Army Captures Kentucky School for the Blind!

How are you commemorating the impact of the Civil War on the schools in your state? Few were left untouched by the terrible conflict. In the autumn of 1862, as the tides of combat rolled across Kentucky, Louisville was in a constant state of turmoil. Confederate armies had entered Kentucky that summer, determined to capture the city and destroy the Union army’s most important western supply depot. On Frankfort Avenue, a series of entrenchments were constructed, and for a time, it looked like war would halt the start of the school year at the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind (KIEB). Union army officers had their eye on the school buildings, planning to convert the modern main building into a hospital. But the board of visitors at the Institution was well connected and, for a time, used their influence to stave off moves to seize the campus.

After the battle of Perryville on October 8th, however, thousands of wounded were flooding into Louisville. Although their superiors had encouraged them to use other buildings, federal doctors used the crisis to order the blind students and their faculty out within twenty-four hours. The students were carted off to the Alexander House on Workhouse Road on land that later became part of Cherokee Park. By the second week in November, there were 270 sick and wounded patients in classrooms and dormitories converted into hospital wards and operating rooms.

Other residential schools suffered similar fates, in Tennessee, Virginia, and Mississippi. In Kentucky, however, the KIEB board decided to fight. Led by their president, William F. Bullock, who also served as president of the board at APH for many years, the board first appealed to the generals in charge of the city’s defense. When that failed, they went to Washington. Within days, orders came by telegraph to return the building to the control of the board. Drs. John Head and Middleton Goldsmith countered, however, that other hospitals were unfit, that squads of wounded in scattered homes was no way to run a hospital, and that they could not believe the War Department intended for them to put 300 wounded soldiers out in the road for a few blind children.

In the end, the KIEB board produced an order from somewhere—three were judges and the fourth a prominent physician—giving them authority to command a troop of soldiers, which they used in early January to evict the federal doctors. The campus was a mess. Board reports noted that fences and other wooden structures on the property had been destroyed and the halls were cluttered with hospital beds and equipment. It would be June 1863 before things at the school approached their pre-crisis normality.

If you would like help learning about the Civil War and life at your own state school for blind and visually impaired kids, contact Mike Hudson in our museum at mhudson@aph.org or 502-899-2365.

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