Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why They Fought

On September 1, 1863, it had been nearly eighteen months since the men of the Seventeenth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry had seen a major battle.  They had been assigned to the rear guard at Perryville, saving them from facing the brunt of Bragg's assault aimed directly at their cohorts in McCook's division.

 Colonel McHenry's dismissal for refusing refuge to runaway slaves while in Kentucky, one of the four remaining slave states in the Union, had shattered their ranks.  Though few deserted, it took some time for the spirit of the regiment to be restored. Thus, for a while they were assigned garrison duty in Russellville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee.  They had just arrived in Clarksville around Christmas of 1862 and were celebrating New Years while their former comrades were in the thick of the Battle at Stones River, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

In Rosecrans' subsequent call for reinforcements, the Seventeenth was ordered to join General Thomas L. Crittenden and they participated in the remainder of the Tullahoma Campaign, securing Middle Tennessee in preparation for the assault on Chattanooga.  The men were excited to leave Clarksville and be returned to action, limited as it was.  They now felt like they could contribute to the war's end.

During this period of quiet, the men had been granted time for the soul searching required to temper the unit.  Colonel McHenry's dismissal had lanced the sore that had been festering since the war's beginning and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation should have made it clear that this war was being fought to put an end to slavery, though it was technically crafted as a punishment for those states who had seceded.

Like most Union Regiments from the four border states, but most of all in the Kentucky units, these men had volunteered to save the Union, not end slavery.  In this regiment there were, in fact, many slave owners, especially among ranks of the officers.  How could they now continue the fight that would, if won, destroy their own way of life?  Or did they innocently believe that their states would be spared from the abolitionists as reward for their loyalty to the Union?

The best illustration of their dilemma is found in Beth Chinn Harp's book, Torn Asunder:  Civil War in Ohio County and the Green River Country.  

Consider the following two letters:

January 30, 1863
From Andrew M.Barnett, Co. D, 17th Ky
To Ruth A Lindley

Dear Aunt,
...I have not heard from Virge since he went to his regiment.  I am afraid that he will come dissatisfied by his Col. being throd [sic] out of his office.  I glory in Col.McHenry's spunk I hope that he will be promoted to generalship before a week...
"The Union as it was, the Constitution as it is" is my motto.*

Mrs. Lindley's brother, Virgil Bennett's, views were expressed in the following excerpt from a letter written to his sister a few weeks later.

February 6, 1863

Louis, I would like to hear from you and hear your opinion on this war.  I think you could afford to come and see me now for this unit is death on abolish (abolishment of slavery) Louis I guess you would like to know my opinion about this war  I am like a was before  I like Lincoln about as well as I ever did, he has not surprised me in the least but I think he has surprised several in our regiment  for there is Dick Stevens, he used to be a strong supporter of old Abe but he is a stronger secesh now than old Dr. Rowan Note ever was it is not worth my while to write my views on the subject for you can read old John H. McHenry's speech to his son Col. McHenry.  I stand just on his platform and I think that no man can object to it.  I am no secesh but if I could speak in tones of thunder I would say to all the world that I am far from being an abolitionist  I allow to stand by the Union and Constitution as long as I live and I want you to do the same and if Tom is taken from you I shall quit the service if I have to do at the risk of my life and thousands of my fellow soldiers will do the same.*

Virgil's letter indeed reflects the sentiment of thousands of Union soldiers and illustrates the political shrewdness of "Old Abe".  If he had made the Emancipation Proclamation apply to the four border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, there would likely have been a massive desertion from the Union ranks.  Instead, he allowed them to believe that they would be able to maintain their slave-based economy and lifestyle after the war, relying on their allegiance to our Constitution as motive to kill and be killed for the duration of the war.

Virgil died serving his country, thus being spared the ultimate betrayal by his government and seeing Tom taken from the family in December of 1865, when slavery was Constitutionally abolished in Kentucky.

*  Harp, Beth Chinn, Torn Asunder: The Civil War in Ohio County and the Green River Country,  McDowell Publications, 2003, p.32

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