Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Kentucky Military Institute and John Brown's Raid

When I began my research project on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid, I wondered if there were any connections (however remote) between the Kentucky Military Institute and the state's responses to the raid. I suppose this came to mind due to the noted role that the Virginia Military Institute played in Brown's execution. The Virginia cadets were used as guards at that event on December 2, 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia, and were accompanied by Professor and Major Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later to be known as "Stonewall." In addition, Virginian and arch-secessionist, Edmund Ruffin, borrowed an overcoat from the cadets in order to observe the hanging in person, as civilians were not supposed to be in attendance.

I was pleased to recently find that my hunches were correct; indeed KMI did have connections in response to the raid. In the Friday, January 20, 1860 edition of the Lexington Kentucky Statesman newspaper an article ran under the title of "Citizen Soldiery." In the immediate aftermath of Harpers Ferry, Kentucky newspaper editors vehemently called for a reorganization of the state's militia system, which was also later demanded by Governor Magoffin. A new state militia system, the Kentucky State Guard, finally took effect by order of the state legislature in March 1860. But, in the weeks after Brown's execution the demand was still being made to secure the safety of Kentucky's citizens.
In the "Citizen Soldiery" article the Kentucky Statesman editor called attention to a recent submission to the Frankfort Yeoman newspaper that praised KMI, which was located near the capital city. The editor explained that, there was an "importance of establishing our State militia upon a war footing, defensive if not offensive." He went on to state that, "Ours is a border State, and whenever the conflict comes, we must stand the brunt of the battle....Geography has assigned Kentucky her position, and her people will accept it in no craven spirit; and our legislators should not leave it to a late posterity to reproach them with being unfaithful guardians upon our watch-towers."
The editor then closed with his recommendation and full endorsement of KMI, especially in the then present tying times. He stated, "We recommend this Military Institute to the patronage of the citizens of Kentucky; for their sons may require the sword as well as they scythe; and they will find, unless some good Providence give a different direction upon this mad time, that those men will be most useful to their State who have made more proficiency in tactics than in the quieter paths of the classics." (Emphasis in original.)

The Kentucky Military Institute was founded in 1845 by Robert T.P. Allen, a former West Point graduate, veteran of the Seminole War, and professor at Transylvania University, and was chartered in 1847. The institute was located just six miles south of Frankfort and drew students largely from the Ohio River valley and the Southern states. The school produced scores of soldiers for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1894 the school moved to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and then in 1896 moved to Lyndon, in Jefferson County, Kentucky. In 1906 the Institute began the interesting (and I'm sure popular) practice of moving its winter session to Florida, and apparently and strangely, it kept up the practice until it closed its doors in 1971.
Military institutes were extremely popular choices for Southern parents in the antebellum years. Almost every Southern state could count one or more private or state supported military schools. In his book, The Militant South, historian John Hope Franklin explained their appeal to antebellum Southerners. A military style education, "provided the type of experience that made for stronger, healthier men," plus it encouraged a high level of scholarship, reinforced Southern values, and properly prepared the pupils for their futures as Southern men .(pg. 139)
As my research continues, I hope to find more interesting connections between KMI and John Brown's raid.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Wilderness Battlefield on the National Trust's Top Eleven Endangered Sites

A few posts back I mentioned that the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) had released its top ten endangered battlefields. Well, just on their heels came the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of the top eleven endangered historic sites in the United States.

It was both pleasing and disturbing to see that the National Trust also included the Wilderness Battlefield to their list. It was pleasing in that the threat there is being made known to an even larger audience than solely battlefield preservationists, but it is disturbing in that this hallowed ground is in such danger as to make both lists.

Along with the Wilderness, the other sites on the top eleven in danger are a diverse group. Hinchcliffe Stadium in Patterson, New Jersey is only one of three Negro League baseball stadiums still in existence. Once the home of the New York Black Yankees, this now dilapidated stadium once used to host some of baseball's best players. Also included on the list is Black Mountain in eastern Kentucky. The towns of Benham and Lynch were booming coal towns in the first half of the twentieth century, but now the towns face threats from the mineral that first brought them into existence. Surface and deep coal mining projects endanger the historic feel of these areas, which have worked so hard to reinvent themselves into a special heritage tourism area.

