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The Civil War In Madisonville

When the Civil War began in 1861, Kentucky was one of four border slave states that did not join the Confederate States of America (Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri were the others).  The Kentucky legislature passed a resolution of neutrality in May 1861, which was approved by Governor Beriah Magoffin.  President Abraham Lincoln of the Union and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy, both native-born Kentuckians, asked Governor Magoffin to contribute troops to their cause, but the Governor refused both requests.

Considering the internal divide, it was impossible for Kentucky to maintain neutrality.  On September 18, 1861, the Kentucky legislature, by then filled with a majority of Unionists, abandoned neutrality and declared for the Union.  Kentucky Confederates, mostly in the southern and western part of the Bluegrass state, were very active; however, by late 1861 thousands of Kentuckians rallied to the South’s cause.  In fact, a Confederate Provisional State government was established, with Bowling Green as the provisional capital of Confederate Kentucky.  The Confederate Congress actually admitted Kentucky as the 12th Confederate state in December 1861.  Almost a year later, however, Confederate forces retreated from Kentucky.  October 1862 marked the end of major warfare in the state for the remaining years of the war. 

Hopkins County, located in the central-western part of the state, was as divided as the rest of the state, populated by both Union and Confederate sympathizers.  According to Jack Hutchinson, during a Cincinnati Civil War Round Table, the “hillier midsection of the Pennyrile, Hopkins County, was more for the Confederacy”, while the northeastern segment, near Muhlenberg County “had a strong majority for the Union.”

Histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction years in Kentucky exist but most contain only passing, if any, mention of Hopkins County or Madisonville, the county seat.  Hopkins County had no railroads and no river transportation (the Ohio River was 50 miles to the north), and Madisonville was of “no strategic importance” during the war.  However, both the war and its aftermath had some impact on the town and populace.

According to most reports, Hopkins County was the scene of four “skirmishes” during the Civil War, but few details are available about most of them.  The brief military engagements had little significance in Civil War history.  However, some of the events and the individuals involved have become part of the town and county folklore. 

The first Civil War action in Hopkins County seems to have been what is known as the “Battle of Browning Springs” fought by the “Army of Six” on June 13, 1862.  According to a personal account in “The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army”, written by Confederate General Adam Rankin Johnson, he (Colonel Johnson, at the time) and six men were involved in a skirmish with a Union cavalry regiment at a place called Browning Springs.  The site is located in front of what was once Madisonville High School (now Browning Springs Middle School) on Arch Street. 

Union officials had ordered the cavalry regiment to Madisonville to destroy the homes and property of anyone providing aid to the Confederates.  Johnson and his “Army of Six” cut through briars and blackberry bushes, rode through corn fields, and crept into the enemy camp.  Shots were fired; the six Confederates yelled and screamed, making so much noise that the Union troops thought they were surrounded.  The soldiers fled their camp, heading either toward Henderson where a large Union force was located, or into Madisonville where officers were staying at the Eagle Hotel, located on the corner of Center Street and Main Street (Ken Dean’s laws offices today).  When Union officers returned to camp the next day and saw all the footprints (mostly belonging to their own men), they estimated that their soldiers had faced about 1500 Confederates.  The “Army of Six” had won a “glorious victory”, saving many homes in the Madisonville area and confiscating a large cache of Union supplies.

One of the most active Confederates from Madisonville was Alvin Fowler who had impressed Colonel Adam R. Johnson with some scouting work he had done prior to actually enlisting.  Fowler was born in Hopkins County in 1835.  Before the Civil War, he was a farmer.  His farm was located off Highway 85 on the road between Madisonville and Central City (KY 71 East).  In the fall of 1861, Fowler enlisted in the Confederate Army and on September 15, 1861 led a Confederate force in what is considered to be the “first battle of the Civil War fought in Kentucky” (Johnson, 1904), the Battle of Burnt Mill in Webster County.

Captain Fowler had no official command at the time, but he called to arms about 25 friends to pursue Union troops coming through the area.  Fowler and friends met the enemy about 14 miles from Madisonville.  After a skirmish that lasted about an hour, the Union soldiers surrendered their guns and ammunition, which were confiscated and stashed somewhere in Madisonville.

Throughout 1861 and until his death in late 1862, Captain Fowler (eventually Colonel Fowler) aggravated Union forces, which became frustrated by their inability to capture him.  Fowler commanded Company I in the 10th Kentucky Cavalry regiment formed in 1862 by Colonel Adam R. Johnson, a Henderson native.  This regiment became more commonly known as the 10th Kentucky Partisan Rangers.  Other notables from Madisonville who fought with the Kentucky Partisan Rangers were Captain William Dimmett and 2nd Lieutenant Polk Laffoon. 

