Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review--My Old Confederate Home

Williams, Rusty. My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans. The University Press of Kentucky; Lexington, Kentucky. 313 pages 267 pages of text. B/W photos, index, bibliography, notes. 2010. ISBN 9780813125824. $34.95.

My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War VeteransAmericans have always felt a duty and obligation to their soldiers. This was especially true for those living in the former Confederate states where the federal government was of course unwilling to supply for the needs of those once considered to be traitors. If support was to be provided for Johnny Rebs it was left up to state governments, concerned citizens, and Confederate veterans groups (which would come to include the United Daughters of the Confederacy) to accommodate the physical needs, health issues, and as Rusty Williams adds provide a "respectable place" for the aging Confederate populations.

States met with varying degrees of success in providing for Confederate soldiers. There were funds to be raised, property to be purchased, staff to be hired and trained, funds to be raised, and even more funds to be raised. In My Old Confederate Home Rusty Williams presents the story of the Kentucky Confederate home. While not a Confederate state in the sense that it did not secede there was a strong Confederate feeling both during and after the war. Varying groups wanted to be in the lead of building a Confederate home in Kentucky. Despite the political bickering the home was founded in 1902 in a closed luxury hotel in Pewee Valley. While not originally welcomed in the area the home became a fixture in the community and children even played on the grounds. Soldiers were not always known by name but they were known. The home brought a limited number of jobs to the area as well as provided revenue from those who came to visit.

As veterans aged it became inevitable that some met monetary success while others struggled. The story of the home is really the story of the soldiers and the people who help run the home. We meet men like Billy Beasley who is given a second chance at life and prospers running a newspaper stand courtesy of fellow veterans. We come face to face with the varying management styles of Commandants William Coleman, Henry George, Charles Daughtry, and Alexander McFarlane. These are the men who  dealt with the day to day issues of the home. From providing nutritious yet interesting meals, to entertainment, to passing down discipline, these men dealt with a multitude of difficulties but met the job head on. We see veterans like James H. Mocabee who was caught red handed smuggling whiskey into the home. Veteran Alexander N. White was known as an inmate Reverend and had a reputation for preaching and also for being a busybody. It is this human touch and bringing soldiers to life that helps make Williams book such a success.

While this is the story of the Kentucky Confederate Home this book also becomes a social history of the early twentieth century. The world was rapidly changing as would things in Pewee Valley. Women were becoming more vocal in their quest for equality. The Confederate Home was not immune to this as the United Daughters of the Confederacy became a well meaning fly in their ointment. These women were interested in making sure the veterans were properly cared for. This meant good food, good medical care, good mental stimulation, but also they wanted a part of the decision making process. While the Board of Directors remained a bastion of maledom there was little doubt times were changing. 1914 became a key year for the home in many ways. In 1914 the home began to lose inmates (by using the definition from the time frame an inmate is "one who lives in the same house or apartment with another" and not the negative association we have with the word today ). More veterans were dying than were being admitted. Also, during this time frame the outbreak of World War I led to a shifting of priorities. Part of the property was taken by the Red Cross for it's work. Veterans returning from oversees were seemingly given priority. In 1920 a major fire damaged much of the property but led to no lose of life. Despite a rebuilding the home was never the same. As Williams points out the home was rapidly losing residents. By 1929 less than 35 men lived in the home. This coupled with the fact that more than 9 out of 10 residents of Kentucky were born after the Civil War led to a strong shift in priorities. By the time of the Great Depression the home housed less than a dozen residents. No longer was the home politically needed nor was it financially viable. By mid 1934 the home was closed and the last five residents were moved to a local sanitarium.

In My Old Confederate Home Rusty Williams has written an important book. It is important we realize the war did not end once the guns and swords were put down. For many men they were dealing with it's realities for the rest of their lives. Homes like those at Pewee Valley played an important last role in these men's lives. Using primary documents for much of his work Williams has provided these veterans with a more than respectable tribute. Highly recommended.

Be sure to check out Rusty's blog here. It hasn't been updated in a while but there is some interesting information there.


  1. Good review. I agree it's a very fine book and I suggest anyone interested in it may want to pair it with "Creating a Confederate Kentucky" by Anne Marshall. These books - both very good ones on their own - combine to tell the story of how Kentucky came to be perceived as a Confederate state and a practical result of that image, i.e. the Confederate home. I lucked into reading them back-to-back and am very glad to have done so.

  2. Texas, which has never felt the public need to supply the wants of every fragile citizen, nevertheless had a large Confederate home in West Austin.

    It was finally razed in the 1980s to make way for new development. It might account for the numerous non-Texan graves of Confederates in the state cemetery on the other side of town. They may have flocked to Texas to use the home.