The most unusual "site" listed is not actually in one single location. The National Trust made it a point to explain that deep cuts to states' budgets have caused many state historic sites and state-owned parks to forfeit much of the wonderful work and programming they provide to their citizens. They report that almost 3o states have experienced budget cuts to their state parks and historic sites and that as many as 400 parks and sites could be closed due to those cuts. At issue is not only the present availability of the parks and sites, but also the significant damage that could occur due to abandonment and or lack of maintenance.

Now is the time to act. Write your representatives, both state and national, and tell them how important these sites are to you and all citizens. Visit these sites. Your tourism dollars can mean whether a site stays open or if it disappears in a flurry of development or possibly closes for good.

To learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Top Eleven Endangered sites click on the following link:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

327 Acres at Perryville is CWPT's Latest Charge

I always enjoy getting mail from the CWPT. They do a great job of keeping us members well informed of preservation opportunities all across the nation. Not only do they provide wonderful explanations of what happened on the historic grounds they trying to save, they also include a detailed map that shows troop movements over that ground as well as areas of that battlefield they have already helped preserve.

Their latest effort is to save 327 acres at Perryville, Kentucky. Perryville is significant to me because as an 11 year-old, it was the first battlefield I ever visited. I can remember taking dozens of pictures on that visit and spending most of my time looking at everything twice. At that time I didn't know when I would get the opportunity to come back so I wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately, since then, I have been back to Perryville a number of times. I am always amazed by how natural it feels there. There aren't the huge number of stone monuments like at a Gettysburg or Antietam and I have heard it said many times that if it was possible to bring back the soldiers that fought there, they would not have a difficult time recognizing where they were. In my humble opinion, that is probably the best compliment that a battlefield can be given.

The Battle of Perryville was fought on October 8, 1862 as the Union troops under Don Carlos Buell clashed with Confederates of Braxton Bragg's army along the banks of Doctor's Fork, a tributary of the Chaplin River. While the Confederates maintained determined attacks against the Federal left flank, the Union troops defensively held on until nightfall, when Bragg determined to withdraw.

That day's worth of fighting would prove to be the most significant battle in Kentucky during the Civil War and would produce nearly 7,500 casualties. The cost in life and suffering was high, not only for the soldiers, but also for the Perryville community, which turned into a vast hospital immediately after the battle.

The CWPT is making this preservation effort easy for us. With a match in funds being offered that provides each acre for only $517, this deal is a steal.

To learn more about the Battle of Perryville and contribute to this worthy cause please check out the CWPT's Perryville page at:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Yeeah, West Virginia!!!

Since moving to Kentucky, I have noticed that they have a little self-deprecating joke here. Depending on the issue (education, joblessness, poverty rate, or such) it is often exclaimed, "Thank God for West Virginia...(or maybe Mississippi), meaning that at least Kentucky is not last in something. This year the reference has been expressed with extra disdain since the Mountaineers beat the Wildcats in the NCAA basketball tournament. Although I don't have anything against West Virginia personally, I must admit I certainly don't enjoy driving through it on I-64. It seems every time I make the trip to Virginia from Kentucky, or to Kentucky from Virginia, I get another chip in my windshield from a piece of gravel some huge truck kicked up while driving in the "Mountaineer" state. But, finally, I have found something that affords me the opportunity to heap praise on the state that seceded from a state that seceded (follow that?).

I have found the West Virginia Memory Project from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History that features the collections of the West Virginia Archives and History. More specifically, I have found the John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection Database website for the West Virginia Memory Project.

