Tell the Story

We launched our first writing contest. And we want you to submit your story.

Are you an undergraduate student? A writer? Tell us what it would be like to experience the Civil War. The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) is a freely accessible online publication of the Kentucky Historical Society. The edition focuses on the office of the governor during the Civil War, with the goal of uncovering the lost lives and voices of everyday people struggling to cope with unprecedented societal chaos.

Using any of the thousands of documents available on the CWGK website as your inspiration, craft your own story of life in this war-torn state.

Submissions are due by July 31, 2020.

What’s in it for you? The first-place story will receive a cash prize and an opportunity to appear on “Think Humanities,” the podcast from Kentucky Humanities, hosted by Bill Goodman. The prize for first place will be presented at the 2020 Kentucky Book Fair in Lexington, Kentucky.

You can find the full competition information—competition guidelines (including themes and sample documents to choose from), a scoring rubric, and a flyer to share the news at

Help us spread the news! To share with your department and other students, download this flyer.

Do you teach? This competition has been crafted to bring historical document experience to a range of students, especially those studying history and English. Keep this opportunity in mind as you plan your summer assignments, or offer an extra-credit opportunity for your students in the summer term. Know a student who isn’t in your class that would be interested? Share it with them too.

Have questions? Our team is here for you. Please direct questions to

The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society and the CWGK Special Issue

Front cover of the CWGK special issue Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 
Volume 117, No. 2 (Spring 2019)

In June of 2017 over a dozen eminent historians of the Nineteenth Century South and Civil War Era made their way to Frankfort as part of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Symposium. The Kentucky Historical Society, along with guest convener Amy Murrell Taylor, organized a series of presentations based on research from the CWGK archive. Last summer, with the assistance of Amy Taylor as guest editor, Stephanie Lang (and over the years, former editors of the Register, David Turpie and Patrick Lewis), arranged those presentations into a special issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. Those essays probed the depths of CWGK and offered valuable insight into wartime Kentucky, as well as the means through which digital platforms offer new interpretive possibilities for the study of mid-nineteenth century America.

As COVID-19 compels Americans to adapt to new social practices and realities, academic presses, journals, and sites of discourse have gladly opened their founts of knowledge to eager readers. The Kentucky Historical Society happily joined in that scholastic endeavor by making all our digital issues of the Register, dating back to 2010, available on ProjectMuse. If you have not looked at those issues, click right here. In addition, as a means to fill the void of the delayed Kentucky Derby (at least partially that is), KHS launched a derby-themed competition for select issues of the Register available online (take a look at this round of contestants from the most recent issue and vote here).

To compliment that larger institutional endeavor, I reached out to Amy Taylor and Stephanie Lang (then Associate Editor, turned Editor of the Register) so they could share their experiences and ponder deeper reflections of their work on that issue. With hearty thanks to both Amy and Stephanie for their contributions, here are their thoughts on the CWGK special issue of the Register. I provided them with a handful of questions, below each of which, I have provided their response (AMT or SML).

Lastly, you can access all twelve articles from the CWGK special issue here. Here’s a quick list of those authors and articles (who I also extend my thanks to for their work with CWGK in the past):

  • Stephen Berry, “Dwelling in the Digital Archive”
  • Lesley J. Gordon, “Deeds of Brave Suffering and Loft Heroism”
  • David Gleeson, “An Unfortunate Son of Erin”
  • Anne Sarah Rubin, “Literally Destroyed as a Housekeeper”
  • Amy Murrell Taylor, “Texts and Textiles in Civil War Kentucky”
  • Mark Wahlgren Summers, “The First Refuge of a Scoundrel”
  • Kenneth Noe, “Disturbers of the Peace”
  • Diane Miller Summerville, “The Exciting Circumstances of the Rebellion”
  • Crystal Feimster, “Keeping a Disorderly House in Civil War Kentucky”
  • Luther Adams, “Tipling Toward Freedom”
  • Carole Emberton, “Searching for Caroline”
  • Patrick A. Lewis, “The “Most Notorious” Mr. Jennings”

How did you get involved with the CWGK special edition of the Register?

AMT: I was invited by the editor, David Turpie, as well as Patrick Lewis, who was managing the CWGK project at the time. I remember we had an initial brainstorming session in which we decided to aim big and invite some of the most innovative Civil War-era scholars around to contribute to the issue. And fortunately, those scholars were receptive.

