Louisville Exhibits Mark Civil War Sesquicentennial

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The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is now in full swing across the country and two exhibits in Louisville explore Kentucky’s unique position as a Civil War border state.     

At the Filson Historical Society, there’s a new exhibit called “United We Stand – Divided We Fall.”

It contains letters, photographs, weapons, clothing and other artifacts from the Filson’s extensive Civil War collection.

Kentucky began the war as officially neutral. It eventually became a Union state, but family loyalities and opinions on issues such as slavery could be deeply divided, resulting in the storied “brother vs. brother” scenarios.

Filson Curator of Special Collections Jim Holmberg says one of the more high profile divisions occurred within the family of Kentucky Governor John Crittenden.

“His sons actually split. One was a general in the Confederate army, another was a general in the Union army, so here’s this kind of like poster family for something like this that happens. But it did happen,” Holmberg said.

The Filson’s collection includes an 1861 letter Crittenden wrote to his son, George, imploring him not to resign his Union military commission and join the Confederacy.

“Be true to the country that has trusted in you,” the elder Crittenden wrote, “and stand fast to your nation’s flag.”

It was advice that George Crittenden would not heed. Both George and his Union general brother, Thomas, survived the war.

Joan House says it was long established that her third great-grandfather, Benjamin House and his brother, John, both served in the Union army. But she kept hearing rumors about a third brother.

“So I went back and looked at the records and it seems that the youngest boy, Sam, signed up with Morgan’s Calvary in Lexington in 1861 and rode with him throughout the war.”

House says no one really knows why Sam joined Morgan’s Confederate riders. John House was killed in the battle of Lebanon, where Sam also saw action.

While Civil War divisions have endured for generations in some families, Joan House says the surviving House brothers put aside their differences and returned to Jessamine County to work the family’s land.

They also followed their mother’s admonition not to discuss the Civil War in her home.

“The only thing that they really talked about was that they were very against war after that,” House said.

The Filson Society exhibit includes some pieces from its large collection of Civil War era sheet music. The wistful ballad “Lorena,” is about a broken engagement, but its story of longing became a favorite of soldiers on both sides.

Division, longing and homesickness are addressed in another Louisville Civil War exhibit, “My Brother, My Enemy” at the Frazier History Museum.

Many of its artifacts are on loan from the descendents of William Albert Thormyer and his son, George, German immigrants who joined the Union army but spent the war apart.

George’s great-great grandson Albert Thormyer of Austin, Indiana, came into possession of the items, including wartime letters written in German, from an uncle.

When he was up in years he said you know I want you to take all this stuff. So we decided that that would be the best place where everybody could enjoy them for some period of time, Thormyer said.

Despite his family’s rich history, Thormyer says he’s not a big Civil War buff, but that’s not the case with Joan House.

She’s the preservation coordinator for the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site in Boyle County, Kentucky. Next October will mark the sesquicentennial of Kentucky’s bloodiest battle, where more than 1,400 men were killed.  Hundreds more would die from their battle injuries.

“I don’t think people really get what a loud, ugly, noisy, hateful place this was 150 years ago,”  House said as she and the park staff prepared to close the battlefield musuem for the winter.    “People come out and see all the pretty trees and the flowers and it’s very peaceful. And I think the soldiers would be okay with that.”

Photos, from top: Perryville Battlefield monument, George Crittenden (from Wikipedia), Joan House, “Lorena” sheet music (from Civil War Librarian blog,  Thormyer letter (from Frazier History Museum)