Anyone doing research on John Brown has probably come across the name Boyd B. Stutler. Stutler was the man! If you think I am fascinated by John Brown, you'll think this man was a John Brown nut! Stutler (1889-1970) was a WWI veteran, a newspaper man, and long time editor of the American Legion Magazine. For over half his life, Sutler was dedicated to collecting anything related to John Brown and of Brown's efforts at Harpers Ferry. Stutler was mainly a collector, but he did contract to write a biography of Brown in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the work was never completed. He did write "The Hanging of John Brown" for American Heritage, which appeared in the February 1955 issue. Although he did not prove to be a prolific writer, he did not jealously guard his collection, but rather, he made it readily available to those scholars working on John Brown projects. When Stutler passed away his collection went to the state of West Virginia and is now housed in The West Virginia Division of Culture and History in Charleston.

This "searchable" online collection has already proven to be valuable to me in my research. I had been searching for a few month for Kentuckian Cassius M. Clay's speech in Frankfort on January 10, 1860 without luck. This source appeared to be important to me because I had found references to it in period newspapers that mentioned Clay's reactions to Brown's Harpers Ferry raid, and that the same day Clay made his speech, a pike and the noose used to hang Brown were passed around Frankfort as propaganda tools by the Democrats. Well, I found the speech in printed form on the Stutler collection website and confirmed those references. Tremendous! Without this valuable research tool I would have had to search longer or made an unexpected trip to Charleston, West Virginia to get my hands on it. In addition, I also found another Clay speech, this one made in Covington, Kentucky, that also referenced Brown a number of times, as well as part of the testimony of John A . Copeland, a free black raider, who mentioned that he was aware of another insurrection planned for Kentucky. Huge find! And, it all would not have been possible without the state of West Virginia making it available to researchers like me. I think Mr. Stutler would be proud that his collection is being made so easily accessible to the public through this wonderful website.

To take a look and browse around for awhile use the following link:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"In Defense of Academic History Writing"

Last week at work friend and colleague Stuart Sanders shared an article with me that I would in turn like to share with you. The article, "In Defense of Academic History Writing," was written by the acclaimed early American historian Gordon Wood and appeared in Perspectives on History.

I won't attempt to summarize the relatively short article, rather I will leave it to you to read and make the decision whether you agree or disagree. I will say that I heartily agree with Wood's assessment. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy reading academic, or as he calls it, "analytic" history. The research and thus gained understanding of the past that academic historians have provided over the past 60 years or so is amazing. Their contributions to history, whether widely read or not, have advanced the field and our knowledge.

The article can be accessed via the following link:

Monday, May 17, 2010

So, What Exactly is Gutta Percha?

We are quickly approaching an important anniversary in American history. In a few short days (May 22) it will be 154 years (that's 1856 if you don't want to do the math) since South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. When I read about the incident a few years ago I found that Brooks has used a gutta percha cane for his assault weapon (not pictured here).

When I read that, the first question to myself was, what the heck is gutta percha? I had never heard of it before. Well, apparently it was quite the new product discovery of the mid-nineteenth century.

Gutta percha is a hard rubber much like many of our plastic products today. It came from the gutta percha plant/tree (pictured below) of Southeast Asia. Although indigenous peoples in the region had used the product for centuries, Europeans in the 1840s found that extracting the sap from the plant by boiling it and then allowing it to dry in the sun produced a latex that could used in for many different products. One of the positives that made gutta percha highly desirable was the fact that it could be easily moulded and did not shrink when it cooled.
Gutta percha back then, like plastic today, was used for just about everything that you can think of. It was used to insulate submarine telegraph cable, and to make molded jewelry and intricate furniture. It found favor with pipe manufacturers for durable pipe stems, and even was used in the mass production of golf balls.

Gutta percha was used readily well into the twentieth century for things as diverse as pistol grips and tooth fillings.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

CWPT Releases 2010 Most Endangered

In their ongoing crusade to save as many acres of Civil War battlefield land as possible, the Civil War Preservation Trust annually names their top ten most endangered grounds.