Between the Register staff (Editors David Turpie and later Patrick Lewis) and the two of you how did you all divide the editorial work on the issue and what was your involvement with the issue?

AMT: We quickly decided that the special issue would be stronger if we pulled the contributors into a dialogue with one another. They were all working with the same body of primary sources to write their pieces – so there was potentially a lot to be gained from encouraging an exchange of ideas in the middle of the process. We then decided to hold a symposium at the KHS in Frankfort during the summer of 2017 and to invite the scholars to present the preliminary results of their research in the CWGK archive. The event was every bit as stimulating as we had hoped.

I focused initially on inviting the scholars and connecting them to the CWGK and encouraging their work. The wonderful KHS staff—from the Register editors, to the CWGK staff, to the folks involved in education and community engagement—took care of the details of putting the symposium together. They did a fantastic job, and we spent two days in the Old State Capitol talking, sharing, and ultimately pushing one another to think more creatively. We also had great meals and a stop at Buffalo Trace!

After the symposium, my editorial work involved giving each article draft an in-depth reading on matters of interpretation, while the Register staff took care of the rest.  And that was a lot. We never would have gotten to the finish line without the care and consideration that the staff gave to each and every article. I am especially grateful to Stephanie for bringing to the task both an eye for detail and an appreciation of each author’s purpose. It was wonderful to work with such a dedicated editor.

SML: Amy and Patrick played major roles in the very early conceptualization of the CWGK issue. My first involvement with the issue was shortly after I started working at KHS with the CWGK symposium Patrick organized, which brought together all of the authors in one room to explore the use and importance of digital humanities and share initial findings. As the issue developed, I worked with Amy and the authors on revisions, providing them with feedback and suggestions, and with the CWGK staff on sources. Once past the conceptualization and initial review stage, honestly the less glamorous and long day-to-day fact-checking, copyedits, correspondence and final questions, going through proofs fell to me – as it should be, in order to maintain the Register’s own editorial policies and overall direction. Working with guest editors is a partnership and certainly in this case, the collaboration with Amy not only allowed me (as an Appalachian historian) to learn more about the era but also sharpen my own skills and knowledge of digital humanities. But, most importantly for me, Amy was wonderful to work with and I feel I gained a colleague on many projects to come.

What are some of the benefits (and challenges) of joint editorial work and how does that issue from working on individual scholarship?

AMT: From my perspective, the greatest payoff from this partnership came at the beginning, at the point of conceptualization. Our initial brainstorming prompted us to imagine this as a collective enterprise rather than a series of individual projects. And in the end, I think each and every article benefitted from the exchange and collaboration we put in place through the symposium.

SML: For this particular issue, working jointly with Amy was extremely beneficial for the project. As a Civil War historian, researcher, and writer, she has strong command of the field and historiography which allowed us to move the content of the issue into new areas. She also has a strong network of connections which not only brought new scholars to the project, but the whole editing experience on my end was very collaborative and conversational – I enjoyed revising and editing with Amy and the authors, working together to craft articles that highlight the strength of digital humanities in research. 

The main challenge of the issue for everyone involved was thinking about how to use, research, and write about the ever-growing Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Project. Thinking more broadly about how and where to research, the CWGK project become the primary digital archive for the authors, which pushed everyone into new modes of research and also editing. Amy’s openness, along with all of the authors, to dive into the project, pick a topic and use the CWGK digital archive, not knowing what they might find (or not find), and craft an article from that was at first a large unknown. But, the different areas of interest and different questions the authors asked, the end result remains one of the top Register issues and illustrates KHS’s strength in digital projects.

The CWGK issue is a large issue, covering twelve articles from a range of historians on an equally diverse set of topics about Civil War Era Kentucky and digital humanities. What is one thing that you hope readers should come away with after reading this issue?

AMT: I hope they will see that Civil War-era Kentucky is still fairly “unknown” – that there is a lot to be learned, a lot to be discovered, and definitely a lot to be rethought. And maybe it will prompt readers to explore the CWGK on their own and take on new research projects themselves.

SML: That is honestly a big part of it – how we think about and use archives is changing, not only as more resources are digitalized and available online but now as we shelter in place and physical archives are not open. It allows us to be creative in accessing materials and how we define collections. Each author in this issue brought their own set of interests and focus to bear and their use of this new digital realm illuminated new voices and new stories from everyday people like us. And that is a strength of the CWGK issue – although the title seems to highlight the governors themselves, the archive actually gives a voice to thousands of Kentuckians writing in during the Civil War. Their letters, military records, legal correspondence, etc. are deftly woven together in the articles. Whether pleading for a pardon, communicating the anguish of a guerrilla raid, calling attention to hunger, grappling with what we today call PTSD – all of these articles brutally punctuate the human experience of the Civil War and how the war was experienced in a tumultuous border state. The articles in this issue ignite new conversations and a call-to-research for future projects.

