Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Divided Loyalties

I am always excited when a new book on Kentucky's Civil War history comes out. Until the past few years the Commonwealth's role in the war had been long ignored, but finally the Bluegrass State is receiving the scholarly attention it deserves.

James W. Finck's book, Divided Loyalties: Kentucky's Struggle for Armed Neutrality in the Civil War, fills a hole that has previously only been covered with scholarly articles - and many of those decades old.

Speaking with individuals around the state I am continually surprised by how many of them believe that Kentucky remained neutral throughout the entire war. I am not sure how that myth got started, but it has certainly proved persistent. I suppose much of its basis is in the fact that Kentucky was so divided, which is largely what Finck argues.

Finck, in Divided Loyalties, contends that the Bluegrass State did not support neutrality out of its steadfast commitment to the Union, but rather it was the state's deeply divided nature that led a declaration of neutrality. I would not necessarily disagree with that statement, but in arguing that Kentucky's division led to neutrality Finck argues that Kentucky was not as committed to the Union as once previously believed. Here, I would disagree.

The majority of Kentucky's citizens felt a deep attachment to the Union. An attachment that was fostered by the politics and example of Kentucky's premier statesman, Henry Clay. Clay's influence on the people of Kentucky was felt long after his death in 1852; something that Finck (in my opinion) did not explore deeply enough. Reading Kentucky newspapers during the secession crisis, during neutrality, and after declaring for the Union, one really gets the strong understanding that the state believed that the Union should survive. This sentiment was expressed in the articles, it was expressed in editorials, and it was even expressed in the advertisements. For instance, one businessman's 1861 ad I recently came across said that he had Colt revolvers for sale, but only to good Union men.

Finck brings up Kentucky's unique geographical location,  its commitment to the institution of slavery, and how those realities influenced the state's path. However, I think more emphasis was needed here. Kentucky's commitment to the Union was strengthened by the understanding that if the state seceded they would not have the fugitive slave act as a means of regaining their property. In short, Kentucky felt slavery could best be preserved in the Union rather than out of it. Lincoln knew this and that is why the border states were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and why he allowed Kentucky to delay the recruitment of African Americans for the Union army. It was largely after these two major events that numerous Kentuckians started to reconsider its loyalty to Union: a nation that was now (1863-64) seemingly against its best interests.

In reading Divided Loyalties, I came unfortunately came across a number of inaccuracies. Some of them were probably nothing more than typos that should have been caught by an editor or the publisher's readers; others left me wondering how much other information in the book was flawed.

For example, in the "Introduction," on page xv, mention is made to the Mayville Convention. This was actually the Mayfield Convention, which was held in Graves County. Unfortunately, it is incorrectly called Mayville again later in the book and is listed that way in the index.

On the same page and onto the next page is the following quote: "These historians have suggested that Kentucky's loyalty can be proven by counting all the votes for [Stephen] Douglas, [Abraham] Lincoln, and [John J.] Crittenden as a vote for unconditional unionism and a vote for [John C.] Breckinridge as a vote for secession." I am not sure how this was missed! John J. Crittenden was certainly not a presidential candidate with the others in the 1860 election; it was John Bell.

On page 48, Finck discussed the new 1849-50 Kentucky constitution. Here, he claims, "In the end, the anti-slavery party won only nine percent of the vote. Consequently, the new constitution required that freed blacks leave the state." I could be wrong, but I am almost certain that freed blacks were not required to leave the state. When John Brown's raid happened nine years later, much discussion went on in the Kentucky legislature on this issue. If it was made a law in 1850, why would lawmakers consider making it a law again short of a decade later?

A number of times Finck mentions the importance of Fort Sumter and its significance in swaying states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee out of the Union. However, from my previous readings, I have always believed that it was not so much the firing on Fort Sumter that prompted the change of mind in the people of those states, but rather it was Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion that caused citizens (and legislatures) to jump on the secession bandwagon. In my opinion, Finck doesn't emphasize this important point enough.

On page 87, Finck states, "However, Kentucky's Magoffin, like Arkansas' governor, eventually called for secession; yet he fully supported the peace measure." Now, I could be wrong again, but I have never come across a document that shows that Magoffin ever formally called for secession. Finck uses an article titled "The Real Cause Lost: The Peace Convention of 1861," by Howard Westwood as his source for this claim. I think a primary source would have been more solid evidence for such a claim.

Finally, on page 189, Finck misnames General McCook. He calls him Anson, but it was actually Anson's cousin, Alexander that made Union soldiers return runaway slaves to their masters.

One thing I did really appreciate about the book was the inclusion of transcribed primary source documents in the appendix. Governor Magoffin's correspondence with Alabama secession commissioner Stephen Hale is enlightening. The Republican, Constitutional Union, and Democratic Party platforms are also significant. As are Magoffin's neutrality declaration, and his messages to Presidents Lincoln and Davis (the one to Lincoln on page 227 is misdated as August 19, 1961).

Divided Loyalties covers a significant topic in Kentucky's history that has previously only received cursory attention. It contributes to a better understanding of how conflicted Kentucky was due to its geographic location, politics, economy, culture, and traditions. While I think certain arguments that the author advances are not always fully explored, it does cause one to reconsider previous interpretations. On a scale of one to five I give Divided Loyalties a four.

No comments:

Post a Comment