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BUY Thunder from a Clear
The Union Garrison of Henderson, Kentucky
SUN SLID DOWN on the Sunday afternoon of June 22, 1862,
Senior Second Lieutenant George B. Tyler stepped off the
steamer John T. McCombs and onto the creaking wood
of the Henderson, Kentucky, wharf. He tried to take a deep
breath, but it was no use. Charmingly characterized as
“sultry” by the locals, it was the kind of hot,
humid day that he and his Coldwater, Michigan, men
weren’t used to. His shirt was clinging to his back
from sweat. With the exception of a quick stop at Owensboro
to pick up orders, Tyler had spent much of the 170-mile
float down the Ohio River from Fort Duffield quietly
enduring the oppressive heat while absent-mindedly staring
at the Kentucky shoreline. Unknown to Lieutenant Tyler on
that hot summer Sunday, in a week’s time he would
once again be on the same steamer returning upstream from
where he had come.(1)
Initially, the Henderson townsfolk had mistaken the faded scarlet pant stripe of their Union army uniforms for cavalry. These, however, were the men of the 1st Michigan Light Artillery Regiment, Battery F—known by the soldiers as Andrews’s Battery in recognition of their commander, Captain John Sidney Andrews. They had quietly spent their first three months of field service on garrison duty at Fort Duffield in the peaceful river community of West Point, Kentucky, just southwest of Louisville. During the bloom of the mild Kentucky spring, the men had done easy time with virtually no enemy contact. Although many had fallen ill, there were as yet no combat casualties.(2)
Lieutenant Tyler's first glance up at the twilight-clad dwellings on Water Street left him with the initial impression that things could turn out to be comfortably similar to his last assignment upriver at Fort Duffield. After exploring for a few hours, he changed his opinion. In the early summer of 1862, Henderson was a town in turmoil. After the bloodiest battle of the war in early April, the Tennessee River had gushed forth a deluge of sick, wounded, and dead from the killing fields of Pittsburg Landing. These broken bodies were taken to every port of call down the Tennessee River and in both directions on the Ohio between Cairo, Illinois, and Cincinnati. Henderson was no exception; its hospitals were still filled with hundreds of wounded when the Michigan men arrived in late June. The hastily erected military hospitals in river towns throughout the Midwest became notorious breeding grounds for every type of infection. Pneumonia, typhoid fever, measles, dysentery, and smallpox shadowed the dingy gangs of debilitated humanity wherever they were taken. In Henderson, smallpox had just spread from the soldiers to the civilian population. People began to hide in their own homes. Add to this an increasingly bold run of recent local guerilla activity, and it was a town with dangerous underlying currents.(3)
Of course, there was much about Henderson that couldn’t be learned from a short tour. Hidden under the everyday summer bustle in the downtown area was the fact that Henderson, a town of barely four thousand people, had found a vital, almost unique economic niche. Some of the best tobacco in America was being tended on farms ringing the town, and it was a product with steadily increasing demand. Per capita, Henderson was one of the richest places in the world. But the wealth of Henderson County was built on a devil’s bargain; more than forty percent of the population was slaves. This was more than twice the percentage across Kentucky as a whole. Henderson, split on the subject of secession, was virtually unanimous on the subject of the president and his presumed outlook on emancipation. In the election of 1860, Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln got a total of five votes in Henderson County, less than one-half of one percent of the vote cast. In four of seven precincts, Lincoln did not get a single vote. Kentucky was one of three states that went to former Speaker of the House of Representatives, U.S. senator from Tennessee, and Constitutional Unionist candidate, John Bell. Politically, there could be few places further apart than Coldwater, Michigan, and Henderson, Kentucky. Most of the Michigan volunteers had never seen a slave before arriving in the South.(4)