Following up on that question, in what ways does the CWGK issue of the Register alter or complicate our understanding of Civil War Kentucky and Kentucky history in general?

AMT: I’d prefer to focus on how it “complicates” – because that, in the end, is what results from this special issue. The interpretation of Civil War Kentucky, like Civil War history all over the place, has suffered from simplistic and one-dimensional mythmaking over time. The pieces in the Register shatter those myths in a big way—no one can walk away from it assuming that Kentucky remained “neutral” and somehow aloof from the violent struggle over slavery; no one can assume that Kentucky slavery itself was somehow more moderate than the rest. Hopefully issues like this will help open up readers’ minds by disturbing comfortable assumptions and raising new questions about the state’s history. There is a lot of work that remains to be done, and maybe this issue can help inspire more of it.

How do you think that digital documentary projects like CWGK will change the landscape of writing articles and producing academic journals over the next several years?

AMT: I think that projects like the CWGK most obviously change things by opening up access to materials that many historians had not, or could not, examine easily before. When I say “access,” though, I don’t just mean that historians at a distance no longer need to travel to Frankfort, Kentucky, to see the governors’ papers, and can instead pop them up on their computer screen in San Francisco, California. That is true, of course, but what I really mean is that users can now read and absorb and analyze the materials in ways that could not be done in their traditional, analog format. For starters, the CWGK has a wonderful search engine that enables a user to see patterns across thousands of documents that remained nearly invisible before. And its mapping of the social networks underlying this vast set of documents enables users to see how people maneuvered through the very complex political landscape that was Civil War Kentucky. All of this holds the potential to produce truly pathbreaking scholarship.

What else would you want readers to know about the CWGK issue and the Register?

AMT: That I was greatly honored to play a role in bringing this issue to publication, and I thank the staff of the Register, past and present, for allowing me to play in their sandbox.

“[H]e was again taken Sick”: Lessons and Legacies of Civil War Epidemics

As we continue to face the realities (and uncertainties) of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the toll that disease took on Civil War Americans, especially soldiers who lived and operated in close quarters often without the knowledge or means to practice “good hygiene.”  Over the last several weeks, we have heard numerous references to “wash your hands,” “stay at home,” “essential services only,” and—perhaps most importantly—the new phrase coined by the CDC: “social distancing.”  For the majority of Civil War soldiers, these would have been foreign concepts or measures largely inconceivable during wartime (nineteenth-century armies couldn’t function with soldiers standing six feet apart). Consequently, a variety of diseases—tuberculosis, measles, smallpox, and dysentery, to name a few—spread rapidly among the enlisted population, particularly after the first year of the war.[1]

The results were disastrous.  Epidemics ravaged camps and communities on both sides of the conflict.  Historian Margaret Humphreys has described the Civil War as the “greatest health disaster that this country has ever experienced.”[2] Of the 750,000 deaths that occurred, disease accounted for approximately 500,000—meaning “troops . . . were more than twice as likely to be killed by deadly microorganisms as enemy fire,” explained Andrew M. Bell, author of Mosquito Soldiers.[3] However, medical professionals as well as ordinary Americans learned from the widespread outbreaks, acquiring new information about infectious diseases that helped revolutionize public health policies after 1865.  Many of the modern practices employed to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 developed, in part at least, from the experiences and knowledge gained from battling epidemics during the Civil War.

Wounded soldiers being tended in the field after the Battle of Chancelloarsville”
Courtesy of the National Archives: “Civil War Photos”

Recently, while exploring the CWGK database, I came across KYR-0001-029-0427, a petition that details the combat experiences of John O. Willis of Grayson County.[4] Reading it reminded me of the dire effects of disease on soldiers’ lives.  In the summer of 1861, Willis traveled nearly eighty miles from his home in Leitchfield to Camp Joseph Holt, a federal recruiting post located across the Ohio River from Louisville in Jeffersonville, Indiana.[5] There Willis joined the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry as a private for a three-year term (though, unknown to him at the time, Willis would be out of uniform before the summer of 1863).[6]