This year's list features some of the best known, and also some of the least known battlefields in America. Among the famous sites are lands that saw enormous casualties, such as Gettyburg, where a gambling casino is attempting to spoil the battlefield environment, and the Wilderness, where the Super Wal-mart fight continues. In Richmond, Kentucky a new highway interchange threatens the tremendous efforts and accomplishments underway there. At Pickett's Mill, Georgia, state budget cuts have limited the availability of the park to the public, reduced the staff, and left needed projects undone.

Lesser known sites, such as Camp Allegheny, West Virgina, where a project to place a number of forty-story high wind turbines would destroy the pristine environment and historic atmosphere; and Thoroughfare Gap, Virginia, where a proposal to build a huge cell telephone tower would likewise ruin the historic feel of the area, are both significant threats.

For more information on the other sites and how you can help contribute to fight the development of these Civil War battlefields, please visit:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Think You're Having a Bad Hair Day?

I remember in junior high that if you came to school with your hair a mess everyone would ask you, "Have you heard of this new invention?....It's called a comb!" And, heaven forbid that you show up for your school pictures with the "bed head." As a matter of fact, I remember that the school photography company gave out free combs so you could look well-groomed. Well, apparently for some nineteenth-century men, the "smooth do" was a matter of little concern when it was time to have their likeness made. For my examples I have provided three individuals...and these are not some unknown yahoos...even though they looked like it when these images were made.

First, we have Kansas senator James Lane (pictured above). Lane was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana and served as Hoosier U.S. congressman before he moved to Kansas in the 1850s. Lane was as fierce as a free-state proponent in Kansas as this image makes him out to be. During the Civil War he raised a brigade of Kansans and was commissioned a general. I don't know what Lane (or the photographer) was thinking when this image was taken. That's a pretty bad look. Maybe he didn't care, and maybe the photographer thought he would have a little fun at Lane's expense by not advising him to find a comb. He certainly doesn't have the excuse that they weren't invented yet.

Next we have "Honest Abe." As I understand it Lincoln was about 47 years old when this image was taken, so that would put this in the mid-1850s. Certainly he had not attained the fame that would come in a few short years, but he was a well known and well paid Illinois attorney that should have had a positive image to uphold. In this picture, Lincoln looks like he either came straight to the photographer from his pillow, or after a hard-fought wrestling match.

Lastly, we have stern-looking John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. Along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Calhoun was regarded as one of the most important statesmen in the nineteenth-century. Although he died over a decade before the Civil War, Calhoun is often credited with laying the foundation for eventual Southern secession. He fiercely defended Southern interests such as slavery and free trade and longed to be president. Calhoun had a head of hair that any man his age would envy, but true to his fiery nature he never seems to have been able to control it. Even when he pulled it straight back from his forehead it appeared Medusa-like.
So, the next time you find it difficult to tame your mane, don't feel so bad. You can easily claim to be in good company....if you have a time machine.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How Much History is Lost to Bad Handwriting

Sorry once again for the extended break in posting, but we just finished up the state competition for National History Day here in Kentucky and I have been tied up with the preparation and hosting of that event. If you don't know about National History Day, but do know a young person (grade 6-12) that loves history, take a few minutes to find out more about this wonderful competition and fill them in. As as Indiana seventh grader (way back) I participated with an exhibit on what else-the Civil War (more specifically Little Round Top at Gettysburg). The theme that year was "Turning Points in History" and I was so excited to move from the district contest at Hanover College to the state Contest at Indiana University (didn't win there though). If you want more information check out their website at

Now back to our regularly scheduled post.

While doing my recent research on Kentuckians reactions to John Brown's raid, the most challenging thing I have encountered is the plethora of bad handwriting in the primary sources I have found. I don't know whether the people that were writing about this event were so upset that they just scratched out their pent up emotions on paper, if they truly had bad penmanship, were poorly educated, or some combination. I have conducted primary source research on a number of topics, in graduate school and independently, that caused me to look over the handwriting of a lot of people, but I have never ran into this many examples of horrible handwriting. And, that got me to much history is lost to bad handwriting?

