The story of the Davidson brothers – John, a major in the Union Army, and Frank, who joined the Confederacy – dramatize how divided loyalties fractured families in Kentucky during the Civil War.
Maj. John Davidson was killed in battle, and his slave brought his body home. Near the war’s end, Frank Davidson was captured in Missouri and later returned to Kentucky after he signed an oath of loyalty in 1865.
“The family mourned John’s death, but then his brother, they never acknowledged him again after the war,” said Trevor Jones, director of museums and exhibition at the Kentucky Historical Society. “The family remained divided and torn apart.”
What’s more, the Todd County family never mentioned Maj. John Davidson’s twin sons from a black woman named Winnie Christian.
“This family is just blown apart by the war, and to me, that’s very much Kentucky in a microcosm during the war,” Jones said. “Those divisions between political ideas, racial ideas just persist.”
The blue uniform Maj. John Davidson wore when he was killed in battle is on display at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History as part of the “Civil War: My Brother, My Enemy” exhibit, a joint effort between KHS and Louisville’s Frazier History Museum.
It highlights the Civil War’s impact in Kentucky.
Jones called the state a linchpin during the war and said political leaders were reluctant to pick a side when the war erupted because Kentucky’s textile industry had business interests in both the north and south, especially in producing cheap and durable clothes for slaves.
“Most Kentuckians wanted the status quo,” Jones said. “They didn’t want to get rid of slavery. It was business. Also, a lot of people thought if they joined the Confederacy, then Kentucky becomes the border between free and slave, and it’s going to be real easy for slaves to run through Kentucky and escape over the Ohio River.
“They were worried about defending that border, so the status quo is what they want.”
The exhibit features remnants of Kentucky history before, during and after the Civil War.
A shako hat from the Lexington Rifles, a militia under John Hunt Morgan that defected to the Confederacy and raised its flag over Lexington’s wool factory after telegraphing Jefferson Davis for assistance, is on display alongside a 1852 first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which begins on a Kentucky farm.
There’s also a slave inventory list and campaign material from John Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat from Kentucky who finished second behind Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860.
Another section is dedicated to Mary Todd Lincoln, a Lexington native thought by some to be a Confederate spy in the White House when her husband was president.
“Her brothers fought for the Confederacy,” Jones said. “… A lot of people feared she was a spy in the White House.”
Her only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, had her committed to a mental asylum in Batavia, Ill., in 1875, and those papers, along with a register from the hospital showing Mary Todd Lincoln’s admittance, are part of the exhibit. Her long, white gloves and a shirt she made for an infant Robert are also on display.
Other pieces include the Confederate uniform of Lt. Waller Overton from Fayette County, various revolvers and rifles – some Confederate knock-offs of Union weapons -– used by soldiers on both sides, and army medical kits, some used to perform grisly amputations or to bore holes in soldiers’ skulls to relieve pressure after head injuries.
There’s also a button Union soldier Ezra Smith from Ohio fashioned with a bullet pulled from his leg – something Jones had never seen – and the uniform of former Kentucky Adjutant Gen. Joseph Nuckols, a colonel in the Confederate army who had his and his staff’s uniforms made in Confederate grey when he took office in 1879.
The exhibit also has an interactive iPad section where museum patrons can build a pack similar to those of Civil War soldiers. Weapons, food, clothes, blankets and other provisions can be picked with the touch screen tablets, and the program rates each pack when finished.
Jones hopes patrons get a better understanding of Kentucky’s role in the Civil War and how it shaped the state’s history both during and after the bloodshed.
“The gory stuff’s cool, and certainly this is designed to appeal to kids in a lot of ways as well, but I really hope they get the idea about Kentuckians making decisions about who they’re going to support and how that had ramifications for families and for the state more than the battles and generals, which this really doesn’t talk as much about,” Jones said.
“Civil War: My Brother, My Enemy” will be at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History through Dec. 8. Admission costs $4 for an adult, $2 for those between 6 and 18, and free for children under 5. KHS offers discounts for active duty military and veterans.