Service Records of John O. Willis
Courtesy of Fold3 [by Ancestry]

Not long after enlisting, he returned south to Munfordville in Hart County, where he and fellow members of General Lovell H. Rousseau’s 4th Brigade encamped to guard the vital railroad bridge that traversed the Green River.  Willis and other Union troops busied themselves with erecting earthworks and repairing the bridge after acts of Confederate vandalism.  Other than the relatively small Battle of Rowlett’s Station, which occurred on December 17, 1861, Willis avoided enemy fire.[7] Yet, over the winter of 1861-1862, he waged war against an enemy much more life-threatening to him than any Confederate foe.  That December, Willis “was taken Sick” with measles, a highly contagious viral infection spread through coughing, sneezing, and close contact with infected persons.[8] Willis undoubtedly contracted the disease from a fellow soldier, and likely spread it to others in west-central Kentucky.

Willis survived the outbreak at Munfordville.  By the following winter, he had rejoined his company, though he remained “in very bad health,” a complication of his bout with the measles.[9] Willis saw military action from December 31, 1862 to January 3, 1863 at the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Casualties mounted as Union and Confederate forces engaged in fierce fighting around the small town.  Of all the battles waged between 1861 and 1865, Stones River produced the highest percentage of casualties on both sides.  One out of every three Union soldiers either died or incurred combat wounds.[10]

Although Willis went unscathed from battle, “he was again taken Sick”; this time, Willis contracted “Chronic Diahrea” while stationed near Murfreesboro.[11] He represented one of approximately 1.5 million cases of dysentery that devastated the Union ranks.  The disease affected all levels of service—from privates to commissioned officers—because nearly everyone fell victim to poor sanitation and poor hygiene.  Latrines and contaminated food spread bacteria among soldiers living in crowded quarters.[12] Modern hand-washing practices and food-safety protocols certainly would have benefited Willis and other men in uniform, but those preventative measures were absent from nearly all Civil War campgrounds, hospitals, and prisons.

Willis suffered the rest of that winter in a Nashville hospital, where he remained “very near Dying.”[13] On March 3, 1863, he was honorably discharged with a “Certificate of Disability.” Willis returned home to Grayson County where he faced charges for “Selling giving and loaning to a slave . . . Spiritous Liquors.”[14] Months before enlisting, during the winter of 1860, Willis offered a neighbor’s slave “One Dram of Whiskey.”[15] The Grayson County Circuit Court delivered a guilty verdict and issued a $20 fine.  But Willis could not pay the penalty.  With his “Health . . . entirely gone,” Willis wrote to Governor James F. Robinson requesting that his fine be remitted.[16] The petition included the signatures of nineteen Grayson County residents who confirmed Willis’s inability to work since returning from service; in fact, they doubted “Whether he will ever . . . Recover his health so that he can work” again.[17] As a result, on June 19, 1863, Governor Robinson issued the remission.  Willis was spared the $20.

Willis’s June 1863 petition to Governor Robinson

Willis lived until September 1917 (only months before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu).[18] Remarkably, he survived two epidemics during the Civil War; however, thousands of the men he enlisted with and fought against did not.  Before mustering out in the summer of 1865, the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, Willis’s regiment, lost 179 members—123 of those men died of disease.[19] Recent scholarship on the medical history of the war, particularly the work of Shauna Devine, argues that men like Willis did not suffer with (or die from) disease in vain.  Rather, doctors and other medical professionals learned about contamination, developed treatments, and devised new public health policies to combat epidemics as a result of their experiences treating illnesses during the Civil War.[20] Indeed, Willis’s two years as a Union soldier attest to the importance of preventative measures to control the spread of infectious diseases—namely hand washing and self-quarantining (or social distancing).  As we face our own public health crisis, we are armed with medical knowledge not available to Willis and other Civil War Americans.  This information can help prevent the spread of disease in twenty-first-century Kentucky.

[1] Scholarship on the medical history of the Civil War has examined the health and treatment of soldiers from a variety of perspectives, including institutional studies of the army medical corps and U. S. Sanitary Commission, the role of women as nurses, the health of African American soldiers, the development and operation of Civil War hospitals, and disability among active soldiers and veterans.  For additional reading on these subjects, consult the following works.  Although not exhaustive, this list contains some of the most important publications: Frank R. Freeman, Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998); Jane E. Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Margaret Humphreys, Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Andrew McIlwaine Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the America Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Libra R. Hilde, Worth a Dozen Men: Women and Nursing in the Civil War South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012); Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Margaret Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013); Brian Craig Miller, Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2015); Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2019).

