Sunday, January 19, 2014

Henry Cornelius Burnett: Kentucky Confederate

I don't know about you, but when I read, I often imagine what historical personalities looked like if I don't know for sure. When I later do find a photograph or portrait of that person, sometimes I'm close, sometimes I'm way off the mark.

When I read about Henry Cornelius Burnett recently, I suppose I went with my stereotypical image of an antebellum Kentucky politician - and I was pretty much spot on. I can see Burnett now in a heady debate in the halls of Congress, pounding the table and red in the face, arguing for his constituents. One newspaper report described Burnett as "a big, burly, loud-mouthed fellow who is forever raising points of order and objections, to embarrass the Republicans of the House."

Burnett had a interesting legislative career to say the least. He was born in Essex County, Virginia - just northeast of Richmond - in 1825, before moving to Kentucky with this family as a youngster. The Burnetts settled in Trigg County and Henry was education at local schools. He soon was accepted to the state bar and then was elected to represent the First District in Washington D.C. in 1855.

A strong proslavery Democrat, Burnett supported fellow Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 presidential election and remained in his congressional seat after 11 slave states seceded. Burnett returned home to Kentucky for the spring 1861 adjournment of Congress. Burnett returned to Washington in the summer and argued against secession. With the end of the short summer session he again came home to Kentucky in August. The following month Kentucky pledged it allegiance to the Union, which then apparently spurred Burnett to raise a Confederate regiment, the 8th Kentucky.

Burnett was not done with politics though.  He participated in the formation of the Confederate Kentucky government at a November convention meeting in Russellville. He was soon sent to Richmond to advocate for Kentucky's inclusion to the Confederate family. In the meantime, in abstentia, he was expelled from the U.S. House of Representatives. Returning west, Burnett joined the Confederate army at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, but he managed to escape the surrender of the army there in February 1862.

Burnett resumed his political career as a member of the Confederate Senate in early 1862, where he remained throughout the war representing the Bluegrass State. With the Confederacy's defeat Burnett was forced to request a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, apparently without success. Arrested and sent to Louisville upon return to Kentucky, Burnett was released on bond and never stood trial. He returned to his law practice in Trigg County, but a bout with cholera ended Burnett's short life at 40.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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