Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge by Brad Asher

 History buffs, particularly readers interested in the U.S. Civil War, Kentucky history, or “Lost Cause-ism,” should put Brad Asher’s latest book, The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge on their reading lists.

This newly-released biography of Kentuckian Stephen Burbridge primarily focuses on the 11 months (March 1864-February 1865) when Burbridge was the military commander of Kentucky. Ambitious and fervently Unionist, Burbridge had the unenviable task of shepherding the state through a period of enlistment of Black soldiers into the Union Army. Asher makes a compelling case that it was the commander’s willingness to enlist slaves, a process that resulted in their emancipation and sounded the death-knell for the continuation of slavery in the state, that earned him the enmity of white Kentuckians, whether they be Confederate sympathizers or Unionists.

Burbridge had a storied career that included varying degrees of success as a soldier and commander, followed by the near-impossible tasks of 1) recruiting enough Kentucky soldiers to serve the war effort AND protect the state from Confederate raiders and guerillas, and 2) navigating the wartime and post-war politics of the divided loyalties of Kentuckians. These included those fully committed to the Union cause and those only nominally committed, so long as there was no Federal interference with their “right” to own other human beings. To that mix, one must throw in Confederates returning to the state following the war and swaying the sympathies of the state to the Lost Cause of the South. This succeeded to the extent that, even today, many people have a hard time believing that Kentucky was not part of the Confederacy.

Burbridge, whose zeal for the cause of the winning side should logically have seen him rewarded with post-war political appointments, instead became such a lightning rod for Kentuckians’ anger at the war’s outcome (emancipation) that he became a pariah. He spent the remainder of his life exiled from his home and regarded as the state’s most hated man.

This meticulously researched, readable, scholarly work brings to light a little-remembered Civil War Union leader—little remembered outside of Kentucky, at least—and, through the lens of his life, examines broader issues of historical memory and the enduring myths of the Lost Cause.

Full-disclosure: the author of this superb biography is my brilliant husband! That didn’t influence this review (but it’s the reason I read the book!)

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