The Civil War, Memory, and Louisville’s Identity

By Mark V. Wetherington, Ph. D.

In 1865 Louisville was a Union city. In 1895 Louisville was a Confederate city. During a single generation, Louisville largely forgot its Unionist past and embraced a Confederate identity. “The Civil War, Memory, and Louisville’s Identity,” a new exhibit in our Warner A. Jones gallery, explores the ways our community’s collective memory and identity were reconstructed following the Civil War, and why.

Civil War history has traditionally emphasized battles, leaders, and military topics. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the conflict’s aftermath, particularly how memories of the war shaped the identities and lives of people and communities long after the shooting stopped.

This exhibit explores two major themes. First, that Louisville during and immediately after the war possessed strong Unionist and emancipationist memories. Louisville, which voted overwhelmingly for pro-Unionist but anti-abolitionist candidate John Bell during the presidential election of 1860, was a major wartime supply center for the Union army’s military campaigns into the lower South. Louisville also became the destination for thousands of former slaves, many joining the Union army during and after the war. These Kentuckians were essentially anti-Confederate.

And second, that a more powerful reconciliationist memory combined with a Lost Cause memory to overwhelm both Unionist and emancipationist memories. The reconciliationist memory emphasized what white Union and Confederate veterans shared in common, especially race, a sense of sacrifice, and a desire for postwar economic recovery, while the Lost Cause memory ritualistically venerated the Confederacy.

As a result, a largely pro-Confederate and Lost Cause memory flourished in Louisville during the 1880s and 1890s. This process of selective memory was no accident but was the result of decades of opinion-shaping and identity-making through the media, business leaders, Lost Cause public activities, and a series of veterans’ reunions hosted by the city between 1895 and 1906.

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“....his blood is the cement that will ever more bind together the disjointed parts of a mighty nation.”

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to Mrs. Curran Pope, widow of Union Col. Curran Pope, mortally wounded at Perryville.
November 10, 1862

Ultimately, the more industrial, urban, and segregated Louisville became, the more useful a nostalgic and mythical Confederate past became for a community experiencing labor unrest, a growing ethnic population, and increasing class and racial divisions. In the process, Unionist and emancipationist contributions were largely forgotten, the city’s new identity leaving little room for memories of slavery, emancipation, and Union, all central to the war’s meaning and its consequences.

For further reading: Anne Elizabeth Marshall, “Louisville and the Lost Cause: Memory, Identity, and the Creation of a Conference City” (M. A. thesis, University of Georgia, 2000) and David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001)

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