Register articles 'live off the page'
The lifespan of an article that appears in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, our quarterly, peer-reviewed journal, doesn’t necessarily end upon publication. Instead, writing a piece for the Register is just the beginning of a broader conversation. Our last issue (Spring 2018) was devoted to “Irregular Violence and Trauma in Civil War Kentucky.” An article that I contributed, “The Radicalization of ‘Bloody-Handed’ Bill Davison: How a Union Soldier Became a Pro-Confederate Bushwhacker,” examined the brief life of a man who was brutally transformed by the conflict. Hancock County native Bill Davison began the war as a Union officer.
Recognized for gallantry at the battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, his life soon took a treacherous turn. Although, I wrote, Davison was “an up-and-coming company commander and a promising officer, personal flaws, coupled with his hatred of the Emancipation Proclamation, ended his career in the Union army.” In fact, Davison was so angry with Abraham Lincoln working to free the slaves that he switched sides. Instead of becoming a regular rebel soldier, however, he formed a pro-Confederate guerrilla band that plundered and murdered its way along the Ohio River. By the time that Davison was shot and killed, this former Union officer had waged a brutal, personal war of retribution and terror. After the Register published this piece, Dr. Bill Black, a professor at Western Kentucky University (WKU), invited me to discuss Davison’s life with his Civil War history class.
This was a great opportunity to hear feedback from the students, who had read the article and asked some probing questions. In addition to Davison’s career, we discussed everything from Kentucky’s role during the secession crisis to post-war racial violence in the state. We also drew connections between Davison’s life and modern issues, including the radicalization of ISIS terrorists. How, for example, can Davison’s transformation inform us about those who have become radicalized today? The conversation at WKU showed me that Register articles, as my colleague Dr. Patrick Lewis once said, do have “a life off of the page, influencing exhibits, public programming, and teaching.” The scholarship found in the pages of the Register is like no other; it hones in on relevant Kentucky history topics that have a bearing on our present day. It also helps KHS connect to the wider public, including those engaged WKU students now studying our nation’s greatest conflict. Not only are we fortunate to have the Register for the scholarship that it produces, but also for the conversations that it sparks in Kentucky communities.