Early in the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a colleague that if Kentucky joined the Confederacy it would mean losing both the war and the nation he loved. At the time, Kentucky was deeply divided between Southern sympathizers, pro-Northern abolitionists and those who supported both the Union and the “right” to own slaves.
Confused? “If you want a good headache, study Kentucky history during the Civil War,” says Louisville author Bryan S. Bush, who is making a career by digging into this fertile field of conflict and contradiction. In his book “Lincoln and the Speeds,” he tells how an 1837 encounter between Joshua Speed, a member of a prominent Louisville family, and Abraham Lincoln began a friendship that helped secure Kentucky for the North and enable its victory.
Lincoln called on his best friend and Joshua’s brother James to be his “eyes and ears” in Kentucky once the war began. When it became apparent that Kentucky’s state militia was dominated by Confederate sympathizers, Joshua coordinated a clandestine operation with Lincoln to buy and distribute over a period of time about 20,000 weapons along with ammunition to a rival militia of Union loyalists.
In the Kentucky State Legislature, James Speed, an ardent abolitionist and future Attorney General for Lincoln, blocked initiatives by Southern sympathizers and secured laws which favored the North. Meanwhile, Joshua warned Lincoln that freeing Kentucky’s slaves would result in even stronger support for the South.
Bush picks up the theme of divided loyalty in his book “Louisville and the Civil War.” Both the Union and the Confederacy operated recruiting stations in Louisville, and competing militias marched downtown. Union soldiers occupied the city beginning late in 1861, and although it felt threatened by Confederate forces on several occasions, Louisville escaped conflict. It soon became an important Union supply base and commerce flourished. But Louisville remained largely pro-Southern, and even though it was a major recruiting center for African-American Union soldiers, the slave trade continued on its wharf into 1865.
Bush’s extensive research shines a light on little-known facts about the Speeds and the war as it affected Kentucky and Louisville. His styling is chronological and documentary, and history unfolds with the pace of a page-turning thriller. Footnotes and bibliographies are included in both books.
So far, Bush has penned over a dozen articles and eight books about the war, and he still sees “so many more subjects to write about.” The books can be purchased from his website, www.bryansbush.com. The site also has a schedule of his speaking engagements and times for his guided tours of Cave Hill Cemetery, which focus on the lives and burial sites of prominent Civil War-era figures.
Bush gives lectures about the Civil War, but it is his dramatic readings that most bring history to life. Be prepared for an entertaining presentation with Bush dressed in uniforms that are “authentic, right down to the fabric.” As you might imagine, he has wardrobes colored both blue and gray.