By: Bill Penn
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us.
Communities and historic sites across the United States are planning events and reflecting on the war’s impact. Cynthiana will, in 2012 and 2014, commemorate John Hunt Morgan’s two raids here. Yet the drama of the battles was only a part of the larger story of the Civil War times of Harrison County.
In the 1860s, the signs of conflict were everywhere: partisan bitterness among its citizens, the recruitment of soldiers, federal camps guarding the railroad, the arrest of citizens for disloyalty, the presence of home guards to maintain order, and slaves running away, many joining the Union army.
Which side of the sectional controversy did Harrison County citizens support? There are several indicators that point to a majority supporting the Confederacy: the percentage of soldiers who joined each side, the results of local elections, and many anecdotal accounts.
Out of a total of over 1,400 Harrison County enlistments, almost 800, or fifty-seven percent, joined the Confederate army and the remainder joined Federal troops to end the rebellion. The percentage from Harrison who chose the South was almost twice the state’s thirty percent average.
Politically, Harrison County did not follow the statewide voting patterns of the August 1861 elections, which resulted in a majority of Union candidates wining.
Henry H. Haviland, a prominent businessman from Havilandsville, held the viewpoint of most Kentuckians. He was opposed to secession, but at the same time, supported slavery: “[I] think that every other man that loves the South and its institutions [of slavery]” should not support the “Black republican party,” yet he thought that Kentucky should nevertheless stay in the Union, “the place to have our wrongs redressed.”
However, Haviland, who voted for the Union candidate, was in the minority when it came to Harrison County voters. In the statewide elections Constitutional Union candidate John Bell won over pro-secession Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, but Harrison County supported Breckinridge, with 55 percent of the vote, followed closely by Bell, with 41 percent.
Another indicator of which side of the sectional crisis Harrison County fell was the election of Lucius Desha in August 1861 as state representative of Harrison County’s district.
Desha was an outspoken States’ Rights candidate and supporter of Breckinridge as well as the father of Jo Desha, who led one of the first Kentucky Confederate companies south soon after Fort Sumter fell.
Some prominent Union supporters expressed in their letters a belief that most people in the county were Southern sympathizers.
Attorney William W. Trimble wrote: “The majority of the people [in Harrison County] were rebel sympathizers,” and Henry Haviland, had similar views: “It is not safe for a man to talk about or in favor of the Union.” As it turned out, Confederate sympathizers were hindered from effectively recruiting or otherwise aiding the Southern cause because of vigilance by Union soldiers assigned to guard the railroad, aided by local civilian Home Guards. And so in 1861, the citizens of Harrison County, as did the state of Kentucky, became divided, “neighbor against neighbor.”
Editor’s note: William A. Penn is author of Rattling Spurs and Broad-brimmed Hats - The Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County, Ky. He is also editor of the Harrison County Historical Society’s monthly newsletter.