[2] Humphreys, Marrow of Tragedy, 1.

[3] Bell, Mosquito Soldiers, 2.

[4] John O. Willis to James F. Robinson, 15 June 1863, Office of the Governor, James F. Robinson: Governor’s Official Correspondence File, Petitions for Pardons, Remissions, and Respites, 1862-1863, R4-184 to R4-185, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY.  Accessed via the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition,, (accessed March 29, 2020), (hereafter KYR-0001-029-0427).

[5] The 1860 census lists Willis as a twenty-seven-year-old farm laborer in Leitchfield, Grayson County, Kentucky.  Eighth Manuscript Census of the United States (1860), Population Schedules, Kentucky, Grayson County, Leitchfield, p. 347.

[6] Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in Organizations From State of Kentucky, NARA RG 94, Microfilm Series M397, Roll 0024.

[7] Kent Masterson Brown, “Munfordville: The Campaign and Battle Along Kentucky’s Strategic Axis,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol.97, no. 3 (Summer 1999), 247-285; Randy Bishop, Kentucky’s Civil War Battlefields: A Guide to Their History and Preservation (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2012), 59-73; “The Union Occupation,” Battle for the Bridge Historic Preserve (Munfordville, KY), (accessed March 29, 2020).

[8] KYR-0001-029-0427.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid; James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, second edition(New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 582-583; James Lee McDonough, Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1980); Peter Cozzens, No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

[11] KYR-0001-029-0427.

[12] Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2008), 85-87.

[13] KYR-0001-029-0427.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Vital Statistics Original Death Certificates – Microfilm (1911-1964), KDLA, Roll #7016189, Butler County Deaths, File #24346.

[19] Al Alfaro, “The Paper Trail Of the Civil War In Kentucky 1861-1865,” Notes compiled from Frederick H. Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908), (accessed March 29, 2020), 38.

[20] Shauna Devine, Learning from the Wounded: The Civil War and the Rise of American Medical Service (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

CWGK Educational Resources During COVID-19

As COVID-19 forces schools to close or shift to online teaching, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of those thematic lessons and educational resource that CWGK has made available over the past few years. With generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), CWGK has hired a research associate that developed many of these educational resources over the past two years. They pulled together activities and thematic lessons inspired by the 10,000 documents on the CWGK site to highlight the interpretive possibilities of our digital documentary edition. Given the current situation, these resources offer opportunities for educators to design larger lessons, inform conversations about mid-nineteenth century Kentucky, or fill the seemingly endless void between Netflix binges.

CWGK’s For Teacher’s Page includes both themes and classroom packets. The themes are short surveys of documents on CWGK connected to particular topics like women’s history, crime, agriculture, or religion with some suggestions for activities. The classroom packets survey slavery and murder, mental health, and the 1864 Presidential Election, while providing broader interpretation and activities. Given the transition to remote education across the country, here are two activities that educators could incorporate into their now virtual classrooms, with some suggestions on how they might do so.

CWGK Agriculture Activity: CWGK’s agricultural activity asks participants to envision themselves as farmers in Civil War Era Kentucky.  The activity has students assign points (representing the working hours of a day) to different agricultural pursuits on their fictional farms. Over the course of four phases (representing the four years of the Civil War) players draw event cards (developed from real events as discussed in CWGK documents) that represent the hardships brought on by everyday life and war. This includes everything from the requisition of supplies by either army, marauding guerrillas ransacking smokehouses, environmental challenges or disasters, droughts, freedom-seeking enslaved people, or requisitions from the army.

Converting to a digital experience:  CWGK designed this activity to function as a board game, with students moving their pieces around, drawing cards, and simulating agriculture and life in wartime Kentucky. Yet, it is possible to use the game remotely.

  • Use a video-conferencing platform (such as Zoom, Blackboard, Collaborate, or another video platform) to run the game live with students with your camera facing the game board and have them roll dice (or you roll for them to eliminate the possibility of cheating), and then move their pieces and read the event cards accordingly.
  • Use a virtual tabletop platforms (such as Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Beyond Tabletop, or other systems) to upload a copy of the map, have students join, and operate the game digitally.  
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress,

The Election of 1864: Our second activity deals with the Presidential Election in 1864 that pitted incumbent Abraham Lincoln against former Union general, George McClellan. Kentuckians divided deeply over the election. Although a largely (but not exclusively) Union state, many slaveholding Kentuckians disdained the erosion of slavery and violation of civil liberties brought on by the Lincoln Administration. Further, questions of loyalty in a slaveholding border state, racial as well as gender influences, and political differences further prevented substantial portions of Kentuckians from voting.

