Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Kentucky and the Great War
Reviewed by Dr. Margaret Spratt

Kentucky and the Great War: World War I on the Home Front

by David J. Bettez
University Press of Kentucky, 2016

The first generation of social historians taught us that there is a great deal more to the past than biographies of "great men" and generalizations about the grand sweep of history. They showed us that to understand the lives of the ordinary, one must dig through the flotsam of lives lived. Although I am not sure if Dr. Bettez would describe himself as a social historian, he has produced with Kentucky and the Great War, history from the bottom up.

Alexander McClintock of Fayette County,
 Kentucky, Could Not Wait to Fight
 and Joined the Canadian Army.
This book looks at the politics, economic life, culture, and contributions of Kentuckians in the war by researching newspapers, country records, university records, and private papers located throughout the state. Kentucky and the Great War takes us on a journey from the early rumblings of war in Europe to the memorials to the fallen. We see how war affects the mining and agricultural interests in the commonwealth, as well as the community efforts to support the Red Cross in small towns from the mountains in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. The successes and failures of the Kentucky Council of Defense and war activities on college campuses both earn entire chapters.

Perhaps most fascinating is the process that the citizenry underwent to become a united front. That process required the rooting out of sedition and the hunting down of "slackers." In a case involving the owner of a shoe shop in Covington (a town with a German heritage across the Ohio River from Cincinnati), the charges relied heavily on conversations recorded by a dictograph in a grandfather clock. For African Americans, the question of loyalty was double-edged—were the goals of America and of racial solidarity the same? Bettez found that  African Americans in Kentucky ultimately did their part by contributing to the Red Cross and Liberty Loans, conserving food, and enlisting. Louisville's leading African American citizen, Roscoe Conkling Simmons, reassured his community when he spoke at a rally: "There is for me and my people but one country and one flag, the flag that set me free." Yet not everyone agreed. One minister told his congregation that this was a "white man's war" and that "they have 'Jim -Crowed' us and otherwise mistreated us and now when trouble comes they want us to fight for them" (pp. 182–183). However, Kentucky had one of the lowest rates of draft dodging in the country.

Often a social history loses its overall relevance by getting lost in the details. It becomes vital to be grounded in context for a study to contribute to the larger narrative of history. Bettez has succeeded at this task, and yet those readers interested in Kentucky history are bound to be his most appreciative audience. Kentucky in the Great War details the workings of a population undergoing economic and social change. It shows us that history is not necessarily a straight line. It zigs and zags with setbacks and great achievements. Sometimes, it is difficult to see those larger trends because the details of the story are so overwhelming. The author shines in his effective use of evidence, and traverses the complexities of the story with ease. I predict that historians will use this study for years to come as the standard for a state history during the Great War.

Dr. Margaret Spratt

No comments:

Post a Comment