Henderson County, Kentucky History

Of all the horrors of the war, there was no one occurrence more terrible, more frightful, or more atrocious than the history of the one to follow:

         On the eleventh day of July, 1864, a beautiful Monday afternoon, while the sun was shining in all its glory, and a rainfall, as gentle and brilliant as the sparkling dewdrops, was gladdening the parched earth, a company of desperate outlaws, as if with wings, flew into the city and soon claimed control of every principal street.  The grand entrée was made in First Street, and in the twinkling of an eye, the instrument of the Henderson & Evansville Telegraph Company, located in the second story of the old South Kentuckian building, then standing on the corner of Main and First streets, was completely battered to pieces.  After this had been done, a system of thievery was indulged, and never before or since that time has such a reign of terror been witnessed in the city.  Desperadoes, most fiendish and horridly uniformed, to add to their natural repulsive appearance, galloped over the streets with pistols in hand and commanded men as they chose, at the mouth of five-shooters cocked and of easy trigger.  These devils came unauthorized, for they belonged to neither army.  They were robbers and murderers and cared not whose house they entered or whose carcass they punctured with leaden messengers of death.  Near on to twilight, four or five of them, headed, as it was said at the time. by one EDMUNDS, of Hopkins County, who had for years prior to the war, been engaged in hauling tobacco from that county to this city, entered the storehouse of Mr. James E. RANKIN, on the corner of Main and Second Streets, and immediately commenced robbing the shelves of silks, ribbons, velvets and many other valuable goods.  Not satisfied with this, they took from his cash drawer what small change there was in it.  The iron safe was in the office at the rear end of the second story, and this was securely locked and could only be opened by the use of a combination key.  This key, as was the custom of Mr. RANKIN after locking his safe for the night had been take to pieces and the parts placed in a box kept in the cash drawer down stairs in the storeroom.  In robbing the drawer, the rings of the key were also taken by the robbers.  About this time, a villain, who claimed to exercise command, came into the store and peremptorily ordered the men out, and without a murmur, they left the house, mounted their horses and rode away.
         Mr. RANKIN, thinking perhaps they might return, and not wishing to hold any further communication with them, went to a room in the rear end of the third story.  Hardly had he succeeded in shutting the door before the same scoundrel, who had a few minutes before ordered the men out of the storeroom, returned with three or four men – EDMUNDS one of the number – and called from Mr. RANKIN.  Mr. John ALLIN, who was clerking for him at the time, protested his ignorance of his whereabouts, but this was of no avail.  One of the gang said, “I know where he is;  follow me.”  He then started to the second story and from that he ascended the third flight of steps, and soon found his way to the door of the room in which Mr. RANKIN was sitting.  Finding him, he was ordered forthwith to proceed below.  This he did, of course, and when arriving at his office was ordered to unlock the safe.  This he declared impossible unless he could regain the key which he had left in his cash drawer below, but which had been taken away by the first squad who had robbed his house.  He then proposed to go down to the drawer and see if the key could be found, and as he started and had descended not more than three steps, one of the men without a word of warning fired, the ball striking him in the back of the neck and ranging down the region of the throat.  Not satisfied with this, he followed him and several times hit him over the head and shoulders with the butt of his pistol.  Mr. RANKIN ran as fast as he could out of the front of his house and into an adjoining store of Holloway & Hopkins, still pursued by this man and his comrade.  He halted at the showcase and was leaning with his arm upon it, when the two murderers entered with pistols cocked and pointed at him.  At this juncture, William H. LEWIS, who was clerking for Holloway & Hopkins and was the only person in charge, rushed between the men and Mr. RANKIN, and knocking the pistol aside, begged them for God’s sake, if they were Confederate soldiers and valiant men, not to shoot a man who then dying from the effects of the first shot.  At this, both pistols were lowered and the two men walked out.  A physician was summoned, and in as short time as possible Mr. RANKIN was removed to the storehouse of B. B. WILLIAMS, where he remained until the murderers left town, when he was taken to his own residence on Upper Main Street.

         In the safe was a large amount of money belonging to Hugh TATE, and of this the guerrillas knew, for they mentioned the fact.  They secured Mr. RANKIN’S watch and what money there was in the cash drawer, but failed to get into the safe.  After the shooting, the robbers plied their avocation with a reckless indifference, loading their horses with beaver cloths, silks, velvets, ribbons, boots, shoes, blankets, and any other articles attracting their attention.  While this squad was robbing Mr. RANKIN, others were taking horses and other items of value, and having abundantly supplied themselves, all left the town.

        A short time after their departure, a United States gunboat patrolled the river front and threw several shells in the direction taken by the guerrillas, but without doing any damage.

        No man then felt safe, for if as pure, noble and good man as James E. RANKIN was shot down in cold blood, others felt that they were in greater danger.  Excitement became intense, and nothing but the want of a few guns (which could not be had) saved the lives of that squad of inhuman outlaws.  To add additional lustre to the memory of Hon. R. T. GLASS, be it said that he, of all the men standing around on the streets, was the only one to openly denounce the outlaws.  This he did to two of them in person and unhesitatingly announced his willingness to lead or assist in shooting the last one of them from their horses before escape could be possible.


         From the News, November 24, 1864:  “On Wednesday night, the twentieth inst., Lieutenant HEADINGTON, in command of one hundred and fifty troops, (134th Indiana Infantry, one hundred-day men), landed in our city, from Louisville, and immediately threw out pickets around the town, who permitted no one to leave the place without a pass.
      “These troops brought with them, four Confederate soldiers, two of whom had ventured on their steamer (the Palestine) at Rock Haven and were secured;  the other two, THOMPSON and POWELL, by name, had been captured.  On the twelfth day of July, 1864, five miles from Owensboro on what was known as the plank road, their company being in Daviess County recruiting, and had that morning met some regular soldiers, FEDERAL) and some one hundred home guards on Ruff Creek, killing eleven and routing the balance.  They were returning when THOMPSON and POWELL were cut off from the main body and captured.  THOMPSON and POWELL belonged to the command of Captain Dick YATES, a commissioned Confederate officer, who was recently killed in a skirmish near that town.  Lieut. HEADINGTON had received orders to publicly execute these last two prisoners in our city in retaliation for the atrocious attempt of a gang of guerrilla scoundrels and marauders (but a short time since) to murder in cold blood, Mr. Jas. E. RANKIN, one of our most estimable citizens, and for other outrages perpetrated of late in Henderson and vicinity.  These two men were selected by Gen. BURBRIDGE to be shot at twelve o’clock on last Thursday, but through the urgent solicitations of many of our prominent Union citizens, the execution was delayed until three o’clock, in order to give time to send to Evansville for a Catholic priest, who could administer religious consolation, both of the doomed ones being Catholics.  Mr. John PERNET, of our city, went for and returned with the priest.  Hon. Archibald DIXON and Mayor BANKS also hastened to Evansville and telegraphed to Gen. EWING, at Louisville, representing that the act of shooting these two men threatened to ultimate in the destruction of the City of Henderson by bands of guerrillas who now swarm in our vicinity, and urging a request from the leading Union citizens of the town, not to enforce said execution, as it was furthermore averred by some that the two condemned men were regular sworn Confederate soldiers.  Whereupon Gen. EWING promptly telegraphed to Evansville, ordering a suspension of the execution until he could from General BURBRIDGE.  A military courier was instantly dispatched from Evansville to our city with these instructions.  This was a cheering respite for the doomed young men, who had made every preparation to meet their bitter fate.  They had called in an artist and had their portraits taken to send to their relatives.  One of them (John P. POWELL, aged 23), bore up like a man of nerve, but the young (Wm. THOMPSON, age 18), shed many tears over the near approach of death, both persistently contending that they were no robbers or marauders, but regularly sworn Confederate soldiers.

