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ARTICLES Major General Stephen Gano Burbridge: “The Scourge of Kentucky”

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Stephen Gano Burbridge had one of the most heroic and promising careers in the army before 1864, but in February of 1864, he would impose a reign of terror upon his native state that would have enormous consequences upon how Kentucky would view the Union Government and the fate of Kentucky politics after the war.

Stephen Gano Burbridge was born on August 19, 1831, in Georgetown, Kentucky.  He was educated at Georgetown College and the Kentucky Military Institute in Frankfort, Kentucky, which was the second oldest private military school in America.  After K. M. I., Burbridge became a lawyer and owned a large plantation in Logan County, Kentucky.  Burbridge had a meteoric rise as a military commander, starting out as a colonel of the 26th Kentucky Union infantry and becoming a major general by 1863.  He had fought well at Arkansas Post and Champion’s Hill during the Vicksburg Campaign and received the praise of Union General William T. Sherman.  Burbridge also received the thanks of President Abraham Lincoln for his victory over Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s forces at Cynthiana, Kentucky.  Burbridge’s problems arose when he became military commander of Kentucky in January of 1864.

Major General Stephen Gano Burbridge (Lithograph)

At the battle of Shiloh, on April 6-7, 1862, Burbridge distinguished himself in battle and was made Brigadier General on June 9, 1862.  When Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army invaded the state of Kentucky in October 1862, Burbridge was placed in command of the Federal troops in Kentucky.  In 1863, Burbridge participated in the expedition sent against Vicksburg and was one of the first Federal officers to enter Port Gibson, Mississippi, before laying siege to Vicksburg.

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In February 1864, Burbridge relieved Brig. General Jeremiah Boyle and was made temporary commander of the District of Kentucky.  On June 11, 1864, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan began a daring raid through Kentucky and Ohio.  When Morgan arrived in Cynthiana, Kentucky, Burbridge attacked Morgan and pushed him back into Virginia.  Burbridge was brevetted a Major General of volunteers on July 4, 1864 and received the personal thanks of President Lincoln.

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Burbridge declared that anyone aiding the Confederates was subject to trial as a spy or traitor ‘and if convicted will suffer death.’

Between 1863 and early 1864 Kentucky had guerillas roaming the state committing crimes against the military and civilians.  Both Missouri and Kentucky had men like “Bloody” Bill Anderson and William Quantrill killing soldiers and civilians.  Ex-Confederate soldiers were also returning to the state to avenge wrong doings, such as their farms being burned by the Union army or a relative being killed by a Union soldier.  Kentucky Governor Thomas Bramlette issued a proclamation declaring that “the state shall be free from its murderous foes, even though every arm be required to aid in their destruction.”  On January 4, 1864, Governor Bramlette issued another proclamation against the Confederate sympathizers.  He ordered the state guards to arrest five of the most prominent Confederate sympathizers and hold them as hostages for every loyal person that was taken by the guerillas.  They would not be set free until the loyal citizen was returned.  The only problem with this proclamation was that anyone could be arrested as a rebel sympathizer.

 Butcher Burbridge: Union General Stephen Burbridge and His Reign of Terror Over Kentucky 

In June 1864, Union General Henry Halleck gave Burbridge full power to declare any part or all of the state under martial law.  Burbridge issued a proclamation that any person suspected of being a Southern sympathizer found within five miles of a guerilla raid was subject to arrest and banishment beyond the limits of the United States.  Burbridge declared that anyone aiding the Confederates was subject to trial as a spy or traitor “and if convicted will suffer death.”

Burbridge issued an order thatfor every unarmed Union citizen murdered by guerillas, four guerilla prisoners should be taken to the scene of the outrage and shot.

When Burbridge took over the military district of Kentucky, Union General William Sherman immediately sent a message to Burbridge giving him advice on how to handle the guerillas.  Sherman told Burbridge: “At one dash, arrest every man in the community who was dangerous to it; and also every fellow hanging about the towns, villages, and cross-roads who had no honest calling-the material out of which guerillas are made upYou may order all post and district commanders that guerillas are not soldiers, but wild beasts, unknown to the usages of war.”  Sherman also told Burbridge: “Your military commanders, provost marshals and other agents may arrest all males and females who have encouraged or harbored guerillas and robbers, and you may cause them to be collected in Louisville; and when you have enough-say 300 or 400-I will cause them to be sent down the Mississippi, through their guerilla gauntlet, and by a sailing ship send them to land where they may take their negroes and make a colony, with laws and a future of their own.”