The new military commandant of the Department of Kentucky was a forty-four-year-old Kentucky lawyer, educated at the College of New Jersey, named Jeremiah Tilford Boyle. Brigadier General Boyle had declared himself for the Union earlier than many in Kentucky and, although somewhat excitable and completely without military training, had conducted himself well as a brigade commander at the Battle of Shiloh. As a reward for his exemplary service and as a prominent Bluegrass Abolitionist, the rotund Boyle had been promoted to his new office with the hope that he could calmly secure the unstable border state for the North. He had barely ascended to his new Louisville headquarters when he made the decision to shuffle the fifty-man detachment from Andrews’s Michigan Battery to Henderson.(5)
The Michigan soldiers were assigned to gather intelligence on the town’s sympathies; to make an orderly, positive presence to the locals; and to arrest anyone engaged in activity that could benefit the enemy. Apart from soldiers on light duty in hospitals, they would be the only healthy, active Union army presence in town. Tyler soon received a briefing that led him to the unavoidable conclusion that “the country nearby…had been invaded by guerilla bands.” Two days before Andrews’s Battery arrived in Henderson, the McLean County Courthouse at Calhoun, which was a day’s ride to the southeast, had been sacked and firearms had been confiscated by a band of Confederate irregulars. On the same day as the Calhoun raid, Major John F. Kimbley, chief surgeon of the 11th Union Kentucky, had been bushwhacked just fifteen miles away on the Owensboro Road near Hebbardsville. After being interrogated, Kimbley was taken into the backwoods near Green River, summarily relieved of his $600, two-horse carriage, “paroled,” and then dumped off in the midnight wilderness. He was eventually "picked up by a steamer and brought back to Louisville where he complained bitterly of the event to General Boyle." The enemy was active and near.(6)
On top of these concerns, Tyler had a serious prospect of trouble from within. First, Battery F was a well-trained, hard-drilled group of cannoneers, but they were sent to Henderson without any artillery. This was a prescription for boredom and all its ill effects. Second, no one knew much about guerrilla tactics, the primary means of enemy activity in the area. Finally, long months of uneventful duty deep behind the front lines had given Tyler’s men a potentially unrealistic view of wartime Kentucky. It was a lot for a twenty-eight-year-old to think about.(7)
Commanding the detachment was Tyler’s good friend and amiable mentor, forty-two-year-old First Lieutenant Luther F. Hale. Tyler was Hale’s right-hand man, and while Hale was introducing himself to the mayor and others of importance, Tyler would be handling day-to-day activities with the men. After some preliminary scouting, Tyler made the most important decision of his young life; he decided to recommend the National Hotel, a stern-looking two-story brick building on North Main Street, as the detachment headquarters. It was positioned close to the waterfront near most of the action, and it was big enough to comfortably accommodate their numbers. Hale agreed with Tyler’s choice, and the Michigan artillerists settled in as a grand, silver vein from a summer thunderstorm flashed down from the west over the river.(8)
For the two days following their arrival, the wary Michigan soldiers kept a low profile and made no arrests. The town seemed quiet enough, and the men in blue didn’t have to look far for trouble. More than any external concern, the artillerymen bemoaned the lack of equipment. True to Tyler’s anxieties, the lack of a proper battery combined with uncomfortable weather to foster an environment of boredom, sniping, and poor morale. Just as the men had begun to settle into an uneasy routine, Wednesday, June 25 “opened early with heavy rain and continued all day so dusky, dark and drizzly, murky, muddy and miserable that everyone’s spirits went down to zero.” Lieutenant Hale curtailed activities in recognition of the wet weather. With everyone jammed into the hotel to escape from the pelting rain, things once again got testy inside.(9)
Late that afternoon as the clouds split, allowing the sinking sun to spread an orange fan on the western horizon, Lieutenant Tyler received surprising news that the Forest Queen had just let off a company of Union soldiers dockside. General Boyle, unannounced to Battery F, had decided to bolster the Michigan contingent with a sixty-man detachment from the Provost Guard of Louisville, Company E.(10)