        “Lieutenant HEADINGTON had further written instructions to ascertain the several amounts robbed from our merchants and others in the recent guerrilla or robber raids into Henderson, and to assess the full amount pro rata from reputed secession sympathizers among us.  In conformity to these orders, he held an interview with Mr. C. M. PENNEL, the U.S. Deputy Assessor of our city, and asked his assistance.  Mr. PENNEL truthfully informed Lieut. HEADINGTON that the citizens of all political parties in Henderson were living in friendly, social intercourse and harmony, and had no disposition to harass or defraud one another – that all, irrespective of their political convictions, condemned the villainies recently committed by outlaws, without authority from either belligerent force, and the he (P.) being merely a civil officer, would prefer not to assess his neighbors who happened to entertain different politics from himself, as to the best course to be pursued in our national calamities.  In short, that he would not point out men to be assessed for the committal of robberies which they could not avoid, and did not countenance.  Lieut. H. said his orders were imperative, yet, from what he saw and heard, the people of Henderson had been most grievously maligned by ignorant, designing, or unscrupulous individuals, wherein it had gone forth that they had aided and abetted the inroads and plunderings of the various marauding bands, who have infested this vicinity.  But he was an officer of the army, and had no discretionary power in the case – his orders were explicit and must be obeyed.  Another Union man was then called in consultation, and it was agreed to select three fair representative Southern Rights men, who should themselves make the assessment on certain citizens, whom they should designate after computing the amount necessary to cover all the losses incurred by our merchants.   On inquiry it was found that $2,700 included all losses, and the assessment was made out, and the parties called upon very promptly gave their checks for the money.  These checks were then paid over to those who had been robbed, who, to their honor be it said, universally to a man refunded the sums to their neighbors and friends, whom they knew to be innocent of any complicity with the robbers.  The deceased Mr. RANKIN, in this way promptly returned (through one of his sons) $1,000, which had been assessed in his favor.

        “In connect with the name of an amiable gentleman and true Christian and in order to preclude any suspicion that that lamented citizen had a hand in, or desired, “retaliation” on innocent men, we herewith append a note written by his son and signed by himself, which he forwarded to the commander of the Federal force in our city:

“Lieut. Headington, Commanding U.S. Forces, Henderson, KY.:
         “Dear Sir: -- I have just heard that two guerrillas were to be shot here to-day (Friday), in retaliation for the outrages committed by guerrilla bands in this place.  It has pained me greatly to learn this fact, and I would earnestly plead with you to spare the lives of these men.  If what the guerrillas have done to me has had any influence in causing this order to be made.  I pray you, if possible, to abandon your intention and permit them to live.

                                                                               J. E. RANKIN

“Henderson, KY., July 21st, 1864
         “But now to take up the thread of events.

         “Shortly of three o’clock the pickets stationed at the lower end of the city were heard to fire their pieces, and soon they came hurrying to headquarters (the Court House), with intelligence that a force of guerrillas were advancing upon the city.  Orders were hurriedly issued for every soldier to get into the Court House, and all the stragglers and pickets collected in the building.  After a brief suspense a flag of truce advanced from the rebels and the bearer delivered a note, which demanded a surrender of our troops to a Confederate force under Col. SYPERT>  Lieut. HEADINGTON declined the demand.  The flag of truce again returned; the terms proposed were again rejected, and a fight seemed imminent.  In a short time, however, the rebel leader, Col. SYPERT, himself advanced with the flad and had a personal interview with Lieut. H., to whom he exhibited his commission, and said that he wished to avoid the useless shedding of blood, that he had a force sufficient to capture our men, and demanded a quiet surrender – which, of course, was firmly refused.  Col. S. then stated that two Confederate soldiers were now held here to be shot in retaliation for crimes committed by an unauthorized party of rascals; that he now held some half-dozen Federal prisoners, and if the proposed execution came off, he would bitterly retaliate by shooting all six of his prisoners, but he hoped for the cause of humanity, that this course would not be persisted in by the Federal officers.  In response, Lieut. H. said he was a soldier, bound to obey the orders of his superiors, and could not of his own will alter the decrees of those above him. But for the present, the execution had been delayed.  Col. S. then requested that the citizens be notified to leave the city, agreeing to suspend his contemplated attack one hour for that purpose.

