The story of the Civil War in Lexington and the Bluegrass is more than a story of battles. It's a story of strong personalities - of two Presidents, a First Lady, a "lion," and a "Thunderbolt." It's a story of contrasts - here you can visit both the site of a major slave market and a place where African-Americans received the emancipation papers that set them free.
And it is a story of ironies - of Union troops camping virtually in the front yard of a Confederate general, and of war dividing the family of a statesman who had devoted his life to preserving the Union. In the Bluegrass, you are at the heart of Kentucky's exciting and diverse Civil War heritage. Of the 53 Kentucky sites included in the Civil War Trust's Civil War Discovery Trail commemorating significant sites where visitors can learn about the conflict, 16 are located in Lexington and the Bluegrass region. And with its central location and easy access to major highways, Lexington is the ideal base from which to mount your own Civil War campaign to explore a state whose citizens supported both sides.
Bluegrass Note: Of the more than 10,000 military actions of the Civil War, 453 took place in Kentucky, more than in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina or Maryland.
Here's a guide to points of interest in Lexington and the region.
A Union Saved, an Estate Divided
"Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-'61, there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war," said Sen. Henry S. Foote in 1875.
As a Senator and statesmen, Henry Clay (1777-1852), known as "the Great Compromiser," helped postpone war between the states. But after his death his own family would divide along with the Union. As a result of dissension between Clay's sons and grandsons during the Civil War, his beloved Lexington estate Ashland was eventually auctioned. Ashland was also the site of a skirmish following the Battle of Perryville in October 1862.
Today, the Clay family home and 17 acres are open for tour as a National Historic Landmark. Ashland is located east of downtown at 120 Sycamore Road. (859) 266-8581.
Home of the Thunderbolt
Hopemont, the Hunt-Morgan House, at 201 N. Mill Street in Lexington's historic Gratz Park neighborhood, was the family home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, the daring, and reputedly dashing, Confederate raider known as the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy." A Civil War museum on the second floor displays swords, saddles, photographs, uniforms and other artifacts from Morgan and his men. (859) 233-3290.
The Bodley-Bullock House, across the park from the Hunt-Morgan House at 200 Market Street, served as both Union and Confederate headquarters for Lexington at different times during the war. The house is open for tour by appointment; call (859) 252-8014. Union troops used nearby Transylvania University as a hospital and camped in Gratz Park right in front of the Hunt-Morgan House. According to a Bluegrass legend, Morgan once rode up the front steps of the house, kissed his mother in the entry hall and galloped out the back door--with Union soldiers in hot pursuit.
Bluegrass Note: Morgan and his raiders so fired the public's imagination that schoolchildren on both sides recited poems about them. The Yankee rhyme was: "I'm sent to warn the neighbors, he's only a mile behind/He's sweeping up the horses, every horse that he can find./Morgan, Morgan the Raider and Morgan's terrible men/With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glen." Southern children had a different perspective: "I want to be a cavalryman, and with John Hunt Morgan ride/A Colt revolver in my belt, a saber by my side./I want a pair of epaulets to match my suit of gray,/The uniform my mother made and lettered C.S.A."
The Lincolns Slept Here
Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, was born to a prominent Lexington family in 1818. The Georgian house in which she lived from 1832 until 1839 is open for tour, and includes Todd family furnishings and Todd and Lincoln memorabilia.
After their marriage in 1842, the Lincolns visited Lexington several times. Mary Todd's Lexington heritage followed her to the nation's capital: the fact that some of her Kentucky relatives, including several of her half-brothers, fought for the Confederacy, aroused suspicion against Mrs. Lincoln in Washington, D.C.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is at 578 West Main Street. (859) 233-9999. (Closed in winter.)
Insights into Slavery
Slavery was an important part of the antebellum economy in the Bluegrass, where slaves made up about one half of the population. Essential to the operation of the area's hemp plantations, slaves also were hired out by their owners for factory work and other jobs. Lexington was a major slave market to the Deep South from the 1830s to the 1850s. Original slave quarters at Waveland State Historic Site offer insight into the daily life of plantation slaves in antebellum Bluegrass. 225 Waveland Museum Lane. (859) 272-3611.
