Op-Ed

White Kentuckians were pro-Union and pro-slavery

John C. Breckinridge, whose statue is in Cheapside Park, lost both his hometown of Lexington and native Kentucky when he ran for U.S. president in 1860. He went on to become a Confederate general and secretary of war.
John C. Breckinridge, whose statue is in Cheapside Park, lost both his hometown of Lexington and native Kentucky when he ran for U.S. president in 1860. He went on to become a Confederate general and secretary of war. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Most Civil War-era Lexingtonians viewed the subjects of Lexington’s now controversial statues as traitors. They would not have wanted the monuments in the first place and would have welcomedcurrent efforts by Mayor Jim Gray and the council to remove the Confederates from Cheapside and the old courthouse grounds.

In 1861-1865, the Fayette County seat and the whole county were mostly pro-Union.

The bronze likenesses of local Confederate Gens. John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan represented minority opinion in most other parts of Kentucky as well during America’s most lethal conflict.

Breckinridge was vice president when he ran for president in 1860 on the pro-slavery Southern Democratic ticket. Most presidential hopefuls at least carry their home counties and home states. Breckinridge didn’t.

Fayette County and Kentucky went for conservative Constitutional Unionist John Bell of Tennessee.

Bluegrass State-born Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, whose spouse was a Lexington native, won the election. But he managed just five Fayette votes and only 1,364 statewide.

The election presaged the conservative attitude of most Lexington residents and most Kentuckians: support for both the Union and slavery. Lexington was home to one of the country’s largest slave markets; more than 44 percent of Fayette countians were enslaved in 1860.

In a June 20, 1861, congressional election, Unionist John J. Crittenden of Frankfort clobbered the pro-Confederate incumbent William E. Simms of Georgetown, 1,696 to 666. (Crittenden also cruised in the rest of the Eighth District.)

In state legislative elections on Aug. 5, 1861, Fayette re-elected Unionist Richard A. Buckner to the House and helped elevate Unionist James F. Robinson of Scott County to the Senate. (Robinson became governor in 1862.)

Statewide, the Union Party enhanced its House majority to 76-24 and boosted its Senate edge to 27-11, including holdovers.

The Union candidates supported neutrality within the Union. But after both sides invaded the state in September 1861, the legislature voted to fight for the North.

Anyway, Morgan, who didn’t survive the war, is arguably the most famous Kentucky soldier in either army. Breckiridge became a Confederate general and the South’s secretary of war.

Some Fayette countians joined Morgan’s raiders and other Confederate outfits. But records reveal that more Fayette men marched off to war in Yankee blue than in Rebel gray.

Kentucky furnished between 90,000 and 100,000 men, white and African-American, to the North; between 25,000 and 40,000 whites volunteered for the Southern forces, according to A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, the latter a Lexington resident.

As the war dragged on, Kentucky became even less enthusiastic about the Lincoln administration, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of African-American soldiers in the state. But not until the guns fell silent did Fayette County and the rest of the state turn Confederate. (Only the Jackson Purchase — “the South Carolina of Kentucky” — and a few scattered counties here and there were rebel during the war.)

Historian E. Merton Coulter famously observed that Kentucky “waited until after the war to secede.”

The, the conservative-majority, white supremacist General Assembly rejected the 13th Amendment, which ended the last vestiges of slavery; the 14th Amendment, which made African Americans citizens and the 15th Amendment, which enabled black men to vote.

In the late 19th century, Kentucky became part of the segregationist Jim Crow South. Confederate monuments sprouted statewide, even in erstwhile mostly Unionist towns like Lexington.

“In a postwar world where racial boundaries were in flux, the Lost Cause and the conservative politics that went with it seemed not only a comforting reminder of a past free of late 19th-century insecurities but also a way to reinforce contemporary efforts to maintain white supremacy,” wrote former Lexingtonian Anne E. Marshall in her book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. Marshall is a history professor at Mississippi State University.

Doubtless, Lexington’s monument-moving mayor will catch flak from Confederate apologists who insist the Civil War was all about “states’ rights,” not slavery, and that Confederate imagery represents “heritage, not hate.”

Latter-day Johnny Rebs ought to take a gander at what the Confederates themselves said about slavery. Locals need look no further than the secessionist Lexington Statesman.

Thomas B. Monroe’s paper did all it could to coax Kentucky into accepting South Carolina’s invitation to “join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States.” (South Carolina was the first of 11 slave states to exit the Union.) Editor Monroe advanced the same argument secessionists made everywhere: slavery and white supremacy could be preserved only in an independent confederacy of Southern slave states.

On the other hand, opponents of secession, “despite their rampant uncertainty about Lincoln’s intentions regarding the peculiar institution . . . generally believed that the Union provided a safer bet for protecting their political and economic interests, including slavery,” Marshall explained.

Would Kentucky “by an alliance with States whose interests, sympathies and institutions are identified with her own, maintain and conserve African slavery, or place that institution under the ban of moral, religious and political proscription by entering a family where it is condemned by an overwhelming majority of those in power [?],” the Statesman challenged on March 12, 1861.

The paper insisted that the central issue had to be stripped “of unnecessary verbiage and conditions until it presents itself in the simple form of African Servitude or Free Labor, Emancipation or Slavery.”

When Kentucky opted to fight for the Union, Monroe shut his paper and joined the rebel army in hopes of defeating what he had scorned in the Statesman as the “Abolition States now combined to invade Southern soil and murder the people of the slave States.” The editor was mortally wounded at the battle of Shiloh in 1862.

Mayor Gray obviously believes most of his constituents will favor his decision to remove the monuments. (He has my support from way out west in Mayfield, “the Pearl of the Purchase.”)

Gray certainly would have had his city’s backing during the rebellion. Most townsfolk and the Unionist Lexington Observer and Reporter viewed Breckinridge and Morgan as traitors to their city, state and country.

Berry Craig, who lives in Mayfield, is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, which the University Press of Kentucky published in 2014. The University Press is scheduled to publish his latest book, Kentucky's Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media and the Secession Crisis, in January.

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