Nov. 8, 1864, cannot be overemphasized as a significant date in American history. In the several months before that presidential Election Day, it seemed that everyone hated Abraham Lincoln.
Confederates referred to him as an “ape” or the personification of Satan. Radical Republicans claimed the president was an incompetent commander-in-chief who had not done enough to crush the South and its way of life. “Peace Democrats,” calling Lincoln’s prosecution of the war an utter failure, wanted to end it by treaty, giving the Confederacy its independence and leaving slavery intact.
Democratic candidate George B. McClellan posed a particular challenge. He was the president’s former general-in-chief and, presumably, retained the loyalty of a sizable portion of the Union army. He also wanted to negotiate with the rebels.
The next morning, Nov. 9, when it became clear that the president had won re-election, everything changed.
Lincoln’s re-election solidified Union war strategy, meaning that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would continue his efforts to maximize pressure on the South.
Grant’s cavalry commander, Phillip Sheridan, had laid waste to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, depriving Confederates of the agricultural products that had sustained its armies for three and a half years. His Western general, William T. Sherman, had taken Atlanta and was organizing his “March to the Sea” to destroy virtually everything in his army’s path. His admiral, David G. Farragut, had won the Battle of Mobile Bay, closing the South’s last remaining major port in the Gulf of Mexico and making the Union’s “Blockade Against Southern Ports” almost complete.
Grant and his Army of the Potomac had dug in at Petersburg, Virginia—less than 25 miles from the Confederates’ capital, Richmond— holding Gen. Robert E. Lee at bay while Union forces inflicted huge rebel losses elsewhere.
When the people of the United States spoke on Nov. 8, 1864, they did more than re-elect Abraham Lincoln, they ensured Union victory in the Civil War. The only question left was the date of that victory.
Meanwhile, Kentucky descended further into chaos. Guerillas rampaged across the state, committing acts ranging from stealing food and horses to murders for the sake of war allegiances or simple revenge.
To combat them, Maj. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge, commander of the Military District of Kentucky, issued his General Order No. 59. It stated: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”
The 33-year-old general—who was to wear the moniker “Butcher” Burbridge for rest of his life—largely confined his punishments to those who, in his opinion, had committed acts against the Union. But the rules began being loosely interpreted by him and his subordinates, and those shot had gone from being guerillas to Confederate prisoners of war to citizens suspected of rebel leanings.
Burbridge’s strategy expanded to encompass the removal of rebels or their sympathizers through arrest or banishment to the Confederacy, in addition to execution. He declared that any Southern sympathizer within five miles of a guerilla raid was subject to arrest and banishment. And on Oct. 26, he had ordered guerillas to be shot on sight.
The zeal of Burbridge and his officers to devise a way to distinguish friend from foe and end the crisis led to false accusations against loyal citizens. A series of further blunders severely eroded Kentuckians’ Unionist sympathies.
One such blunder was Burbridge’s propensity to insert politics into his actions. On Thursday, Nov. 5, four days before the election, the 32-year-old general made a speech. As quoted in The Frankfort Commonwealth, he cautioned citizens who wanted markets for their horses, corn, hogs and slaves to “be cautious what record you make.” The implication was that if Kentuckians didn’t vote “correctly,” they stood to lose their livelihoods.
Over the next several weeks under General Order 59, at least 50 Confederate soldiers and Confederate sympathizers were executed in Cynthiana, Munfordville, Lexington and Midway, and in Jefferson, Henderson, Green and Daviess Counties. When Lt. Gov. Richard T. Jacob and Louisville Journal editor Paul R. Shipman complained, labeling the incidents “military murders,” they were seized, and Jacob, who also had served as a Union army colonel, was banished. It was reported that Shipman was taken as far as Catlettsburg and released.
Two weeks later, Joshua Fry Bullitt, the state’s chief justice, also was sent South, as was Thomas S. Pettit, editor of the Owensboro Monitor.
Burbridge vs. Bramlette
Presiding over the Military District of Kentucky was no small job. A general had to be an excellent military administrator, strategist and field commander. Both Gen. Robert Anderson (“hero of Fort Sumter”) and Gen. William T. Sherman (who helped Grant win the war in the South) had suffered nervous breakdowns in the position.
Added to Burbridge’s headaches was Lincoln’s July 1864 declaration of martial law in Kentucky, including the suspension of habeas corpus, or the protection of a citizen against unlawful or unreasonable detention. The act was designed to aid military commanders in their efforts to enforce laws obstructed by “combinations too powerful to be suppressed” by usual civil measures such as law enforcement and judicial decisions.
Many of Kentucky’s most prominent leaders saw military rule and the habeas corpus suspension as unconstitutional. They considered the recruitment of black soldiers, which began in the spring of 1864, as the final confirmation that their traditional rights were being taken away by Lincoln, his administration and the Union army he commanded.
Gov. Thomas E. Bramlette began the war as a staunch Unionist and defender of the Constitution. A former circuit court judge, he became colonel of the 3rd Kentucky Infantry in 1861. He resigned from the Union army the following year to accept Lincoln’s appointment as U.S. district attorney in Kentucky.
He was elected governor in 1863 as a member of the Union Democratic party and took strong steps against Confederate guerilla activity in the state. However, by the summer and fall of 1864, he was protesting not only martial law but also Burbridge’s interference in normal civil affairs, including elections.
For his part, Burbridge saw just about any opposition as disloyal to the Union because it tended to “discourage enlistments,” while significant numbers of Kentucky’s leaders, many of whom also had served in the Union army, thought it their duty to protest the loss of their rights, and that brutal military suppression was, in essence, aiding the Confederate cause because it alienated Unionists.
After writing a letter to Burbridge and receiving an accusatory and unsatisfactory reply, Bramlette turned to the president himself on Nov. 14. “I regret that Gen. Burbridge is pursuing a course calculated to exasperate and infuriate, rather than pacify and conciliate,” the governor wrote. “His whole course, for weeks past, has been such as was most calculated to inaugurate revolt and produce collisions. I shall need your co-operation to attain that unity and harmony which I desire—and which, I doubt not, you desire—but which he will try to prevent, in the blunderings of a weak intellect and an overweening vanity.”
Another Burbridge blunder came to be known as the Great Hog Swindle. The general ordered that all surplus hogs in Kentucky be sold to the federal government. It also required hog farmers to pay a fee for a permit to sell hogs and other livestock outside of the state. “Many loyal men are driven out of business,” Bramlette complained to the president, “after having paid the tax and obtained a license, and for no other reason than their political preferences.” It was estimated that the hog license requirement alone cost Kentucky farmers $300,000.
By the end of 1864, Kentucky remained at war with itself. Most, however, could agree on one thing: Gen. Burbridge had to go.
Confederate Brig. Gen. Hylan B. Lyon, commander of what the Confederates called the Department of Western Kentucky, organized an 800-man-strong raid into his native state of Kentucky from Nov. 29 to Dec. 27. Reminiscent of earlier raids by John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest, it was designed to pull strength away from Sherman, in addition to enforcing a Confederate draft law.
Using hit-and-run tactics, Lyon’s men raided areas from Hopkinsville and Elizabethtown to Nolin Station in Hardin County, Clay’s Village in Shelby County, and Ashbridge in McLean County. They seized supplies, captured and paroled Union soldiers and Home Guard members, and interrupted train traffic. On Dec. 23, Lyon was in Campbellsville, where he allowed officials to remove important papers before setting fire to the Taylor County courthouse. In all, the raid may have led to the destruction of as many as seven county courthouses in Kentucky.