Civil War general’s home featured on annual Bourbon County tour

September 29, 2015
Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen

Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford’s Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — This year’s Historic Paris-Bourbon County house tour Sunday is at the boyhood home of one of Kentucky’s most-interesting and least-known Civil War generals, who ended his short life as an American diplomat in South America.

Nobody is sure when the Greek Revival mansion called Houston Dale was built. The best guess is around 1840, when the farm belonged to Henry Croxton, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, and his wife, Ann.

For the past 36 years, Houston Dale has been the home of Thoroughbred breeder Phil T. Owens, who restored and added onto the mansion just west of the Paris bypass.

While building Houston Dale, the Croxtons probably lived in a circa 1790s log cabin now restored behind the mansion. The couple would have needed more room: they eventually had 12 children. They also had 20 slaves to work their farm.

John Thomas Croxton

John Thomas Croxton

Slavery was a subject of disagreement between Croxton and his eldest son, John Thomas Croxton, who was born in 1836 and went off to Yale in 1854. They argued about it in letters, with the younger Croxton explaining that he favored the gradual emancipation and deportation of slaves.

Anti-slavery views were not popular among white people in Bourbon County then. Nearly half the population was enslaved blacks, whose labor produced a rich agricultural bounty for their owners.

After graduating from Yale and earning a law degree from Georgetown, Croxton returned to Paris in 1859 to practice law. The next year, he was one of only two men in Paris to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s election sparked the Civil War, and Croxton was quick to join the Union cause. He recruited troops for the 4th Kentucky Infantry, of which he was elected lieutenant colonel.

Over the next five years, Croxton’s superiors repeatedly praised him as a skilled and fearless officer who fought despite several battle wounds. He was promoted to colonel at age 24, brigadier general at 27 and given an honorary promotion to major general for gallantry

Croxton saw action at many battles, including Perryville, Chickamauga, Nashville and Atlanta. He led a daring raid across Alabama that captured Tuscaloosa and eliminated one of the Confederacy’s last supply centers. After the war, he spent a year as military commander of central Georgia.

In 1866, Croxton returned to Paris, where he had built a house on Cypress Street. He practiced law, farmed, chaired the state Republican party and helped start a Republican newspaper, the Louisville Commercial.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Croxton as the United States minister to Bolivia. But a year after taking the post in 1873, he died in La Paz of tuberculosis at age 37. He is buried in Paris Cemetery.

After Croxton’s death, Houston Dale was owned for many years by James Hall, a prominent farmer.

In 1979, Owens was planning to buy a horse farm and build a new “old” house. He had just gone to Colonial Williamsburg to study traditional architecture when his father told him Houston Dale was for sale. He bought it.

Owens renovated the mansion, which has foot-thick brick walls and most of its original floors and woodwork. He added a wing to each side for additional space and bathrooms. Owens also restored the log cabin, where his mother lives.

He also built a swimming pool, a pool house and a garage with an apartment that looks more like a colonial-style guest house from the front.

Between the mansion and Houston Creek is a stone wall along what appears to be an old road. Built into the wall with big limestone slabs are steps and a platform, apparently for stepping out of a carriage or stage coach.

Owens and his wife, Michelle, recently put the 9,665-square foot house and surrounding 31 acres on the market for $1,675,000. She said they want less house and more land to expand their broodmare stock and run cattle.

“It will be hard to leave,” Owens said of Houston Dale, recalling the first time the late Lexington horseman and philanthropist W.T. Young Jr. visited.

“He said, ‘If I lived here, I’d never leave home,'” Owens said. “It is a special house.”

If you go

Historic Home Tour

When: 2 p.m. — 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4

Where: Houston Dale Farm, 2328 Fords Mill Rd.

Why: Annual benefit for the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Cost: $10 members, $15 public. Children younger than 17 free.

More info: (859) 987-7274 or


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens bought the house in 1979 and renovated it.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is the dining room. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Houston Dale includes original woodwork.


Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris. The house was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Phil and Michelle Owens and the youngest of their three children, Jack, 4, pose in the dining room of Houston Dale, their circa 1840 house near Paris.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace. Photo by Tom Eblen |

This is a dining area in the kitchen, which features an original stone fireplace.


Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale, site of Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Steps and a landing to help passengers get on and off carriages and stage coaches was built into a stone wall beside Houston Dale.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Houston Dale was the boyhood home of Union Gen. John T. Croxton.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. He built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Owens built the back of the garage, which faces the house, to look like a guest house.


Historic Paris-Bourbon County's annual home tour Oct. 4 visits Houston Dale on Ford's Mill Road near Paris, a circa 1840 house that was the birthplace and boyhood home of John T. Croxton, who broke with his slaveholding family and became a Union general during the Civil War. Since the late 1970s, the house has belonged to Thoroughbred breeder Phil Owens. Photo by Tom Eblen |

The dining room at Houston Dale.

If we can’t face facts about the Civil War, how can we ever deal with modern issues?

September 1, 2015

You have to wonder: With all of the challenges our state and nation faces, why do we still spend so much time arguing about the Civil War? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Americans have an uncanny ability to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. No chapter in our history has been more mythologized than the Southern rebellion that officially ended 150 years ago.

If you want to understand the facts, a good place to start is Ken Burns’ 1990 television series, The Civil War. For five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 7, Kentucky Educational Television will show a high-definition version of that acclaimed series, which has been digitally re-mastered for its 25th anniversary.

I remember when the series first aired — and a record 40 million people watched. I lived in Atlanta, where the Civil War remained an everyday presence. It seemed like the whole city was sleep-deprived that week; people stayed up night after night, mesmerized by a compelling history lesson told simply with narration, old photographs and music.

If you have time to see only one episode of The Civil War this time, make it the first one. I watched the original again this week and was impressed by how well it explained the war’s causes, which generations of myth-making tried to obfuscate.

While there were a few side issues, the Civil War was all about slavery. White supremacy was the Confederacy’s core belief. Read every state’s secession documents. Read the politicians’ speeches. There is no doubt.

The other reason the Civil War still resonates is that deep divisions of race and class in America have never gone away; they have just become more subtle and complex. And each time it feels like our national wound is healing, the scab is torn off.

A white racist slaughters black worshipers in church. A black man assassinates a white deputy sheriff. White police officers shoot unarmed black men. A black man videotapes his murder of two TV journalists. So many white people find it so easy to hate a mixed-race president with a foreign-sounding name.


A participant in a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at the state Capitol in July takes a “selfie” with the Jefferson Davis statue. Photo by Charles Bertram.

This ugly reality has refocused attention on Confederate symbolism, which has always been racially divisive. In Kentucky, the hottest debate is over the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1936.

Like most Confederate monuments, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in front of Lexington’s old courthouse, Davis’ statue was erected decades after the war, largely at taxpayer expense, by a Confederate memorial group as part of a well-organized effort to reinterpret the South’s racist rebellion as a noble “lost cause”.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both candidates for governor and other prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for moving Davis’ statue from its symbolic place of honor in the Capitol to a museum.

That view was endorsed Monday by 72 historians from 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, who sent a letter to Stumbo and members of the General Assembly.

“The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause,” the letter said. “Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view — a perspective that minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions, and endows the southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

But a recent Bluegrass Poll found that 73 percent of Kentuckians think the statue should stay in the rotunda. The all-white Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed by a vote of 7-2, but recommended adding a plaque with “educational context.” Myths are stubborn things.

What I find most disturbing about this debate is the willful ignorance of so many white people who insist the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They ignore the fact that Confederate symbolism has always been a tool of racial intimidation. They remain oblivious to the pain black people feel toward veneration of Confederate heroes.

