The Battle Rages Higher

In my central Kentucky hometown, the Civil War is still part of the fabric of life.  A cannonball is deeply imbedded in the brick wall of a store in the town square, a mute reminder of a brief visit paid by John Hunt Morgan in the fall of 1862.  Lincoln’s Birthplace National Park stands only fifteen miles from the house where I grew up; I remember thinking, even as a child, how odd it was to be commemorating a dirt-poor Kentucky farm boy by building a marble temple around a crude log cabin.  I was accustomed from an early age to seeing images of Lincoln everywhere, and among my earliest memories are my grandfather’s stories of a vague, shirttail relationship to the Emancipator president himself; I never understood exactly what.  And yet, travel fifteen miles from my hometown in another direction, and it was never difficult to find stickers carrying the image of the Confederate battle flag, on sale in the convenience marts between the cheap sunglasses and the decks of cards.

The Civil War is a living thing in Kentucky.

While I was in college, far from home, I began in an unfocused way to research family history.  I had known for years the stories about my three-great-grandfather, a young captain killed fighting for the Union at Stones River.  As I worked, I discovered more and more stories, but they all seemed to lead back to the same place, like spokes of a wheel.  Capt. Smith Bayne, it turned out, had two brothers, both in the same unit.  Cousin after cousin turned up in the old documents, but nearly all of them turned out to be members of the same Union regiment, the Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry.  That research led to The Battle Rages Higher: The Union’s Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry.

Among most Kentuckians who think often about that war, the Confederacy is very much "our" side.  Alistair Cooke called Kentucky the most self-consciously Southern of all the states, and bias among students of the war in Kentucky tilts toward the Confederacy by at least a five-to-one margin, perhaps double that.  So it was a real surprise to find a band of Kentuckians fighting for the Union while tramping around old family pictures and documents, and I began to wonder what sort of people these were and what their story had been.

Regimental histories were the first commentaries on the war.  Some written in diaries and on scarce letter-paper by firelight in the camps and on the battlefields, others written not long after the war, the men wrote of their experiences and tried to come to grips with what it had all meant.  Historian Earl J. Hess has divided this large band of soldier-writers into four groups: the soldiers who continued to see the war in starkly ideological terms; the "lost veterans," who most vividly remembered the horrors of battle and saw nothing redeeming in the war; the pragmatists, who rejected political ideologies but saw the war as a crucible of men's characters; and the nonpolitical veterans, who chose to emphasize the comradeship of the wartime experience.

After the veterans had slowly passed from the scene, history from the viewpoint of the private soldier became less fashionable; as so it was until the middle of the twentieth century, when historian Bell Irvin Wiley published a pair of classics, Life of Billy Yank and Life of Johnny Reb.  Only twenty years ago, another revival began, led off by several historians’ books analyzing the content of soldiers’ letters from the front.  At the same time, both professional and amateur historians moved to fill the gaps left by the veterans, publishing histories of dozens more Union and Confederate regiments.  These books ranged from traditional regimental histories to newly discovered veterans' manuscripts.

But in all this extensive literature on the private soldiers' experiences, there has been relatively little attention paid to the large number of Kentuckians who fought for the Union.  During the veterans' generation, the literature on the Fifteenth Kentucky is limited to an article in a short-lived veterans' magazine by the unit's adjutant.

The oversight is difficult to understand.  Kentucky contributed 79,025 men to the Union army for service in the field, and another 12,476 Kentuckians served in Home Guard units, guarding lines of communications and chasing guerrillas.  More Kentuckians volunteered for the Union army during a two-month period in 1861 than went south during the entire four years of the war, and this in a state that offered no bounties to its Federal volunteers.

The Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry was recruited in the fall of 1861 largely from Louisville and the Knob Creek valley where Abraham Lincoln lived as a child. Although recruited in a slave state where Lincoln received only 0.9 percent of the 1860 presidential vote, the men of the Fifteenth Kentucky fought and died for the Union for over three years, participating in all the battles of the Atlanta campaign, as well as the battles of Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga. Using primary research, including soldiers’ letters and diaries, hundreds of contemporary newspaper reports, official army records, and postwar memoirs, Battle Rages Higher vividly brings the Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry to life. The book also includes an extensive biographical roster summarizing the service record of each soldier in the thousand-member unit.

 

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