By Deborah J.
Thompson, CWGK Editorial Assistant, and Charles R. Welsko, CWGK Project
Inspired by the passage of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021, this series of posts examines documents in the CWGK archive to uncover the stories of how three different African American couples encountered freedom. Late in the war, a woman named Lennie claimed her freedom through an unnamed and absent husband in the U.S. Colored Troops. Henry Pointer, a freed man, followed his enslaved wife out of state, facing charges of illegal immigration upon returning to Kentucky in 1859. Mary “Polly” Ann Southgate, a free woman of color, owned her own husband, Caleb Hitch, and was fined for allowing him to work for wages. As Amy Taylor noted in her award-winning book, Embattled Freedom, the destruction of slavery and the enactment of emancipation remained elusive and uneven processes during the war. The stories of these couples reveal the contingent nature of freedom and emancipation in Kentucky throughout the Civil War.
The commemoration of Juneteenth (the day enslaved Texans
heard of their freedom) and other emancipation-related holidays reflect the
uneven nature of emancipation, as there was no one date when slavery truly ended
nationally. Many Kentuckians, particularly in Lexington and Louisville,
celebrated January 1 as Emancipation Day after 1865, as the date of the Emancipation
In Evansville, Indiana, across the river from Henderson, Kentucky, celebrations
of the Emancipation Proclamation took place on September 22, the date of its
preliminary issue. Some
celebrated July 4, and the birth of the U.S.A., with a rebirth of freedom
caused by the eradication of slavery—or—as a reason to protest lack of full
civil rights for formerly enslaved persons. Some
areas of western Kentucky and Tennessee continue to celebrate the end of
slavery on August 8, although there are conflicting accounts of the
significance of that date. The Paducah Daily News-Democrat on
August 8, 1905, stated that it commemorated the freedom of slaves in Santo
Domingo, Haiti being the first Black republic established in the Western
Hemisphere after a slave uprising that began in 1791. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia cites
another version of August 8th’s origin story, tracing it to Tennessee Military Governor
Andrew Johnson’s emancipation action in his district.
These different celebratory dates emerged because African
Americans encountered freedom unevenly throughout the war. For some, the
movement and presence of the U.S. Army encouraged enslaved individuals in
Virginia, Kentucky, or along the Confederate coast to flee their enslavers
early in the war. As the war progressed, and the U.S. Army pushed deeper into
the Confederacy, more enslaved individuals had the opportunity to self-emancipate.
Legally, the path to freedom was winding. Abraham’s Lincoln Emancipation
Proclamation, issued officially on January 1, 1863, fundamentally changed the
tone of the Civil War to include the destruction of slavery. While Lincoln
declared the enslaved people in most of the rebellious Confederate states free
by their own national, state, and local laws, the Confederacy maintained the
enslavement of nearly four million Black Americans. Federal law and military
power could not enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in the South, but it
provided Black Americans, enslaved or free, the ability to act on the
possibility of a future defined by freedom, not servitude.
The narrative is more complicated in the loyal border states (like Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky), since they remained unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery ended in these states at different times. Maryland passed a new constitution to dismantle slavery in 1864. Missouri passed their own anti-slavery ordinance in early 1865. Kentucky waited until the national ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, begrudgingly relinquishing the enslavement of Black Americans. The enslavement of four million African Americans did not end at once; rather, it concluded in a rolling, uneven, tumult of violence, uncertainty, and hardship intermingled with hope and possibility.
The lives of African American Kentuckians became even more complicated when one spouse gained their freedom while the other remained enslaved. In the following posts, CWGK NHPRC Editorial Assistant Deborah Thompson will highlight the experiences of three different African American couples torn between slavery and freedom. The next post will focus on a couple caught in the conflict between civil law and military orders in the waning months of the war, when the U.S. government and its military proclaimed freedom for the families of African American soldiers but state law did not support this decision. CWGK document KYR-0001-004-1795 describes the testimony of Lennie, the wife of a U.S. Colored Troops infantryman, who left her master “on strength of an order issued by Major General John Palmer freeing the wives of Colored Soldiers.” Lennie was in danger of reenslavement due to her illness and uncertain legal position, partly because as a slave she could not prove her marriage to her husband. She had no rights as a citizen even to offer her own testimony in her case. Her story and the ones that follow foreground the contingent, unpredictable, and tumultuous experience of emancipation in wartime Kentucky.
 Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
 Marion B. Lucas, A History of Blacks in Kentucky from Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891 (Frankfort, KY: Kentucky Historical Society, 2003), 299.
 Darrell E. Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its
Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (Lexington, KY: The University Press of
Kentucky, 2003), 371.
 Sallie L. Powell, “August
8th Emancipation Celebration,” in The
Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ed. Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton
McDaniel, and John A. Hardin (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky,
 Thomas E. Bramlette, Message of
Governor Thos. E. Bramlette, to the General Assembly of Kentucky, December
Session, 1865 (KYR-0001-008-0002).
 Henry H. Hadley to Unknown
“Cap To cap His cap Excellency cap G-o-v stop cap M super c cap G-o-f-f-i-n com graph cap Your cap Petitioner respectfully represents…”
So begins our reading as we check our transcription of the next document, a petition from a Kentucky constituent to Governor Beriah Magoffin. We do this through an oral double-proofing process, which involves one team member reading aloud the handwriting on a scan of the original document while another person compares what they are hearing to what they see on a different computer. This second computer shows the single-proofed transcription, which includes coding around dates, special characters and formatting such as underlining, page breaks, and paragraph breaks. Double proofing is one of the many steps we perform to ensure a document is correctly represented in its transcription. (See our webpages for more detailed descriptions of our document selection and editorial policy.)
We have our own special shorthand for capital letters (cap), commas (com), paragraph (graph), superscript (super), period (stop), and so on. Among our favorites are “crash” for exclamation points, and dashes of various lengths: “monkey” for an em dash and “narwhal” for an en dash* or “hyph” for a hyphenated word. When we have difficulty deciphering a word, we attempt to rely on context, but that is not always possible. The constituents who write are often in distress and may be ignorant of the law and their rights, as well as such niceties as spelling and grammar. Our policy is to preserve misspellings, such as in the very first sentence of this post, where a constituent makes a common error in spelling Magoffin’s name as McGoffin.
Double proofing documents is a duty we approach with excitement, fear, boredom, wonder, and even compassion. It can be tedious, especially when working through the “legalese” present on many of these documents. It can strain our eyes and brains as we work to understand what the person meant by these squiggles and seemingly random marks on a page. Reading for accuracy of the letters, words, and punctuation often means we cannot focus on the content and it sometimes becomes a jumble of such phrases as “said Petitioner” and “on the date aforesaid.” Lots of “said” and “aforesaid.”
A range of emotions come over us as we read the words and digest the meaning. These documents convey the lived experience of Kentuckians during a tumultuous and confusing time. The openings are usually rather formal and standardized, but then, quickly or slowly, we are immersed in the world of the writer. Human nature is laid bare as the writers plead for help, attempt to justify their behavior, evoke pity, or make bold statements.
In this blogpost, the CWGK team shares some of our favorites in the tragi-comedy which is our double-proofing experience.
~ Deborah Thompson, Editorial Assistant ~
H. C. Hancock writes of a difficulty which resulted in a fight with Job Eddins in this document: H. C. Hancock to Thomas E. Bramlette. So far, pretty normal. Then comes the next part, which caused me to sit up straight: (double) “your petitioner unfortunately pulled out one of said (cap) Eddins eyes (cap) Your petitioner and the said (cap) Eddins were drunk at the time of the fight or it would not have accured (monkey)–(double)”
We thought the surprise was over (narwhal) – but wait (narwhal) – there are more twists and turns to this crazy story (crash)! Read the above document and then a follow-up document for this head-scratching tale of two friends: H. K. Dope to J. J. Gatewood .
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~ Hailey Brangers, Research Specialist ~
R. V. Wheeler of Danville was fined $25 for throwing water out of his window. In his petition, R. V. Wheeler to Thomas E. Bramlette, he insists that he was unaware of the ordinance that made this an offense. He writes to the Governor in an attempt to alleviate this fine, stating that he is “poor and illy able” to pay it. It doesn’t stop there—he actually gets sixteen men to sign in his defense over throwing water out of his window.
This document is short in length, but contains insights into both the social and legal history of Danville. Studying these petitions is an opportunity to document the histories of ordinary Kentuckians by focusing on individuals and seeing who they associated with socially, thus providing knowledge about the world they occupied. The petitions also show us societal norms or specific legal ordinances of the 1860s.
Wheeler’s petition is a perfect example of the importance of understanding the historical context of these documents, and how important it is to ask questions. By asking why a little water would be a problem —this being pre-sewer America—we may infer that he was most likely disposing of his waste or bath water, possibly creating a health problem. Danville’s ordinance was mostly likely part of the public health movement in America that began in the 1860s as a campaign against smells . But again, we cannot be absolutely certain about the circumstances of Wheeler’s fine. A lot of our job requires speculating about what could be, which can be frustrating for people who need all of the answers (lucky for historians, we are quite used to speculating and asking questions!).
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~ Charles Welsko, Project Director ~
Another petition comes on behalf of Lafayette Brafford of Kenton County, from the jury that tried and convicted him, sentencing him to ten years in the State Penitentiary for killing a man named McCullough. The story is outlined in this document: Benjamin Funk et. al to Beriah Magoffin. Brafford, along with another man named Mullins (apparently remembering first names was not a skill set of the jury), were intoxicated on February 22, 1862. The petition details how Brafford and Mullins clambered into a “meat wagon” where Brafford accidentally “sat down into a bowl of sausage meat.” The drunken revelry prompted a confrontation with McCullough, the owner of the wagon, that turned from verbal argument to physical melee, where we know that Mullins produced a knife and stabbed McCullough three times in the back. Conveniently to Brafford’s case, neither he nor Mullins remembered how McCullough received the fatal stab to his bowels.
This document, which provoked good laughs over the meat wagon and bowl of sausage meat, also touches on some common elements of CWGK documents. For one, there’s a continual theme of alcohol — be it the illegal sale and consumption, or irresponsible decisions derived from an excessive amount of fine spirits. More broadly, the document also represents the frequency of jurors affixing their names to petitions on behalf of individuals they convicted, suggesting that while they upheld the law, they were sometimes constrained by sentencing guidelines. They also recognized circumstances beyond their control (new evidence, pardons of other individuals, a genuine plea for mercy) that could supersede their decision.
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~ James Bartek, Research Associate ~
Petitions for clemency or remittance of fines followed a standard format with little deviation. A petitioner stated his or her case as they saw the matter, explained why they felt they deserved clemency, and then beseeched the governor for mercy. In most instances they claimed ignorance of the law or their unintentional breaking of it. If first time offenders, they often enlisted the support of neighbors to vouch for good character. Petitions often asserted the “industriousness” of the petitioner, their economic straits, and how their family would ultimately suffer disastrous consequences of the result of the punishment of the head of household.
Some petitioners were more articulate than others. Such was the case of Thomas H. Stevens of Louisville, a former Union soldier convicted of first degree murder. “Your Excellency, “he began, “no one regrets the deplorable and sad casuality more than myself, and with genuine contrition of heart I pray You to absolve me from the expiration of such a severe and ignominious penalty, by restoring me to the protection and support of my family. Not being familiar with the ‘modus operand’ usually adopted in making such applications this may be defficient in many particulars, but I claim Your indulgence and hope You will make all necessary allowances for Your imperfections.”
Despite his stated ignorance of the “modus operand” of such petitions, Stevens clearly knew what he was about. “…I do most sincerely hope,” he continued, “you will not turn a deaf ear to the entreaties and importunities of an unfortunate creature who has been plunged into such a vortex of perplexing despondency, torturing suspense and humiliateing woe….”
Whether Governor Robinson ultimately granted clemency is unclear. Whatever the outcome, Stevens did much to perfect the art of the petition. View the document through this link for much more eloquence: Thomas H. Stevens to James F. Robinson.
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~ Carl Creason, Research Specialist ~
Over the last year, I have helped double proof many documents about the sale and consumption of alcohol in Civil War Kentucky. Indeed, the volume of entries in the CWGK database involving “Spiritous Liquors” might give some researchers the impression that few Kentuckians were sober between 1861 and 1865. As you might expect, these documents often shed light on some of the most unfortunate and troubling episodes in our state’s history (acts of violence and public health concerns, to name a few). Yet they have also provided moments of entertainment during double proofing sessions by offering windows into a variety of remarkable and outlandish incidents. One such event came to us in a petition written on behalf of Charles C. Williams of Bourbon County: J. A. Prall et al. to Thomas E. Bramlette.
Williams, a saddler and harness maker, moved to Paris, Kentucky, during the winter of 1862-1863. The petition suggests that he began heavy drinking once he arrived in the Bluegrass state, though it provides no explanation for his change in behavior. On one occasion, “while in a frolic,” Williams “dressed himself” in another man’s clothing and took a “seat in the most public place he could find.” When questioned by officials, Williams claimed to have no memory of his actions because “his mind was crazed by intoxication.” In the end, he was indicted for “grand Larceny” and faced jail time.
So far, this story sounds similar to a number of other drunken escapades gone wrong. Someone drank too much, did something unconventional that disrupted the public order, and eventually faced the hard hand of local law enforcement. That said, a few aspects of Williams’s case stand out. First, the CWGK database contains other documents involving clothes-stealing, which often resulted in a serious penalty for the accused. Nineteenth-century Kentuckians stole a variety of things, but—as one of my colleagues suggested—people seemed to respond differently when clothes were involved. Second, the petition mentions that Williams arrived in Bourbon County as a “refugee from the South” who expressed Unionist sympathies. I tried locating him in the 1860 census but had no luck.
Regardless, knowing that Williams was a Unionist who left a region hostile to his beliefs in the middle of a civil war, one wonders what challenges he faced before he arrived in Kentucky. Perhaps being politically ostracized from his community or arguing with family members and close friends about the legitimacy of secession explains his propensity for heavy drinking. Alone and despondent, Williams might have turned to alcohol to cope. Obviously, without additional information, these conjectures cannot be confirmed, but they call attention to the difficulties of Williams’s circumstances as a white Unionist originally from a southern state outside of the Border region who moved to Kentucky during the war.
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At CWGK, we never really know what we’re going to see when we open up another document. The Kentuckians who corresponded with the governor may give us insight into their motives, lay bare their heart-wrenching tales, and help us understand their actions. Along the way, we may discover a unique turn of phrase, outrageous spelling, or the absurdity of the human condition. The fun part for us is being able to read over these documents and having a nice surprise each time a line catches our eyes and makes us laugh!
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.
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.
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 http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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?
A battle-torn Civil War flag tells a powerful story about the great sacrifices and the cost of preserving the United States.
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: http://discovery.civilwargovernors.org/document/KYR-0001-003-0064
While it is not surprising that 19th century European nations looked to the United States as a model for economic or political best practices, it is intriguing that the government of Bavaria should want to know the status of women’s property rights in Kentucky.
An unusual Civil War example of conversation between the Commonwealth and the sphere of foreign affairs appears in a letter from C. F. Hagedorn of the German state of Bavaria to Gov. James F. Robinson of Kentucky in 1863. In the letter, the consul requests that Robinson provide answers to two specific, enumerated questions about women’s rights in the state of Kentucky.
Consul General Hagedorn inquires as to the rights of married women to hold property and make decisions based on said property, as well as to what actions they can take to “act without approval to or consent of their husbands!” The docketing of the letter indicates that Robinson did respond to the consul’s inquiries, though his response cannot be found. Governor Robinson’s response to the Bavarian consul’s request to know more “in short about womens rights in your Commonwealth” would undoubtedly provide compelling insight concerning the agency of women in the 19th Century.