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Day Tripper: Louisville museum's exhibit offers compelling details of the Civil War

These two young Kentucky brothers had their portraits taken just before going off to war. It is unknown whether either brother returned home.
These two young Kentucky brothers had their portraits taken just before going off to war. It is unknown whether either brother returned home.

LOUISVILLE — At the outbreak of the Civil War, Priscilla Davidson of Todd County experienced a heartbreak that was not uncommon in Kentucky: She watched her brother John take up the Union cause and her other brother, Frank, rush to join the Confederate Army. It was a tragic scenario that was played out time and again in Kentucky, one of two states — the other was Missouri — to have stars on both the Union and the Confederate flags.

The story of the Davidson family is but one of the fascinating exhibits in My Brother, My Enemy, an exploration of how the Civil War changed Kentucky forever. Continuing through April 8 at Frazier History Museum in Louisville, the exhibition, mounted in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, features 100 artifacts, many of which had never been on public display.

Among the items: a first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin; wartime photos from the Library of Congress; period clothing, including a child-size Confederate uniform worn in the commonwealth as late as 1915; and a casket wagon used by workers at Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery to re-inter soldiers from their temporary burial plots on the battlefield to permanent places in its National Cemetery.

All of the war's well-known figures are represented, including Lexingtonian Henry Clay, whose compromises delayed its inevitable start, and Harriet Tubman, but what I found especially fascinating were the personal stories of those who are less well-known.

There was George Prentice, the fiery pro-Union editor of the Louisville Journal, whose editorializing failed to sway his two sons, Henry and Clarence, who fought for the Confederacy.

There was Kentucky's governor at the war's outbreak: Confederate sympathizer Beriah Magoffin, who had to contend with a Unionist legislature.

And there was Champ Ferguson, one of only two Confederates formally tried, convicted and hanged for war crimes, the result of his murderous killing spree across Kentucky and Tennessee, leaving 53 dead, and Union Gen. Stephen Burbridge, who earned the nickname "Butcher of Kentucky" for presiding over the executions of 50 guerilla raiders.

I have a fair amount of knowledge about the Civil War, but I came away from this exhibition with a few more nuggets of wisdom, such as: The Confederate anthem Dixie is thought to have come from a song in a 19th-century minstrel show called Dixie's Land, and John C. Breckenridge, who was a member of Congress and the nation's 14th vice president, was seen by Kentuckians as a patriot and a traitor, depending on which side they were on.

I also learned that in staunchly Confederate parts of the state, Unionist women faced social isolation for voicing their opinions, but Confederate women in pro-Union areas suffered far worse. In some cases, they faced imprisonment as punishment for their outspokenness.

The exhibition offers touches that enhance the overall experience. One is the moving soundtrack, featuring the songs Shenandoah, Beautiful Dreamer, When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Far from being a musty, scholarly exhibit, it uses 21st-century technology including smartphones, iPad stations and custom apps. Using one such interactive station, I found myself to be a mediocre infantryman. When asked what items I'd pack in my knapsack, I chose the appropriate rifle but forgot to include bullets.

All Kentuckians should see My Brother, My Enemy for a compelling lesson on just how much the bitter divide cost the commonwealth.

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