The de facto collapse of slavery in the Bluegrass at war’s end had shattered more than white psyches and Frankfort’s relationship with Washington. With little surprise to any of the old Whigs who had tried so hard to avoid war in 1861 fearing a cascading collapse of slavery, society, government, and economy, the financial prospects of the state were grim when the smoke cleared in the middle of 1865. The famous “Great Hog Swindle” of October and November 1864, in which Kentucky farmers were compelled to sell pork to army contractors at ruinous prices, had generated no small amount of controversy. The forcible squeezing out of a number of Kentucky pork packers in the face of the military monopoly was the very antithesis of the governmental protection of commerce which had impelled market-loving Kentuckians to return Clay, Crittenden, and Helm to office for decades. The outrage felt by white Kentucky farmers at the loss of what Governor Thomas E. Bramlette estimated to be at least $300,000 further soured the relationship between the governor and Lincoln, but it was only the beginning.[1] With slavery dying a slow death across the state, the intricate and interdependent slave economies in each county and region were thrown into chaos. The wheels had come off the locomotive. The only class in white society for whom the collapse of slavery—and along with it personal fortunes and all types of businesses—might have worked out well were lawyers. Buckner found himself involved in a number of cases settling the estates and resolving the debts of individuals and firms which had not survived the tumult of the war.

One of the most revealing cases spoke directly to the sources of Kentucky’s market collapse.  Buckner represented Armstead Blackwell, a neighbor of his father-in-law Dr. Martin and, like the Doctor, a wealthy prewar planter on the pasturelands of the western part of Clark between Winchester and Lexington. Blackwell, like so many others in the area, had gone bankrupt and, worse, his debts included not only those drawn on his land and (now-non-existent or at the least extremely devalued) slaves at home, but also those drawn on Blackwell, Murphy, and Ferguson, a slave trading firm running human property down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Collecting enslaved people from owner/sellers across the Bluegrass at their slave jail in Lexington, first Blackwell, Murphy, and Ferguson and later just Blackwell and Murphy continued the long Kentucky tradition of fueling the cotton boom in the southwest with the labor of enslaved Kentuckians beginning in 1858. The partners themselves hailed from across central Kentucky, enabling them to source slaves from throughout the region. Joining Blackwell in the partnership were G. M. Murphy of Nelson County and George F. Ferguson of Montgomery County. Not only would their base of operations in downtown Lexington allow the partners a central collection point for their coffles to assemble before making the river journey southward, by keeping the heart of their operation in the heart of the Bluegrass, the men removed their families from the social stigma—if, indeed, there were any— attached to the commerce in human bodies which so betrayed the language of paternal care which white Kentuckians employed to justify the slave system as a whole.[2]

After making the trip down the river by steamer, Blackwell, Murphy, and Ferguson set up a stand at Natchez’s famous Forks in the Road slave market, where they kept a “large lot of assorted A No. 1 Negroes on hand during the year,” replenishing their stock with periodic coffles from Kentucky. [3]  Unsurprisingly, Kentucky had not even gotten through its period of neutrality before the firm’s routes and markets collapsed entirely. Desperate to hold the partnership together in hopes that a quick resolution to the war might mean a reopening of the Mississippi trade, the partners took out $20,000 dollars in loans from the Northern Bank of Kentucky on top of nearly $10,000 from a collection of private lenders. Their gamble, of course, broke them. Owed at least twenty debts amounting to more than $23,000 by masters in the deep South and secessionist Kentuckians hesitant to pay debts incurred in the currency of the country against which they were currently rebelling, the firm’s final hopes for success lay in a restoration of the slaveholding union that protected their interstate commerce. The secessionist sympathizing Ferguson, not sharing the faith in the Union cause that encouraged Blackwell and Murphy to plunge deeper into debt, jumped ship and resigned his portion of the partnership in May 1861; he came out comparatively well on the whole, owing the firm only $4,437.84. Now, in 1865, as Blackwell and Murphy’s creditors came to them for a decidedly belated repayment, Buckner joined a legal team in suing the Ferguson estate—he had died in March 1863 under interesting circumstances—for his debt to the firm. The depositions taken in the case are evidence of the slave economy of Kentucky crumbling into ruins.[4]

Even the property that Ferguson had left was of little value to Blackwell and Murphy, and even the ownership of his land in Montgomery County was in dispute.  Buckner and the plaintiffs alleged that Ferguson had sold the land at an artificially low price to a man named George Washington Stoner to hold lest it be liable to confiscation in consideration of Ferguson’s secessionist sympathies. This was a particularly tricky point to prove, of course, because the value of land, slaves, and livestock had plummeted when the war began and, worse, when Stoner sold the property back to the Ferguson family, he paid the family back in Confederate money.[5] “Immediately after the war” began, testified Ferguson neighbor David Hathaway, “negroes fell greatly in value. I bought a negro boy in Jan 1862 for $500, which John Nelson paid $1400 for…some time before that.” Further, Hathaway readily agreed to the claim that “within twelve months after the beginning of the war, land, cattle, horses, hogs, and property of all sorts depreciated in value to the extent of 40 or 50 per cent and that there was no rise therein until the green-back currency was generally circulated.” But even if the greenback had rescued land prices, what value could be set on the slaves owned by Ferguson when he had, in effect, laundered the farm, stock, and slaves through Stoner in 1862? That 1862 figure was the one Buckner hoped to prove the Ferguson estate owed Blackwell and Murphy, not the slave-less 1865 figure artificially supported by greenbacks. Such questions not only occupied legal minds across the state, but the confusion of death, devaluation, competing currencies, and valueless slaves ground rebuilding efforts to a halt by tying up huge amounts of local capital in lawsuits which could drag on for months or years.[6]

