- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

Of the states that suffered from familial divisions wrought by the Civil War, perhaps none endured more than Kentucky, the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Scores of bluegrass households were torn apart during those turbulent times, and several prominent families split during the conflict.
Few antebellum politicians were as distinguished as Henry Clay, the great Whig compromiser. While he attempted to avert conflict in the 1850s, national divisions broke apart his family. Three of Clay's grandsons joined the Federal Army, while four others enlisted in the Southern service. Of his Rebel offspring, three were staff officers to Confederate generals, and the fourth was killed at Vicksburg. Furthermore, Clay's son was offered a position in the Southern government, but poor health forced him to decline.
Kentucky Sen. John J. Crittenden also wore the mantle of compromise, and the war severed ties in his family. Two of his sons joined the Federal Army, while the third supported the Confederate cause. Thomas L. Crittenden became a Union major general and led troops at Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga. His brother, George Bibb Crittenden, became a Confederate major general. Defeated at the Battle of Mill Springs, Ky., George was accused of drunkenness on duty and arrested. He eventually resigned from the Southern service.
Of these prominent and divided Kentucky families, perhaps none suffered more than the Breckinridge clan. John C. Breckinridge, who served as vice president under James Buchanan, became a Confederate major general and the Southern secretary of war, while many in his family strongly supported the Union cause.
One Breckinridge relative, the fiery Presbyterian minister Robert J. Breckinridge, was a staunch Unionist who condemned secession in the most violent terms. Despite his unwavering devotion to the Union, two of his sons fought for the Confederacy. Two others wore Union blue.
Amazingly, one of Breckinridge's Confederate sons reputedly captured his Federal brother while fighting near Atlanta on July 22, 1864. One Rebel officer contended that the two brothers then "passed the night following that sanguinary battle with as much warmth of fraternal affection as though visiting each other from neighboring armies engaged in the same cause."
Robert Breckinridge's stepson-in-law became a Confederate officer, and fate gave the reverend a final slap when one of his daughters married a Confederate colonel. The minister is buried in a family plot in the Lexington, Ky., cemetery, next to many of his Rebel relatives.
Other prestigious families suffered similarly. Noted Union cavalryman and Kentucky native John Buford, who achieved fame at the Battle of Gettysburg, had several Confederate relatives. They included Abraham Buford, who served as a division commander under Southern horseman Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Brothers Roger and Charles Hanson also chose separate sides. Roger was killed in action at Stones River (Murfreesboro) while leading the famed Kentucky Confederate Orphan Brigade. Charles became colonel of the 20th Kentucky Union Infantry Regiment.
Furthermore, Charles' brother-in-law, Lee Wheeler, rode with the Kentucky Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan. Hanson's 20th Kentucky squared off against Morgan's command in a sharp fight at Lebanon, Ky., on July 5, 1863. As the regiments battled, it truly was a brother-against-brother affair. After the fight, in which one of Morgan's brothers was killed, another enraged Morgan sibling threatened to shoot Charles Hanson for revenge. Lee Wheeler intervened, however, and saved his Unionist brother-in-law's life.
Familial divisions even struck the head of state. Many of Lincoln's in-laws, the prominent Todd family of Kentucky, supported the Confederacy. In fact, Lincoln reportedly wept when his wife's half-sister's husband, Confederate Gen. Ben Hardin Helm, was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. Helm and Lincoln were friends before the war, and the president had offered Helm the post of U.S. Army paymaster. Helm, however, had wrapped his hopes around the Southern banner. Lincoln's wife, the former Mary Todd, had one brother, three half-brothers and three brothers-in-law who served in the Confederate military.
A quiet grave site in Lexington, Ky., somberly illustrates these divisions. Two brothers rest in a family plot. One, Robert Hamilton, was killed at the Battle of Perryville while serving in the Confederate 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment. Interred next to him is his brother, John W. Hamilton, who joined the 18th Kentucky Union Infantry Regiment. John enlisted nearly two years after Robert's death despite the fact that his brother had died from Federal gunfire.
The monuments are simple: Under Robert's name is inscribed "CSA," while John's stone bears "USA." Once politically divided, these brothers have been united under the same ground.
Stuart W. Sanders is director of interpretation at the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association in Perryville, Ky.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide