his letter, Douglass mentioned many of the depredations that guerillas inflicted upon Kentucky’s citizens.  Among those ravages was that “our Town is nearly Burnt up[,] it caught or was fired[.]  It is not known which a way[.]  It is burned at any rate[.] all but two Stores is burned[.]”[4]  Unfortunately, Allen County was not the only Kentucky community that met with incendiary damages.  County courthouses were a favorite target of guerrilla bands.  More than twenty Kentucky courthouses were burned during the war; the majority of which were fired in the last eighteen months of the war, and a number of those by guerrillas.[5] 

 One of the most fearful aspects of guerrilla warfare in Kentucky was the seeming randomness of the brutality.  In his letter, Douglass expressed his fear and concern about physical violence caused by groups of marauders.  “we don’t know when we lie down at night but what we will be killed by Gurrilles before the Sun rises next morning[,] and you may guess from that we have Trouble enough to distract us.”[6]  Only two counties divided Allen County from the notorious Champ Ferguson’s native Clinton County, and Allen County was just a couple of counties north of Ferguson’s adopted White County, Tennessee.  Ferguson was likely the most feared guerrilla that troubled Kentucky during the Civil War.  He was infamous for his sadistic nature and willingness to kill those he saw as potential threats despite age or infirmity.  He was alleged to have killed men almost as old as sixty and as young as sixteen.[7]  Ferguson once told a victim who had previously been a close personal friend – until the war turned neighbor against neighbor – “Don’t you beg, and don’t you dodge,” before killing the man.[8]  Ferguson shot one man in his sick bed, and another in a military hospital bed.  Ferguson finally met his fate at end of a noose when he was hanged in Nashville for his war crimes on October 20, 1865.[9] 

 Guerrilla depredations became so extreme in Kentucky that the United States military and federal government sought diverse ways to curb the violence and curtail support for the marauders.  One means was to levy fines and confiscate property by known Kentucky Confederate sympathizers and use the funds to “reimburse loyal Union citizens in part for their losses by rebel guerrillas.”[10] Although Lincoln had issues with this measure due to potential abuse, it appears that it continued for some time.[11] 

 Another punitive measure was to execute four incarcerated Confederate guerillas when a Kentucky Unionist citizen was killed.  Known as General Order 59, and issued by state commander Stephen G. Burbridge, the order was issued in July 1864 and put into effect in several instances.[12]  Previously, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette had issued a similar but less vindictive proclamation.  In it Bramlette stated, “I, therefore, request that the various Military Commanders in the State of Kentucky will, in every instance when a loyal citizen is taken off by bands of guerrillas immediately arrest at least five of the most prominent and active rebel sympathizers in the vicinity of such outrages for every loyal man taken by guerrillas. These sympathizers should be held as hostages for the safe and speedy return of the loyal citizens.”  Bramlette, like the harsher Burbridge, thought the best means in dealing with guerillas was to fight fire with fire.  He suggested holding those that harbored such criminals as responsible.  “Let them learn that if they refuse to exert themselves actively for the assistance and protection of the loyal, they must expect to reap the just fruits of their complicity with the enemies of our State and people,” the governor proclaimed.[13]  Compounding the problem, of course, in Kentucky was the fact that “loyal” meant many things to many different people, and often fluctuated depending on whom exerted the most power at the time.  

 Guerrilla violence, especially in the immediate aftermath of the war, caused migration and displacement.  In his letter, Douglass mentioned that “I am getting mighty tired of this old country[.]  if we all can live and have no hard luck I think that I will come out to Illinois this fall and see the country.”  Apparently, Douglass and his family were intent on moving northwest, and interested in finding more peaceful surroundings.  Not only white Kentuckians sought to get away from the threats and actual violence.  African Americans, too, left the state in startling numbers after the war.[14]  Many postwar guerrillas doubled as Ku Klux Klan-like avengers.  Both Confederate sympathizing raiders and proslavery Unionist nightriders were adverse to the social and political changes that the war had wrought to the “peculiar institution,” and took out their frustrations on blacks and those neighbors that supported the Republican Party.  Those Kentucky blacks that remained in the state sought protection by moving to the commonwealth’s urban centers or forming tight-knit African American rural communities.[15]

 Guerrilla warfare had long lasting repercussions on Kentucky.  Along with enforced measures such as the impressments of slaves to work on military projects and enlistment of African Americans as Union soldiers, the federal government’s hard-handed approach toward guerillas caused consternation.  In the postwar years many of the commonwealth’s citizens became further alienated from a unionist understanding of the war and came to embrace a Confederate/Lost Cause interpretation of the war.  That theme resonates still today.



[1] J. M. Douglass to Maggie Harris, 11 April 1865, J. M. Douglass Letter, SC1069, Kentucky Historical Society.

[2] Daniel E. Sutherland’s, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), argues that guerilla actions helped lead to the defeat of the Confederacy by showing citizens how little protection they could expect from their national and state governments.  This acclaimed book has revitalized the study of guerilla actions during the Civil War

[3] For more scholarship on guerrilla warfare in Kentucky see: Brian McKnight’s, Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia (Louisiana State University Press, 2011); Confederate Guerrilla Sue Mundy: A Biography of Kentucky Soldier Jerome Clark (McFarland, 2007) by Thomas S. Watson and Perry A. Brantley; “‘War Upon Our Border”: War and Society in Two Ohio River Communities, 1861-1865” (PhD. Dissertation, University of Cincinnati) by Stephen I. Rockenbach; Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) by Thomas D. Mays; Guerrilla War in Kentucky: Burbridge and Berrys (Trafford, 2009), by Gordon Mellish

[4] J. M. Douglass to Maggie Harris

[5] James C. Klotter and Freda C. Klotter, A Concise History of Kentucky, The University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 116; Melba Porter Hay and Thomas H. Appleton, Jr. eds., Roadside History: A Guide to Kentucky’s Highway Markers, Kentucky Historical Society, 2002, 29.

[6] J. M. Douglass to Maggie Harris

[7] Mays, Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War, 43.

[8] McKnight, Confederate Outlaw, 46.

[9] Mays, Cumberland Blood, 120, 144.

[10] Jeremiah T. Boyle to Abraham Lincoln, 11 February 1863, Library of Congress (American Memory).

[11] Abraham Lincoln to Jeremiah T. Boyle, 1 February 1863, Library of Congress (American Memory).

[12] War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 39, Part II Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1892, 174.

[13] “Proclamation by the Governor,” 4 January 1864, National Archives and Records Administration (ARC online).

[14] Darrel E. Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley, The University Press of Kentucky, 2006, 110.

[15] John Kellogg, “The Formation of Black Residential Areas in Lexington, Kentucky, 1865-1887, in the The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 48, No. 1, February, 1982, 22.

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