No event in its 200-plus-year history was more traumatic for Ashland than the Civil War. Not only was the largest engagement in Lexington fought on the grounds of the estate, but like so many other families, the Clay family was torn asunder by the war. The war would ultimately cause the Clay family to relinquish ownership of the property for the only time before its 1950 opening as a public museum: 1865 – 1882.
The Battle of Ashland
On October 8, 1862 Confederate forces were routed at the Battle of Perryville and shortly thereafter began an exit of the state of Kentucky. Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan began conducting attacks in an effort to distract Union forces to the rear of the Confederate line. Late in the night of October 17, 1862, Morgan learned of an encampment of Union troops in the woods to the rear of the mansion at Ashland. Morgan decided to take the opportunity to create distraction by attacking this Union encampment. At dawn on October 18, 1862, Morgan attacked the 294 members of the 3rd and 4th Ohio Cavalry at Ashland with some 1800 of his 2nd, 3rd, and 9th Kentucky Cavalrymen and artillery section. Morgan divided his forces and they attacked the small camp of Ohioans from both sides. The engagement lasted only about 15 minutes due to the overwhelming Confederate force. Four Union troops were killed, 290 (including 24 wounded) were taken prisoner. The number of Confederate casualties is unknown but included John Hunt Morgan’s cousin George Washington “Wash” Morgan who was mortally wounded. Morgan paroled the Union prisoners on the steps of the Ashland mansion later that day.
The monument to the Battle of Ashland sits just to the left behind the formal garden today, close to Woodspoint Road. For many years we believed the battle to have taken place in this area of the estate. In 2013, National Geographic’s show, Diggers, visited the estate and found artifacts from the battle in the meadow closest to Richmond Rd. We now believe the skirmish to have taken place there instead.
The Clay Family and the Civil War
The Civil War in Kentucky not only divided communities, turning friends and neighbors into foes, it also tore many families asunder as well. The Clays were no exception. Henry Clay once said that he hoped he would never live to to see his beloved Union torn apart by Civil War. Henry Clay got his wish. Unfortunately, his family was not so lucky.
James B. Clay and the Estate
Henry Clay’s son James was master of Ashland as the Civil War approached and his decisions would determine the fate of the estate throughout and after the war. In February 1861, James was selected to represent Kentucky at the Peace Conference in Washington D.C. The conference was sponsored by the state of Virginia and James viewed it as largely a futile effort to stave off the war, and his view proved correct.
When the war broke out, James allied himself with the Confederacy. This fact became known around the bluegrass where Union sympathies ran high and antagonism of prominent Confederates was common. James, fearing repercussions against his family and himself, decided in August 1861 to flee south. He was betrayed by his guide and imprisoned at Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County, KY. After a brief imprisonment during which James was beaten, he was transferred to civilian authority and released. James returned home to Ashland and kept a low profile.
By the summer of 1862, Confederate troops had seized control of Lexington and prominent citizens like James felt freer to act and speak. James was ultimately asked to raise troops for General Braxton Bragg. On October 8, 1862 Bragg was routed at the Battle of Perryville and Confederates forces were expelled from the state. The pendulum having swung forcefully back to the Union side, James as a known Confederate sympathizer, again felt the need to flee the state. This time James was successful in escaping and made it to Cuba by Christmas. Early the next year James went on to Montreal where many Confederate ex-patriots had located. James by this time was ill with tuberculosis. By summer, his family was so worried about him that they rented Ashland to relatives and joined him in Canada. James died in Montreal in January 1864. After the war, James’s wife, Susan Jacob Clay, was forced to sell Ashland as a result of the financial difficulties caused by it.