Quarantining in Kentucky: Escaping COVID-19 and Connecting with the Civil War-Era through the Civil War Governors of Kentucky

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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On Thursday, March 12, 2020, the University of Alabama announced that students should not return to campus after the Spring Break holiday that was set to begin the following week due to the increasing threat of the COVID-19 virus. Two days earlier, with the possibility of such an announcement working its way through the rumor mill, I sat in a conference room on campus and defended my Ph.D. comprehensive written exam answers. The state of Alabama had yet to announce its first confirmed case of COVID, but I can recall myself and the members of my committee somewhat awkwardly navigating the space between one another – each of us already beginning the mental and physical adjustments to a “socially distant” lifestyle.

I passed my exams, took a 48-hour nap, and then, like most students, hit the road for an extended vacation. I planned to spend some time with my girlfriend in Statesboro, Georgia, then bounce around the state visiting family and friends I had not seen in quite some time due to the self-isolating process that is comps prep (in retrospect, studying for exams really prepared me for a legitimate quarantine experience). Those plans changed as states began issuing curfews and stay-at-home orders days after I got into town.

Going anywhere soon required a pros & cons list, it seemed. This was especially true for me as I considered taking a few days to go and visit my parents in the North Georgia mountains. I had recently seen West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s stay-at-home order wherein he specifically addressed the threat of potentially asymptomatic non-residents looking to Appalachia as a quarantine destination spot. Then, as is always does, Twitter ferried a slew of articles and op-eds my way that were outspoken against “urbanites” looking to escape to the mountains, as well as companies like VRBO, Airbnb, and Craigslist allowing lessees to advertise Appalachian rentals as “Coronavirus Getaways.” [1]

My parents echoed these concerns on multiple occasions, noting the influx of out-of-county and out-of-state cars on the roads and the unusually crowded parking lots at some of their favorite hiking spots. Despite having not seen them since Christmas, I decided it would be best for me to wait to visit. As a potentially asymptomatic carrier, I did not want to threaten their personal health, nor did I want to personally contribute to any avoidable community transmissions.

It appeared, then, for the time being at least, that I was going to be sitting tight in South Georgia.

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However, opportunities for “escape” sometimes present themselves where we least expect them: a good book; an addicting Netflix series (please don’t talk to me about “Tiger King”); that nature trail you’ve always wanted to check out but also consistently avoided. For the past few months, digital history has provided me with an escape route from the new, uncertain lifestyle we have all been forced to adopt.

Two weeks before my comprehensive exams, I accepted a Graduate Research Associate position with the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK). With exams behind me, I dove headfirst into annotating documents, researching and identifying relevant people, places, and organizations, and creating accessible biographical entries for the project’s online collection.

In a 2019 essay for a special issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society featuring original research from within the CWGK collection, Stephen Berry eloquently assessed the relationship between the historian and the archive. “As historians, the archive is our psychic headwaters,” Berry writes. “For narrow professional reasons, we go to answer research questions, but we know the pilgrimage runs deeper … Like time-tripping flaneurs, we watch the dead live their lives, not as we live ours, and we revel in the differences, inspired by all that we have to live up to, ashamed of all we need to live down.” [2]

As a third-year Ph.D. student this has largely been my experience with the archives. I have spent hundreds of hours in the historical records researching the Civil War in North Georgia for my dissertation, but for the most part there have always been stark situational differences between my life and the subjects I am researching. I have never been to war; I do not live in crushing poverty; I have never worried about the Confederate Home Guard, guerrillas, or other opportunistic marauders attacking my family and pillaging my home. I have assumed the role of time traveler, but, as Berry notes, I have generally always watched the dead live lives different from mine.

COVID-19 has changed that. It has caused the world around me and the world I spend hours each week researching for the CWGK to collide. Exploring Civil War-era Kentucky has allowed me to escape Georgia’s stay-at-home order and revealed connections between my current situation and the past in ways I have not previously experienced as a graduate student and emerging scholar.