A photograph of Burbridge

On July 5, 1864, Burbridge, under the orders from Lincoln, declared martial law in Kentucky, with the writ of habeas corpus suspended.  As a result of the guerilla raids in Kentucky, on July 16, Burbridge issued Order Number 59, which stated that a rapid increase in his district of lawless bands of armed men engaged in interrupting railroad and telegraphic communications, plundering and murdering peaceful Union citizens, destroying the mails, etc., called for the adoption of stringent measures by the military for their suppression.  In his order, he stated that all guerillas, armed prowlers, or by whatever name they are known, and Rebel sympathizers, were warned and that in future stern retaliatory measures would be adopted and strictly enforced, whenever the lives or property of peaceful citizens were jeopardized by the lawless acts of such men.  He wrote that any Rebel sympathizers living within five miles of any scene of outrage committed by armed men, not recognized as public enemies by the rules and usages of war, would be arrested and sent beyond the limited of the United States.  The property of Rebel sympathizers would be used to repay the government or loyal citizens for losses incurred by the acts of lawless men would be seized and appropriated to those who lost property.  Burbridge stated that whenever an unarmed Union citizen was murdered, four guerillas would be selected from the prisoners in the hands of the military authorities and publicly shot to death in the most convenient place near the scene of outrage.1

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Before all was said and done, Burbridge executed fifty people, earning him the name 'Butcher' Burbridge.

Unfortunately, many innocent people were shot under Burbridge’s Order Number 59.  For example, in retaliation for the death of a Federal soldier at the hands of Sue Munday’s guerillas, four prisoners: Wilson Lilly, a member of Company G, First Missouri Volunteer Infantry, Sherwood Hatley, a seventy-year-old Presbyterian minister, Lindsey Duke Buckner, a Confederate captain in Colonel Chenoweth’s regiment, and William Blincoe, a member of Company D, 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, were taken from a military prison by Captain Rowland E. Hackett and fifty Union soldiers of the 26th Kentucky Union Infantry, took all four men and shot them.  Four men, part of whom were on their way to join the Confederate army, were taken from Lexington, Kentucky to Henry County, Kentucky and shot to death in retaliation for the death of two black men at the hands of the guerillas; two Confederate soldiers were taken from prison and hanged on the Lexington fair grounds; six Confederates were executed in Green County in retaliation for the killing of two Union men.  The most unnerving and brutal execution was when Burbridge took four prisoners from the Lexington jail and shot them to death on the outskirts of Frankfort: Kentucky’s capitol.  The reign of terror had begun.  People were in fear for who would be next to be called a Confederate sympathizer.  Before all was said and done, Burbridge executed fifty people, earning him the name “Butcher” Burbridge.

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On August 7, 1864, Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, wrote to Major General Burbridge: “The whole state of Kentucky is constituted a military district of the Department of the Ohio and placed under your command, with authority of a departmental commander, except in matters which by law are vested in department commandersGeneral Grant suggests that new organizations, white and black, shall be enlisted as infantry, and mounted if you wish to use them as cavalry, which would avoid trouble in dismounting them when needed for infantryYour mode of mounting cavalry by seizing horses of disloyal persons is approved, and you are authorized to seize all you can lay hands on.”  Burbridge now had military control of Kentucky.

Burbridge ordered that any newspaper that spoke out against Lincoln or the war was banned.

Now that Burbridge had Kentucky under martial law, he set out to control the upcoming state elections in August.  Several State Representatives seats were up for grabs.  One of the largest seats was the Court of Appeals for the Second District.  Burbridge sent an order to every sheriff in the Second District to forbid Alvin Duvall’s name to appear on the poll books.  Duvall was running for re-election and had been on the bench since 1856, and had been Chief Justice for the last two years.  Burbridge and the Unconditional Union Party wanted M. M. Benton elected.  Duvall had to flee for his life to escape arrest.  But Kentucky Democrats managed to add Democrat George Robertson, a former chief justice, to the ballot and before Burbridge realized what had happened, Kentuckians voted for Robertson.  The army had so demoralized and intimidated the voters, only 11,000 votes out of a possible 45,000 were cast.

In October 1864, Burbridge issued another proclamation that no guerillas would be taken prisoner.  At about the same time, Burbridge ordered that any newspaper that spoke out against Lincoln or the war was banned.  Such newspapers as the Cincinnati Inquirer, the New York World and the Chicago Times fell victim to Burbridge.  Burbridge arrested several newspaper editors for treason and banished them because of their criticism of Lincoln and the war.  Lincoln intervened in two cases on the ground that criticism of him did not constitute treason. Religious papers were also suppressed.

