By Tony Curtis and Patrick A. Lewis
How are governments structured? How do they function? These are two very fundamental and, surprisingly, very different questions which the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWG-K) will address. The first question involves how people imagine their society works on a theoretical level. The second shows how those theories really play out in the world.
No one, we found, has really addressed either question for Civil War-era Kentucky. No single source exists on the structures of government—state, district, and county, executive, legislative, and judicial—or describes how each individual piece worked with the others. But in order to carry out our work we had to know. We had to know, first, to anticipate where we might find documents to and from our governors. And we had to know, second, to start to understand how the war disrupted government in the Commonwealth.
Thus began a research odyssey to diagram state and county government—literally map out every department, cabinet, and court on wall charts in the CWG-K offices. Twenty-seven sources, twenty-four oversized sheets taped to the wall, and one nine-foot scroll later, we have a more complete picture of these institutions as they existed in Civil War-era Kentucky and how they were supposed to function—theoretically.
Actual practice was another issue, but that is for the documents to illuminate. One particular area in which we have already seen wartime turbulence is the county court system. How did civil war affect the county courts? Who was elected or appointed to hold these offices? Did they function as the 1850 Kentucky Constitution set forth or were they in complete disarray?
Fortunately, CWG-K documents will help historians explore this question further. Though the new constitution made county courts incredibly powerful, the executive branch—in particular the governor and secretary of state—wielded a great deal of power as they handled the appointments and resignations of state officials in each county. In the 13,000+ documents currently in process, thousands of letters and petitions relate to the commissions of county officers from across the commonwealth.
An April 19, 1862 letter to Governor Beriah Magoffin from five “freeholder” citizens of Wolfe County, Kentucky, speaks to the great wartime confusion about the legal status of county officials and the legitimacy of the local courts. The petitioners state that “We have not had any courts held in our county since Sept. 1861 up to April 14th[.] There was an attempt made By the County Judge to hold County Court on the Regular court day in Apr 1862 and was prevented by force of arms as he were accused of Being a disloyal citizen of Ky.” In addition, Wolfe County had collected “very little tax” without a properly appointed sheriff.
With multiple county officers, including a county judge, facing accusations of “aiding the Southern Confederacy” or outright serving “in the Southern army,” a Justice of the Peace had held court and appointed multiple county officials to fill vacancies “of officers which have resigned or are considered Disloyal.” So, the correspondents asked the governor, simply, “whether the court were held legal or not[?]” These five citizens of Wolfe County “want[ed] the Regular courts held and the proper officers appointed to do Business and if we are not on the Right Track if your honor pleas give us some instructions.”
Does so much turn-over of court officers suggest a dysfunctional system? It certainly might for Wolfe County. Elsewhere, documents from mid-to-late 1865 noting the reconvening of the county courts might hint that such wartime closures due to want of qualified, loyal officers were not uncommon.
At the same time, other documents point to an overburdened county court system due to a dramatic increase in crime that occurred during—and often as a result of—the war. Dozens of letters and petitions arrived daily on the desk of the governor asking for pardons and other forms of executive clemency. These suggest a functioning court system in other counties.
Even with all of CWG-K’s research into and charting of state government, such documents raise more fascinating questions than they answer at this stage. For example, in the process of researching the component parts of the state government, we learned that very little worked in the way we—and many other historians before us—had thought. Kentucky currently operates under its fourth constitution, but at the time of the Civil War it had only recently passed its third. Significant pieces of the government familiar to us today simply did not exist in the 1860s.
How has the balance of power between the executive, legislative, or judicial branch shifted? What powers has each branch of government gained or lost? How has our interaction with the federal government changed over time? Rich insights from CWG-K documents will help researchers answer some of these important questions.
 Ezkiel Hobbs, et al., to Beriah Magoffin, April 19, 1862, Office of the Governor, Beriah Magoffin: Governor’s Official Correspondence file, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites 1863-1867, Box 4, MG4-412, Kentucky Department of Library and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky.