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.