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