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Take the case of John Higgins, for example. A farmer in Magoffin County, Kentucky, Higgins [written as “Hagans” in the original document] appears in the CWGK collection as a petitioner to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette in 1863 regarding a court fine rendered against him at the September term of the Magoffin Circuit Court. After making a slight change to the public highway that ran through his property earlier that year, Higgins was fined $78 for obstructing the road without permission. Although he had received a permit to make the desired change to the road, an apparent lack of communication between Higgins, the circuit court, and county surveyors led to Higgins receiving a fine.

Now, I have never been fined by a county court or made structural changes to a public road, but, in a strange way, I felt a connection to Higgins’ road project in the context of my own situation. Admittedly, I am unable to truly know why Higgins wanted to make changes to the section of highway. It could have been a strategic maneuver intended to alter the spatial relationship between his property and the formal maneuvering of military forces or irregular activity of partisan guerrillas. But it could have also been a project that Higgins had hoped to get to when an opportunity presented itself – or one that he hoped would briefly take his mind off of the war waging around him in eastern Kentucky. Assuming the latter was the reason, I felt a connection to Higgins as I searched for any and every odd-job or side project to distract me from the increasingly unknown circumstances of living through a global pandemic. For Higgins it was a road; for me it has been a garden, a garage gym, and seeding the property line.

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The case of Isaac Sherrow [written as “Sharrow” in original document] revealed starker connections between the past and present. In December 1863, Sherrow, an aging farmer from Jessamine County, Kentucky, wrote to Governor Bramlette seeking remission from a circuit court fine stemming from an aggravated assault case. Sherrow’s petition addresses the charges against him plainly, but the rest primarily focuses on his family. He mentions his sickly wife and his many family members at war in the Union army. Most specifically, Sherrow grieves for three of his sons that he had not heard from since their involvement at the Battle of Chickamauga some three months prior.


Isaac Sharrow to Thomas E. Bramlette, December 12, 1863, KDLA
(available online via CWGK; accessed April 20, 2020)

I worked my way through Sherrow’s story at a particularly unique time in my quarantine experience. Just days before, my parents called me to tell me that two employees at the assisted living facility in Blue Ridge, Georgia, where my grandmother lives had recently tested positive for COVID-19. The state had sent in the National Guard and all residents had been tested, but we had not received the results yet. My grandmother seemed healthy, but we would have to wait.

I shared Sherrow’s anxiety as I worked through the annotations and biographies for his petition. As he had feared for sons, I feared for my grandmother. Thankfully, the results came back negative and she remains healthy. And from a cursory glance at the records, Sherrow’s sons appear to have survived the fighting in North Georgia.

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These exceptional, if sometimes uncomfortable, connections between my current situation and the historical archive have been unexpected but welcome. Amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, my work with the CWGK project, as well as the project’s staff and the community within the Kentucky Historical Society, has transformed my understanding of and passion for historical research. I am grateful to have the opportunity to quarantine in Kentucky.

[Aaron M. Phillips is a Ph.D. Student and Assistant Editor of the Southern Historian Journal at The University of Alabama.]

Works Cited:

 [1] Alison Stine, “People Are Fleeing to Appalachia to Escape COVID-19: That Needs to Stop,” 100 Days in Appalachia (March 26, 2020): https://www.100daysinappalachia.com/2020/03/people-are-fleeing-to-appalachia-to-escape-covid-19-that-needs-to-stop/; Martin Austermuhle, “D.C. Residents Are Trying To Escape Coronavirus In West Virginia” (March 21, 2020): https://dcist.com/story/20/03/21/d-c-residents-are-trying-to-escape-coronavirus-in-west-virginia/

[2] Stephen Berry, “Dwelling in the Digital Archive: A Meditation on the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Project,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol 117, No 2 (Spring 2019), pp. 161-178.

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