Embattled Capital: Reflections of a Kentucky Community at War

Although the capital of a crucial border state, Frankfort, like many communities suffered from divided loyalties during the Civil War. The home of the venerable John J. Crittenden, Henry Clay's chief lieutenant during the glory days of the Whig Party, the capital, while a small town in terms of population, was also the home of other prominent Kentuckians who were leaders in business, politics and the press.

John J. Crittenden [Buford-Duke Family Photograph Album]

John J. Crittenden [Buford-Duke Family Photograph Album]

The Special Collections Department of the Filson Historical Society contains several collections that shed light on wartime events in the community as well as the divisive effect of the conflict among local residents. The Crittenden's were foremost among many prominent Kentucky families plagued by divided loyalties.  In a letter dated 12 April 1861, Thomas L. Crittenden, wrote,

Thomas L. Crittenden [PC3.0056]

Thomas L. Crittenden [PC3.0056]

"There is nothing of interest in this little town. Now and then a dog fight or a loose horse will gather a crowd and produce some excitement; but even these slightly stirring things are of rare occurrence."

Events of a far more stirring nature that very day at Fort Sumter would end the quiet in Kentucky's little capital and plunge the nation into four long years of Civil War. John J. Crittenden soon saw his sons Thomas L., Eugene and grandson, J. Crittenden Watson raise their swords in defense of the Union. The seventy-five year old Kentucky Congressman likewise volunteered for duty in the Frankfort Home Guards.  At the same time the elder Crittenden desperately tried to persuade his oldest son George B. to remain true to the "Old Flag."  In an 1861 letter he urged George to "be true to the government that has trusted in you", adding, "And stand fast by your national flag, the Stars and Stripes."  Despite his father's entreaties, George cast his lot with the Confederacy.

In addition to the Crittenden papers, Special Collections also house the records of Frankfort families of far less prominence who still experienced the hard hand of war. The Bodley Family Papers contain numerous wartime letters from Maria Church that shed light on local events and the activities of the capital's pro-Union women. Following a sharp clash in Frankfort between Union and Confederate cavalry on 9 October 1862 she wrote, "These are terrible times but it is astonishing how one sleeps surrounded by thousands of soldiers who may have a collision at any moment." The Julian-Page Family Papers also contain letters from Alex Julian which describe his experiences during the Confederate occupation of the capital in the autumn of 1862.

George B. Crittenden [PC3.0053]

George B. Crittenden [PC3.0053]

History has recorded that Frankfort was the only loyal state capital to be occupied by Confederate troops during the war and the only loyal capital to actually be attacked by rebel forces. However, the rich sources in the Filson's Special Collections Department reflect the wartime experiences of local families who witnessed history in the making.

Embattled Capital: Frankfort Kentucky in the Civil War

Embattled Capital: Frankfort Kentucky in the Civil War

 

 

James M. Prichard is the author of "Embattled Capital: Frankfort Kentucky in the Civil War" which is available for purchase at The Filson.

James Prichard

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