Racial Divide Creates Convenient Amnesia

The Chinese Whispers Game. Broken Telephone. It goes by many names, but you know the one: you tell the person sitting next to you a secret, then they tell it to the person next to them, and so on until it gets back to you. And more likely than not, the message has been misinterpreted, massaged and mangled until it no longer resembles anything close to the original.

After reading Anne E. Marshall’s “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” (2010 The University of North Carolina Press), the only logical explanation I could come to was that Kentucky’s Civil War history had fallen victim to the antics of this prepubescent game.

But that would be an easy out because the historical facts that Marshall brings to light could not be more clear. Kentucky, the so-called Switzerland of the Civil War, planted its flag of neutrality. Yet like most other states, Kentuckians had predetermined their allegiance. Some were Confederate supporters, others were ready to don the blue of the Unionists. But take a look at Kentucky’s historical afterward, and what you would infer is that Kentucky fervently championed the Confederacy.

And it all comes down to one reason: race.

Blue, Gray & Black

Marshall filters all of Kentucky’s Civil War history through a sieve of scrutiny. There are few presumptions or inferences, which is really what makes Kentucky’s future Confederate affinity so bewildering.

In the introduction, Marshall writes: “Union memory in Kentucky became too closely associated with emancipation and African American progress for white Unionists to accept it as their own.”

And there it is. Many Kentucky whites fell on that side of the war because they felt the Union was more apt to support their political and business ideals … and one of those businesses was slavery. The way the state legislature pitched it to Kentuckians was that their Unionist loyalty would actually insure their rights to own slaves. (Obviously, this was before Abraham Lincoln introduced the first version of the Emancipation Proclamation; emancipation was not one of the original catalysts of the war.)

Then when northern abolitionists took it upon themselves to liberate slaves, Kentucky whites saw the writing on the wall. Add to that the recruitment of blacks to the Union Army, then even gradual emancipation was out of the question for these early Unionists.

The Lost Cause Narrative

So when the story that unfolded post-war wasn’t the one most white Kentuckians preferred, they simply held onto the notion of the Lost Cause – the movement that sought to reinstate traditional Southern values while blaming the loss of the war on government betrayals, and idolizing Confederacy leaders. Kentucky whites never admitted they were wrong for supporting the Union but their actions said as much. At the end of the day, the majority of white Kentuckians wanted slavery to continue, at least long enough to get compensation for their “property.”

Winners and losers united after the end of the war once they realized that their main post-war concern – the politics of race – was more important than the color of their uniforms.

Marshall includes several examples of newspaper reports that eluded to Kentucky’s backwards attitude toward slavery. “Oh wise Democracy of Kentucky, hugging the relic of slavery to your bosoms, holding on to slavery because it used to pay, forgetting that the times have changed…” wrote the Cincinnati Gazette.

Instead, many white Kentuckians simply countered with their own translation of the effects of the war. John Fox Jr.’s “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” conveyed the notion that Kentucky was Confederate in sympathy if not in uniform. Annie Fellows Johnston’s children’s book, “The Little Colonel,” which was set in a fictionalized version of Peewee Valley, vigorously perpetuated the notion that Kentucky was a Confederate state.

And perhaps the most relevant was the erection of Kentucky monuments honoring Confederate leaders. Again, just a reminder, the Confederacy did not win the war. Yet these grand displays of honor say otherwise.

Hustle & Flow

Marshall’s research and relevant theories inarguably validate what many Civil War historians have known: despite being on the “winning team,” Kentucky has historically celebrated the leaders and philosophy of the Confederacy.

There are so many WTF moments in “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” that will incite instant fury if you are a purveyor of justice. But the journey to get to these realizations is a bit laborious.

The book, all 188 pages of it, is peppered with dozens (and dozens) of examples that cast a light of inexplicable ignorance on those in power in Kentucky during this era. There is no question as to what was (is?) at play here: dressing up racial inequality in a seersucker suit and a dapper bowtie as to camouflage it in southern charm. But these truths are obstructed by the stumbling blocks caused by the flow.

Editing is to blame here (confession: I am an editor by profession, so I admit to a bias, but I’d argue this point even if I wasn’t). The book is divided into subjects as well as time periods within the 1865-1935 timeline. But because politics is the real driving force behind the Lost Cause argument, there are a great deal of redundancies throughout the book. Unfortunately, this waters down many of the solid points Marshall makes.

She does draw some interesting parallels that I hadn’t put together before, namely the influence of Appalachia’s eastern Kentucky. The region boasted the absence of slavery and was a major white base of the Republican party at the time. In fact, Vanceburg, Ky., is home to one of the strongest memorials to the Union. (Kentucky is home to around 70 Civil War monuments, 6:1 in favor of the Confederacy.)

If you go into the book looking for a Civil War narrative that neatly shows Kentucky’s convenient amnesia about its role in “The Lost Cause,” you will leave empty-handed. But for a Civil War reference book that directly addresses Kentucky’s flip-flopping allegiance, Marshall’s “Creating a Kentucky Confederacy” is truly engaging. It is also a reminder to never take things at face value. You don’t need to devour the book in one setting. In fact, allowing the absurdity of Kentucky’s rejection of the final outcome to truly set in helps to explain a lot about the Civil War legacy the Commonwealth has left its citizens with today. The issue really is black and white.

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