  • Converting to a digital experience: To take this digital, I would suggest assigning roles to the students, having them read the documents particular to their role, and discussing (either live or through a chat function) how their character would vote in the 1864 or if they could.  
  • Alternatively, it would be possible to connect this event to questions of political access in the 2020 election and the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment. Students could research the evolution of political access or current questions of political participation to inform a larger discussion of voting rights in a longer scope of American history.

These are just suggestions to spark creativity—educators know their students and curriculums far better than I do, so I am sure that there are other opportunities to use these resources to educate students. If you have recommendations, suggestions, or wish to talk further about this, please feel free to contact me at or the CWGK team at  

Stay safe and healthy, and I hope these resources might make teaching in these trying times just a little bit easier!

The CWGK Blog in 2020

Greetings fellow scholars and enthusiasts of Kentucky history!

We hope this post finds you well given the current state of local, national, and global affairs. The Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK) team realizes that there is a great demand for online resources among educators scrambling to assemble online classes, parents looking to entertain children on an extended stay at home, and researchers separated from the archive. CWGK is here to help as best we can.

To that end, CWGK plans on rolling out new blog posts in the weeks to come that will include connections to current events (see Deborah Thompon’s posts on civilian emergency responses after the Battle of Shiloh); interpretation of our documents; and educational resources or activities for teachers and students.

Also, if you are looking for other ways to study Civil War Kentucky, visit the CWGK site to access our 10,000 digitized and transcribed documents. You can also visit our For Teachers page that includes educational activities or subject guides that highlight the variety of documents in our collection.

In the days and weeks to come, check back with us as the CWGK team, along with guest authors, add to our blog and offer you ways to make it through this, to borrow liberally from one of documents, “vortex of perplexing [despondency],” while learning more about Civil War era Kentucky. We’ll make sure to keep you posted through social media about new posts and other news from our site.

Lastly, we encourage you to be smart and safe—stay home as you can, read some more about Kentucky history, and as always, check out the Kentucky Historical Society’s Virtual Visitor page:

Chuck Welsko (@cwelsko on Twitter)
Project Director

95 ¾ Yards of Calico: Emergency Responses by Civilians

The Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee: 23,000 men killed and wounded over two days in April 1862.

Kentucky’s civilian response? The Lexington Ladies Aid Society took materials purchased by the state quartermaster to transform thousands of yards of cotton sheeting, calico, and mattress ticking into bedding and bandages for wounded soldiers. Some of those supplies traveled south to hospitals in Tennessee, while others stayed in Kentucky as casualties steamed upriver to hospitals in the Commonwealth.

One of the receipts for fabric used for Shiloh bandages (KYR-0002-218-0456).

That public-private partnership made it possible to address emergency needs. In this time—in early 2020—of a “war” against COVID-19, similar actions are happening as there is currently a public response to sew protective face masks, even if they are not as regulated and effective as N95 masks.

Another receipt for goods that went towards the war effort

These two documents are part of the CWGK collection and in the queue to be published and annotated on our site. Browse more than 10,000 CWGK documents that have been published at

For more information on face masks, see

2020 Graduate Research Associates

Overview: The Kentucky Historical Society anticipates the ability to hire two Graduate Research Associates (GRAs) familiar with 19th century United States history to write short informational entries for the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK). Each GRA will receive a production-based stipend of $5,000 each and can work remotely from their home institutions.

Each GRA will annotate 150 assigned documents. Each GRA must be a graduate student in at least the second year of a M.A. program in history or a related humanities discipline. These positions are funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a branch of the National Archives. As of this posting, these positions are conditional, anticipating that the NHPRC will fund these two positions next year. The new GRAs would continue a successful three-year program that has involved 12 GRAs.

CWGK is an annotated, searchable, and freely-accessible online edition of documents associated with the chief executives of the Commonwealth, 1860-1865. Yet CWGK is not solely about the five governors; it is about reconstructing the lost lives and voices of tens of thousands of Kentuckians who interacted with the office of the governor during the war years. CWGK will identify, research, and link together every person, place, and organization found in its documents. This web of hundreds of thousands of networked nodes will dramatically expand the number of actors in Kentucky and U.S. history, show scholars new patterns and hidden relationships, and recognize the humanity and agency of historically marginalized people. To see the project’s work to date, visit

Scope of Work: Each GRA will be responsible for researching and writing short entries on named persons, places, organizations, and geographical features in 150 documents. Each document contains an average of fifteen such entities. This work will be completed and submitted to CWGK for fact-checking in sets throughout the year, but no later than
December 31, 2020.