The Michigan officers quickly buttoned their tunics and hustled down to the landing. Captain John O. Daly received the salutes of Hale and Tyler, introduced his staff - including his younger brother Second Lieutenant Eugene O. Daly - and put everyone at ease. The soaked, tired guardsmen were led up the red, muddy bank to the National, where they took off their wet outer clothes and introduced themselves around. Daly’s men were Kentucky boys who had been in the business of hunting down renegade secessionists and handling prisoners for almost a year. During that time it was not unusual for members of the guard to pull duty transporting prisoners up and down the Ohio River, either for exchange at Cairo or imprisonment in Louisville. Henderson was not a foreign destination for them. Even though no trouble with the Rebels had erupted yet, Tyler was glad to see the Louisville Guardsmen. Arriving late, Daly decided to bunk his men in with the Michigan unit. The entire Federal force of some 110 cramped soldiers was now all in one spot. It was the first in a series of missteps that would result in deadly consequences.(11)
The “muddy, misanthropic” deluge continued into the 26th, but the enterprising captain of the Louisville Guard was not deterred. Captain John Daly made it clear that things were going to be different in Henderson. It wasn’t long before he made himself known, cranking up the information gathering machinery and developing several leads on Confederate activities within his first forty-eight hours in town. By June 28, Daly had bagged a local named Garrett Mitchell and had him promptly sent off to Louisville; he was the first of many dubious suspects who would make the long journey upstream in shackles to sit in Federal military prisons indefinitely. Whether the locals appreciated all this newfound attention was doubtful. Folks from Henderson, like every neutral party in the history of warfare, found themselves to be the uncomfortable beneficiaries of scorn from both sides. Even loyal Union townsmen were placed under a blanket of silent suspicion by the bluecoat patrols on the streets. For the Federal soldiers stationed in an overcrowded, disease-ridden, guerilla-infested Southern river port, everyone was a potential threat. Hale wrote to Captain Andrews at West Point, “They go disguised not in uniform, but in citizen’s dress bound together in small bands and commit their outrages on individuals and skedaddle.” There was an element of fear everywhere.(12)
It didn’t take long for word of the Union troop arrivals to reach the countryside. To those who believed in the Second War of American Independence, the existence of an occupying Lincolnite garrison in Henderson was a flagrant provocation. To Confederate soldiers actively engaged in the struggle for the future of Kentucky, the presence of the newly arrived Federals meant that the enemy had arrived and that it had to be opposed.
Endnotes for Chapter 1
(1) Daily Evansville Journal (hereafter referred to as DEJ), June 23, 1862; Henderson Weekly Reporter (hereafter referred to as HWR), June 26, 1862; Letter, G. B. Tyler to J. S. Andrews, date unknown (between June 22–29, 1862), John Sidney Andrews Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan (hereafter referred to as BHL).
(2) DEJ, June 23, 1862; HWR, June 26, 1862; Richard A. Briggs, The Saga of Fort Duffield (West Point, Kentucky, 1999), 76; Don Harvey, Battery F regimental history, http://www.michiganinthewar.org/artillery/battf.htm.
(3) George Smith Diary, 1859–1873, May 22, June 12, 1862; HWR, June 19, 1862.
(4) Maralea Arnett, The Annals & Scandals of Henderson County, Kentucky 1775–1975 (Corydon, Kentucky, 1976), 41; Mendy Dorris, Tug of War (No publisher given, 1996), 1; Edmund L. Starling, History of Henderson County, Kentucky (Henderson, Kentucky, 1887), 193, 195, 197; Lowell Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (Louisville, 1975), 1; William A. Degregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, Third Edition (New York, 1992), 234.
(5) J. M. Armstrong, Biographical Encyclopaedia of Kentucky (No publisher given, 1877), 418. The College of New Jersey was later renamed Princeton University.
(6) DEJ, June 23, 24, 28, 1862; Letter, G. B. Tyler to J. S. Andrews, date unknown, BHL; Adam R. Johnson, Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army (originally Louisville, 1904; Austin, Texas, 1995 reprint is used throughout), 92–94.
(7) Letter, L. Hale to J. S. Andrews, July 10, 1862, BHL.
(8) Letter, G. B. Tyler to J. S. Andrews, date unknown, BHL.
(9) DEJ, June 26, 1862.
(11) DEJ, June 23, 1862, says Andrews’s Battery arrived with fifty men. On June 26 the DEJ mentions the Provost Guard arriving with sixty more soldiers. Johnson’s intelligence from Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army (95) puts the total at eighty.
(12) George Smith Diary, 1859–1873, June 28, 30, July 4, 1862; DEJ, June 27, 1862; Letter, L. Hale to J. S. Andrews, July 8, 1862, BHL.