By Patrick A. Lewis
Loyalty was a complex idea for Civil War Kentuckians. It was layered, nuanced, and often contradictory—making it especially tricky for a historian to understand and interpret.
Political party labels are generally useful, but sometimes they fall short or get in the way of understanding a messier reality. The lives of Civil War Kentuckians were just as rich and interconnected as our own today. Family and kinship networks, economic and business relationships, religious affiliation, and longstanding political beliefs all shaped the lenses through which Kentuckians viewed the war and each other. And, of course, the war itself brought about some of the most rapid and sweeping social and political changes ever experienced by Americans before or since.
Time and time again, the documents in the Civil War Governors collection show that Kentuckians themselves were at a loss for words to describe what they believed. Political parties rose and fell with shocking frequency, and alliances and loyalties that carried one election would shift and collapse by the next. On the national level there were Republicans and Democrats, but things were significantly less clear in state politics. For Kentuckians, as elsewhere, the struggle to define and defend party loyalty began a decade before the war, with the collapse of the Whig party—for a generation the dominant party in the state—under the weight of the slavery issue in national politics.
The self-described political odyssey of Scottish immigrant and prosperous slaveowning farmer James P. Wilson of Fredonia, Caldwell County, Kentucky is an example of the political chaos that reigned during the war years. Appealing to Governor Bramlette in August 1865 hoping to secure a pardon for his rebel son, Wilson wrote
As to my own views I was a Whig then a Know Nothing (though a foreigner) then Anti Lecompton [pro-slavery constitution in Kansas] supporting [John] Bell for President, Your Excellency for Governor and in the late election for the [Thirteenth] Amendment.
It is telling that after the collapse of the Whigs and the awkward fit of being an immigrant in the vehemently nativist Know Nothings, Wilson stopped using party labels. Instead, his politics became those of issues and personalities. Drifting in and out of as many political coalitions in as many elections, Wilson’s political journey is a fascinating study in the evolution of Kentucky opinion on slavery, secession, the conduct of the war, and emancipation. Still, just like Governor Bramlette himself, Wilson is tough to label, hard to pin to a party.
These are precisely the sorts of statements—available in thousands of similar extant documents—that historians need to understand the developments and changes in the state’s political and social life. Election returns yield numbers, but little understanding. The beauty of the wide scope of the CWG-K collection is that it lets us catch these personal narratives of individual Kentuckians in so many unexpected and out-of-the-way places. Wilson’s political odyssey was never recorded in a newspaper, or spoken at an election rally, but was recorded in a long-hidden letter from a loyal father trying to help out his rebel son.