Saturday, October 10, 2009

Terror in the Bluegrass

By Stewart Cruickshank

If someone told you that Kentucky's government would be taken over by the military, many dozens of its citizens executed without cause or trial, and hundreds more imprisoned or exiled, you might say it could never happen here.

It already did.

Stephen Gano Burbridge was born August 19, 1831 in Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky. His father had been a Captain in the War of 1812. His mother was a native of Port Gibson, Mississippi. Burbridge was educated at Georgetown College and the Kentucky Military Institute in Frankfort. When the War Between the States reached Kentucky, he was a gentleman farmer and non-practicing attorney in Logan County.

On August 27, 1861, the 26th Regiment Kentucky Infantry (US), with Burbridge commissioned as its Colonel, was enrolled for three years or the war at its encampment at Owensboro. The Regiment was stationed in Calhoun in November.

After the Confederate withdrawal from Bowling Green, the 26th was dispatched to Nashville, Tennessee where it arrived on February 26th, 1862. There it was mustered into the Union army on March 5. The regiment arrived on the Shiloh battlefield on April 7th and fought bravely according to reports. Afterwards it was posted to Corinth, Mississippi, Tuscumbia, Florence and Athens Alabama, and Battle Creek Tennessee.

On April 24th Burbridge resigned from his commission effective May 1st citing poor health. However, Gen. Van Cleve did not accept this resignation; instead, on June 22nd Burbridge resigned to accept a commission as Brigadier General in the 13th Army Corp in the Army of Ohio. Kentucky can only wish his first resignation had been accepted. Highlights of his career before being placed in charge of Kentucky include the Battle of Arkansas Post, and during the Vicksburg Campaign he was one of the first officers to enter Port Gibson. He also drew praise from Gen. William T. Sherman for his destruction of the Vicksburg and Shreveport Railroad.

Sherman’s concepts of “total war” would highly influence Burbridge in his military career. Sherman believed that the guerrillas and partisan rangers in Kentucky and other states were not regular Confederate soldiers, and thus not afforded any of the protections normally afforded prisoners of war. Sherman further felt they could be destroyed by denying them popular support, safety, sustenance and horses, by whatever means ("The government of the U.S. has any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war--to take their lives, their homes, their lands, their everything...war is simply unrestrained by Constitution...To the persistent secessionist, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better..." W.T. Sherman, 31 Jan 1864). Sherman would prove an ominous mentor to Burbridge.

Brig. Gen. Burbridge transferred to General Grant’s command in February of 1864. On the 15th he was selected to temporarily command the District of Kentucky. Initially Governor Bramlette was enthusiastic that a fellow Kentuckian would hold the position. Another Kentuckian who was pleased was Radical Republican Dr. Robert Breckinridge. He too would become one of great influence upon Burbridge. On March 14th Burbridge assumed permanent command of the District.

Almost immediately Burbridge embarked upon a course that would alienate both sides in the conflict. On March 4, he followed orders from Gen. Grant to revoke the impressments of slave laborers and return them to their owners. One aim of ending impressments was to encourage recruiting of Blacks for the United States Colored Troops. This issue deeply divided Kentuckians: as a typical example, Lt. Governor Jacob and Union Col. Wolford gave stump speeches opposing recruitment of Blacks on April 4th.

On April 6th, Gen. Sherman cited the Military Laws of War approved by Congress on Dec. 27, 1861, as authorization for commanders in the field to approve and execute death sentences. “...I expect to execute a good many spies and guerrillas under that law without bothering the President.” Secretary of War Holt advised Sherman that he had no authority to do so, but the seed had been planted in Burbridge’s mind. On April 13th Sherman authorized banishment from the Kentucky department anyone who would not enlist in the Union Army.

On April 18th Burbridge’s General Order #34 authorized the enlistment of Negro troops, and he began efforts to shut down newspapers which were critical of this order. On May 21st, he issued General Order #39, which banned the recently published book “Life and Services and Campaigns of Stonewall Jackson” as a treasonable offense. Defenders of civil liberties in Kentucky at this point may have begun to realize that their state government was becoming subservient to the dictates of the military.

On May 14th Secretary of War Holt clarified to Sherman that it would be acceptable for field commanders to approve trial and execution of men captured in arms in violation of parole (men waiting for formal exchange). On the 20th Burbridge asked if he could include captured guerrillas.

In June, Gen. John Hunt Morgan began his last excursion through Kentucky. Burbridge’s troops marched over 90 miles to defeat a portion of Morgan’s forces at Mount Sterling on the 9th, and on the 12th he defeated Morgan at Cynthiana. Still in need of horses at this point, Burbridge refused to return captured horses unless the owner could prove loyalty. On the 25th Burbridge began enforcing orders that all “disloyal” citizens be arrested and sent to Washington, D.C.

On July 4th President Lincoln sent Burbridge congratulations for defeating Morgan, and acknowledged his promotion to Major-General. The following day Martial Law was declared in Kentucky and the writ of habeas corpus suspended. Sherman empowered Burbridge to include guerrillas for trials and executions as requested. The stage was now set for a dark and bloody chapter of history in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Stephen G. Burbridge would become the conductor of Government sanctioned murder!

Reign of the Red Handed Monster

The Burbridge administration would rule by terror, and he would be recorded in history as the “Red Handed Monster”, “Bloody Burbridge” and “Butcher Burbridge”. His rule was riddled with allegations of corruption, bribery, favoritism, cruelty and incompetence.

A review of conditions in the Commonwealth in 1864 show how this terrible reign came to be: the War Between the States had degenerated to a localized civil war in the officially neutral border state. After three years of warfare conditions were deplorable. Civilian government had long since broken down as brother fought brother and neighbor fought neighbor. Crimes against the civilian population went unpunished. Outlaws and deserters from both armies robbed and murdered with impunity. Although the Union Army claimed Kentucky for the Federal Government, the Confederate Cavalry consistently challenged its domination. Generals John Hunt Morgan, Hylan B. Lyon and Adam R. Johnson led notable raids. In addition to these large Confederate raids, smaller bodies of detached soldiers and partisans made things lively for the isolated Union Home Guard Militia and other military forces throughout the state. Thousands of men from the Union Army were kept from the front lines to guard crucial depots and towns. Because these battles and skirmishes took place far behind the official Union Army lines of engagement the military referred to these men as “guerrillas”. Eventually this definition was expanded—to include anyone who offered support to the Southern cause.

On July 16 Burbridge issued his infamous General Order #59 which said in part, “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prisoners in the hands of the military authorities and publicly shot to death in the most convenient place near the scene of the outrage.”

Numerous Confederate prisoners of war along with civilian political prisoners were taken from the military prisons in Louisville and Lexington and were subjected to death without cause or trial. These are the Confederate Martyrs of Kentucky! We may never know the full accounting of these victims-there are dozens of them documented, but their total number may have been in the hundreds

The executions began quickly: on July 22nd two men were killed in Henderson. On the 28th two men were shot in Georgetown. On the 29th one man was shot in Russellville.

On July 26th Burbridge issued General Order #61, which called for banishment from Kentucky for all refugees who had been exiled from Missouri or any other state. On that same day a Union army soldier killed Kentucky State Senator Gibson Mallory. Burbridge ordered the soldier released! On the 29th, Burbridge issued orders banning certain candidates’ names from appearing on state election ballots, ending any fa├žade that civilian government still had authority in Kentucky. On August 1st Burbridge recommended that all disloyals arrested be sent to prison in the Dry Tortugas Florida.

Burbridge was not alone in butchery, though; from July 19th until September 9th, in the District of Western Kentucky, Gen. Paine was responsible for a 51-day orgy of corruption, executions, bribery and exortion. After the purported deaths of over 43 men Governor Bramlette was successful in forcing Paine’s removal, but only after a military investigation.

Bitterness against Burbridge then began to surface. On August 13th George A. Mason was arrested in Cincinnati, Ohio, after he revealed an assassination plot to kill Burbridge with an “air gun”. Meanwhile the executions continued. On August 15th three men were killed at Lusby’s Mill. Two others were shot in Bloomfield. On the 20th two men were shot in Franklin. On September 4th four men were executed near Brandenburg. On the 13th one man may have been executed in Louisa.

Confederate Major J. Walker Taylor was sent under a flag of truce to confer with Burbridge about the executions on August 17th. The Union Army refused to recognize his flag, thus no meeting took place.

Complaints regarding the conditions at the women’s prison in Louisville reached the floor of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Illinois in August. This prison held women and children accused of disloyalty.

Burbridge commanded an unsuccessful expedition into Southwest Virginia against the salt works located in Saltville from September 11th until he was recalled by Gen. Sherman on the 29th.

On October 11th, several guerrillas attempting to assassinate Burbridge were killed when they attacked a train at Lowes Station near Lexington. Burbridge was erroneously believed to be on the train.

Governor Bramlette had lost his initial glee regarding Burbridge by now, and felt that the General was issuing orders “calculated to exasperate and infuriate” the citizens of Kentucky. On October 16th Burbridge wrote to Washington defending himself against allegations of bribery and corruption. He also requested that three Union Army officers be removed from his department as they were allegedly supporters of Gen. McClellan who was running a “peace” ticket against Lincoln.

Confederate Captain Harrison of Gen. Forrest’s Cavalry forwarded to Burbridge on October 17th a threat of six-to-one retaliation if the reprisal executions in Kentucky were not suspended. Burbridge ignored this, and on October 25 four men were shot in Jeffersontown. Two others were shot in Hopkinsville. The following day Burbridge issued General Order #8, which forbade his troops from taking guerrillas as prisoners of war. A Black Flag was now raised in the Commonwealth!

Burbridge issued his infamous Hog Swindle order on October 28th. The order restricted the sale of hogs only to government agents at substandard prices. It is estimated that this order cost the farmers of Kentucky over $300,000.00 before it was repealed on November 27th.

November would become the bloodiest month of Burbridge’s reign. Confederate soldier Gervis Grainger recalled after the war that about this time fifteen fellow POW’s were forced to place their names in a death lottery. Eight men were selected and placed in irons at the Lexington Military Prison. On November 2nd four of these men were shot in Frankfort. The following day the other four were shot in Pleasureville. On November 5th four men were shot at Midway. Three others were shot as they attempted to escape pursuant to General Orders #8 near Bloomfield. On November 7th three men were shot seven miles from Bloomfield and on the 8th two men were shot at Lynn’s Camp Creek. On the 13th six men were shot in Henderson. On the 15th two men were hung at Lexington—one of these being accused of another assassination plot against Burbridge. On the 19th six men were executed near Osceola.

Meanwhile, Burbridge had escalated his arbitrary arrests of suspected disloyals. Governor Bramlette wrote to General Grant complaining of the banishment of a leading citizen of Lexington, John B. Huston and a newspaper editor P.R. Shipman of the Louisville Journal. President Lincoln ordered that Huston be allowed to return to Kentucky on the 10th, but Burbridge responded that “if the civilian authority would not suppress disloyalty that the military would”. Evidently even Lincoln couldn’t keep Burbridge under control at this point.

On November 14th Gen. Grant sent an investigator to Kentucky to look into the Burbridge administration. Burbridge was also under suspicion of stealing horses from the Lexington Railroad Military corral which were designated for the Military Division of Mississippi. It was alleged that he took the horses to Camp Nelson in Jessamine County to mount the 5th and 6th U.S.C.T. Cavalry.

On December 7th Burbridge departed on another, this time successful, expedition against Saltville. He returned on January 3rd, 1865. With his return, the short respite of killing prisoners soon ended with an execution which may have occurred on the 9th at Lusby’s Mill, an execution in Christian County on the 10th, a man being executed on the 26th in LaGrange, and at least two others executed in Louisville that month. While Burbridge was gone to Southwest Virginia, though, Gen. Grant had begun looking for a replacement.

Burbridge continued the escalation of his feud with the civilian government he was supposedly protecting by arresting and banishing Lieutenant Governor Jacob! Former Union Col. Wolford was also arrested and banished at this time. On February 6th Burbridge issued General Order #5 which called for all Home Guard and Militia units in Kentucky to be abolished! By this time, recognizing that retaining Burbridge was a lost cause, Dr. Robert Breckinridge recommended Gen. Benjamin Franklin “Beast” Butler as his replacement. “Beast” Butler being considered an improvement over Burbridge should be sufficient irony to prove Burbridge’s moniker of “Butcher” to be well deserved.

Finally, on February 22, 1865, Gen. Burbridge’s reign of terror was brought to a close by General Order #2. The next day Burbridge asked for and was granted a 30-day leave of absence. He was never again given a field command and resigned his commission in December, 1865. The executions continued under Burbridge’s replacement, Gen. J. M. Palmer, but there was now at least a semblance of a trial, and the close of the war shortly afterwards finally brought this terrible chapter of Kentucky history to an end. Burbridge attempted to live in Covington, Kentucky. However, complaining of being unable to earn a living within the state (could he have really thought that possible?), and fearing assassination, he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he practiced law until his death on December 2, 1894. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, section 1, grave #666! Most Kentuckians felt this “mark of the beast” to be well justified.

After the war the Kentucky Legislature passed bills calling for a gathering of names of those men by order of any commander who had been arrested, imprisoned, or killed outside of battle. Today, 136 years later, this project continues with the added goal of marking the victim’s graves. Another bill called for an official investigation of Burbridge for murdering men under military authority.

General Sherman would defend Burbridge after the war, claiming that he alone was responsible for any war crimes committed. In a defense still used to this day he claimed Burbridge was simply a “soldier following orders”. Sherman, of course, was never held accountable for these crimes. One result of Burbridge’s terror was an increase of respect and support for the returning Kentucky Confederates. Historians joke that Kentucky had finally joined the Confederacy by 1866—but they seldom teach why Kentucky came to support and honor the Lost Cause of the Confederacy so deeply. After all, it isn’t common to “join” the losing side when the loss is fait accompli . For a state which espoused a Constitutional Union (one of free will), though, the military occupation, martial law, and Burbridge’s brutality alienated a vast majority of Kentuckians, with even staunch Unionists finding the tactics unbearable. In the end, Kentucky’s Confederates returned home hailed as heroes, and took back the state government through the political process, dominating it for many decades.

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