Cheapside, located on the west side of Courthouse Square on Main Street, was the site of both slave auctions and impassioned abolitionist speeches. A small park commemorates the site today.
More than 500 Confederate and 1,100 Union veterans are buried in the park-like Lexington Cemetery, 833 West Main St. They include Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge. Breckinridge was vice-president of the United States under James Buchanan, unsuccessful Presidential candidate against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America. (859) 255-5522.
Lexington's historic old Fayette County Courthouse was recently renovated and two Lexington Civil War-related monuments, a statue of Breckinridge and the John Hunt Morgan state, have been reinstalled at Lexington Cemetery. Lexington tradition holds that the unveiling of the Morgan statue on the courthouse lawn in 1911 caused quite a local stir because Morgan is shown astride a stallion instead of his well-known mare Black Bess.
Bluegrass Note: Not only were Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis both born in Kentucky (less than one year and 100 miles apart), but both spent time in Lexington. Davis attended Transylvania University in 1823 and 1824. Lincoln visited the city several times with his wife, Mary Todd, after their marriage in 1842. You can get a printed walking tour "Lincolns' Lexington" free at the Lexington Visitors Center.
NEARBY AND NOTEWORTHY
The Bloodiest Battle
Perryville, Kentucky, still looks much the same as it did on October 8, 1862. On that hot day during one of Kentucky's driest summers, both Union and Confederate troops were parched and searching for water when they encountered each other at Doctor's Fork Creek. Between 2:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., 4,211 Union soldiers and 3,396 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing, giving Perryville the dubious distinction of being Kentucky's largest and most deadly Civil War battle. Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site includes the battleground, museum and a gift shop. The battle is reenacted each year during the first full weekend in October. Perryville is about 49 miles southwest of Lexington. Take either Harrodsburg Rd. (US 68, through) or Bluegrass Parkway to Exit 59, then US 127 to US 68. (859) 332-8631.
Battle Plans and a Lion's Hall
The Battle of Richmond in 1862, part of the Perryville campaign, was one of the Confederacy's greatest tactical victories of the war. A self-guided tour brochure and a narrative on CD of the three engagements are available from the Richmond Tourism Department, 531 West Main Street. (859) 626-8474.
Also of interest in the Richmond area is White Hall State Historic Site, home of one of Kentucky's most outspoken emancipationists, Cassius Marcellus Clay. Clay was a newspaper publisher, Minister to Russia and friend of Lincoln, and was called "the lion of White Hall" for his fiery oratory. (859) 623-9178. Richmond is about 23 miles south of Lexington via I-75. An alternate scenic route is via Ky. 169 (Tates Creek Road), crossing the Kentucky River via the Valley View Ferry.
In Defense of the Kentucky River
Towering walls of rock prevented easy crossing of the Kentucky River, but Confederate soldiers still managed to cross and re-cross by ford or ferry, creating havoc for Union Forces. In 1863, African American soldiers constructed fortifications high above the ford and ferry at Boonesboro, entirely by hand. The Civil War Fort at Boonesboro, part of a network of small defensive works proposed by Union Captain Thomas B. Brooks, never mounted permanent artillery. The Civil War Fort is 17 miles from Lexington. Head out Richmond Road all the way to the River. At 1924, turn right and go 1 mile. The colorful murals of the parking lot will be on your left. 1250 Ford Road, Winchester. (859) 527-3131.
The Kentucky Military History Museum on East Main Street in Frankfort includes an extraordinary collection of Civil War weapons, flags, uniforms and other artifacts. The building itself was a Union cartridge factory and supply center. (502) 564-1792.
Several other war-related sites are found in Kentucky's capital city. The Kentucky State Capitol Rotunda on Capitol Avenue, includes statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Federal reparation payments for war damage actually helped pay for the building. (502) 564-3449.
