Civil War at Ashland’s Door

YOU ARE HERE -> 1861-1865

Henry Clay’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Clay Blanford (1904-1999), in a 1987 interview, revealed some evocative information about the Civil War at Ashland.  Her father Charles (1857-1935), the first of James and Susan’s children to be born in the rebuilt Ashland mansion, had shared with his children his memories of that frightening time.

Charles Donald Clay, Elizabeth Blanford’s father

Elizabeth relays that, for her grandparents James and Susan, Ashland “held all their dreams.”  While the positive events of the 1850s gave them many reasons to hope and dream, the Civil War effectively ended it all for them.

James had sided with the Confederacy.  After trying to travel south to join with Confederate forces in 1861, he was captured by Union home guards and imprisoned.  Upon realizing his identity as Henry Clay’s son, the Union officers considered his capture a major coup.  A scathing New York Times announcement of his arrest reveals the temper of the times and shows how deeply James was identified with his father—and Ashland:

When the Unionists of Kentucky arrested James B. Clay, they took a traitor worth having…James B. Clay is the owner of Ashland.  His treacherous tread profanes the soil that Henry Clay’s patriotism hallowed.  Would it not be a fit deed to confiscate that honored spot and dedicate it to the American people, as at once a monument of the nation’s love for the sire and scorn for the son? (“Arrest of James B. Clay.”  New York Times, 28 September 1861.)

James was treated harshly at Camp Dick Robinson…which was probably where he contracted tuberculosis.  Charged with treason, later dismissed for lack of evidence, he was marched back to Lexington in chains.

James Brown Clay

But in 1862 when Confederates marched on Kentucky, they tried to enlist James to help raise a regiment.  James refused, but they had already publicly announced his participation.  When the Union forced Rebels out of Kentucky, James realized he had to flee or once again face arrest.  James would leave Ashland, never to return.

Susan’s life at Ashland would become extremely difficult.  She was offended when Union troops foraged for wood and provisions on the Ashland grounds, decrying their actions as disrespectful of Henry Clay’s memory.  Finances grew more difficult: Susan sold off some of the slaves and seriously considered selling Ashland, but nothing came of that during the war.  For six months after James had left, Susan did not receive word as to his whereabouts; she worried constantly about her ill husband’s well-being.  Her teenage son Jimmy had left to join the Confederate army.  Diptheria hit the family hard, affecting five of the children, and taking the lives of three of them –within 15 months.

But most dramatic of all, Susan had to cope with the war in her own backyard.  In October of 1862, the skirmish at Ashland took place.  SEE: With Civil War Looming, James and Susan Clay Open Ashland to the Public.

Map of Ashland Skirmish (thanks to Kent Masterson Brown)

Prior to the fighting, Union troops had been camping at Ashland.  The sentinel they had placed to protect the — Henry Clay’s — family inside the mansion evidently heard one of Susan’s children, Lucy, playing the piano.  Several soldiers knocked at the door and asked Susan, “Mrs. Clay, would you mind if we came in and had a little music?”  Elizabeth relays her staunchly Confederate grandmother’s response: “Poor little homesick boys!  Of course you can!”

Then five-year-old Charles witnessed the skirmish: even though his mother warned the children to lie down to avoid stray bullets, Charles peeped out the second floor windows of Ashland and watched as the mortally wounded Washington Morgan (cousin of Confederate commander John Hunt Morgan) was carried off the field.  Charles exclaimed to his mother, “Mama, there’s horses running around with no riders on them!”  He remembered that, after the skirmish, he and other boys walked around the grounds and came upon the bodies of dead soldiers.

Susan offered a carriage to carry Morgan to the family home downtown.  She also offered the first floor of the Ashland mansion to the Union to temporarily care for their wounded.  Young Charles recalled that from downstairs he “heard groaning all night long.”

The Union sentinel who had watched over the family came to Susan after the skirmish to ask for shelter, just as a “hot-headed” Confederate cousin of the family was coming in.  Fortunately, Charles and his brothers had stopped Cousin Bob from killing the Yankee, citing his service to the family.

Elizabeth would recall one of her grandmother’s fondest memories.  Many years after the war, Susan was in a northern store when the man waiting on her said, “You don’t remember me, but I was one of those soldiers who enjoyed your music room and played the piano and sang.”  He thanked her for those few bright moments at Ashland during the darkest of times.

Ashland, c1857-1862, possibly Susan in white dress

Notes: Elizabeth Clay Blanford was interviewed in May 1987 by Lindsey Apple and then-Director of Ashland, Bettie Kerr.  Notes of these taped conversations were carefully transcribed in 2010 by Ashland docent, Charlie Muntz.  Lindsey Apple is a Clay family historian, whose most recent book, The Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch, is an invaluable resource.

2 thoughts on “Civil War at Ashland’s Door

  1. Wendy, Thank you so much for posting this! It is incredibly timely and we sent to participants in our living history event for further edification. We miss you and wish you were here for the commemoration!

    Eric Brooks

    Curator/Site Manager

    Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate

    120 Sycamore Road

    Lexington, KY 40502

    859-266-8581 x203

    859-268-7266 FAX

    Concerning Advice and Appraisals

    In keeping with our mission to preserve Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate as a National Historic Landmark, Museum and Educational Center to honor and interpret the life and legacy of Henry Clay, a great American statesman, our staff will endeavor to answer questions and provide information about artifacts and papers that might be associated with Ashland or the Clay family. Any such information is provided as a courtesy for your personal use and edification and is not intended, and should not be understood or represented, as an appraisal or a certification of authenticity or value. Any use for commercial or advertising purposes of the Henry Clay or Ashland name, likeness, or logo or the names and professional affiliations of its staff without the prior written consent of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation is expressly prohibited.


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