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Confederate Governor of Kentucky Seeks Prominent Louisville Editor’s Support for Secession in the Summer of 1861
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The terms on which the Southern Confederacy desire Peace, are the union of the 15 Slave States and their Independence as a ‘Southern Confederacy’. For such recognition by the ‘United States’, they will concede, a condition to stand forever – towit Reciprocal Free trade between the two nations, in the Products of each.

[CIVIL WAR – CONFEDERACY]. George W. Johnson, Autograph Letter Signed, to George D. Prentice, July 22, 1861, [Georgetown, KY?]. 3 pp., 7¾ x 9¾ in.

Inventory #26799       Price: $2,400

In this “Strictly Confidential” letter, Kentucky Governor George W. Johnson seeks the support of co-founder and editor George D. Prentice of the Louisville Journal for a peace plan that would permit free trade between the two nations of the Confederacy and the United States. Johnson offers to purchase $50,000 of Journal stock or pay Prentice $25,000 in gold for his support. Prentice did not accept the offer and though critical of President Abraham Lincoln remained a Unionist, though both of his sons fought for the Confederacy.

Complete Transcript

            Strictly Confidential

George D. Prentice Esq.

Louisville, Ky

Dr Sir,

            You have long since expressed the opinion, that the Southern States could not and should not be subdued by arms. If then subjugation is impossible and wrong, this war should not be sustained, unless it is a war of Defence by the “U. States”. In the Southern States, the idea of waging war except in self defense is not even talked, and he who would advocate a war for the subjugation of the North, would be scouted as a fool. The terms on which the Southern Confederacy desire Peace, are the union of the 15 Slave States and their Independence as a “Southern Confederacy”. For such recognition by the “United States”, they will concede, a condition to stand forever – towit Reciprocal Free trade between the two nations, in the Products of each. In other words, the “United States” shall import into the “Southern Confederacy” all of its Products free of Duty, and in like manner the Southern Confederacy shall import into the United States its products free of duty. This will leave each Government to lay its own Tariffs, exempting the product of each reciprocally from such Tariffs <2>

            Such Terms of Peace would be mutually beneficial and highly calculated to produce a kind feeling between the two sections; would give to Northern manufactures the full advantage of the Southern Tariff, and to Southern sugar, wool, hemp and provisions the advantage of the Northern Tariff. It would obviate all difficulties as to the navigation of the Mississippi and its Tributaries and a long line of inland Custom Houses.

            If there is any obstacle in the way of your advocating these positions, in the ownership of the stock of the Journal, I will furnish in 10 days in New Orleans, fifty thousand dollars in Gold, to purchase that amount of its stock. If no such difficulty is [as] this exists, but others involving personal obligation and responsibility on your part to party or Friends, I will in like time 10 days, pay to you in Gold 25,000 dollars to be disposed of by you, without question on my part, in any way you wish as your absolute property, so as to secure to your release from all personal obligations interfering with the advocacy of these measures by you.

            In this contest, our Friends, have fully embarked, not only their lives, but their property <3> and consider that your influence is the only thing now needed to secure a Union of Parties in Kentucky, and that opinions held and expressed by you frequently heretofore offer no impediment to this arrangement. We think that the advocacy by you of such terms of adjustment, as are desire by the South will prevent a sacrifice on our part, of a large amount of property, and prevent a Civil War between citizens of the state.

            If you accept either of these terms, the conditions on my part, will be performed, with the perfect conviction, that we will have thus secured the union of all good men in Kentucky and that you will thus become the agent of heralding to the whole nation, acceptable, honourable and mutually advantageous Terms of Peace.

                                                                        Very respectfully

                                                                        Your obt. svt.

                                                                        George W. Johnson

P.S. I have for some time been absent from home and wish to return to my family as soon as possible & would be glad to have your decision as early as possible. The South will only propose Peace after Victory. Now is the Time to act.                       G. W. J.

July 22nd 1861

Historical Background

As a border slave state in the Civil War, Kentucky was deeply divided. Although most of its citizens were committed to slavery, they disagreed over whether secession and the Confederacy could best protect the institution. Governor Beriah Magoffin opposed secession but sympathized with the South. When President Abraham Lincoln called for Kentucky’s share of the initial 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion, Magoffin responded, “I will send not a man nor a dollar for the wicked purpose of subduing my sister Southern states.” Both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly passed declarations of neutrality, and Magoffin declared the position on May 20, 1861.

Both the United States and the Confederacy initially observed Kentucky’s neutrality. The United States army established camps in Ohio and Indiana just north of the Ohio River border, and Confederates constructed Forts Henry and Donelson just across Kentucky’s southern border in western Tennessee.

