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For the last third of the nineteenth century, Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge, also known as the “Butcher of Kentucky,” 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.”

Part of what earned him this reputation was his heavy handedness to suppress attacks on Union citizens. On July 16, 1864, Burbridge issued Order No. 59 which declared: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.” He was also hated for extreme measures to ensure re-election of Lincoln by suppressing support in Kentucky for Democratic candidate George McClellan. His actions included arresting prominent persons favoring the candidate, including the Lieutenant Governor, Richard T. Jacob, whom he would have deported.


Today’s guest is Brad Asher, author of a new biography on Burbridge. We discuss how he earned his infamous reputation and adds an important new layer to the ongoing reexamination of Kentucky during and after the Civil War. As both a Kentuckian and the local architect of the destruction of slavery, he 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.

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