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 war tore asunder the Clay family. 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, the Union routed Confederate forces at the Battle of Perryville and shortly thereafter began an exit of the state of Kentucky. Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan began conducting attacks to distract Union forces to the rear of the Confederate line. Late on the night of October 17, 1862, Hunt Morgan learned of an encampment of Union troops in the woods to the rear of the mansion at Ashland. Hunt Morgan created a distraction by attacking this Union encampment. At dawn on October 18, 1862, at Ashland, Hunt Morgan attacked the 294 members of the 3rd and 4th Ohio Cavalry with some 1800 of his 2nd, 3rd, and 9th Kentucky Cavalrymen and artillery section. Hunt Morgan divided his forces, and they attacked the small camp of Ohioans from both sides. The engagement lasted only about 15 minutes because of the overwhelming Confederate force. Confederate soldiers killed four Union troops and took 290 (including 24 wounded) as prisoners. The number of Confederate casualties is unknown but included George Washington “Wash” Morgan, John Hunt Morgan’s cousin, who died in the battle. Later that day, Hunt Morgan paroled the Union prisoners on the steps of the mansion.
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 Road. We now believe the skirmish to have taken place there instead.
The Clay Family and the Civil War
The Civil War in Kentucky divided communities and turned friends and neighbors into foes. It also tore many families apart. The Clays were no exception. Henry Clay once said that he hoped he would never live 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, they selected James to represent Kentucky at the Peace Conference in Washington, D.C. The state of Virginia sponsored the conference and James viewed it as a futile effort to stave off the war. His view proved correct.
When the war broke out, James allied himself with the Confederacy. This 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. Betrayed by his guide, they imprisoned James at Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County, KY. After brief imprisonment during which the Union forces beat him, they transferred James to civilian authority and released him. 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, Union forces routed Bragg at the Battle of Perryville and they expelled Confederate forces 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 expatriates had located. By this time, James was ill with tuberculosis. By summer, his family was so worried about him 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, sold Ashland because of the financial difficulties caused by it.