Clay County’s Part in the Contested Election of 1868


Politics in Kentucky has frequently been the spark-point for violence, corruption, and distinction, particularly among the Eastern Mountaineer.  Much of the outright hatred levied against one political party or its patrons began in the era of Southern Reconstruction, explained by historians as beginning shortly after the Civil War and ending around 1877. For those who endured American History in high school the term Reconstruction stirs up embittering images of carpetbaggers and scallywags albeit even southern schools give credit to its sometimes unorthodox establishment of civil rights.

The Kentuckian, divided on the issues of states rights and slavery both before and after the war, grew estranged to one another especially in the arena of politics.  Many of the former Southern supporters residing within the boundaries of the state fell in with the Democratic Party while those following the former abolitionist road supported the Radical Unionists or Republican Party.

The Radical Republicans had among their ranks extremists who held little to no enthusiasms to forgive and forget Southern secession from the Union. They were manic in their distrust of all ex-confederate soldiers, sympathizers, and when it came to casting of votes they were just as ready to disavow those former Union soldiers who had strayed permanently or temporarily from their units. So much was the Radical’s efforts to disenfranchise the Southerner that President Lincoln and then Johnson became at odds with many of their efforts (They came one vote short of removing Johnson from the Whitehouse).

One of the major efforts to maintain the segregation of the former Confederate States was the attempted, and oft times successful, suspension of their right to vote in post war elections.   This policy first began with the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 which basically made it impossible for most Southerners to return to the Union with their former civil rights intact but gradually grew (thanks to President Lincoln’s veto) into the swearing of the Iron-clad Oath.  There were two tests to be negotiated by what was dobbed the Iron-clad Oath.  First that the person had never supported the rebellion and second that they would never support another.  Those Southerners who could with all sincerity swear to the second, in most cases could not affirm the first.

The Constitution during these Reconstruction years was conveniently mistranslated or in some cases, all-out ignored on the issue of voter’s rights.  Many of the states, such as Kentucky, translated the laws to reflect their belief that former Confederates and their supporters had forthwith given up their rights permanently when Fort Sumter was attacked.  Political corruption, greed and the view that Kentucky politics could be a stepping stone to greater things drove certain personalities to the Radical Party with haste.

On the 3rd day of November 1868 townspeople and mountaineers alike converged on their perspective polling places; schoolhouses, homes and even rocky overhangs next to a certain designated creek, to cast their vote.  What they were to meet at all of those locations were hard selling representatives (in equal numbers by law of course) of the two parties.  These representatives (officers) were set in place to protect their party members from threat, coercion, and violence.  The only time, by their own admission, they broke from these duties was to take a “call of nature.”

Aside from the smooth-handled bribe given as reward for personal or commissioned votes, other obstacles were readily in place to tilt the balance of power in one direction or another.  There were, in spite of the spirited humanitarian ideas of the pre-war abolitionists, Black Codes that  hindered the newly freed men from voting, who were for example, unable to pay a poll tax, pass a literacy test, or show that their grandfather had been a registered voter (federal laws all passed by the Democratic Party of the day).  It goes without saying that in post-war America women were a long ways from being able to cast their vote.  At the time neither were males under the age of twenty-one permitted to vote.  This made the majority of legal and disenfranchised would be voters those males who had suffered, both monetarily and physically, by the bloodletting of the war.

The Democratic Party resorted often times to brutal violence through their vengeful disciples in the Ku Klux [Klan].  The Republicans only had to stay alive long enough to be the only legitimized participant at the polls.  Any way you sliced it, elections were dirty deals and wrought the worst of traits in men.

On that November election day in 1868 one of closest watched contests occurred between two former Union Army officers – by law confederate officers were not allowed to hold any government office.  The office was that of the Eighth Congressional District of Kentucky for the Forty-First Congress of the United States.  The incumbent was George M. Adams a Democrat who was born in Barbourville and educated at Centre College.  He was an infamous company commander during the war in the 7th Regiment of Kentucky Volunteer Infantry.   His opponent was Sidney M. Barnes a native of Estill County.  Barnes’, also a lawyer by trade, services were accepted by the Union Army and he became a colonel in the 8th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry.  His service record is sketchy as to his bellicose explodes.  As a side note, perhaps his greatest claim to fame would occur in New Mexico territory in 1881 when he prosecuted Billy the Kid for the murder of Sheriff Brady of Lincoln.

The Congressional District in question included the counties of Breathitt, Estill, Garrard, Harlan, Bell, Wayne, Wolfe,  Madison, Letcher, Laurel, Rockcastle, Owsley, Jackson, Perry, Whitley, Pulaski, Knox, and Clay County.  Clay County had polling places in five locations, Manchester (Precinct 1) Cornett’s (Precinct 2), Allen’s (Precinct ),Otter Creek (Precinct ), Big Creek (Precinct 4) Rock House (Precinct 5),