I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.
Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.
I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.
America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.
That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.
Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.
Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.
Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.
Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information: BluegrassTrust.org.)
Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.
Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate: HenryClay.org.)
At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.
Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.
Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.
Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.
Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”
From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.
Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information: MTLHouse.org.)
That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.
The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point. Photos by Tom Eblen
A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.
The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.
Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.
Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.
Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.
The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.
A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.