Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review: For Slavery and Union: Benjamin Buckner and Kentucky Loyalties in the Civil War


Copyright 2015
University Press of Kentucky 

After going quite a while without doing a book review, I now am doing a third one in just the last couple of weeks. Today's review is about a book I really enjoyed, one which covered one of my favorite topics, Kentucky in and after the Civil War.

For Slavery and Union is a fascinating book. It is partially a biography of Benjamin Buckner and partially a biography of Kentucky in Civil War era. It serves as a discussion of the formation of the memory of Civil War Kentucky instead of just an analysis of it. 

For students of Kentucky during and after the war or those who study memory and perception, this book is virtually a must-read. It discusses the reasons many people supported both the Union cause and slavery, using Buckner as a specific, detailed example of such support. Lewis shows how men like Buckner believed that the Constitution and government that existed as of 1861 had constantly protected slavery and that they trusted and expected such protection to continue. The feeling that secession was disorder and overly passionate (even "feminine" per Lewis) compared to the established law and order of the Union, and the expectation that the "cotton states" would dominate any southern nation, were also among the rationale for their choices. The onset of emancipation eroded their faith in the Federal government, but strengthened their conviction of the importance of keeping the proper roles of the races in everyday society.

Lewis starts this work by providing background information on slavery in Clark County, where Buckner spent much of his life. It shows how the region and state's economy and geography required a different practice of slavery - on a different scale - than did the cotton states of the deeper south. He argued that the talk of slavery in Kentucky being "milder" than in other areas was (and is) a myth, based largely on the differences that Kentucky's economy and geology required and how the state's slaveholders adapted the institution to meet their particular needs. He also explains how Buckner's life was one in which slavery was a basic element, in routine daily life and in the political arena, especially as the secession crisis approached and unfolded. The story of Buckner's new relationship with his future wife Helen and how it fit with social norms of the time, begins to unfold as well, opening a window into one aspect of his view of life.

The middle chapters then discuss Buckner's military career, including his support for the Union and opposition to secession. They describe the importance of military experience and glory to his understanding of (white) manhood. The author, relying largely on the letters Buckner wrote to Helen, further describes his courtship and how he hoped his military service would win him approval to marry her. This part is not directly related to the actual war or Buckner's politics, but contributes greatly to the understanding of Buckner's mindset about what life should be, including gender roles. His core beliefs and values influenced all the choices he would make throughout his life, including joining and leaving the Union army. He was a product of his times, in talk and action, but the times also became a product of men like him.

For Slavery and Union proceeds to explain Buckner's reaction to the changing war aims of the Union government. As these goals evolved and emancipation, the enlistment of African-American soldiers, and a harder type of war became a priority, Buckner and men like him felt betrayed by the Federal government. Lewis describes the rising tension in the army between Kentucky troops and General William Rosecrans. Opposition to ending slavery - and, importantly, to arming African Americans,  stealing part of the "manhood" white men valued so much - was quite strong among these soldiers. Several officers such as Buckner backed their tough talk by resigning their commissions, after some first tried to have their units transferred back to Kentucky where they hoped to protect the peculiar institution in their hometowns.

One especially effective phrase Lewis used in describing emancipation and the reactions it provoked  was the "lost mastery" that men like Buckner suffered with slavery's end. This expression was a brief but effective description and applied to more than just slavery. If slaves could be freed and African-Americans gained rights previously held solely by whites, what could happen next? It was a scary thought, one of potential chaos and unpredictability that ran counter to the orderly life these men desired.

This work next turns to Buckner's post-war life and career, as he continued to believe in a unquestioned racial hierarchy and took steps to establish it and support its continued existence despite the destruction of slavery. He resumed his career as a lawyer and became involved in local and state politics, employing legal and political tools to maintain his ideal society, in which whites, especially men, were at the top and blacks remained at the bottom. Buckner even formed a state militia company to help achieve his goals. He later played a key role in weakening the effects of the 15th Amendment, successfully arguing before the Supreme Court in United Stars v Hiram Reese et al to support a poll-tax law that made it tougher for blacks to vote in Lexington.

It is in this section where the development of the state's memory of the war becomes evident, as it shows how Buckner's beliefs and goals matched those of other pro-Union Kentuckians as well as former Confederates. It is an especially important part of this book and of the understanding of the state's image.

Many who study the Civil War are familiar with the cliché that "Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the Civil War." Anne Marshall's book Creating a Confederate Kentucky describes how Kentucky developed its Confederate image and is perhaps my favorite Civil War volume. Lewis' work is an excellent addition to Marshall's, and even strikes me as a prequel to Marshall's book (though while reading it I got the impression that the conversion of Kentucky's self-image to that of a Confederate state began during the war, immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation.) Lewis' work shows the existence and growth of the various beliefs and characteristics Union supporters shared with former Confederate backers, through the eyes, life, words and actions of Benjamin Buckner. Marshall's deals more with a longer post-war era and different memory-related developments throughout the state, but what For Slavery and Union describes is the early formation of the thinking and beliefs that created the memory and perception of Kentucky as described by Marshall. (This includes Lewis' insightful point that ex-Confederates did not "take over" the Kentucky government, but, rather, used cooperation and understanding from men like Buckner to gain such power.) This is probably the most valuable aspect of this book - the analysis of a single life as an example of how so many Kentuckians felt about the coming, reality, ending and memory of the Civil War, particularly in relation to slavery and race relations.

For Slavery and Union is a wonderfully insightful and interesting book, offering a terrific understanding into and analysis of Benjamin Buckner's life and how it serves as an example of loyal slaveowners in Kentucky and their relationship to the Federal government as the Civil War progressed and ended. Author Patrick Lewis obviously performed thorough research, using a wide variety of sources, and weaved quotes from many of these into his narrative. His analysis of these sources gives this book a tremendous importance in the study of Kentucky and Kentuckians during and after the Civil War, especially of slave owners who supported the Union. (Disclosure: one of my four-time great-grandfathers was a Kentucky slaveowner during the time. He was too old to fight, but had a son and three grandsons who joined Union units, including Home Guards. How closely did my family's beliefs mirror Buckner's? That question certainly has added to my interest in this book.)

I do wonder if more illustrations would have made a fine book even better, as it includes only one photograph. Could a map of Kentucky, particularly one with counties and regions shown on it, have been beneficial? I have at least a reasonable understanding of Kentucky geography, but non-Kentuckians may not. Perhaps I am nit-picking here.

Overall, this book is a terrific study of a slave-owning Unionist and how he and others like him contributed to the memory of Civil War-era Kentucky that has lasted even until today. It describes the mixed feelings that southern unionists - particularly those in a border state - struggled with, and shows that not all decisions were as simple as blue or gray. It is more of a scholarly book than a popular one, so it may take a little extra effort to read - it did for me, anyway. That is not meant as a criticism of Lewis' writing, however - it is an acknowledgement of the challenge he accepted with this project. The study of Kentucky in the war and its aftermath is a complex topic and Lewis explores that complexity in a well-researched and insightful work, focusing on the life of Benjamin Buckner to illustrate issues many citizens of the Commonwealth faced. Time spent reading this book is a worthwhile investment; this is a fascinating look at a complicated topic.

For Slavery and Union is an enjoyable, perceptive and informative work and the most recent addition to my list of favorite books. I strongly and gladly recommend it. 

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