Yesterday's News

Yesterday's News: Major jail-break came courtesy of Union troops

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
January 2, 2005

Union Army soldiers in Henderson staged a mass jail-break of runaway slaves on the first day of 1865.

A squad of about a dozen soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops 120th Infantry went to the Henderson County Jail and freed every black inmate, although they weren't acting under official authority. In fact, once their commanding officer learned of it, he ordered steps taken to recapture those who had been freed.

The Henderson Reporter said the incident occurred just after 9 p.m. when Jailer Ed McBride was summoned by a knock at the door. (In the old days the jailer lived at the jail.) When he opened it, "eight or ten negro soldiers stepped in, with bayonets presented, and demanded the keys of the jail. Several other soldiers remained outside to guard the doors.

"The jailer refused to give up the keys, and retired to the family room, the negroes still following with presented guns and demanding the keys, threatening his life if they were not surrendered. The jailer still refused, but his wife, fearful that his life would be taken, implored the negroes not to shoot, and directed their attention to the keys, which were in the room.

"The soldiers then proceeded to release all the negro prisoners in the jail, eleven in number, including five women." The soldiers guarded the jail to make sure an alarm wasn't raised, but Lt. Col. John Glenn got wind off the incident and ordered the river watched for the escapees.

"They had not long to wait, however, for the darkies who were now making a bold strike for freedom soon made their appearance. All hands had gotten into the boat, which was pushed from the shore, when they were commanded to halt, and were required to land and surrender.... The escaped prisoners were all returned to jail," except for one woman who managed to make good her escape.

"The ring-leader of the release party was also confined in a cell of the jail, where he should be kept for some time to come as a just reward for his officious conduct.

"We understand that, before the prisoners were released from the jail, between 30 and 40 slaves had been put across the river that same night."

Henderson County slaves had been escaping in growing numbers throughout 1864, creating a very real labor shortage locally. George Washington Smith, the Smith Mills farmer who kept a diary during that period, noted that the traditional New Year's Day slave sales had seen high rental prices, despite fears of emancipation.

"Negroes hired very high as so many have left the country and gone into the army that laborers are scarce," Smith wrote on Jan. 2, 1865. "Men hired from $200 to $400 (for the year) and ... if the people could have been assured of their being able to keep them during the cropping season they would have hired much higher."

The Union Army had not helped planters any, because on Christmas Day soldiers arrested every black man seen on the street and took them to the army camp "for the purpose of making them enlist," according to the Reporter, which said "a large majority ... preferred to return to their homes."

The same Jan. 5 issue that described the jail escape also gave an account of the arrest of an unnamed one-armed German suspected of helping slaves escape. The German had been arrested on the same charge the previous summer, but had been released for lack of evidence.

The one-armed German was again in the newspaper on Feb. 23, 1865, when he escaped from jail with another man named Cole, who also had been arrested for helping slaves escape to freedom. Two other men also got away in that attempt, but were quickly recaptured.

"The one-armed German and the negro Cole made good use of their liberty and have not been re-taken."

120 years ago

Henderson residents gathered on the riverfront Dec. 31, 1884, to watch a huge fire that destroyed part of downtown Evansville, according to an account in the Reporter.

The fire destroyed the Miller Bros. dry goods store and the music store of Charles F. Schmidt, and several other buildings sustained damage. "The flames from the burning buildings were plainly discernible from Water Street, and many of our citizens went down to view the sight."

75 years ago

A lawsuit that contested the election of Mayor Henry T. Barret was dropped by the losing candidates, according to a 1930 article in The Gleaner.

Barret had won by only 18 votes, one of the closest margins in the city's history. The lawsuit had been filed by W.A. Wells, the losing candidate for mayor.

50 years ago

A committee formed to look into the possibilities of a riverport on the downtown riverfront met for the first time, according to a 1955 story in The Gleaner.

The committee had been formed in late October 1954 by Mayor Hecht Lackey. Members of the committee included G.B. Hays, Frank Wolfe, Charles Baker and James Alves. The idea never came to fruition until it was revived in 1970.

25 years ago

The U.S. 41-North strip was viewed as posing a major transportation problem in the 1980s, according to a 1979 story in The Gleaner that looked to the community's future.

Construction of a new bypass -- Interstate 164 -- around Evansville funneling traffic to the Pennyrile Parkway was expected to create a traffic bottleneck on the strip.


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS