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The Most Hated Man in Kentucky

The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge

For the last third of the nineteenth century, Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge enjoyed the unenviable distinction of being the most hated man in Kentucky. From mid-1864, just months into his reign as the military commander of the district of Kentucky, until his death in December 1894, the mere mention of Burbridge's name triggered a firestorm of curses from Kentucky's editorialists and politicians. By the end of Burbridge's tenure as head of the military district, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, who had early on been a Burbridge ally, concluded that Burbridge was an "imbecile commander," whose actions represented nothing but the "blundering of a weak intellect and an overwhelming vanity."

How did Burbridge earn such opprobrium? In Scapegoat for the Lost Cause: Union General Stephen Burbridge and Kentucky's Civil Wars, author Brad Asher seeks to answer this question and add a new layer to the ongoing re-examination of Kentucky during the Civil War period. Burbridge served almost exactly one year as the military commander of Kentucky, from March 1864 until February 1865. During that time, he used extreme measures, including retaliatory executions, to try and quell Kentucky's problem with guerrillas and Confederate partisans. He jailed, banished, and harassed those who expressed anti-Lincoln, anti-war, or pro-Confederate political sympathies. Most importantly, he oversaw and sped along the destruction of slavery in Kentucky by administering the recruitment and enlistment of slaves as soldiers.

Like most legends, the one that grew around Burbridge's reign had its genesis in actual events. Yet Burbridge's actions were amplified and exaggerated to serve ideological ends, too. Postwar pro-Confederate apologists for the "Lost Cause" in Kentucky used Burbridge's perceived sins to reinforce pro-southern sympathies among white Kentuckians. A frontal attack on the martyred Lincoln or even on Generals Sherman or Grant might have triggered a backlash among Kentucky's Unionists. Attacking Burbridge was a surefire way to keep picking the scab of Kentucky's wartime grievances, reminding the white population of the injustices wrought in the name of military necessity and of the misbegotten objective of emancipation.

Asher's Scapegoat for the Lost Cause shows the connection between the hatred white Kentuckians felt toward Burbridge and its foundation in his assault on slavery through the mechanism of black enlistment. In doing so, readers are left with a far more complicated understanding of the Union general as well as Kentucky's role in the legacy of the Lost Cause. Scholars and general readers alike will discover great value in Asher's research and writing.

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