Research and writing will proceed according to project guidelines concerning research sources and methods, editorial information desired, and adherence to house style. This will ensure 1) that due diligence is done to the research of each entity and 2) that information is recorded for each item in uniform ways which are easy to encode and search.

All research for the entries must be based in primary or credible secondary sources, and each GRA is expected to keep a virtual research file with notes and digital images of documents related to each entry. These will be examined regularly by the CWGK team as they fact check the GRA output and turned over to CWGK at the completion of the work. CWGK will fact-check all entries for research quality and adherence to house style. CWGK projects an average rate of one document annotated per two hours of work. Each GRA may expect their workload to be similar to adding on another class for the semester. They should expect to complete an average of 4 to 5 documents per week, though this may vary.

Each GRA will work remotely. Interaction with the documents and the writing of annotations will take place in a web-based annotation tool developed for CWGK, which can be accessed from any location. CWGK will make use of online research databases to make its work efficient and uniform. Other archival sources may be of value but are not required by the research guidelines. Securing access to the paid databases required by CWGK (,, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Louisville Courier Journal) is the responsibility of the GRA. If regular institutional access to these databases is not available to the GRA through a university or library, it is the responsibility of the GRA to purchase and use a subscription to these databases. KHS will not reimburse the GRA for any travel, copying, or other expenses incurred in CWGK research.

In order to maintain quality and consistency as well as to foster a collegial and collaborative work culture, CWGK will conduct weekly virtual “office hours” via Zoom, during which GRAs are required to dial in, ask questions of staff, share expertise and research methods, and make connections with their peers. Virtual attendance at these office hours is mandatory, and multiple sessions may be offered to accommodate schedules. Pending successful funding, CWGK anticipates the GRAs to begin in early to mid-February.

The Kentucky Historical Society will hold copyright for all annotation research as work for hire.

Evaluation Criteria: An application should consist of a narrative statement of professional ability in the form of a cover letter, a CV, and two letters of recommendation. Additional supplementary materials that demonstrate capacity in the evaluation factors may also be included, these may include, but are not limited to: examples of other digital projects, writing samples, or proof of editorial experience.

Proposal materials should be submitted to Chuck Welsko at  no later than January 9, 2020. Should you have any questions about CWGK, the position, or the Kentucky Historical Society, please feel free to contact Dr. Welsko.

The Kentucky Historical Society will evaluate the applicants based on the following factors, as demonstrated through their applications materials:

Research Experience (70 points): Describe your familiarity with research in 19th century U.S. history. Describe some projects you have undertaken. What sources have you used? Have you been published? Have you interpreted historical research in forms other than a scholarly peer-reviewed publication? Discuss how a digital archival experience differs from your traditional archival experience.

Project Experience (30 points): Describe any work you have done in the editing of historical documents. Discuss how a project such as CWGK maintains balance between thorough research and production schedules. Have you worked on other collaborative projects in the field of history or otherwise? Describe the importance of time management and deadlines in your work. Describe your understanding of and/or experience with the Digital Humanities. From what you know of the CWGK project, how does it fit with current trends in the field? What do you hope to gain from working on the CWGK project?

Hemp Hazards

Industrial hemp is being promoted as a wonder crop to help replace tobacco and coal in our economy, as well as provide fiber for clothing, organic matter for biofuels, and for the healing properties of CBD. Fears of the hallucinogenic properties of the hemp plant have been used both historically and currently to outlaw its growth in the U.S. (see the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, for example). Risk assessments for hemp today typically cite concerns over its economic viability as a crop, the safety and effectiveness of CBD to treat a variety of ailments, and overall lack of quality and pricing standards. Worker safety in processing hemp is not a popular area of concern today, and much of the process is now mechanized.

But behind the perceived risks of today’s hemp production is the shadow of a much darker past. Nineteenth-century Kentucky’s hemp industry was a dangerous—even deadly—environment.

This postcard from the Ronald Morgan Postcard Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society is a good example of the idealized landscape of hemp production.