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Also in October, Burbridge became involved in the Great Hog Swindle.  On October 28, 1864, Burbridge issued a proclamation that all surplus hogs would be used for army supplies.  Major H. C. Symonds was put in charge of the hogs.  Symonds formed a contract to supply 100,000 hogs.  Symonds sent agents to the various districts and called on the people to sell only to his agents.  His agents offered from one to two cents a pound less than the Cincinnati and Louisville markets were bringing.  To force sales to the Government agents, permits were required to drive hogs to market, and guards were placed along the Ohio River with orders to arrest anyone attempting to ferry hogs across the river into Indiana.  The result was that it made it impossible for other Kentucky packers to do any business at all, although they agreed to sell to the Government their products at one to two cents per pound cheaper than the Cincinnati market.  Col. C. L. Kilburn, chief of the commissary at Louisville, resigned in protest against the raid on farmers.  The cry from the farmers was loud and clear, and it eventually reached Lincoln’s ears.  Lincoln became involved and ordered for Burbridge to revoke his order.  Burbridge denied any involvement in the swindle.  Symonds had managed to buy 60,000 hogs.  The hog farmers were swindled out of $300,000 dollars, and if the swindle had continued Symonds would have swindled the farmers out of one million dollars.

In November 1864, the presidential election was taking place.  Burbridge decided that Lincoln should become president and made sure that no one stood in the way.  Arrests swept over the state, objectionable candidates were arrested, people who might vote for another candidate other than Lincoln was arrested as a warning to others, even Kentucky Chief Justice Joshua Bullitt was arrested and taken away.  Only those supporting Lincoln would be given trade permits.  Before the election, Governor Bramlette, who had been aided in getting his office by such measures, wrote to Lincoln complaining of the tyrannies and outrages of the military, of trade regulations, of military arrests and banishments of the highest government officials, and of martial law.  He said “We are dealt with as though Kentucky was a rebellious and conquered province, instead of being as they are, a brave and loyal people.”  Bramlette told the sheriffs that they should arrest any soldier attempting to interfere with the election.  Kentucky had enough of Lincoln’s martial law, and General Burbridge, and made their views known by their votes.  McClellan received 61,478 civilian votes; Lincoln 26,592.  Among the soldiers in Kentucky, McClellan received 3,068 to 1,205 for Lincoln.  There were 54,000 fewer votes cast in the 1864 election than in the election of 1860.  The reason for the low voter turnout was linked with Burbridge and the army.

Bramlette and Burbridge had a falling out when John B. Houston was arrested by Burbridge “for no other offense than opposition to” Lincoln’s election.  Lincoln could not believe that Houston was arrested for speaking out against him, and if it were true, Houston should be released.  Burbridge told Bramlette that Houston was arrested because he was disloyal and had been accosting the administration.  Bramlette denied Burbridge’s accusations.  Burbridge would no longer hear of this matter.  Not only was the State against Burbridge and his military regime but so was the Governor of the State.

Things came to a head when Burbridge decided to declare martial law on February 6, 1865 and demanded that all troops under state authority disband and store their arms in the state arsenal or deliver them to the Federal quartermaster.  If Bramlette had no troops, he would be less dangerous or so thought Burbridge.  Bramlette immediately telegraphed Stanton: “This unwarranted assumption of power by an imbecile commander is doubtless instigated by those who have long sought to provoke an issue with the State, and which I have prevented.”  Lincoln revoked the order.  Lincoln also decided to remove Burbridge and replace him with Major General John Palmer.  On February 10, 1865, the Louisville Journal published a short announcement: “Major General John M. Palmer of Illinois has been appointed to command in Kentucky.  Thank God and President Lincoln.”  Burbridge resigned from the army on December 1, 1865.

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The result of Burbridge's reign of terror caused Kentucky to adopt the Confederate tradition in politics, religion and society.

Martial law was not revoked in Kentucky until September 1865, six months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  After the war, Kentucky long remembered the lawless acts that Burbridge and his Radicals had inflicted upon his home state.  Burbridge became the most hated man in Kentucky.  Burbridge defended himself by saying that he was only carrying out orders of his superiors.  In 1868, the legislature started an investigation of Burbridge’s “bloody rule” during the last year of the war, but never completed it.  Burbridge had to flee the state.  He wrote to a friend: “My services to my country have caused me to be exiled from my home, and made my wife and children wanderers, while the Government for which I fought seems to care little whether they have bread or not.”

The result of Burbridge’s reign of terror caused Kentucky to adopt the Confederate tradition in politics, religion and society.  A Kentucky citizen could not become a politician unless he were an ex-Confederate soldier.  After the war, Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner became Governor.  Nearly all the sheriffs and judges were ex-Confederates.  Monuments were erected to Confederates all over the state.

After Burbridge left the state, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he died on December 2, 1894, ending one of the most controversial characters in Kentucky’s history.

Stephen Gano Burbridge is the subject of Bryan's book, Butcher Burbridge: Union General Stephen Burbridge and His Reign of Terror Over Kentucky.


The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Government Printing Offices, Washington, D.C. 1879.

Odis Lee Harris, "Union General Burbridge Brought Hate and Terror to His Kentucky," The Kentucky Explorer, Feb. 1995.

Collins, Lewis (1979). History of Kentucky. Southern History Press.

Foust, Patricia (editor) (1986). Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. HarperCollins.


This specific article is under full copyright.  Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Modified Monday, July 30, 2007

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