The best books about the Civil War and the Lost Cause in Kentucky

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian based in Louisville, Kentucky. When I moved here two decades ago, I could tell the vibe was different than other places I had been. Southern—but not like Tennessee. Midwestern—but not like Illinois. So I started reading, and eventually writing, about the state’s history. I have a Ph.D. in United States history so I lean toward academic books. I like authors who dig into the primary sources of history and then come out and make an argument about the evidence that they uncovered. I also lean toward social and cultural history—rather than military history—of the Civil War.


I wrote...

The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge

By Brad Asher,

Book cover of The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge

What is my book about?

I am a Kentucky historian and I had often read bits in other books about the abuses and cruelties that General Stephen Burbridge inflicted on the state when he was the military commander of Kentucky (March 1864-February 1865). Arrests, executions, clampdowns on free speech, interference in elections: all charges in the lengthy indictment against Burbridge. I thought there must be more to the story than just that of an aspiring dictator oppressing freedom-loving Kentuckians. So in this biography I put his actions in the proper context and try to get at the real reasons he got branded as the most hated man in Kentucky. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Rivers Ran Backward: The Civil War and the Remaking of the American Middle Border

Brad Asher Why did I love this book?

To outsiders, Kentucky is clearly part of the South. For those of us who live here—especially those who know a little about the state’s history—it can be a little more nebulous. Phillips’ book helps explain why. Kentucky had a lot in common with its fellow states of the first West like Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, and those northern states could be a lot more “southern” than commonly understood. Phillips’s book shows how the Civil War remade those regional boundaries, turning the Ohio River into a line of separation between “North” and “South.”

By Christopher Phillips,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rivers Ran Backward as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Most Americans believe that the Ohio River was a clearly defined and static demographic and political boundary between North and South, an extension of the Mason-Dixon Line. Once settled, the new states west of the Appalachians - the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri and of the free states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kansas - formed a fixed boundary between freedom and slavery, extending the border that inevitably produced the war. None of this is true,
except perhaps the outcome of war. But the centrality of the Civil War and its outcome in the making of these tropes is…


Book cover of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri

Brad Asher Why did I love this book?

This book reminded me of the deep parallels in the histories of Missouri and Kentucky. I don’t tend to associate Kentucky with Missouri, but Astor’s book really drives home why that is wrongheaded. Both were border states and, during the war, both suffered guerrilla insurgencies, had divided populations, and ended up supporting the pro-Confederate Lost Cause vision of the war. And when so much writing on Kentucky’s history is focused on its white inhabitants, Astor restores agency to its African American residents, showing how they resisted slavery and then, after emancipation, created their own institutions to contest for racial equality in the face of fierce opposition.

By Aaron Astor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rebels on the Border as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rebels on the Border offers a remarkably compelling and significant study of the Civil War South's highly contested and bloodiest border states: Kentucky and Missouri. By far the most complex examination to date, the book sharply focuses on the ""borderland"" between the free North and the Confederate South. As a result, Rebels on the Border deepens and enhances understanding of the sectional conflict, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

After slaves in central Kentucky and Missouri gained their emancipation, author Aaron Astor contends, they transformed informal kin and social networks of resistance against slavery into more formalized processes of electoral participation…


Book cover of Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia

Brad Asher Why did I love this book?

I once stumbled onto a celebration of Confederate Memorial Day in a small Kentucky mountain town, but I had always been told that the mountains of eastern Kentucky were a stronghold of Unionism during the Civil War. McKnight’s book helped me understand the complexity of the Appalachian region and its experience of the war. Both armies used the mountain gaps as gateways to invasion, exploited the local residents, and despoiled the landscape. Life in the mountains in the 19th century had always been hard; the Civil War made it a lot harder.

By Brian D. McKnight,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Contested Borderland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From 1861 to 1865, the border separating eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia was more than just a geographic marker -- it represented a major ideological split, serving as an "international" boundary between the United States and the Confederacy. The loyalties of those who lived in this mountainous region could not be so easily divided, and large segments of the population remained neutral or vacillated in their support. Location and a wealth of resources made the region strategically important to both sides in the conflict, and both armies fought for control. In Contested Borderland, Brian D. McKnight shows how military invasion…


Book cover of Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880

Brad Asher Why did I love this book?

I have long been interested in the history of US religion but a lot of religious history can be, well, boring. Harlow’s book is not. People interested in the Civil War often forget about the role religious belief played in the lives of 19th-century Americans, preferring to focus on military strategy or the politics of emancipation and Reconstruction. Harlow’s book foregrounds religion and shows how pro-slavery theology united Kentuckians even as they split over the war. And how that same theology helps explain why they turned their back on their wartime Unionism and embraced the Lost Cause version of events.

By Luke E. Harlow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book sheds new light on the role of religion in the nineteenth-century slavery debates. Luke E. Harlow argues that the ongoing conflict over the meaning of Christian 'orthodoxy' constrained the political and cultural horizons available for defenders and opponents of American slavery. The central locus of these debates was Kentucky, a border slave state with a long-standing antislavery presence. Although white Kentuckians famously cast themselves as moderates in the period and remained with the Union during the Civil War, their religious values showed no moderation on the slavery question. When the war ultimately brought emancipation, white Kentuckians found themselves…


Book cover of Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State

Brad Asher Why did I love this book?

When I moved to Kentucky many years ago, the large Confederate memorial on a downtown street was a puzzle to me because I knew that Kentucky had been a Union state. As one historian said many years ago, “Kentucky seceded after the war was over.” Marshall’s book walks us through that process. She covers everything from politics to postwar violence to children’s literature to the resistance efforts of Kentucky’s African Americans as she explains why those Confederate memorials and monuments went up all around the state. 

By Anne E. Marshall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Creating a Confederate Kentucky as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Historian E. Merton Coulter famously said that Kentucky ""waited until after the war was over to secede from the Union."" In this fresh study, Anne E. Marshall traces the development of a Confederate identity in Kentucky between 1865 and 1925 that belied the fact that Kentucky never left the Union and that more Kentuckians fought for the North than for the South. Following the Civil War, the people of Kentucky appeared to forget their Union loyalties, embracing the Democratic politics, racial violence, and Jim Crow laws associated with formerly Confederate states. Although, on the surface, white Confederate memory appeared to…


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Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely won’t give him a second chance after his silence during the war. Only, she’s hiding something from him.

How can they have any hope of a loving life together with lies and secrets between them?

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Kentucky, the American Civil War, and Missouri?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Kentucky, the American Civil War, and Missouri.

Kentucky Explore 76 books about Kentucky
The American Civil War Explore 301 books about the American Civil War
Missouri Explore 38 books about Missouri