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William Preston was a leading representative of Kentucky’s slaveholding, landed gentry, the group who dominated economic, political, and social life in the commonwealth before the Civil War. Preston was heir to valuable lands adjacent to Louisville and married to the daughter of the state’s largest slave owner, and his Ivy League education and leadership abilities made him a natural spokesman for the interests of the South’s antebellum elite. As a legislator, diplomat, and soldier, Preston defended the interests of his region for three decades, and his successes and failures were linked to the fortunes of the South. Among his many accomplishments, Preston served as President James Buchanan’s minister to Madrid and, during the Civil War, as Jefferson Davis’s minister to the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. His story reveals much about the early history of Kentucky and the region.

"A good account of the battles in which Preston fought, and [the author's] treatment of him throws light on the role of other southern officers like Johnston, Breckinridge, Bragg, and Polk."—Alan Nolan, author of several Civil War military histories

"Preston’s life is carefully presented in the light of contemporary views and events, thereby allowing the biography to be much more than a personal account."—Bernard Friedman, Indiana University, Indianapolis

"Preston was one of Kentucky's leading citizens on the antebellum era and was a prominent member of the Confederate military and government."—Civil War Book Review

"Sehlinger's book fills a void in the study of the Civil War in Kentucky. To date, few biographies have been penned about Confederate generals from the Bluegrass State."—Civil War History

"Thoughtful and thoroughly researched. . . . A balanced and fair biography that does not set the subject upon a pedestal, nor set him aflame."—Indiana Magazine of History

"A case study of a part of the leadership generation of the South, one that goes below the surface to reveal much about beliefs on matters of family, gender, race, and more. Like many human stories, it is one of successes and failures, of vision and narrowness, of happiness and sorrow. It is a story that needs to be told."—James C. Klotter, Kentucky State Historian, Georgetown College

"Sehlinger has done well in presenting a minor nineteenth-century public figure."—Journal of American History

"Through clear and entertaining prose, as well as the words of Preston and his contemporaries, Sehlinger does an excellent job revealing life in Kentucky and the South before, during, and after the Civil War though the many details of William Preston's life."—Journal of Military History

"Sehlinger's command and distillation of complicated subject matter is evident throughout, as he skillfully weaves social, political, diplomatic, and military matters into the events of William Preston's life. Sehlinger's study is a model biography of a prominent nineteenth-century American."—Journal of Southern History

"Sehlinger’s biography reveals Preston as a defender of the old aristocracy, in politics and on the battlefield."—Kentucky Monthly

"I thoroughly enjoyed it. The manuscript is well written and well researched, a solid contribution to our understanding of both William Preston and nineteenth-century Kentucky."—Mark V. Wetherington, Director, Filson Historical Society

"Superbly researched and documented and finely crafted, this biography of Preston is a multidimensional story of power and privilege, family connections and gender roles, public service and proslavery politics."—Military Heritage

"Beautifully written. This biography makes an important contribution to Kentucky history."—Nelson L. Dawson. Kentucky historian, former director of publications at the Filson Historical Society

"Valuable for its look at the intricate web of business interests and family ties that undergirded Southern society."—NYMAS Review

"Should be the definitive work of this important but neglected figure in Kentucky history."—Ohio Valley History

"This is a fascinating account that illuminates many aspects of American history before the Civil War. Preston’s views, service in the Mexican War, and political activities offer insights into antebellum politics and society and show the growth of sectional tensions."—Ralph D. Gray, Indiana University, Indianapolis

"I not only learned some things that I did not know about Preston’s missions to Spain and Mexico, but also a lot about his Civil War career. The study is nicely contextualized throughout, a true model of what a life-and-times biography should be."—Robert May, Purdue University

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






William Preston, Confederate generals, Kentucky, Kentucky history


Military History

Kentucky's Last Cavalier: General William Preston, 1816-1887
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