Dimmett was the pastor of Grapevine Christian Church in Madisonville before the war, and was extremely active in recruiting for the Confederate cause.  James Knox Polk Laffoon was the uncle of Ruby Laffoon, the only governor of Kentucky from Hopkins County, who served as governor from 1931 to 1935.  Twenty years after the Civil War ended,  Polk Laffoon wrote a biographic essay for History of Kentucky, in which he talked about Captain Fowler’s escapades, including the following story about the “Skirmish of Lover’s Treat.” 

Lover’s Treat was a grove of trees in two acres of woods located just north of downtown Madisonville on the spot where the Kentucky Department of Highways District 2 Office stands today.  As the name implies, Lover’s Treat was a place where young people would go to “court.”  In August 1862, the wooded area was the site of a brief skirmish between the 10th Kentucky Cavalry and Union troops. 

Colonel Adam R. Johnson and his Partisan Rangers were in Clarksville, Tennessee when they received word that a Union force was moving from Henderson to Madisonville on August 25, 1862.  Colonel Johnson sent Captain Fowler and his regiment to Madisonville where they joined Captain Dimmett’s company.  Together, the regiments of Fowler and Dimmett defeated the Union troops at Lover’s Treat.

On November 23, 1862, Fowler, by this time a colonel, was killed in the battle near Summer’s Store in Muhlenberg County.  Colonel Fowler, his wife, and their children are buried in Grapevine Cemetery.

Union supporters from Hopkins County also enlisted.  Captain James M. Shackelford recruited locally for the Union Army.  Shackelford’s family had moved to Hopkins County from Lincoln County, Kentucky in the mid 1800’s.  Shackelford first commanded the Union’s 17th Kentucky Infantry Volunteer Regiment, then later the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.  In late 1861, Captain Shackelford’s unit established a fort at Ashbyburg in northeastern Hopkins County.  The area served as a ferry crossing of the Green River, located as it was on the south side of the river.  The fort was soon abandoned, however, because it was too difficult to defend.

The last event of major significance in Madisonville during the Civil War was the burning of the Hopkins County Courthouse.  In December 1864, General Hylan B. Lyon CSA invaded Kentucky with 800 men to enforce the draft law and to draw Union forces away from Nashville.  In 23 days he burned seven courthouses, including the one in Hopkins County on December 17, 1864.  General Lyon did allow the removal of all county records from the courthouses before his men burned them.  In 1866, a new brick courthouse replaced the one that Lyon’s men burned.  Since then, the courthouse downtown has been replaced at least two times, according to Historical Society records.

Madisonville and Hopkins County certainly did not play major roles in the big event that was the American Civil War.  Area “skirmishes”, however, did create local heroes and provide war stories for many families in and around Madisonville.  Today, citizens and visitors may easily tour Madisonville’s Civil War sites.  The people and places mentioned here made history, at least in the minds of the residents of the “Best Town on Earth.”

The return of Confederate veterans to Hopkins County and Madisonville after the South’s defeat marked the beginning of an attitude of “we may have lost, but we fought the good fight” on the part of diehard Confederate sympathizers.  In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Pearce, the widow of Confederate Captain James W. Pearce of Earlington, led a movement to build a monument to honor the Confederate dead of Hopkins County.  The monument was erected in 1909.  A request was made to the fiscal court to construct a monument to honor the Union dead of the county as well.  The request was approved but the monument was never constructed.

Like most of the southern slave states, Kentucky was changed after the Civil War.  So, too, were many cities and rural communities.  The population of Madisonville in 1860 was about 602.  By 1870, the town’s population had grown to 1,022, and Madisonville played a more prominent economic role in the county. 

Farming had been the primary occupation in this area before the Civil War.  After the war, the coming of the railroad changed that.  During the Reconstruction Era, 1865 to 1877, two railroad lines arrived in Madisonville.  In 1870, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad line came through Madisonville toward Nashville.  In 1872, the Elizabethtown & Paducah Railroad entered the county from the east.  The coming of the railroad to Madisonville and the county led to the mining boom that began when the first coal mine was opened in Earlington, just outside of Madisonville, in 1869.  By the 1870s, coal mining was becoming big business in Hopkins County.  Twenty-five years after the Civil War ended, the town of Madisonville flourished economically, with dry good stores, tobacco factories, flour mills, at least two livery stables, two barber shops, and one bank.

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