When I transcribe letters from the original text, by direct observation withe the document or from photocopies, I always try transcribe the whole letter to help better capture the author's line of thought and the context of the letter. But, some of what I have encountered lately leaves me coming back again and again to try to figure out the 150 year old "chicken scratch," and writing "[illegible]" almost as often as complete words....OK, maybe all of it is not that bad, but it has been challenging. For example, in a couple of letters that I found in Virginia governor Wise's papers the author refused to put tails on his d's, so they all ended up looking like a's or o's. Others refuse to use periods or commas or even paragraphs, which of course makes it difficult to tell where the author's thoughts end and start again.

Fresh eyes seem to help, whether from someone new looking at them and making observations, or just taking a break myself for a few minutes and then reading anew. Reading out loud also helps some. I'm glad no one else can easily hear me sometimes, or they might think I was plotting a 21st century slave insurrection or something.

Now, to be fair I have come across a few examples that are a pleasure to read. Not only is the handwriting neat, but the writer actually used punctuation correctly and apparently thought as clearly as they wrote. When reading these "good letters," I don't know how many times I have asked myself, "Why can't they all be like this?" But, then again I am reminded of the phrase my undergraduate Historical Methods professor used to always say, "History is damn hard work."

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Visit to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

I vividly remember my first trip through the Cumberland Gap. Back then you didn't drive through the nice Highway 25E tunnel that now quickly transports you from Kentucky to Tennessee (or the opposite, of course, if you're coming from the other direction). No, back then you had to climb the gap (usually struck behind an 18-wheeler if your luck was like mine), and then at the highest point there was a roadside souvenir shop and Cudjo's Cave. I don't know if you can even still access that road any more or not, but I also remember I always thought it was neat to be able to pass through three states (Virginia got tucked in there too on the old road) in a matter of seconds.

On our recent trip to East Tennessee, Michele and I stopped in at this historic "gateway to the west" for a quick visit. I must say I was a little disappointed with the park's Visitor Center. Being a book enthusiast, I always like looking at the selections at National Parks. Unfortunately, they just didn't have much of an offering. I know that there are a lot more quality books on the region and history of the region than they had available, but apparently, either their budget is extremely limited, or they didn't know about them, or there is some other reason not to offer them.

The museum exhibits there had some of the usual dioramas that one often finds in older National Parks. These illustrated some of the different eras of Cumberland Gap history, such as Dr. Thomas Walker's exploration in 1750, Daniel Boone's later exploration, and Boone's construction of the Wilderness Road. Also included were some Civil War scenes, as the Gap proved to be an important avenue between the Eastern and Western theaters in war. But, overall the exhibits were not real impressive and the interpretation could stand to be updated. They did offer an interpretive film that was free, but which we had to decline due to our travel schedule. One neat feature was the wonderful mural of Daniel Boone and fellow settlers coming through the Gap that was portrayed on the wall of the second floor. This beautiful piece of art was painted by David Wright, a highly regarded artist that focuses on historic personalities and events. In addition, the Appalachian crafts store, also on the second floor, had some interesting regional items for sale.

No trip to Cumberland Gap would be complete without a trip up the mountain to Pinnacle Overlook. This breath-taking view is well worth the winding drive up to it. At the Pinnacle you can see for miles and miles on the Tennessee and Virginia side. The railroad and highway tunnels are easily seen, as well as the little towns of Cumberland Gap and Harrogate, Tennessee. Interpretive plaques explain the geographical features and landmarks. One of the knobs on one of the mountains is the point where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet. From the Pinnacle Overlook you can easily see why the Gap was the best alternative to get through the mountains for the early settlers moving west.

Cumberland Gap is a wonderful place to visit. If you get a chance to go, be sure to read up on the history before making your stop. Or, if you have time, catch the interpretive film or take a guided tour by the staff.