       “The conference between the two commanders was characterized by a tone of gentlemanly deportment, the parties acting with decorum and dignity, and socially taking a “wee drap” together from the proffered flask of Lieutenant HEADINGTON.  At the same time they were firm and inveterate opponents.

       “In the meantime much excitement prevailed.  Squads of men, women and children were striking for the country.  Every place of business had been closed on the first intimation of the proximity of the rebels, and our heretofore lively city presented an aspect of the Sabbath.  Many stores had been packing up their goods for removal to Evansville and Louisville for several days, and numerous private families had also made their exodus and removed their household effects.

 “All this was consequent upon the recent irruptions made upon us by guerillas, and which were about culminating in a public military execution in our city, which would, it was feared, endanger the lives and property of Union citizens.

       “Time passed on, and the threatened attack was not made.  A courier had been early dispatched to Evansville for reinforcements, or for the presence of a gunboat.  Two of the latter arrived late in the evening, one of which threw several shells at a point at the back of the city, where it was surmised the rebel force was located, said to be near ALVES’ Springs.  At one o’clock that night the little steamer Lou Eaves arrived from Evansville with two hundred of the invalid corps, who patrolled our streets and arrested our night police, but subsequently released them, on finding who they were.  These men, finding there was no fight on hand, returned to Evansville before morning.

       “On Friday it was ascertained that a force of about three hundred rebels were encamped near the city.  Our pickets were again put out and passes required to go through the lines.  In the morning of this day three civilians were arrested and confined.  Having brought no military stores with him, Lieutenant H. was compelled to quarter his troops on our citizens, who fed all assigned them.

       “On Friday afternoon, about five o’clock, eight mounted scouts were sent out to scout the suburbs of the city, to ascertain if any force of rebels hovered near.  Frequent communication was held between the land force and gunboat.  A force of the Home Guard from Indiana, opposite our city, were called over, and evidently there was some secret movement contemplated.  About dusk, when most of our citizens had retired to their homes, the body of troops, fully accoutred, with knapsacks on shoulders, and fixed bayonets, issued from the Court House, having five prisoners in charge, viz:  POWELL and THOMPSON, the two Confederates captured at Rock Haven, and PEARMAN, a citizen of our town (who had talked foolishly when on a drunken spree).  They proceeded down First Street and halted within one hundred yards of our office.  A small squad then escorted the prisoners to the river bank, and awaited till a skiff put off from the gunboat and communicated with them.  While here on the beach, POWELL asked the officer in command of his guard, if it was the design to shoot THOMPSON and himself that evening.  (The prisoners having been told before they left the Court House that an attack was expected from the rebels, and that all the prisoners were to be placed under cover of the gunboat.)  The officer said he not know, but that some new orders had been received that evening, the nature of which he was ignorant.  “If we are to be shot,” said POWELL, “we would like to see our Catholic friend, Miss Mary HENDERSON, and receive a cross from her.”  The officer answered that of course such a request would be acceded to.

        “In a short time an officer conveyed some work from the main force on the bank, when the sergeant in charge of the prisoners immediately formed six of his men into a hollow square, and POWELL and THOMPSON, their hands still bound, were again marched up the bank to where the balance of the force stood.  It was now obvious that a speedy death awaited the two young prisoners.