If Buckner and the majority of Kentucky’s other loyal masters still felt their slave property and their business prospects more or less secure and stable in early 1862, the crash of the slave market may have been an unnoticed indicator of the fortunes of the institution as a whole. Blackwell and Murphy had desperately tried to salvage their business, but with the firm “indebted beyond its means…in consequence of so large an amount of its assetts being tied up in the Southern States,” they were forced to fold and sell what they still had on hand. Their house on Broadway in Lexington which, along with its surrounding lot and various outbuildings, served as both business office and slave jail was put up along with “a buggy and harness, a bay mare, and all the household & kitchen furniture, utensils & effects” and the remnants of the company’s slaveholdings. The partnership which had only two years ago kept twenty to twenty-five slaves on hand at any given time in its eight foot by eight foot cells in Lexington and its market stall in Natchez now could only lay claim to “a slave named Peter aged about 20 years a woman named Rose (now run away) aged about 45 years, and interest of two thirds in a negro girl Salle aged about 20 years.”[7]

Later in the year, George Ferguson made one last attempt to resuscitate the domestic slave trade under the protective aegis of the Confederacy. While rebel armies occupied Kentucky in October, Ferguson assembled a coffle consisting of an entire enslaved family, a couple named Priam and Lizzie and their six children, and a man named Larkin, a skilled wagon maker from Clark County who had been jailed for attempted arson. He paid for the family about $2,000 and “six hundred & fifty dollars at his own risk” for Larkin. After the Confederates’ pyrrhic victory at Perryville, Ferguson followed the rebel army out of the state, likely falling in with the miles of wagon trains which hauled away much of the state’s slave-produced wealth in grain, slaughtered and packed meat, livestock of all kinds on the hoof, and thousands of yards of Kentucky jean cloth which had clothed deep South cotton slaves for decades and would now clothe the Confederate soldiers who fought to perpetuate their bondage. In Knoxville, where Ferguson stopped to sell the slaves, one man estimated that he realized $2,500 for Larkin alone as well as a combined $8,500 for Priam, Lizzie, and their family. His seemingly handsome profit, of course, was illusory, as the Knoxville market paid only in Confederate money, which was rapidly depreciating. In any event, Ferguson’s family never saw any of the benefits of his last slave sale; trying to return home in March 1863, he drowned in the Licking Creek in Morgan County, Kentucky.[8]

[1] Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment, 222-4.

[2] J. Winston Coleman Jr., “Lexington’s Slave Dealers and Their Southern Trade” Filson Club History Quarterly 12 no. 1 (Jan. 1938): 1-23. Robert Gudmestad maintains that the slave trade made itself more palatable to paternalistic masters in a number of ways over the course of the prewar years, most particularly moving their operations into private jails and markets like Blackwell, Murphy, and Ferguson ran in both Lexington and Natchez, A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), esp. Ch. 6 “The Trade Transformed,” 148-68. Michael Tadman, on the other hand, argues that the commodification of black bodies was so fundamental to white southerners, both buying and selling, that there was little stigma attached to slave traders, and what has developed has been the result of postwar southern apologists’ attempts to justify slavery by belatedly ostracizing slave traders, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), esp. Ch. 7 “The Question of Status: Traders in White Society and Southern Mythology,” 179-210. An excellent recent study of how slave selling and speculating fit in to Kentucky’s flexible antebellum labor market—respectable or not—is Benjamin Lewis Fitzpatrick, “Negroes for Sale: The Slave Trade in Antebellum Kentucky” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 2008). For an excellent example of that mythology at work and a useful portrait of the Forks in the Road market, including an account of Kentucky native Alfred Worrell who was sold there by Lexington dealer William Pullam, the man whose premises in Lexington Blackwell, Murphy, and Ferguson took over in 1858, see Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (Baltimore: J.H. Furst Co., 1931), 300-9.

[3] Natchez Daily Courier, Nov. 20, 1854 [sic] qtd. in Coleman, “Lexington’s Slave Dealers,” 17. It is likely that Coleman confused his dates in his note, as the firm was not yet established in 1854. The firm’s presence “during the year” in Natchez was due to the market system of sales at Forks in the Road, where slaves were assigned a (negotiable) price by the sellers instead of being auctioned off.

[4] The undated Petition Equitable from sometime late in 1865 in Buckner’s papers contains the best concise summation of their case. The defendants’ response of Nov. 28, 1866 detailed the debts owed the firm in and out of the state.

[5] Deposition of George W. Stoner, Dec. 26, 1865, Buckner Papers.

[6] Depositions of David Hathaway and Andrew Fesler (on same document), Jan. 13, 1866, Buckner Papers.

[7] Trust Petition between Blackwell & Murphy and James A. Grinstead, Trustee, Jan. 31, 1862, Buckner Papers. The house, now demolished, is shown in Gerald L. Smith, Black America Series: Lexington, Kentucky (Charleston: Arcadia, 2002), 12.

[8] Information on the final slave sale found in the Depositions of Joseph D. Donnohue, R.M. Yates, Peter M. Everett, and John A Hannah, May 25, 1870 and Deposition of Joe. W. Jordan, June 6, 1870, Buckner Papers. On the Confederate haul when they left the state, see Coulter, Civil War and Readjustment, 169.