Kentucky found herself in a love triangle as the green of spring arrived in 1861.
The southern states that had seceded from the Union during the previous months were anxious for Kentucky to join them. President Abraham Lincoln, himself a Kentuckian, wanted just as fervently to keep his native state firmly in the Union.
Ultimately, Lincoln achieved his goal. Kentucky would remain in the Union. But Confederate and Union armies would rampage over the state in 1862. Lexingtonian John Hunt Morgan and his Southern cavalry would raid Kentucky again and again. Thousands of Kentuckians would die, some fighting for the North, others for the South. Animosities would continue long after the war ended.
Kentuckians will have many chances to learn about those events, and how they shaped the state, as the nation observes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Numerous programs, exhibits, seminars and other events devoted to the war's history will be held all across Kentucky during the four-year sesquicentennial observation. They include an exhibit of Civil War documents, artifacts and photos by the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Division. The exhibit opens with a lecture Thursday.
Transylvania University also has two Civil War-related events planned next week, including a symposium on the war and reconstruction in the border states and a screening of the Kentucky-based Civil War film Pharoah's Army.
Officials at the Richmond and Perryville battlefields already are planning for the 150th anniversaries of those 1862 battles next year, which could draw huge crowds of visitors and Civil War re-enactors — if finances allow.
"We're preparing for a large 2012 re-enactment, contingent on the economy and gas prices," said Joanie House, preservation coordinator for the Perryville Battlefield. "Re-enactment is a hobby for many who come here, some traveling thousands of miles, and monster gas prices really hurt."
Nevertheless, House hopes for a strong turnout, citing the dedication of Civil War history buffs and re-enactors, for whom the war's history is very much alive.
House, a sometime re-enactor herself, said that her great-great-great-grandfather, Benjamin House, and his brother, John, fought for the Union at Perryville in 1862. Their younger brother, Sam, rode with John Hunt Morgan's Confederate cavalry.
"The battle still affects Perryville and how the town deals with the battlefield, even today," House said. "The Civil War was such a massive loss of life that I think the country still hasn't totally come to terms with what happened."
For Kentucky, tensions began in early 1861, as North and South vied for the state's affections. Both sides saw Kentucky's allegiance as crucial.
Former state historian James Klotter noted that Kentucky was in the top fourth of states in population in 1861. It was a major producer of wheat, corn and horses — items essential for mid-19th century armies — and because of its geographic location, Kentucky controlled the Ohio River.
"There are studies suggesting that if the four border states that stayed in the Union — Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware and Maryland — had gone with Confederacy, the war would have been much more equal," Klotter says. "Kentucky could have set the stage for all four seceding."
Kentucky Gov. Beriah Magoffin sympathized with the South, but the state legislature favored the Union. Magoffin called two special legislative sessions, hoping lawmakers would vote to secede.
Then, Confederates fired on Union-held Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861 (Henry Clay's birthday), igniting open war between North and South. When news of Fort Sumter's surrender reached Kentucky, the state legislature created a pro-Union home guard, and Magoffin's secessionist hopes were dashed. Kentucky adopted a neutral stance but stayed in the Union.
"Fort Sumter solidified the pro-Union elements in Kentucky, which were already substantial," said Lexington attorney and historian Kent Masterson Brown.
But in Kentucky, perhaps more than in any other state, people found themselves torn between allegiances.
Some went South, including Morgan, who became a feared Confederate cavalry commander. Others stuck with the North, including Woodford County native John Buford, who held off Confederate forces on the first day of battle at Gettysburg.
Many families split down the middle. Two members of the prominent Breckinridge family backed the North; two supported the South. John J. Crittenden, a leading Kentucky politician, sought moderation. But one of his sons became a Confederate general, the other a Union general.
"It really was a brothers' war in Kentucky," Klotter said.
Ironically, Kentucky's sympathies turned sharply in favor of the South after the war ended. But the conflict left violent divisions that plagued Kentucky long afterward.
"The image of violence hurt Kentucky's development.You had divided leadership and all kinds of other problems," Klotter said. "It's a tale of lost opportunities. I wrote in one of my books that if you want to understand Kentucky's development from the Civil War on, the answer is the war, the war, the war."
In Brown's view, the Civil War's 150th anniversary offers Kentuckians an opportunity to learn more about what happened, and how it changed the state and nation.
"The war is still very much alive, in ways most folks don't appreciate," Brown said. "The Civil War, more than any other event in our history, defined who we are as a people.
"Whatever else happens in the sesquicentennial, I hope we will begin to understand who we are by paying attention to this period of American history. How did the war come about, and what lessons can we learn about avoiding that kind of conflict again?"
Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.