Thursday, February 3, 2011

Occupation of Smithland During the Civil War


Currently, I am working with a group to  gather information  for  an  application to have the  old Livingston County Court House  and clerks' office buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Before the application can be completed, a great deal of research  must be done. The research includes information on the erection of the buildings, alterations made to the buildings  and events that occurred there through the years.

Livingston County's court house is among the oldest, if not the oldest, still in use in western Kentucky. Built in 1845, it has weathered storms, floods, wars and unrest.  It has witnessed the heydays of  steamboats, the occupation by Federal troops during the Civil War and  the public hanging of a man on the courthouse lawn. This stately old building has greeted many famous persons - from Andrew Jackson to President James K. Polk and Clara Barton.

The research is fun and has resulted in some new information. Smithland,  Livingston County's seat of justice,  is located strategically at the confluence of two navigable rivers - the Ohio and Cumberland, both of which were important for the movement of troops and goods during the Civil War.  Naval gunboats were a common sight to Smithland residents throughout the war.

As early as September 1861, Federal troops moved into Smithland and occupied the town.  Fort Star, which was located near Smithland Cemetery, was manned by Federal soldiers, including Co. G of the 48th Kentucky Volunteers, whose post commander was local resident, Capt. J.W. Bush. In a town full of Confederate sympathizers, the Federal troops were tolerated, but were not popular with local residents. Although no large battle occurred in Smithland, there was activity.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune of 2 October 1861 briefly mentioned the occupation. " ...  Lincoln troops took possession of Smithland on the 25th ult. They commenced their depredations by destroying a fine orchard in the suburbs, cutting down the trees, and planting instead a large number of heavy guns."

In 1927 Edmonia Patterson Daniel, a Smithland native, wrote about her memories of the occupation of the town. She told of "raids in the town and country on chicken coops, nests, barns and stables ... The river front, far up the Ohio and Cumberland, was dotted with the ominous black painted gunboats, transports, tugs, yawls and row boats."

An article appeared in the Evansville Daily Journal on Saturday, the 21st of January 1865. Under a headline of "Outrage at Smithland," the following is recorded:  "While the Fannie Gilbert [steamboat] was lying at Smithland, four soldiers straggled off into the town and finally entered the house of a man named Isaacs and beat him inhumanly, cutting a dangerous gash in his head ... Three men were subsequently arrested for mutiny ... They were turned over to Capt. Tombler, commandant of the Post here [Evansville] , for discipline and to be forwarded to their regiments for trial and punishment. Their names are Jeremiah Haley, Co. B, 45th Ill., Uriah Henderson, Co. H, 20th Ill. and Taswell Douglas, Co. G, 43rd Ohio."

Stationed at Fort Star [also called Fort Smith] for a while was the 134th Indiana. Jabez Cox,  a soldier in this unit, recorded his impressions of Smithland in his diary, which was published in Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March 1932.

"The mouth of the Cumberland is not very broad but deep, and the water of a deep clear bluish color and when the water of the two rivers intermix each preserves its color and looks like grease in muddy water. The scenery is beautiful here in Smithland and the fort mounting one grove is on a high hill right back from the town and manned by Co. G 48th Ky Vols and a Co. of the 34th [New Jersey] are quartered in the town. There have been some gurrillas near here within a short time and about five miles distant over the Tenessee river there are plenty. They have four picket posts one on each roade  The village has been a very prosperous little place but the war has brought a great change over the place  Some remains exist of fine brick buildings that belong to rebels and were destroyed by the soldiers. "

While the town and fort were under the control of the Union army, it appears that the business of the county continued in usual fashion with deeds being recorded, wills being proven and couples being married.  The first indication of the occupation of the court house is found in the circuit court minutes of Monday, the 13th of February 1865, when the following statement was recorded: "The Court House being occupied by the United States troops so that Court cannot be holden therein  It is ordered that the Court be adjourned till thursday morning next at ten Oclock at such place as may be provided by the County Judge for the purpose of holding the Court." The entry is signed by W.P. Fowler, Judge.

Two days later Judge Fowler wrote the following:  "Court met pursuant to adjournment at the House in Smithland Known as the Wilson House provided by the County Judge for the use of the Court, the Court House being still occupied by the Military."

By March 1865, the court was meeting in the Clerk's Office, a separate building on the court house lawn. The court house was still occupied by military forces through early June 1865, even though the war technically ended in April 1865. No reason for the occupation of the courthouse has been found so far, but  at least six western Kentucky court houses had been torched by early 1865. Could it be the Federal troops took possession of the court house in order to save it from destruction by the guerrillas? 


PalmsRV said...

Courthouse preservation and Civil War history in one post!

Brenda Joyce Jerome said...

Thank you. This is a project that is very important to a lot of people. Too many historic buildings have been lost.