“[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, discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-029-0427, (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), http://www.battleforthebridge.org/Occupation.html (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), https://kynghistory.ky.gov/Our-History/History-of-the-Guard/Documents/ThePaperTrailoftheCivilWarinKY18611865%202.pdf (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 charles.welsko@ky.gov or the CWGK team at civilwargovernorsofkentucky@gmail.com.  

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: https://history.ky.gov/virtualvisitor/.

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 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/respirator-use-faq.html#respirators

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 discovery.civilwargovernors.org.

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 (Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, 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 charles.welsko@ky.gov  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 https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/108). *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: https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/718 .

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
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-030-0005 ,
http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-030-0002 ,

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. http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-031-0067

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.

“Our Neighbourhood Turnpikes”

In this season of highway construction hassles, we can at least be grateful that we are not personally called upon to fix the roads ourselves. In the years before a system of state-funded roads, individuals were responsible for maintaining physical infrastructure. Men owed days of road crew service to their county each year, and property owners were liable for keeping the roads on their land clear and passable. Private turnpike companies frequently built and maintained roads, charging carriages, wagons, and riders for their use.

The Civil War tore up both Kentucky roads and the funding systems that maintained them. Owners of the Stanford & Shelby’s Meeting House Turnpike Company, “a neighborhood road” in Lincoln County which “pays nothing to the stock holders,” were fined by a cash-strapped circuit court for failing to keep up their road. They successfully appealed to the governor that “it is impossible to keep the Roads in repair during their use by the Federal Wagons” hauling supplies to the front.

Infrastructure repair and upkeep continues to be a pertinent issue. Who should bear the repair costs after natural or human-made disasters?

Road scene, drawing by Samuel Kaighn ca. 1875.
Kaighn served as a surgeon during the Civil War.

As you can see from this letter of appeal, the governor agreed that they should not be responsible in this case.

“Delighted to Honor the National Banner”

A battle-torn Civil War flag tells a powerful story about the great sacrifices and the cost of preserving the United States.

Colors of the 22d Regiment Kentucky Infty after the charge on Chickasaw Bluffs near Vicksburg, Miss – December 29th, 1862.

Colonel George W. Monroe returned the battle flag of his 22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry to the Commonwealth in 1864. “This Old flag is dear to us, for beneath its folds many of our brave comrades have fallen, and sealed their patriotism with their blood. It is dear to us for the victories won under it. It is dear to us because it has never yet been lowered before the enemy, and has never been polluted by traitor hands.”

The flags of the Kentucky regiments were hung in the capitol rotunda to remind legislators of the price of their freedom. When the new capitol was built in the 1900s, the flags stayed in the Old State Capitol and became the core of the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum collections.

This 242nd anniversary of the adoption of the Flag Resolution by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, is a fitting opportunity to read this letter, which eloquently expresses the emotions that may be evoked by this symbol of a nation that came so close to dissolution during the Civil War: