Becoming a lay expert on a specific historical period, the American Civil War, two related methods for learning history have become crucial to me. First, having broad-based knowledge about this period deepens my understanding of specific local history. Second, travelling to a place to imbibe the local atmosphere where important history happened, brings the sights, smells, sounds and imagination to bear on that history. Both improve the richness of my full understanding of that time – and the human experience overall.
When travelling, I’ve taken to purchasing a book about local history, preferably about Civil War history, to bring these two learning tools together. My most recent experience in central Kentucky was especially delightful. The area we visited was Bowling Green, a place that switched hands several times throughout the war, as both sides tried to bring this crucial “neutral” boarder state into their fold. As newly-elected President Lincoln said about his birth state, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”
The book I found is Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary, edited by Nancy Disher Baird. A passionate 20-year old woman from a prominent Kentucky family, whose father was a leader of the pro-Union elements in the state, writes movingly about the shattering impact of the war on the families in Kentucky. As the country descends from arguments about preserving the Union, the principles of the Constitution, and the status of slavery to outright war, the dissolution of families, friends, and communities into outright hostilities is heartrending. The articulate and beautiful young woman finds her life pulled apart as the miasma of a country in upheaval at a fulcrum point in history throws her life into disarray.
A favorite part of the book was her one-time meeting with Abraham Lincoln when in Washington with her father, who was being appointed by the President as Ambassador to Glasgow. Like many contemporary accounts of Lincoln, its cinematic quality is captivating:
“As we returned to the city, about sun down, there were no other people in sight on the road [from the Soldiers House] except a lone horseman we were meeting. He was on a long-tailed black pony (the horse looked so small) galloping along – a high silk hat on his head – black cloth suit on, the long coat tails flying – behind him. Pa called our attention to him—saying ‘some farmer – who has been in the hot city all day and is now eager to get home to supper and his family.’ So Miss Bell and I thought the man and he looked it. As we met, Pa had the carriage stop. The man did the same and Pa introduced us to Mr. Lincoln. He leaned over, shook hands with us, then slouched down on one side of the saddle—as any old farmer would do, as he talked for ten or 15 minutes with us.”
Can you imagine it? She captures so many historical facts in this one little story. Lincoln’s notorious lack of concern for personal safety, chillingly foreboding—His “everyman” demeanor of an uncouth Westerner—His benevolence toward humanity. It’s all there in this brief, personal account. She goes on…
“Pa and Mr. Etheridge thought is very imprudent and unwise risk for him in such a time of warfare and especial hatred of Mr. Lincoln himself for him to be riding unattended, unguarded out a lonely country road – and called his attention to the dangers—Mr. Lincoln’s smile—expressed kindliness to all men and fear of none—as he said—he ‘did not think anybody would hurt him that way’—shaking hands again with us—he galloped on, neither did we meet anybody else for quite a little way so it was very evident there were no guards—following him.”
Finally, she summarizes her impressions of the man she, and her contemporaries from the South, even those “Unionists” who supported the war effort.
“Lincoln in appearance certainly falls far short (though he is so long) of my idea of how a President should look. In fact a very common-looking man he is—but I must confess there was a kindliness in his face—that does not fit the tyrant—unfair man I have been thinking him…Thinking of his kind, troubled face I can’t believe it is.”
Much of this moving account, especially for a Civil War buff, is infused with details and examples of the local consequences of the war in the border states. I urge anyone with an interest in the times or who is visiting the area to read this mesmerizing account, especially during this 150-year anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. And to remember the 150-year anniversary of Lincoln’s untimely death at the hands of one of the people he so confidently believed wouldn’t “hurt him in that way.”