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Uncovering untold stories of Civil War-era Kentuckians

(Editor’s Note: KHS staff working on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition recently annotated their 1,000th document. They have identified and written short biographies of each person who appears in 1,000 of the more than 10,000 documents that make up CWGK. Although their work continues, they are sharing their thoughts at this milestone in three blogs.)

By Natalie Smith, editorial assistant Editing documents in the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) often means I’m diving headfirst into the grittier aspects of the Civil War. Crime, poverty, starvation and guerrilla attacks only scratch the surface of what Kentuckians endured during this chaotic period in our country’s history. What this has impressed upon me, more than anything, is the personal and local nature of this particular war. From the people who had committed criminal acts to those who were victimized, the governor’s office served as a last hope for many Kentuckians.

The desperation seeping into their letters is palpable: “His wife has 5 little Children to support now, and shortly will be confined, I really cannot tell you how she will be able to get through this winter without the help of her husband,” one man wrote on behalf of a fellow citizen sentenced to the penitentiary. “This will be handed you by Charles Edwards, a free man, whose son has come to grief. The boy is only thirteen years of age and at this time of the court he was convicted of larceny and his term of service assessed at one year,” penned another, of a child charged with stealing a copper kettle. We may never know the full life stories of these everyday Kentuckians, but letters to the governor are a start. One of the goals of the CWGK database is to offer a platform for the lost voices of the Civil War in Kentucky.

These letters and petitions reveal people who were socially powerless in their own time and, until recently, archivally absent in ours. I often find myself fluctuating between curiosity, horror, pity and sympathy, as I move from story to story. “We have surely fallen upon evil times,” wrote Samuel Thomas Hauser to the governor from Pendleton County in 1864. As I read, I wonder: how would I have fared? As a native Kentuckian, I recognize the places and landmarks, even many of the surnames, of the citizens penning their letters to the governor. Reading their letters at my desk in Frankfort, only a few streets away from the current governor’s desk, it is difficult to imagine the trauma endured by everyday, Civil War-era Kentuckians not far from here—but that only makes their stories all the more essential to tell.

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