Yesterday's News

Lynching, shooting lead to commander being court martialed

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
March 13, 2005

The lynching of a black soldier set off a chain of events that led to the 1865 court martial of the Union Army commander here.

The lynching took place at Geneva on Sept. 25, 1864, according to E.L. Starling's "History of Henderson County." A contingent of about 100 federal soldiers had been sent to Corydon on a recruiting expedition, and on their way back discovered that one of their number was suffering from smallpox. They left him at a house at Geneva; the next day a squad of Confederates came and lynched the soldier from a nearby tree.

Nearly six months later the hopelessness of the Confederate cause was becoming abundantly clear, and Confederates began surrendering in increasing numbers. A Union County soldier by the name of John N. Wathen arranged through Martin L. Daly, a friend with federal sympathies, to surrender at Henderson.

On this Sunday in 1865 Wathen presented himself to the provost marshal, renounced his allegiance to the Confederacy, and was given a safe conduct pass. He and his brother, William H. Wathen, along with Daly then started back to Union County.

They got to H.F. Turner's house at 1004 S. Green St. when they were stopped by a troop of black soldiers, according to the sworn affidavit of Daly, which was published in the Henderson Reporter. The soldiers, who later claimed they were taking revenge for the lynching, ordered both Wathens to dismount. "They first took Wm. Wathen aside to shoot, when one of the soldiers said that was the wrong man."

John Wathen pulled out his safe conduct pass, but the soldiers opened fire. Wathen fled toward the river, and Daly rode his horse alongside, trying to shield him from the gunfire. The soldiers caught up as Wathen was trying to get on Daly's horse, and surrounded him.

"One of them approached and struck him over the head with the butt of his gun, felling him to the earth, after which a parcel fired a volley upon his body," Daly said. "One of them ran up to me, shot at my head, and then struck the hip of my horse with the butt of his gun, breaking the stock," although Daly escaped.

The Reporter called the shooting "cold-blooded murder," and laid the blame squarely at the feet of Lt. Col. John Glenn, commander of the 120th U.S. Colored Infantry here, although Glenn said he had known nothing of the matter.

"Colonel Glenn promised to hold a rigid investigation, but this one, like all his other promises, went by default," reported Starling, who had absolutely no respect for Glenn, calling him a "drunken outlaw."

Starling had been associated earlier in the war with Glenn's commanding officer, Gen. Eli H. Murray, and wrote him a full account of the shooting, asking him to come to Henderson and investigate. Murray complied, and met with a number of prominent citizens on March 19.

After hearing the evidence, Murray sent for Glenn, stripped him of his saber and other items of rank, and ordered him to taken to Louisville in chains for a court martial. Capt. Morgan Wright, "at whose instance poor Wathen had been murdered," got the same treatment, Starling reports.

The black troops were ordered out of town, and camped at the fairgrounds south of the city limits. At the end of March the Reporter said Glenn and Wright returned for a short period, but their courts martial took place in May.

"The evidence in the case of Lt. Col. G. closed on the 26th and he was given until the 29th to give a written defense," the paper reported. "We are informed that the evidence against Capt. W. was very strong; so conclusive, indeed, that he deemed it the part of prudence to make his escape. Detectives were put after him, and the telegraph was freely used to secure his arrest, but at last accounts he had not been caught up with. The court has not yet pronounced judgment."

Starling says Glenn was "dismissed from the service" while Wright "would have been hung had he not made his escape from custody." Official Union Army records show that Glenn was "discharged" July 29 and Wright was "cashiered" Aug. 10.



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