Monday, July 20, 2015

What Shaped My Viewpoints?: Life in a Border State

Continuing on the long and winding road of some recent posts, start here and herein which I discuss how I started liking the Civil War and what might influence how I think about it, I now offer these thoughts, comments and, especially, questions about how my home state and its history and culture might have influenced my viewpoints on the war.

I was born in Kentucky and have lived here my whole life; I have always identified myself as a Kentuckian and have no desire to live elsewhere. My family (direct ancestors) has lived in Kentucky since well before the Civil War, with only a brief interruption in the early 1960s. From both my dad and mom's paternal lines, I am a 5th or 6th generation Kentuckian. My dad's paternal ancestors came to Kentucky from Pennsylvania around 1841, with his maternal side coming from Switzerland and Germany, through Indiana and what became West Virginia. Much of my mother's side apparently came from England and then left North Carolina in the early 1800s, settling mainly along the Kentucky River area in eastern Kentucky. Kentucky stayed in the Union during the war, after an attempt at neutrality, but has a reputation as a "southern state" that "seceded after the Civil War," so it has a mixed Civil War legacy, at least from my perception. Both sides clearly influenced and affected this Commonwealth.

Adding to the above, I have lived in the northernmost section of the state my whole life, in Campbell County. (One way to identify a Kentuckian is that we name our home county when we are asked where in the state we are from, either in place of or immediately after the town name. We have a whopping 120 counties in a fairly small state, but county-identification seems to be a shared trait. Here is a brief story about this phenomenon.) This is where my dad's family settled in the 1840s. Sentiment here favored the Union side during the war, but southern sympathies existed as well. Its northern and eastern borders lie along the Ohio River, across which was the free state and Union territory of Ohio. 

My mom's family settled mostly in the area around Breathitt County in eastern Kentucky. This was farther south, but that mountainous region generally had strong Union feelings during the war.



The first image shows the location  of Campbell County, and the second shows Breathitt County, courtesy family search.org

From my view, Kentucky is neither a true northern state nor a true southern one. I don't think I'm alone in that opinion. At a historical society meeting a few years ago, the speaker asked the attendees "Are you southern?" Only a few people held their hands up. He then asked "Are you northern?," and, again, only a few people held up their hands. Most people, myself included, did not respond to either option. It was just one group, but there was no real sense of identity with either of those terms, at least among those at the meeting.

On the other hand, I have heard some people say northern Kentucky is really part of Cincinnati (and likewise have heard Cincinnati called a part of Kentucky) while others state that northern Kentucky and the Louisville area are midwestern and the rest of the state southern. Which, if either, is correct?

Does such a mixture of feelings influence how the war is taught, understood or remembered in Kentucky?  In the post-war years, there were many Confederate monuments built in Kentucky, various stories and books written with Confederate/Southern themes, ex-Confederates elected to office and other activities that gave the state a Confederate reputation. (Let me recommend Anne Marshall's book Creating A Confederate Kentucky for more information on Kentucky's reputation. It probably is my favorite Civil War era book.) Does that image still exist? If so, what influence did it have on my youth? I do not remember when or how I learned about the war in school. 

Does the history of "neutrality" or "border-ism" affect today's culture and memory of the war, including my own? Kentucky has a monument to the birthplace of Jefferson C. Davis, but also the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace and the Lincoln Boyhood Home. Additionally the state did not ratify the 13th amendment that abolished slavery until 1976. What does that mean? Even I was alive by then, 111 years after the nation had adopted that change. 

Had my family's experience been in, let's say, Michigan or Alabama, how different would my understanding, interests or viewpoints be? I don't intend to say everyone from those states thinks the same way, but I would imagine pro-Union sentiments have been more common in the North and pro-Confederate feelings more prominent in Dixie-Land over the years. Has my experience in a border state helped shape my views or what I have been taught? How? What about my family history - both slave owners and Union soldiers, though not an overwhelming number of either, are in my family tree. The only members from my family tree who were in the war were on the Union side. Was all my family at the time supporting the Union and, if so, did that influence future generations?

I read and write about both sides of the war, but I admit that reading about battles that end with Union victory sometimes satisfies me more than stories that are more positive towards the Confederacy. I also am glad that the Union won the war as I think that was the best possible outcome. Perhaps these are indications that I have northern leanings, but I do not feel anti-southern at all. In fact, I almost feel a bit like Kentucky did early in the war - trying to appreciate both perspectives, but with perhaps a bit more interest in the Union side. I do not believe I have any hidden agenda against the Confederacy; at least I try not to. My only agenda is to study what I enjoy and to find more that interests me about the war. That's one way this blog, and seeing so much in the blogosphere, has really been good for me. Still, human nature would seem to make it impossible for anyone to be completely unbiased about something they have so much interest in, at least according to my amateur psychology. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

With all this said, my original interest in the war goes back to my discovery that Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. I still have a fascination with his life and probably have more books about him than any other single Civil War-related topic. I have some Lincoln busts and collectibles I found on eBay. I also have visited his birthplace and boyhood home multiple times and the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville as well, but have not seen the Jefferson Davis Birthplace or made any special tips to see other Confederate monuments like the one in Louisville. What, if anything, does this say about my approach to studying the war?

I guess these are questions I must answer for myself, but maybe asking them here will lead me to ponder and explore them more and perhaps even to find some answers.

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