Governor _____?_____ of Kentucky: “Please fill in the name of the person who is governor…”

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By Tony Curtis

In November 1862, William A. M. Van Bokkelen requested a commission as Commissioner of Deeds for Kentucky in the Nevada Territory. A series of letters discovered by the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWG-K) shows his attempt to obtain a commission through politically connected Kentuckians, and a lack of response on the part of the governor. Continue reading

The “Ladies of Frankfort” Assert Their Right to Petition

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By Tony Curtis

March is Women’s History Month and the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) theme for 2015 is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” An appropriately themed document recently appeared in the form of an undated Franklin County, Kentucky, petition signed by the “Ladies of Frankfort.” Continue reading

One County, Two Governors

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By Patrick A. Lewis

The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWG-K) is a unique documentary and research project which will reveal as never before the lives and voices of thousands of Civil War-era Kentuckians.  Yet it is based in the records of only five men, the three Union and two provisional Confederate governors of the state.  It is, at the same time, broad and inclusive as well as intimate and personal.  The collection shines light on an entire society at war with itself while also allowing researchers access to these five individuals.

Interestingly, two of the governors, Union Governor James F. Robinson (1862-1863) and Confederate Governor George W. Johnson (1861-1862), hailed from Scott County, a prosperous central Bluegrass county just north of Lexington.  Both Robinson and Johnson were prosperous Scott County slaveowners, well-known and well-connected in the county and the state.  What made them choose to fight against one another?

Like communities across the state, Scott County was deeply divided between when the war came, and all Kentuckians had to weigh a complex set of variables when deciding which warring side to support.  Prewar political affiliation, social networks, religious convictions, opinions on slavery, and the economic demands of families, communities, and the state all factored into this complex balance.  Taking one of these factors, the economic interests of both men, we can begin to understand what led these neighbors down extremely different roads.

The Unionist Robinson was a lawyer, farmer, and president of Georgetown’s Farmers Bank of Kentucky.  Robinson’s own farming operations and the assets of his bank, which advanced money to local farmers, were inextricably tied into the slave-based agricultural economy of Scott County.  The county, like most of those in the Bluegrass, saw most of its wealth concentrated in livestock and hemp—two products which, Robinson was convinced, were only made profitable by the Union as it was.  Railroad connections running northward to Cincinnati and westward to Louisville had driven demand for Kentucky’s famous horses, its hard-working and highly prized mules, and its exceptional beef cattle in the agricultural states of the Old Northwest—particularly Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  Moreover, while most of Kentucky’s hemp crop was turned into bagging for Deep South cotton, only a protective federal tariff—the lifetime achievement of Henry Clay—protected this signature Kentucky industry from being undercut by cheap Russian imports.  From Robinson’s perspective, if Kentucky left the Union—forsaking these markets and tariffs—it would shatter the economic and social foundations of Scott County’s market-agrarian economy.

The Confederate Johnson was typical of the interconnected Southern planter class which pushed the secession movement.  While he himself lived and farmed in Scott County, he and his family were heavily invested in the cotton economy of the Deep South.  The 1850s correspondence in the George W. Johnson Papers at KHS—the core of CWG-K‘s Johnson collection—reveal these fascinating connections.  In those papers, we hear from Johnson’s brother, William, who owned a cotton plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi.  We follow his son-in-law J. Stoddard Johnston as he speculates in cotton land in Arkansas.  And we follow Johnson’s personal involvement in the cotton economy as he buys a plantation in Old Town, Phillips County, Arkansas, near Helena.  These land records, combined with Johnson’s correspondence with New Orleans cotton brokers, Ward, Saunders, & Hunt, show that a significant portion of the future-Confederate governor’s personal wealth was tied up in the states which seceded immediately after Lincoln’s election.

Economically, Robinson and Johnson seem to underscore what was so often the case in Kentucky.  By and large, both Unionists and Confederates sought to defend slavery in 1861, but how each individual connected to the institution and what hopes they had for slavery’s future as an economic and social system shaped their personal paths.  What else might we find over the course of this project that united and divided these two Kentuckians?

Patrick A. Lewis is project director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition

Toward an Understanding of the Civil War-era Kentucky County Courts

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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.

[1] 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.