Monday, July 23, 2012

Frankfort's Remnant of Reconstruction

The immediate post-Civil War period in the Commonwealth of Kentucky has often been referred to in historical accounts as "Readjustment" rather than "Reconstruction." I suppose readjustment has been used due to the fact that Kentucky did not secede from the Union and thus the state government did not need to be rebuilt. But, I have an issue with the term readjustment. To me, readjustment implies that the circumstances that were necessary in post-war Kentucky were somehow less demanding than those in the seceded states that received Radical Reconstruction. I would argue that, at least in terms of race atrocities, Kentucky was as extreme as almost any former slave state.

Not all that much remains of Reconstruction's footprint in Kentucky, but there are still a few traces of this tragic period to serve as reminders. One of these reminders that few people probably know about are the Frankfort Barracks. These structures in South Frankfort, are situated on Shelby Street between the Kentucky River and the "new" state capitol building. These buildings were constructed in 1871 by order of the federal government, and according to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) were built by Alexander Brawner, a local master mason, to house federal troops from 1871 to 1876.   

The nomination form quotes from the November 10, 1871 Frankfort Commonwealth newspaper: "A.G. Brawner is now engaged in erecting three brick barracks on the Coleman Spring lot which will be leased to the U.S. for the use of Federal troops for two years. The barracks are to be large and substantial and so arranged that at the expiration of the lease can be turned into tenement houses." The lease was renewed in two year periods as the article indicated at the rate of $200.00 a month. Apparently the troops were needed longer than initially expected, because as the nomination form explains, the lease expired in the summer of 1876. 

The NRHP nomination form researcher found a handwritten note in the National Archives files in Washington D.C. that stated, "The post at Frankfort, Kentucky, was established during the month of April 1871. From April until December, 1871, the men lived in tents; the officers resided at various places in the city of Frankfort. The command consists of Head Quarters of the 4th U.S. Infantry Staff and Band - Companies D & K., 4th Infantry and one medical officer. On the first of December the command moved into barracks situated in south Frankfort, about one half mile from the City. These barracks were built by a citizen of Frankfort on contract for the use of the troops. They are healthy and comfortable quarters."

It is doubtful that the federal government would have taken the time, effort and expense to have a garrison built and stationed for five years (a year longer than the Civil War) if there was not an expressed need for their presence and protection. The atrocities that were committed against freedmen and freedwomen of Kentucky were readily documented by the Freedmen's Bureau. The NRHP nomination form, completed in 1975, only makes a passing remark about the necessity for government troops' protection. It reads "By 1866 the Kentucky government was in the hands of ex-Confederates. The Radical Republicans had failed to gain a stronghold in Kentucky, as they had obtained in other border states. They [Radicals] interpreted Kentucky's reluctance to support the Republican Party as being disloyal and hostile to the Union. As a result the Radicals' were pressuring Congress to include Kentucky in the Reconstruction Act and make it into the sixth military district, although it had never left the Union. Even though Congress ignored the Radicals' requests, Kentucky's strong southern sympathies along with Congress' desire to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, providing for Negro suffrage (approved by Congress in 1869, but not effective until the 1870 congressional election) could be enough reason for stationing Federal troops in Frankfort as late as 1876. Perhaps the barracks were erected and troops located in Frankfort, like the proverbial shutting of the barn door after the horse has gone; the strategic importance of the capital city of a border state might have been belatedly realized."

Perhaps,  but perhaps not. There is little room to argue that the race situation was so desperate in the state after the Civil War that a long-term Federal presence was not necessary to protect the freed people and their newly won rights of citizenship. To see part of an 1867 report on Kentucky atrocities by a Freedmen's Bureau official see:


  1. Thank you for this post! I used to live down the street from the barracks and always wondered about the history behind them. Very fascinating!

  2. Alexander Brawner was my great great grandfather