As the historians’ letter pointed out, this discussion isn’t about “erasing” or “rewriting” history; it is about making history more accurate. It is about no longer honoring people whose actions and beliefs are now considered despicable by a more enlightened and inclusive society.

With so many people so willing to ignore facts about the Civil War’s cause, it is no wonder we have trouble discussing race relations, economic justice, climate change and other issues that now threaten our future.

When willful ignorance and ideology replace facts and logic, it produces the kind of dangerous polarization that America saw in the 1860s — and that we see far too often a century and a half later.

Move Jefferson Davis’ statue from state Capitol to a museum

June 23, 2015

The young, white thug who sat for an hour in a prayer meeting at a South Carolina church, then pulled a gun and murdered nine black worshipers, touted his racism by posting a picture of himself online holding the Confederate flag.

His heinous act has had one positive effect: It has forced conservative Southern politicians to rethink state-supported veneration of the Confederacy.

This is long overdue, and Kentucky leaders should join them by moving Jefferson Davis’ 15-foot marble statue from the Capitol rotunda to a museum.

Others have tried before and failed. Now, the idea is gaining rapid support from, among others, prominent Republicans including Sen. Mitch McConnell, state Senate President Robert Stivers and gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin.

Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Tuesday that he would have to think about it — a hesitation he might soon regret.

jeffdavisAcross the South, Confederate symbolism is suddenly under siege. The Confederate battle flag’s days on the South Carolina capital lawn appear numbered, and some Mississippi leaders are talking about removing the emblem from their state flag.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the battle flag removed from a license plate produced for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Texas can refuse to allow the flag on its license plates.

Walmart and Sears announced that they will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.

Since 1936, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, has had a place of honor in Kentucky’s Capitol, along with four other Kentuckians: his nemesis, Abraham Lincoln; statesman Henry Clay; pioneer physician Ephraim McDowell; and Vice President Alben Barkley.

Davis’ statue was put there at the urging of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1934, legislators appropriated $5,000 of taxpayer money to help pay for it. That sum is now worth about $89,000.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans campaigned for decades to erect memorials to their Confederate ancestors, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan on Lexington’s old courthouse square. They were more interested in history than white supremacy.

But the same cannot be said for the people behind many official displays of the Confederate flag around the South. Most of those flags appeared a half-century ago as acts of defiance against the civil rights movement. Intent is key, and their intent was racist.

Their sentiments live on in the underground white supremacy movement, which is bigger than most politicians want to admit. It is why the Confederate flag continues to be embraced by people such as the South Carolina murderer, whose name I will not dignify by publishing.

But let’s get back to Jefferson Davis.

A Mississippi planter’s son, he was born in Kentucky, near the Christian-Todd county line, where a 351-foot obelisk that’s now part of the state park system was dedicated to his memory in 1924. He went to prep school near Springfield and attended Transylvania University before graduating from West Point.

When Mississippi seceded from the union in 1861, Davis resigned his U.S. Senate seat and led a war against the country he had sworn to defend.

Late in life, Davis claimed that the Civil War had never really been about slavery, a ridiculous argument that some Confederate apologists still try to make.

The central issue of Southern secession was the preservation of slavery and the economic system that depended on it. It was about denying black people basic human rights because of a belief that they were inferior. Davis was the man in charge of that effort, and he doesn’t deserve our honor today.

Some people would say that moving Davis’ statue out of the Capitol is an attempt to rewrite history. That isn’t so.

Davis’ statue should be prominently displayed in a state museum along with other relics of Kentucky’s complex and controversial past. He should be remembered, and his story should be studied in the context of his era.

If nothing else, Davis provides a great lesson for current and future Kentucky leaders, and that lesson is this: Doing what is politically and economically expedient but morally questionable can leave you on the wrong side of history.

Museums honor history. The Capitol rotunda — the very center of our state government — should honor those whose accomplishments and ideals we value.

State rules limit statues in the rotunda to people who have been dead for at least 40 years, according to David Buchta, the state curator of historic properties. That’s a good rule, because it gives time for famous people’s worth to be seen in perspective.

Moving Davis’ statue to a museum would make room for at least one other Kentuckian more worthy of our honor. I can think of several candidates, and some of them are of a different race or gender than the five white guys there now.

Lectures show some Civil War issues still fresh as today’s headlines

February 28, 2015

abeEduardo Kobra’s Lexington mural of Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Tom Eblen


One great thing about living in this university city is that a lot of smart and interesting people come here to speak and you can hear them for free.

Two of my favorite annual events are the Kenan Lecture at Transylvania University and the Bale Boone Symposium, sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities.

Last month, the Bale Boone’s three speakers discussed the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago. Or did it?

Historian Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond in Virginia, gave a fascinating talk about the Civil War and how his school’s Digital Scholarship Lab is using technology to better illustrate and explain history.

Coleman Hutchison of the University of Texas talked about the history of the word and song Dixie, with all of their cultural symbolism and baggage.

The third talk was by David Blight, a Yale University history professor and acclaimed author, whose lecture title was a trick question: When Did the American Civil War End?

Blight’s answer was that it hasn’t. Sure, the shooting war stopped a century and a half ago. But the underlying issues — race, class, civil rights, social and economic justice, states’ rights and federalism — remain as fresh and raw as today’s headlines.

These lectures were not the familiar territory of Civil War buffs: armies, generals, battlefield maneuvers and what-might-have-beens. They explored how this epic conflict and its causes are still deeply embedded in our national psyche.

Consider, for example, states’ rights. Politicians in some states still try to “nullify” federal legislation, regulations and court rulings they don’t like. The Constitution’s intended balance between state and federal authority remains a source of dispute.

Now, as then, these disputes often boil down to whose rights are being served and whose are being ignored, Blight noted. At various times since the Civil War, the federal government has overruled state authority to protect civil rights, the environment and public health.

Liberty may be our most cherished freedom. But what does liberty mean? What happens when one person’s idea of liberty infringes upon the liberty of others?

For example, is government regulation of business an infringement on the liberty of business owners? Or is regulation necessary to keep some businesses from infringing on the liberty of other businesses, workers, citizens and communities?

The Federal Communications Commission’s decision last week on Internet regulation is a good example. Does “net neutrality” infringe on the liberty of Internet service providers, which often are monopolies, to maximize their investment? Or does it protect the liberty of consumers to access information and the liberty of other businesses to have a level playing field so they can compete in the marketplace?

Liberty’s double-edged sword is central to an issue many people think threatens the very survival of representative democracy in America since the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.

Whose liberty should prevail? Is it the liberty of wealthy individuals and corporations to use unlimited funds to amplify their speech and buy influence? Or is it the liberty of everyone else to have a political process free of money’s corruption?

As the Civil War entered its final year, on April 18, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln discussed this philosophical question in a speech in Baltimore. He talked about liberty in the context of slavery, but his words speak eloquently to many of the political issues that bitterly divide us today.

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one,” Lincoln said. “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

“With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.

“Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.”

Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen


Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”

Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.

Kentucky band from ‘Lincoln’ movie playing at Gettysburg 150th

November 13, 2013


President Lincoln’s Own Band is scheduled to perform in Gettysburg, Pa., at the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This group visited Washington D.C. in January when it performed as part of President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities. From left to right: Dana Schoppert, Reese Land, Dave Centers, Michael Tunnell, Dennis Edlebrock, Don Johnson, Don Johnson III, Jeff Stockham, Joseph Van Fleet and Garman Bowers. Photo provided


Bands usually hit it big with music that is new and different. But Don Johnson’s band is making a national splash by performing pieces that are old and authentic.

Johnson, who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Marion County, is the artistic director of President Lincoln’s Own Band, a uniformed military-style ensemble that plays Civil War-era music on original period instruments.

Since appearing in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2012 movie, Lincoln, the band has been a sought-after soundtrack for many events marking the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.

The band’s latest big gig is Nov. 19 at Dedication Day in Gettysburg, Pa., which will mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The band also played at Dedication Day last year, when Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke.

The band also appeared in Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic film about the president’s assassination. It played at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History for two days during President Obama’s inaugural festivities in January and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in June.

At Gettysburg next week, the band will be sharing the stage with the U.S. Marine Band, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and historian James McPherson.

Johnson is still fine-tuning the band’s 30-minute concert lineup, but knows he will begin with My Old Kentucky Home, in honor of Lincoln’s birth state, and end with Yankee Doodle. Other likely tunes are Rally Round the FlagHail Columbia and We Are Coming, Father Abraham, which the band played in Spielberg’s movie. Johnson also said he will play “taps” at the ceremony.

“The sound of Civil War instruments was quite different from what you hear today,” Johnson said, explaining the appeal of his band’s authentic style. “It was a lot darker and more velvety and like a voice.”

Also among the group’s Kentucky members playing at Gettysburg will be Joseph Van Fleet, a trumpet professor at Eastern Kentucky University. For more information about the group, go to: 


‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

September 24, 2013


“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.


When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

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If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581,

Band that performed in ‘Lincoln’ included four Kentuckians

December 15, 2012

The Civil War band President Lincoln’s Own posed with Lincoln director Steven Spielberg on Nov. 19 after he spoke in Gettysburg, Pa., at ceremonies marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The band includes four Kentuckians. From left to right, Garman Bowers, Jeff Stockham, Wayne Collier of Lexington, Denny Edelbrock, Reece Land of Campbellsville, Steven Spielberg, Don Johnson of Lebanon, Mike Tunnell of Louisville, Dana Schoppert, Chris Johnston, Mark Elrod and Jay Norris. Photo Provided.


Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, features several notable Kentuckians of the past, from the 16th president and his Lexington-born wife to a long-forgotten congressman from Owensboro.

When I wrote about them last month, I didn’t know that four modern Kentuckians also appear in the acclaimed movie. They provide an authentic taste of Civil War music on period brass instruments.

About 15 minutes into the film, President Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is shown at a flag-raising ceremony. A 12-piece military band wearing red uniforms plays as the crowd sings, “We are coming, Father Abraham,” a popular patriotic song of the day.

The scene was filmed in Petersburg, Va., in December 2011. But it wasn’t until the movie was released this fall that members of the band, President Lincoln’s Own, were allowed to reveal their participation.

The Kentucky musicians are Wayne Collier, a Lexington lawyer with Kinkead & Stilz; Reese Land, associate professor of music at Campbellsville University; Michael Tunnell, a University of Louisville music professor; and Don Johnson, a musician and antique instrument collector from Lexington who now lives in Lebanon.

The band also played with Spielberg when he spoke Nov. 19 in Gettysburg, Pa., at ceremonies marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“It was one of those who-you-know situations,” said Collier, explaining how a real estate lawyer and amateur trumpeter found his way into a Spielberg movie touted as an Academy Award favorite.

The Civil War band grew out of Kentucky Baroque Trumpets, an award-winning group that Johnson, Collier and two others formed in 2005. Collier has been playing trumpet since he was 10 and earned a music theory degree from the University of Kentucky before going to law school. The Tates Creek High School graduate got to know Johnson, who went to Henry Clay, when they played together in a youth orchestra in the early 1970s.

To film the scene in Lincoln, band members drove to Petersburg, Va., one weekend last December. They found tons of dirt spread on the streets in a neighborhood of antebellum buildings “at great expense, I’m sure,” Collier said.

Band members had been told not to shave or cut their hair for a month before filming so makeup and hair stylists could make them look authentic to the period. They were then photographed so the makeup and styling could be quickly recreated before filming on Monday morning.

Band members practiced their music on original Civil War-era horns, which are pitched higher and are more difficult to play than modern instruments. Collier said he had it easier than some because he played a horn from his own collection: an 1861 nickel-silver D.C. Hall E-flat alto with rotary valves.

After makeup, costuming and rehearsal, band members attended a cast party and met actress Sally Field, who had visited Lexington last year to prepare for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Filming the flag-raising scene took three hours. Freezing temperatures made it difficult to play the antique brass horns. But Spielberg liked the band’s performance so much that he made the unusual decision to use the live performance rather than redub the music with a studio recording.

In the movie, the band members are seen and heard for only a few seconds — and they were left out of the credits, which was a disappointment.

Collier said his legal background helped him appreciate the dialogue-heavy movie, which focuses on Lincoln’s legal thinking and political arm-twisting in 1864-65 to enact the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. Lincoln thought the amendment was legally essential to expand and make permanent his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.

A key figure in the movie is U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman, a lawyer and judge from Owensboro whom Lincoln cajoles into becoming a key swing vote for the amendment.

After seeing the movie, Collier found copies of two Yeaman speeches. One was given in 1862 on the floor of the House, criticizing the legal weaknesses in the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln was trying to fix two years later. The other speech was given in 1899, when Yeaman taught constitutional law at Columbia University in New York and was reflecting on the amendment.

“He was a lot brighter than he came across in the film,” Collier said of Yeaman.”Compared to him, our role in the movie was minuscule. But it was a phenomenal experience.”


Candlelight tours at one of Kentucky’s grandest Old South mansions

December 11, 2012

Ward Hall, completed in 1857, is considered one of the nation’s finest Greek Revival-style mansions. The foundation that owns the mansion is beginning a fundraising campaign for $850,000 in exterior renovations. Photos by Tom Eblen


GEORGETOWN — Central Kentucky has many elegant homes built before the Civil War, but Ward Hall is in a class by itself.

Completed in 1857 for planter and horseman Junius R. Ward, this massive mansion commands a hillside on Frankfort Road a mile west of Georgetown. Architectural historians have described it as Kentucky’s finest home, one of the grandest Greek Revival houses outside the deep South and among the 20 or so best mid-19th century buildings left in America.

“The national experts are really more excited about what we have here than are many of the locals,” said David Stuart, a Scott County lawyer and president of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. “It’s amazing that we sit about 12 miles from downtown Lexington and so many people are unaware of Ward Hall.”

The mansion, at 1782 Frankfort Road, is open for tours only one weekend a month, but there will be Christmas candlelight tours from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 22 and 23. Admission is $5, free for children 15 and younger. (More information: (859) 396-4257,

Ward Hall was built by descendants of prominent Scott County pioneers who achieved fabulous wealth made possible by slavery.

Junius Ward (1802-1883) was the son of Gen. William and Sarah Ward. She was the sister of Richard M. Johnson, who was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-41.

Junius Ward married Matilda Viley, whose family was instrumental in making Central Kentucky the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Through the Viley family, Ward became a part-owner in the legendary race horse Lexington.

Ward acquired rich bottomland in Mississippi and became a wealthy planter. He built Ward Hall on 550 acres outside his hometown as a refuge from Mississippi’s summer heat. He had the money and taste to build the very best.

Measuring nearly 75 feet square and 40 feet high, Ward Hall has more than 12,000 square feet of space on four levels. It was built with an innovative plumbing system that collected rainwater from the roof.

Those last few summers before the Civil War changed everything, the Wards entertained the Bluegrass aristocracy in grand fashion. Parties were hosted by Matilda Ward and her niece, Sallie Ward, a famous Southern belle whose exploits — including four marriages and a much-publicized divorce — could have made the fictional Scarlett O’Hara blush.

After climbing 10 limestone steps past massive Corinthian columns, visitors would enter a 14-foot-wide hall with a 14-foot ceiling. They would be welcomed into a double parlor with Carrara marble mantels, walnut woodwork and Sheffield silver fixtures.

The silver chandeliers still hang from a distemper plaster ceiling which, after 155 years, retains its original coloring. A graceful elliptical staircase ascends from the center of the hall to huge second-floor bedrooms and a third-floor attic.

The Civil War ruined Ward financially, and his Kentucky mansion and its contents were sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1867. The home passed through several owners before the Susong family bought it and 156 acres in 1945.

The Susongs put the property up for sale in 2004, and a developer bought 116 acres.

Georgetown College stepped in to ensure that the mansion and 40 surrounding acres were preserved. A non-profit preservation foundation was created to buy the property for $957,000. The money came from federal and local government grants, plus $250,000 from developer Jim Barlow.

“The rare thing about the house is that it comes to us virtually intact,” Stuart said, noting how little was changed by various owners over a century and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ward Hall is in desperate need of repair.

The Kentucky Heritage Council has approved an $850,000 plan to restore the exterior to prevent further damage from the elements. The foundation will begin a fundraising campaign for that money next year.

An additional $2 million or so will be needed to restore the mansion’s interior and upgrade infrastructure systems. Plans to rebuild the once-famous stable and restore the outbuildings and grounds will take another couple million.

The foundation’s long-term goal is to open the property as a community center and living history museum depicting Kentucky plantation life just before, during and after the Civil War. But it won’t be a sentimental treatment, Stuart said.

“We’re not going to back away from the black American experience,” he said, noting that the basement-level service areas are as intact as the grand upper floors. “This house and plantation would not have existed without the enslaved.”

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Kentucky and Kentuckians are all over new movie about Lincoln

November 25, 2012

“I hope to have God on my side,” Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1861, “but I must have Kentucky.”

Indeed, Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, makes it clear that the 16th president needed his home state up to the very end of the Civil War.

Kentucky is all over this terrific drama. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Lincoln, who was born in what is now Larue County, and Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln of Lexington. Field even spent time in Lexington to prepare for her role.

Early in the film, Lincoln is seen talking with two black soldiers who mention they enlisted at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. A constant presence in the movie is the ticking of a watch that Lincoln owned — recorded at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where it is part of the collection.

The movie focuses on Lincoln’s quest in 1864 and 1865 to abolish slavery, in border as well as rebel states, by expanding his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. To do that, he needed to get the Senate-passed amendment through a divided House of Representatives.

A pivotal vote Lincoln needs is that of U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman of Owensboro, who is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a California-born actor who affects a convincing Western Kentucky accent. At this point, even Kentucky history buffs in the audience are scratching their heads. George Helm Who?

Michael Stuhlbarg portrays George Helm Yeaman. AP Photo by Peter Kramer

Yeaman, then 35, was born in Hardin County, the nephew of former Gov. John L. Helm. A talented lawyer, Yeaman was Daviess County judge before being elected to the General Assembly and then Congress.

Yeaman was a Unionist. But the two major parties in Congress were Republicans and Democrats, although their personalities were the opposite of what they are today. Democrats were more conservative, Republicans more liberal.

Many Democrats supported slavery, while most Republicans, including Lincoln, opposed it. The so-called “radical Republicans” even believed in racial equality; at the time, no political idea was more radical than that.

Yeaman disliked slavery, but he feared that abolition would destroy Kentucky’s economic and social structure. On Dec. 18, 1862, he gave a lengthy speech in the House denouncing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“I protest against it as a violation of the Constitution and the liberties of my country,” Yeaman said. “I protest against it as unwise, uncalled for, tending to widen the breach rather than to hasten the conclusion of this war.”

“Yeaman was reflecting the views of his constituents,” said Aloma Dew, who taught Civil War and Reconstruction history at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro and wrote The Kentucky Encyclopedia’s entry about Yeaman.

Most of Yeaman’s constituents supported both the Union and slavery. “He felt that the power to confiscate private property was unconstitutional,” Dew said, adding that he also thought blacks were unprepared for freedom.

In the movie, Yeaman, serving as a lame duck after being defeated for re-election in 1864, is first shown giving a speech against the proposed 13th Amendment. He warns that ending slavery could eventually extend the vote to blacks and, even more horribly, to women. The House erupts in jeers.

This speech leads Lincoln’s operatives to think Yeaman can’t be bribed with a government job, which they were using to win the votes of other lame duck opponents. But the president decides to try to persuade him anyway.

Calling Yeaman to the White House, Lincoln tells him how his father, Thomas Lincoln, moved the family from Kentucky to Indiana and then Illinois because “he knew no small-holding dirt farmer could compete with slave plantations.”

“I hate it too, sir, slavery,” Yeaman tells Lincoln. “But we’re entirely unready for emancipation.”

Lincoln replies that the nation is unready for peace, too, but will have to figure it out when the time comes.

Days later, when called upon to cast his vote, Yeaman first mumbles, then shouts his “Aye!” to the shock of amendment opponents. He becomes a key swing vote for abolishing slavery.

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson appointed Yeaman as ambassador to Denmark. In that role, he negotiated the sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States, only to have it rejected by Congress. (The sale was later consummated in 1917 at more than three-times the cost.)

Yeaman resigned his ambassadorship in 1870 and settled in New York. The former congressman who had opposed the Emancipation Proclamation on constitutional grounds wrote several books about law and government and taught constitutional law at Columbia University.

President James Garfield reportedly offered Yeaman an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was assassinated in 1881 before he could follow through. With his wife in failing health, Yeaman moved to a country home in Madison, N.J., where he died in 1908.

Spielberg’s movie offers insight into the central role of Kentuckians in the Civil War, including a nod to a reluctant hero who might otherwise have been forgotten.

Ashland marks 150th anniversary of Lexington’s odd Civil War battle

September 25, 2012


Lexington played a central role in the lives of leaders on both sides of the Civil War. Union and Confederate troops each occupied the city. Yet, there was only one significant military engagement in Fayette County, and some aspects of it were almost comical.

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate will mark the 150th anniversary of that battle with four events during the next month.

The first is a Civil War “living history” day Saturday at the 17-acre estate, where most of the fighting occurred. A dozen re-enactors will drill, fire cannons and play period music, cook and quilt.  There will be special tours of the mansion and performances by actors portraying statesman Henry Clay, slave Lotty Dupuy and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman will perform in concert with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra on Sunday. The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation will award Perlman the Henry Clay Medallion.

The other events are a Civil War Ball on Oct. 13 at Christ Church Cathedral, where Clay worshiped, and a speakers panel Oct. 21 with historians James Klotter, Lindsey Apple, Kent Masterson Brown and UK textile professor Kim Spillman, who will talk about reenactors and their costumes.

Ashland isn’t trying to compete with larger Civil War re-enactments at Perryville and Richmond, the sites of more significant battles, said curator Eric Brooks.

“Our goal is to provide something that will help people understand what was going on in this community,” he said. “That was living life under occupation, living life in which you and your siblings might be on opposite sides.”

Before his death in 1852, Clay spent much of his career in Congress forging compromises over slavery to try to prevent the Civil War. But war came anyway, and it literally reached his family’s doorstep at dawn Oct. 18, 1862.

After the battle of Perryville, on Oct. 8, most Confederate forces began withdrawing to Tennessee. Morgan, a cavalry leader from Lexington, sought to protect their retreat by attacking Union troops camped behind Ashland.

Morgan had three units of troops as he crossed from Madison County into Fayette. They separated at Clay’s Ferry, with the two largest units and two pieces of artillery heading to Lexington via Richmond Road. Morgan and a smaller group went along the Kentucky River to Tates Creek Road.

Not sure of the way into town, Morgan and his brother-in-law Basil Duke knocked on a farmer’s door. Duke later wrote that, knowing many people along the river were union sympathizers, he introduced Morgan to the farmer as Frank Wolford, a well-known Union officer. It was cold and dark, and Morgan and many of his men probably were wearing blue overcoats taken from captured Union troops, said Brown, the historian.

“All the way to Lexington, this man is bad-mouthing Morgan — he ought to be shot, he’s nothing but a horse thief, on and on,” Brown said. As they get to about where Chevy Chase is now, Morgan realizes he is near Ashland and orders his men to prepare to attack.

“This guy suddenly realizes this is not a Union outfit,” Brown said. “The fellow asks, ‘Who are you?’ and Morgan says, ‘I’m John Hunt Morgan.’ The guy falls out of his saddle and starts pleading on his knees for Morgan not to kill him. The whole command breaks into laughter.”

Morgan freed the farmer, who rode home as fast as he could. The three Confederate units — about 1,800 men — surrounded and attacked the camp of 300 mostly sleeping Union soldiers behind Ashland near the corner of what is now Fincastle and Woodspoint roads. “The battle’s over in five minutes,” Brown said.

The Union soldiers were taken prisoner, as were more downtown at the Phoenix Hotel. A third group of Union troops barricaded themselves in the Fayette County Courthouse. When the Confederates brought in their artillery, “the mayor comes running, pleading with them not to blow up his courthouse,” Brown said. “He helped plead with the Union cavalry to surrender.”

Four Union solders were killed and about 20 wounded that day. The extent of Confederate casualties is unknown, with one prominent exception: Maj. George Washington Morgan, a second cousin to John Hunt Morgan, was severely wounded. Susan Clay, Henry Clay’s daughter-in-law, offered her wagon to take him to his family’s home, the Hunt Morgan House on Mill Street.

After lingering several days, Morgan asked to be propped up in a chair and given a glass of bourbon and a cigar, Brooks said, “and he would then show them how a Morgan man dies, which he did.”

If you go

Civil War Living History: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 29, Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd. $10 adults, $5 ages 17 and younger.

Itzhak Perlman: In concert with University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, 7 p.m. Sept. 30, Singletary Center, 405 Rose St. $65-$85. (859) 257-4929 or

Civil War Ball: 7-10 p.m. Oct. 13, Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St. $20. Formal or period attire. Reservations required: (859) 266-8581, Ext. 204, or

Civil War Speakers Panel: 7-9 p.m. Oct. 21, Transylvania University Haggin Auditorium. Free.

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Film uses Kentucky Chautauqua actors to tell story of Cassius Clay

September 18, 2012

Mel Hankla, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, in front of White Hall. Photo by Mark Cornelison

Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding knew that the life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of the most colorful characters in Kentucky history, would make a great hourlong documentary. But how could he do it on a shoestring budget?

There are only a handful of images of Clay, so Breeding couldn’t do it Ken Burns-style. He certainly didn’t have enough money to hire actors, costume designers and set designers to re-create all of the necessary scenes from Clay’s life.

Then Breeding remembered Kentucky Chautauqua, a Kentucky Humanities Council program in which amateur actors dress up as historic figures and tell their stories.

The result of Breeding’s two-year project isCassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, a fast-paced film that combines still images and monologue performances by 13 actors, including six from Kentucky Chautauqua. Lexington author Betty Boles Ellison wrote the script. The only non-Kentuckian in the production is the main narrator, Peter Thomas, one of television’s most recognizable voices.

“I needed characters, and the Humanities Council had a bunch of them,” Breeding said. “I like this format.”

The documentary will have a gala premiere Sept. 27, complete with Civil War musicians and a 15-minute performance by Kentucky Chautauquan Obadiah Ewing-Roush. He will portray abolitionist John G. Fee, who founded Berea College on 10 acres that Clay gave him.

The documentary was filmed in high-definition video at Clay’s mansion, White Hall, now a state historic site in Madison County. With a budget of about $38,000, from a KET production grant and money raised from eight private sponsors, Breeding and his friends did much of the work themselves. But what they lacked in production resources was more than made up for in story material.

Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) was a son of Green Clay, Kentucky’s largest owner of land and slaves, and a cousin to statesman Henry Clay. While a student at Yale University, Cassius Clay heard social reformer William Lloyd Garrison preach against slavery and was converted.

Clay returned to Lexington as a fiery emancipationist. He published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, that was highly unpopular in slave-holding Lexington. Clay always carried a pistol and knife, which he used against attackers on several occasions. He guarded his newspaper office near Main and Mill streets with a cannon.

Rich, handsome and arrogant, Clay served in the General Assembly and the Mexican War. Although commissioned a major general during the Civil War, he spent most of that time as Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia. Clay urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and he dreamed of one day becoming president.

Clay was a lover as well as a fighter. He had 10 children during a stormy 45-year marriage to Mary Jane Warfield that ended in divorce, plus an adopted son he apparently conceived during an affair while in Russia. At age 84, Clay married a 15-year-old girl, who also divorced him.

Virginia Carter, executive director of the Humanities Council, said she hopes Breeding’s film will draw more attention to the 20-year-old Kentucky Chautauqua program and its performers, who last year did 507 performances in 102 counties.

Clay is portrayed in Breeding’s documentary by Mel Hankla, a teacher who for 17 years has performed the roles of frontiersmen George Rogers Clark and Simon Kenton for Kentucky Chautauqua.

“I did a lot of reading to get inside Clay’s head,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”

It is ironic, Hankla said, that when he first decided to develop a Chautauqua character two decades ago, his friend, former Gov. Louie Nunn, urged him to do Cassius Clay. Nunn was an admirer of Clay, and Nunn’s wife, Beulah Nunn, was instrumental in the restoration of White Hall during the 1960s.

“He told me that Cassius Clay’s life ought to be a movie,” Hankla said of Nunn. “He said, ‘This story has it all!'”

If you go

Gala premiere of Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 27

Where: The Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., Lexington

Cost: Tickets are free in advance — request them at — and $10 at the door. Proceeds will benefit White Hall Foundation for restoration and purchase of artifacts. Breeding said he will give DVDs of the film to anyone who attends the premiere wearing period costume.

TV: There will be 14 showings of the film in October on KET. (Go to for dates and times.)


Watch an excerpt from the film here:

Cassius Marcellus Clay: An Audacious American, Sept. 27, 2012 – The Kentucky Theatre from Michael Breeding MEDIA on Vimeo.


Mansion of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister to become a museum

August 28, 2012

Helm Place on Bowman Mill Road. Photos by Tom Eblen


Do political disagreements make things tense in your family? It could be worse. You could have been Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.

They were in a tough spot: He was leading the Union through the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters from Lexington; most were Southern sympathizers, and three were killed in Confederate service. Lincoln threatened to jail one of his wife’s sisters when she came to visit, but she still kept smuggling contraband to the South.

Hardest of all was the strain war created between the Lincolns and their favorite Todd relatives: half-sister Emilie Todd Helm and her husband, Benjamin Hardin Helm, a Confederate general.

After Helm was killed in battle, his grieving widow and her three children made tense visits to the White House. Lincoln’s political enemies howled that he was sheltering a traitor. Even the children quarreled: Tad Lincoln said his daddy was the president, but little Katherine Helm insisted the real president was Jefferson Davis.

You know how most of this story ends: The Union prevails; Abraham Lincoln is assassinated; Mary Todd Lincoln struggles with mental illness. But what about her favorite little sister, Emilie, the prettiest of the Todd daughters? The Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation will soon be able to tell that story.

Helm Place, the Greek Revival mansion on Bowman Mill Road where Emilie and her children spent the last decades of their lives, has been donated to the foundation to become a museum. There is a lot of renovation and fund-raising ahead, but the mansion already contains enough Lincoln, Helm, Todd and other local artifacts to get off to a great start.

The foundation will celebrate the gift at a dinner and presentation about Helm Place on Sept. 18 at Malone’s Banquets, 3373 Tates Creek Road. Tickets are $38 for members, $42 for others. For reservations, call (859) 233-9999 by Sept. 10.

“This place is a treasure, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which also is operated by the foundation.

Mary Genevieve Townsend Murphy, a co-founder and longtime board member of the foundation, left Helm Place to it in trust after her death in 2000 and the death of her husband, Joseph, in April 2011. The foundation took control of the 150-acre property in March and has spent the past few months installing a high-tech security system and live-in caretaker.

Oddly enough, the first white settler on the property was the Todd sisters’ grandfather Levi Todd, who built Todd’s Station fort there in 1779. But because of Indian attacks, Todd abandoned the claim and moved closer to Lexington.

The land later went to Abraham Bowman for his service in the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, one of Bowman’s descendants built the mansion, originally called Cedar Hall, which sits on a hill at the end of a majestic lawn.

Emilie Todd Helm and her grown children bought the mansion in 1912 — almost exactly a century before the foundation acquired title. Katherine, an accomplished painter, did several family portraits for the house and painted a dining room mural depicting nearby South Elkhorn Creek at sunset. One of her portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln now hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

Emilie Helm remained an unreconstructed Confederate until her death in 1930. When Elodie, her youngest daughter, was getting old, she sold the house in 1946 to William H. Townsend, a Lexington lawyer, author and accomplished Lincoln scholar and collector. His daughter Mary moved in with Elodie, who died in 1953. Mary married Joseph Murphy in 1960.

William Townsend, who died in 1964, amassed an amazing collection of Lincoln and early Kentucky artifacts, many of which remain in the house with the Helm family’s possessions. They include several portraits by Matthew Jouett; a table made by Abraham Lincoln’s father; writer James Lane Allen’s desk and documents signed by Lincoln and Henry Clay.

The foundation’s next step is to conduct a study of the mansion’s possibilities as a museum, decide on a plan and raise the money to make it happen. Thompson said she didn’t know how long it would be before Helm Place could welcome visitors.

“Our big priority since March has been making sure the property is secured and cared for,” she said. “We’re just taking it a step at a time.”

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A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012


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:

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:

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:

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.


Lexington slave trade flourished before Civil War

January 31, 2012

A century and a half ago, the Civil War began to reach Kentucky and bring an end to one of Lexington’s most thriving businesses: the sale of people.

Slave labor built the prosperous hemp and tobacco plantations and stock farms of the antebellum Bluegrass. Whites also owned black slaves to cook their food, clean their homes and care for their children.

As Black History Month begins, it is worth noting that from the 1820s until the Civil War, Lexington was one of America’s largest slave markets. Geography, demography and economics “put Lexington right in the center of this activity,” said Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor.

By the 1820s, Virginia, Maryland and Central Kentucky had a surplus of slaves just as the Deep South’s expanding cotton, rice and sugar plantations needed more labor. Much of that surplus ended up in Lexington to literally be “sold down the river.” Listen to the words of the state song,My Old Kentucky Home; that is their story.

When the Civil War began, Lexington had more than 10,000 slaves — almost half the total population — and about 1,700 slave owners. Still, many slave owners looked down on slave traders as cruel beasts — perhaps not wanting to acknowledge the full picture of their own “peculiar institution.”

Some sales were conducted privately at the several slave jails along Short Street. The largest of those jails were Megowan’s at Short Street and Limestone, Pullum’s on Broadway just north of Short, and Robards’ on Short between Broadway and Bruce Street.

But many slaves were sold at public auction at Cheapside. The auction block was on the southwest corner of the Fayette County courthouse. On the northeast corner was the slave whipping post — a locust log 10 feet tall and a foot in diameter. It was installed in 1826, and when it wore out in the 1840s, it was replaced by a nearby poplar tree.

“It was an embarrassment for many Lexingtonians to have this slave trading going on downtown,” Smith said. “It didn’t conform with the cosmopolitan image they wanted to cultivate.”

When future President Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s family in Lexington for three weeks in the fall of 1847, five slaves were sold at Cheapside to settle a judgment that her father, Robert Todd, had won against their owner, John F. Leavy, according to William Townsend’s book,Lincoln and the Bluegrass.

Several controversial laws tried to prohibit traders from bringing slaves to Kentucky from other states to be sold. An 1833 law, one of the toughest of any slave state, was widely ignored. But after a pro-slavery state constitution was adopted in 1849, Kentucky’s slave trade flourished. More than 15 percent of Kentucky slaves were sold south from 1850 to 1860.

Smith said that, more than any slave-trading city except New Orleans, Lexington was known for its “fancy girls” — light-skinned, mixed-race young women who were sold into sexual slavery. The best-known dealer was Lewis Robards, who kept his “choice stock” in parlors above his Short Street office.

Not all of these deals were conducted behind closed doors. The most infamous case involved a beautiful young woman named Eliza — said to be just 1⁄64 black — who was sold at Cheapside in May 1843 to satisfy the debts of her deceased master and father.

Abolitionist accounts of the sale tell of a hard-hearted auctioneer who exposed Eliza’s breasts and thighs to encourage bidders, much to the horror of the assembled crowd. The bidding came down to a Frenchman and the Rev. Calvin Fairbanks, who had come to Lexington for the purpose of buying Eliza and setting her free. Fairbanks won with a bid of $1,485.

Without the Civil War, who knows when Lexington’s trade in black men, women and children might have ended? Most whites 150 years ago were content to look the other way — unless slavery’s victims looked too much like them.

“Several of these fancy girls, if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought they were white,” Smith said, adding that Eliza’s story added steam to the abolitionist movement. “It was as though a white woman was on display, and people were not going to stand for that.”

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Some updates to two recent columns

August 29, 2011

Brennan Donahoe, who broke his neck four years ago, entered his first Ironman triathlon on Sunday in Louisville. I told his story last week in this column.

Donahoe wrote me today that he finished the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in 11 hours and 10 minutes, which was 50 minutes sooner than he expected.



In another recent column, I wrote about plans to rededicate the statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, which stands in front of the Lexington History Museum.

The statue to the rebel raider was originally dedicated in front of what was then the Fayette County Courthouse 100 years ago. That ceremony attracted more than 10,000 spectators and marked a high point in Kentucky’s cultural redefinition, from Union state to “lost cause” sympathizer.

Jamie Millard, director of the Lexington History Museum, sent me these two photos. The first, from the original statue dedication on Oct. 17, 1911, and the second from last Saturday’s rededication, which he said attracted about 200 people.

A century after statue, rebel raider still debated

August 22, 2011

The John Hunt Morgan statue, erected 1911. Photo by Tom Eblen

Descendants of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s men and other Civil War buffs will gather Saturday outside the Lexington History Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of Morgan’s heroic statue being placed there.

But it will be nothing like the spectacle that occurred at what was then the Fayette County Courthouse on Oct. 18, 1911. That day, 10,000 people packed the square, and hundreds more filled the windows and roofs of nearby buildings to honor the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.”

It was quite a tribute, especially since many of those people might have once cursed the man whose troops stole their horses, looted their stores, burned their homes and robbed their banks. Nostalgia is a strange thing.

As two excellent books published last year explain, Morgan’s statue marked the zenith of Kentucky’s ironic transformation from Union to Confederate state. That’s right; once the Lost Cause was truly lost, most white Kentuckians sided with the losers.

As America begins a four-year commemoration of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, this is a good time to reflect on John Hunt Morgan — one of Lexington’s most colorful and controversial characters — and the role nostalgia has played in Kentucky’s collective memory.

Morgan was born in Alabama in 1825, the maternal grandson of John Wesley Hunt, one of Lexington’s founders and first millionaires. His family soon returned to Lexington, where Morgan attended Transylvania University for two years before being kicked out for dueling.

He joined the Army as a private in 1846 and emerged from the Mexican War as a battle-tested officer. Morgan returned to Lexington and went into the hemp business, but he missed the military life. He formed the Lexington Rifles in 1852 and drilled his militia in city parks.

Morgan, like most slave-owning Kentuckians, opposed Southern secession at first. But by 1862, he had raised a Confederate cavalry regiment and led his men through the Battle of Shiloh.

“He was the very image of the grand cavalier — a man who was romanticized, particularly by the women of the Confederacy,” said James Klotter, Kentucky’s state historian and a Georgetown College professor.

Morgan was a brilliant cavalry officer and tactician. His daring raids into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio destroyed valuable federal property and supply lines, earning him the nickname “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.”

But he pushed his luck too far; Morgan and most of his men were captured during a raid on Ohio in 1863. He and a few others made a daring prison break and returned to Kentucky to form a new unit. But his fortune had changed.

Morgan’s new men weren’t nearly as good as those who sat out the rest of the war in prison. He especially missed Basil Duke, his brother-in-law and second in command, who enforced discipline among his troops. Kent Masterson Brown, a Lexington lawyer and historian, described Morgan’s last unit as “a motley crew.”

As the war dragged on, Kentucky life got leaner and meaner. Raiders increasingly turned to civilian targets as they sought supplies and military advantage. Morgan’s men confiscated horses, robbed banks, looted trains and stores, and set several blocks of Cynthiana on fire.

When he was killed in Greeneville, Tenn., on Sept. 4, 1864, Morgan was ignoring a suspension order from superiors, who were investigating charges of thievery brought by his own officers, according to Rebel Raider, a biography written James Ramage, a Northern Kentucky University history professor.

Kentuckians might have been angry with Morgan’s raiders, but they were even angrier with Union occupiers. Gen. Stephen Burbridge had turned Kentucky into a police state. Arbitrary executions earned him the nickname “Butcher Burbridge.”

The war’s end brought a new social order. Many white Kentuckians feared former slaves and were determined to keep blacks “in their place.” Racism intensified, white-on-black violence grew rampant and Kentucky earned a national reputation for lawlessness.

Many white Kentuckians longed for the “good old days” and embraced Confederate identity, a phenomenon that Anne Marshall, a Lexington native and history professor at Mississippi State University, chronicled last year in her book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky.

In the book How Kentucky Became Southern, Maryjean Wall, a historian and former Herald-Leader turf writer, explained how Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders encouraged that Old South mythology to attract wealthy Northern horsemen.

By 1907, the United Daughters of the Confederacy was raising money to erect a monument to Morgan, the martyred cavalier. The result was Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini’s statue of Morgan mounted on a stallion — ironic, since his favorite horse was a mare. (Generations of college pranksters have spray-painted the inaccurate genitalia under cover of darkness.)

By the end of the Civil War, the reputation of Morgan’s men was one of “murder and highway robbery,” wrote Duke, his former second-in-command. But a few years later, thanks to white public nostalgia, “if you could claim that you rode with Morgan, you were a kind of nobility,” Brown said.

The ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday will try to strike a historically accurate balance, said Sam Flora, president of the Morgan’s Men Association, an old veterans’ group resurrected in 1988 by soldiers’ descendants and Civil War buffs.

“Our take on it is that we’re proud of our history and heritage,” Flora said.

We will hear many more such comments over the next four years, as Americans keep trying to understand the Civil War’s complexities and the legacy of slavery.

“What we do is not a defense of slavery,” Flora said. “Most of the men who served under Morgan were young and did not even own slaves. They were caught up in the war and the adventure of the war. Our ancestors are no different than anyone else’s; they all had their warts. We just try to celebrate their memory.”

The dedication ceremony for the John Hunt Morgan statue on Oct. 18, 1911, filled the courthouse square with more than 10,000 people. Photo courtesy of the R. Burl McCoy Collection, Lexington History Museum

Rediscovering slavery at My Old Kentucky Home

August 2, 2009

BARDSTOWN — Gerald Smith, a Lexington native and University of Kentucky history professor, had never visited My Old Kentucky Home State Park before last summer.

Smith arrived early for a speaking engagement at the Nelson County Public Library and had a couple of hours to kill. So he and a student decided to take the park’s tour of Federal Hill, the Rowan family mansion where, legend has it, Stephen Collins Foster was inspired to write Kentucky’s state song.

“The people were very nice,” Smith said. But he noticed that the tour guide, dressed in a hoop skirt, kept referring to the “servants.”

“I finally said, ‘You mean the slaves?'” Smith recalled.

The tour didn’t include the mansion’s attic or basement, where slaves lived, or small rooms beside the kitchen, where they worked.

Finally, Smith asked where the slaves were buried. In the cemetery beside the garden? No, the guide said. Out back. Way out back.

Smith and student A.J. Hartsfield walked across a field to a stand of old trees. Underneath, inside a split-rail fence, were 22 small, unmarked stones and a plaque dedicated in 1945 to Judge John Rowan’s “faithful retainers.”

“As we approached the entrance to the little wooden fence, this guy was looking for his golf ball,” Smith said. The cemetery is in the bend of the 13th hole of the park’s golf course. Balls frequently land there.

“There was nothing sacred about it,” Smith said of the slave cemetery. “It was painful. It was sad.”

Smith went home and shared his experience with two other prominent African-Americans, Lexington writer Frank X Walker and Everett McCorvey, the UK Opera Theatre director who has sung My Old Kentucky Home many times in concerts here and overseas.

They decided to approach state officials with a simple message: We must do better. And, with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games about to focus the world’s attention on Kentucky, we must do it quickly.

“Folks sing the song; it stirs up such emotion,” Smith said. “It celebrates the state’s history and culture and hospitality and traditions. But this is the way we remember the people who built and lived and worked at this symbol, this monument, this shrine to Kentucky. The African-American presence here has been erased.”

Smith, McCorvey and Walker were hardly the first to complain. But their message seems to have been heard — loud and clear.

“We have already taken a number of steps to interpret things better,” said Gerry Van der Meer, the state parks commissioner. “There’s a bit of uncomfortableness, naturally, about slavery. But it’s a fact. It’s a part of history. We’re embracing this.”

Several changes are planned for My Old Kentucky Home. And Van der Meer has ordered a review of how African-American history is interpreted at all state-run parks and historic sites.

Historically, a raw nerve

My Old Kentucky Home, the place and the song, hold special significance, both for Kentucky’s international image and its complex history of race relations.

The mansion is one of Kentucky’s most recognizable landmarks, depicted on both the state’s postage stamp and quarter. It is the state’s most-visited historic site, with more than 55,000 people touring the mansion each year.

My Old Kentucky Home is the most famous song about the state, sung for an international television audience by more than 100,000 people in the Churchill Downs grandstand before the Kentucky Derby each May. But it wasn’t until 1986 that the word “darkies” in the song’s lyrics was officially changed to “people.”

Foster published the song in 1853, as Kentucky was in the cross-hairs of the national debate over slavery that would lead to the Civil War.

While many people love the song for its romanticized view of Kentucky, they rarely sing past the first verse. The complete song, which Foster originally called Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night, is actually about a slave being “sold down the river.”

While researching My Old Kentucky Home, Smith came across a journal article by the late Thomas Clark, Kentucky’s most eminent historian, published in 1936. It discussed parallels between the song and the controversial, anti-slavery novel of Foster’s time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Many whites have always tried to portray slavery in Kentucky as somehow more humane than in the Deep South, but abolitionists of the 1850s argued just the opposite, Clark wrote. That’s because slavery in Kentucky was more personal.

Plantations were smaller, and Kentucky slaves had more interaction with their owners than in many Southern states. Whippings and runaways were common, and tens of thousands of Kentucky slaves were separated from their families each year and sold in the South for profit as the cotton, sugar and rice industries grew.

“It is significant,” Clark wrote more than 70 years ago, “that the author’s use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their very own.”

For years after state officials opened Federal Hill to tourists in 1923, black men were hired to walk around portraying Foster’s song characters “Old Black Joe” and “Old Uncle Ned.”

“They fit that standard stereotype of the happy servant who was there to welcome the white guests to the mansion,” Smith said.

He sees the 1945 cemetery plaque honoring Rowan’s “faithful retainers” as part of the effort to soften Kentucky’s collective memory.

“If we allow the site to exist the way it is now, then we perpetuate the myth that slavery was a benign institution in Kentucky,” said Smith, who has been working for years on the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia project. “This is not about compensatory history. It’s just about history.”

Park changes planned

Officials are working on several modifications at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where the mansion has been meticulously restored and chimes broadcast Foster tunes across the grounds.

Tour guide scripts are being revised to reflect research on slaves at Federal Hill, who numbered from two to 100 at any given time between the 1790s and 1865. Interpretive displays are planned as money becomes available.

Eventually, the park would like to have audio tour equipment to supplement its small guide staff.

Park Director Alice Willett Heaton is seeking an archaeological survey to find cabin foundations and other evidence of where slaves lived and worked. It is thought the cabins were located near the amphitheater where a Stephen Foster musical has been performed since 1958.

Safety and accessibility issues may keep the attic and basement closed to visitors, Heaton said. But there are discussions about converting one of the rooms beside the kitchen into a place to explain slavery at Federal Hill.

Van der Meer said trees will be planted to screen the slave cemetery from the state park system’s most popular golf course.

“Somebody’s family is buried there,” Van der Meer said. “We want that to be treated more respectfully.”

Heaton is looking for money to build a path from the house to the cemetery. The park master plan she developed in 1987 called for the path, as well as moving the 1930s golf course further away from the cemetery.

She got money a few years ago to move a fairway that went between the house and cemetery. But she hasn’t been able to move the other hole, or build the path.

“It’s always been a money issue,” Heaton said. “But I’m thrilled with Dr. Smith’s interest. This could be a real opportunity for us.”

Smith said he has been pleased by the response from state officials. He plans to work with them to make sure changes are made.

Smith said he wants Kentucky’s international image to be positive — but historically accurate. “For me, it’s about telling the rest of the story,” he said. “So far, we’ve only been telling half of it.”

Perhaps enough time has passed, enough progress has been made, that both black and white Kentuckians can begin coming to grips with slavery and a racist past.

“I’m excited about the future,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the cemetery, about the possibilities and ways of including African-American history in that story of My Old Kentucky Home.”

As a historian, Smith acknowledges the difficulty of accurately interpreting African-American history at My Old Kentucky Home. Little physical evidence remains. Records are sketchy, and much is based on oral tradition.

But, he notes, Federal Hill’s very association with Stephen Foster is based on oral tradition among the Rowans, who were the songwriter’s cousins. There’s no written evidence that Foster ever visited the mansion, much less set his song there.

“We know the slaves were there,” Smith said. “But that other fellow, the one they’ve got the statue to out in the garden, we’re not sure about him.”

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Jefferson Davis’ life still holds lessons

May 31, 2008

He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, grew up to be president and led his nation through a bitter Civil War.

No, not Abraham Lincoln.

The other guy: Jefferson Davis.

The 200th birthday of the only president of the Confederate States of America is Tuesday, and it will pass with little notice.

A few modest ceremonies and a historians’ symposium are planned this month, and there will be a festival next weekend at Davis’ hometown of Fairview in Todd County. That’s where a 351-foot concrete obelisk was built to his memory in the early 1900s by old men of the Lost Cause.

The commemorations are in stark contrast to the two-year national celebration that began in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln, who was born eight months later and 125 miles away, near Hodgenville in LaRue County.

Lincoln achieved mythic status after he died a martyr as the Civil War was ending. In the pantheon of American heroes, he’s right up there with George Washington.

Davis, on the other hand, is a man few now want to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

Before the Civil War, few would have predicted their fates.

Lincoln was homely and awkward. He educated himself while working as a frontier store clerk. His military career was modest. He married well by Lexington standards, but the Todds had little influence outside the Bluegrass.

After holding small political jobs, practicing law and serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was elected to a single two-year term in Congress. He won the presidency in 1860 with not quite 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of Lexington. Lincoln was openly mocked, even by some in his own government. His emancipation of slaves was not a popular move.

Davis, on the other hand, was the handsome ideal of Southern manhood. He left Kentucky at an early age, as Lincoln did, but returned as the only Protestant pupil at a good Catholic school in Springfield. He studied at Transylvania, then one of the nation’s best colleges, before leaving Lexington to attend West Point.

He served twice in the military with distinction and married the daughter of his commander, the future President Zachary Taylor. She died of malaria three months after the wedding. He married well a second time, too, securing a comfortable place in Mississippi’s plantation aristocracy. He represented Mississippi in the U.S. House, served as secretary of war and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Davis opposed secession, but when Mississippi left the union, he resigned his Senate seat and a month later was elected president of the Confederacy.

“In some ways, the elevation of Lincoln over Davis isn’t quite fair,” said Brian Dirck, a history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.

“Jefferson Davis was a talented man; before 1860, most people would have said he was more talented than Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “There are many people who felt (Davis) would have made a good president of the United States before the war.”

Davis did a remarkable job of holding together a confederacy founded on the principle that states’ rights supersede those of a central government. Throughout the war, he was constantly sparring with state courts and legislatures.

“I doubt anyone else could have done a better job, given the circumstances,” Dirck said.

“But here’s the thing: He lost. And by that I mean not only did he lose the war, he lost the battle for the Confederacy’s legacy, as well. After the war, he told anybody who would listen that the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather the Constitution and states’ rights. He wrote a book to that effect – a really long, tedious book, I might add – and for a while people believed him.”

The Confederacy, of course, was all about slavery; the South’s wealth depended on it. Jefferson Davis led the fight for slavery and ended up as the poster boy for the most evil social institution in American history.

Davis’ view that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible” was conventional wisdom in the South of his day, where slavery had existed for 250 years. People used Scripture then to defend slavery the way others would use it later to deny equal rights to women and gay people.

The United States is great because it is a nation of values, and high on that list of values is equal rights. We really believe that stuff about all people being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, our entire history has involved struggles to make those words reality. In many ways, we’re still working on it.

I’ve always been fascinated by historic figures such as Jefferson Davis, the man who stood for all of the popular things and is now pitied for it.

And it makes me wonder: When people look back on us a generation or a century or two from now, who will be our Jefferson Davises? Whom will people revere, and whom will they pity?