The Old State Capitol, Broadway and Lewis streets in Frankfort, includes some Civil War memorabilia. Another point of interest is the Frankfort Cemetery, with its stately Confederate Memorial and wall memorial to all heroic Kentucky war veterans. 215 E. Main St. (502) 227-2403. Frankfort is about 27 miles west of Lexington via I-64. For a scenic alternative take Old Frankfort Pike and US 60.
Bluegrass Note: Although as a state Kentucky did not secede, 63 counties did - setting up a Confederate government at Bowling Green in Western Kentucky. A Bluegrass Kentuckian, George W. Johnson of Scott County, was elected first Confederate Governor of Kentucky. Johnson is buried in the Georgetown Cemetery.
On the Road with the Raiders
Col. John Hunt Morgan's forays included 1862 and 1864 battles in and around the small town of Cynthiana in Harrison County. In the 1862 raid the Confederates captured the town, but in 1864, they were forced to retreat, for all practical purposes ending Morgan's raids in the state. A self-guided driving tour of the Cynthiana Battles is available from the Cynthiana/ Harrison County Chamber of Commerce, 201 South Main St. (859) 234-5236.
Enlistment and Emancipation
When the Union began to draft African-Americans into the army in 1864, Camp Nelson, located south of Nicholasville in Jessamine County, was the state's most important recruiting station. Thousands of African-Americans and their families traveled to the camp for enlistment - and freedom. The installation also served as a refuge for the soldiers' families. John Fee, a founder of Berea College, established schools and churches for the African-Americans at Camp Nelson. Camp Nelson also was the state's chief center for the issuance of emancipation papers to former slaves. Four thousand Civil War soldiers are buried in the national cemetery located on part of the camp site. Five miles of trails give an overview of the supply depot and the northern line of defense. The restored officers quarters are open Tuesday through Saturday, 9-5. (859) 881-5716. Camp Nelson is located off US 27, about 20 miles south of Lexington.
Bluegrass Note: More than 30,000 men left their Kentucky homes to fight for the Confederacy. Twice that many Kentuckians fought for the North, including 20,000 African-Americans, the second-highest number among all the states.
From Pacifists to Pioneers
At Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the pacifist Shakers provided food, supplies and medical treatment to troops from both sides. Village tours include information about the impact of the war. (859) 734-5411; toll-free (800) 734-5611.
Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg includes a museum with Civil War artifacts and the cabin in which Lincoln's parents were married. (859) 734-3314 Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is 25 miles southwest of Lexington via US 68. Continue on US 68 a few miles to Harrodsburg.
Bluegrass Note: Lt. William R. McEntire, a Southern commander at the final surrender of the Cumberland Gap to the Union on Sept. 9, 1863, had an unusual deathbed request. He asked his grandson to return to the gap 100 years after the surrender, stand at the pinnacle and curse the Yankees for five minutes, which the grandson did on September 9, 1963.
Beyond the Bluegrass
Lexington can also be an ideal base from which to explore some of Kentucky's other Civil War sites.
- The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site features 116 acres of the farm where Lincoln was born and a granite memorial shrine enclosing a cabin symbolic of the one in which Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. The park is located in Hodgenville, Kentucky, 83 miles west of Lexington. (270) 358-3137.Take Bluegrass Parkway to US 31E.
- The earthwork forts at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park were used by both Union and Confederate troops. Of strategic importance to both sides, this pioneer gateway to Kentucky changed hands several times during the war. (606) 248-2817. About 2 1/2 hours south of Lexington via I-75 and US25 E.
- The National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville, north of Lexington, features exhibits about slavery and the escape route used by thousands of slaves. (606) 564-3200 or (606)564-4413. About 65 miles north of Lexington via US 68. Open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment.
For more information contact VisitLEX at (800) 845-3959.
By Teresa Day, a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY.
Updated: March 2020