Like Magoffin, planter George W. Johnson initially had serious reservations about Kentucky’s seceding from the Union, but he eventually decided that his state should join the Confederacy. In the tense summer of 1861, he sent this letter to prominent newspaper editor George D. Prentice in Louisville, seeking his help. A leader of the Union State Committee, Prentice refused Johnson’s offer of a bribe. On the same day that Johnson penned this letter, the editorial in the Louisville Journal declared, “The honor and the safety of Kentucky and the best interests of the Union so far as Kentucky is concerned are at this juncture bound up in the peace of the State. And unquestionably the condition of peace in Kentucky is the defeat of the secessionists at the August election by a majority absolutely crushing.”[1]

At the statewide election on August 5, 1861, Kentucky voters handed Unionists a strong victory. The Union Party won 75 of 100 House seats and the Unionist majority in the Senate increased to 27-11.

In mid-August, Governor Magoffin sent two commissioners to President Lincoln and sent George W. Johnson as a commissioner to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seeking assurances from each that they would respect Kentucky neutrality. Davis replied, Magoffin told the legislature, that “the government of the Confederate States neither intends nor desires to disturb the neutrality of Kentucky.”[2]

Despite the assurances of Confederate President Davis, on September 4, 1861, Confederate Major General Leonidas Polk violated Kentucky’s neutrality by occupying Columbus on the Mississippi River at the terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. In response, two days later, forces under Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant from Cairo, Illinois, occupied Paducah at the mouth of the Tennessee River. Governor Magoffin denounced both sides and demanded that they withdraw, but the General Assembly on September 7 ordered the withdrawal of only the Confederate forces and overrode Magoffin’s veto to express their determination to repeal Kentucky’s neutrality and join the Union side.

On November 18, 1861, delegates from 68 of Kentucky’s 110 counties assembled in Russellville, passed an ordinance of secession, and established a shadow state government loyal to the Confederacy with George W. Johnson as governor. They made Bowling Green, occupied by Confederate forces, the state capital. The Confederate government in Richmond admitted Kentucky to the Confederacy on December 10, 1861. Volunteers from Kentucky joined both sides, eventually providing nearly 60 regiments to the Union cause and 9 and several cavalry units to the Confederate.

George W. Johnson 1811-1862) was born in Kentucky and received a series of degrees from Transylvania University in 1829, 1832, and 1833. He briefly practiced law in Georgetown but turned to farming. He owned a farm near Georgetown, Kentucky, a few miles north of Lexington. Johnson served in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1838 to 1840. He supported John C. Breckinridge for president in 1860, but did not feel the election of Abraham Lincoln justified secession. As other southern states seceded, he began advocating that Kentucky join the Confederacy. He was selected as the governor of a Confederate shadow government of Kentucky at a convention in Russellville in November 1861. He wrote to Jefferson Davis requesting the admission of Kentucky into the Confederacy, which was approved on December 10, 1861. When Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston was forced to withdraw from Bowling Green in February 1862, Johnson’s Confederate state government moved with Johnston’s army to Tennessee. During the Battle of Shiloh, Johnson served as a volunteer aide to the military officers, but after his horse was killed, he fought as a private until mortally wounded. He died aboard a Union hospital ship on April 8. Union officers who knew him had his body packed in salt and shipped to Louisville and then to Georgetown for burial. Richard Hawes Jr. (1797-1877) succeeded Johnson as governor of the Confederate shadow government of Kentucky from 1862 to 1865.

George D. Prentice 1802-1870) was born in Connecticut and graduated at the head of his class from Brown University in 1823. He returned to Connecticut and joined the bar in 1827, but his practice was not successful. In the late 1820s, he edited two newspapers in Hartford before moving to Kentucky to write a campaign biography of Henry Clay. In 1830, Prentice co-founded the Louisville Journal newspaper to promote Henry Clay and rival the Louisville Public Advertiser. Prentice’s wit and caustic style helped make the Louisville Journal the most widely circulated newspaper in western America. He often published militant editorials before elections, first supporting the Whig Party, then the Know-Nothing American Party, and the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. In 1861, he urged Kentucky not to secede but to maintain its neutrality in the Civil War. When Union troops occupied Louisville, Prentice often opposed the policies of President Abraham Lincoln, especially emancipation. Both of his sons joined the Confederate army, and one died in its service. In 1864, Prentice created the fictional guerrilla character “Sue Mundy” to mock Union General Stephen G. Burbridge, the military commander of Kentucky. After the war, Prentice opposed many of the policies of Reconstruction. When the Louisville Journal merged in 1868 with two other newspapers to create the Courier-Journal, Prentice remained as editor until his death two years later.

Condition: Expected folds; slightly bent corners; minor tears; isolated stains; very good.

Ex-William Burger Collection.

[1] The Louisville Daily Journal (KY), July 22, 1861, 2:1.

[2] The Louisville Daily Journal (KY), August 21, 1861, 2:2; October 16, 1861, 2:3.

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