The Most Hated Man in Kentucky
The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge
Published by: The University Press of Kentucky
For the last third of the nineteenth century, Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge enjoyed the unenviable distinction of being the most hated man in Kentucky. From mid-1864, just months into his reign as the military commander of the state, until his death in December 1894, the mere mention of his name triggered a firestorm of curses from editorialists and politicians. By the end of Burbridge's tenure, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette concluded that he was an "imbecile commander" whose actions represented nothing but the "blundering of a weak intellect and an overwhelming vanity."
In this revealing biography, Brad Asher explores how Burbridge earned his infamous reputation and adds an important new layer to the ongoing reexamination of Kentucky during and after the Civil War. He explains that Burbridge's use of measures, including retaliatory executions, to quell guerrillas and Confederate partisans fell within the range of tactics used by Union commanders faced with irregular fighters in other areas and within the bounds of the laws of war as articulated by the Union high command. Burbridge jailed, banished, and harassed those who expressed anti-Lincoln, anti-war, or pro-Confederate political sympathies. Most importantly, however, he oversaw and sped along the destruction of slavery by administering the recruitment and enlistment of enslaved people as soldiers.
This reassessment illuminates how Burbridge -- as a Kentuckian and the local architect of the destruction of slavery -- became the scapegoat for white Kentuckians, including many in the Unionist political elite, who were unshakably opposed to emancipation. Beyond successfully recalibrating history's understanding of Burbridge, Asher's biography adds administrative and military context to the state's reaction to emancipation and sheds new light on its postwar pro-Confederacy shift.
Appendix A: Retaliatory Executions of Guerrillas per Burbridge's Order #59
Appendix B: Actions Involving Irregular Forces in Kentucky, 1864-1865
"A superb biography of one of the most pivotal figures in Kentucky's Civil War history. Stephen Burbridge figures heavily in any analysis of Kentucky's wartime experience, both for his actions as commander of the Military District of Kentucky in 1864--65 and for his outsized reputation as the chief villain of the 'radical Unionist' cause. There has been a lot of revisionist literature in the last fifteen years on Kentucky's belated Confederate identity but no work up to now has addressed Burbridge himself. Brad Asher has filled a very important gap in the literature on wartime and postwar memory of Kentucky." -- Aaron Astor, author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860--1872
"Brad Asher's The Most Hated Man in Kentucky is a solid reassessment of Kentucky's most controversial and reviled Union general, and one that will help readers understand the state's complex place (and Burbridge's complex place) in Civil War history." -- Stuart W. Sanders, author of Murder on the Ohio Belle