Hemp production was extremely important to Kentucky for most of its history. As explained by the historical marker* pictured below, peak production was achieved in the decades before the Civil War, with 40,000 tons of hemp produced. The bluegrass region was the most productive area for hemp, and “it is not a coincidence that these counties also held the state’s largest slave populations. Hemp, like tobacco and cotton, was a labor-intensive crop… Historian James Hopkins writes, “Without hemp, slavery might have not flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves” (Tim Talbott in *Seven of Kentucky’s more than 2400 historical markers deal with hemp.

Historical marker describing the history of hemp in Kentucky.

The reality is that working in hemp is hard physical work that is often dangerous, from cutting, drying, and transporting it from the fields to breaking the woody stems, and combing out the fibers using a hackle, or coarse comb. The hackling process was especially dangerous, because the air becomes filled with dust and particulates from the repeated flailing, beating, and scraping of the hemp fibers. For more information on hemp processing, see also the story behind Fayette County’s marker: .

This photograph from the 1920s, while not taken at the penitentiary, gives a good representation of the hackling process, the main labor engaged in by prisoners at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in the 1860s.

Hemp processing was one of many industries at the Kentucky State Penitentiary for which inmate labor was used. In the 1860s, a keeper was elected by the General Assembly, charged a yearly rental fee, and was expected to provide for the needs of the prisoners, hire guards and other personnel, and keep up the buildings and grounds. He was allowed to employ inmate labor and keep the profits (Crawford, 19). The governor appointed three inspectors to provide outside oversight. In August 1863, these inspectors reported that much-needed improvements to the prison had been made, with the exception of the hemp house…”the inhaling of dust and minute portions of the fibre, inducing disease of the lungs…it is the testimony of physicians who at various times have attended the prison, that the cases of Pneumonia occurring in the hemp department of the institution, were of the most alarming and fatal character, the greater proportion of them being from the hackling room in the third story ” (Mills, Hayes, and Garrard, KYR-0001-030-0005)

Dr. William Sneed, the attending physician, found that “..many of the cases were rapidly fatal, some of them lasting not over thirty six hours from their commencement” (ibid.) .

Things were so bad that three amputations were reported at the Kentucky Penitentiary Hospital from Dec 1, 1857-Feb 28, 1859, inclusive: “These were cases in which the convicts cut off their own hands to keep from working at the bagging loom and spinning hemp” (Sneed, 567).

Read more about the penitentiary and its issues, including hemp processing, at , ,

For further reading:
Crawford, Robert Gunn. 1955. A History of the Kentucky Penitentiary System, 1865-1937. Dissertation, University of Kentucky.
Sneed, William C. 1860. A Report on the History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from Its Origin, in 1798, to March 1, 1860. Frankfort, Ky.: Senate of Kentucky.

Symbols of Union

“United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” Kentucky’s state motto could not have been more relevant than it was during the Civil War.

Stationery and business letterhead were popular ways to show loyalty to the Union.
This letterhead is from the 1st Harlan County Battalion.

This letterhead from Laurel County, KY, gives Lady Liberty an active, war-like representation, but it was on a letter written by a Justice of the Peace on behalf of someone who wished a fine to be remitted.

References to the Revolutionary War or words such as “Freedom,” “Union,” and “Liberty” helped Civil War-era people look back to their past to understand events and prove their loyalty in their present. This inspiring logo came from Wolfe County, Kentucky.

This seal was on a letter sent from Louisville. Its rays symbolize all the states of the union, but the letter was sent in 1863, when the promise of a strong union was still years in the future.

These documents all contain images, poems, or logos in their letterheads that demonstrate devotion to the Union through patriotic imagery during the Civil War in Kentucky. The content of the letters, however, are not always reflective of such high ideals!

“A little two much licker aboard”

Should a man be punished for socializing with friends and enjoying a bit of Kentucky hospitality while doing so? Moses Washburn, a Shelby County resident, thought not. 

In 1861, he wrote to the governor asking that his fine – for keeping a disorderly house – be lifted, stating that he was “raised up under the old hospitable habits of Kentucky,” and while he may have had “a little two much licker aboard,” he was only drinking with friends at home–“as he had a right to do.”

Man drinking from a bottle by a homemade moonshine still

He argues that he did not mean to cause a disturbance, but simply “has never joined the new fangled temporance society.”

More than 100 men signed his petition. Clearly, Washburn was not alone in his cultural understanding of hospitality.

See how Moses defended his hospitable rights.