        “Two platoons of detailed men stood apart in the street, with fixed bayonets and loaded muskets, facing a fence which skirted the payment, not over fifteen paces distant.  Two chairs about a yard apart stood against the fence, and the prisoners being conducted to these seats, their arms were securely pinioned to the boards of the fence.  POWELL still was firm and undismayed, but THOMPSON bewailed his hard fate.  Their eyes were bandaged with handkerchiefs.  The word was given for one platoon to fire on POWELL – twelve men discharged a rattling volley full upon him, ten balls striking – one in the right eye, one near the heart, three nearly together in the right shoulder, another in his right breast, and four balls entered his pelvis.  Groans of anguish echoed to the report of the muskets.  The other squad were then ordered to aim for THOMPSON, and again the deadly bullets went whistling on their work of slaughter.  Four balls riddled THOMPSON – one striking at the right eye, the rest entering his body.  There hung, suspended to the fence by ropes, the lifeless bodies of two young men who, but a few moments previous, were in the full vigor of manhood and health.  It was a horrible spectacle to those who stood near, and we are credibly informed that Lieutenant HEADINGTON averred that it was the most unpleasant duty he ever had to perform.   Our citizens universally, so far as we have been able to learn, strenuously opposed this execution in our midst of men who had not participated in any outrage in our city.

        “After the shooting the military passed the mutilated corpses over to our citizens, three of whom were Samuel W. POSEY, Joe B. JOHNSTON and James B. EVANS, and who conveyed them to a building where they were stripped, washed and attired in clean clothing, and placed in neat coffins.  Word was then dispatched to their relatives in Daviess County that the bodies were at their disposal.

       “Retaliation on innocent parties looks like barbarity – like vindictive cruelty.  There is nothing Christian about it, and, as for policy, in our opinion, it is the policy of madmen.  Where is it to end?  IF the villains engaged in the shooting of Mr. RANKIN could have been caught and shot, or hung, there is no man in our city, but who would have rejoiced.  Nay, we are told that the rebel Colonel SYPERT had expressed his intention to shoot all such unauthorized scoundrels.  But these young men, whose warm blood has dyed our streets, had no hand or part in any deeds of the kind.  They were rebels against our Government, taken with arms in their hands; but they were regular sworn soldiers, and condemned in the acts of EDMONDS and his gang, who had made the murderous onslaught on Mr. RANKIN

       “The sad finale of our lengthy article is to chronicle the death of Mr. RANKIN, who died on Sunday morning last.

       “On Friday, his family deemed it advisable to remove him and themselves over the river into Indiana – his physicians and friends flattering themselves that he was recovering from his dangerous wound.  On Sunday morning last, (July 24, 1864) at 6 o’clock, he requested his wife to prepare him some ham, while he was partaking of this, she asked him if it “tasted natural.”  He replied “yes, it does,” and then swallowed some ice water, which instantly brought on a violent strain of coughing.  This cough caused the re-opening of bursting of the wounded blood vessels in his throat, and a rapid stream of blood gushed forth from his mouth and nostrils, staining his person and the bedding with the purple dye of life.  Strangulation laid him cold and rigid in death, and the spirit of this zealous Christian, kind husband, indulgent father, and worthy citizen took its flight to another and a better world, “where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”  Funeral services were held over his remains on yesterday (Monday) evening, at the Presbyterian Church, of which denomination he had long been a ruling elder.  Rev. J. WOODBRIDGE preached his funeral sermon to a large congregation, who felt they had lost one of the best of citizens.  Indeed, universal sorrow pervaded our city, and his bereaved family had the sympathy of all.

        “Mr. RANKIN was 54 years of age at his death, (born August 19, 1810), and now leaves an afflicted widow (Ann E. age 50) and eight children (S. W. age 25; Edwin age 23; Alexander age 21; Ann E. age 19; Sarah A. age 15; Alice age 10: Fannie age 6; Wardlan age 5) to mourn his loss.  But we hope our loss is his gain.  He was a Kentuckian, born in Henderson County, where he has passed nearly his whole life.  When a youth he acted as salesman in Mr. POLLOCK’S store, afterwards going into business with a partner (John H. BARRET), and since 1831, has carried on a dry goods business, enjoying an abundant patronage.  He was often elected as Trustee for the town, but never aspired to any political station, preferring the quiet sphere of a merchant, and the delights of his domestic fireside.”

Events taken from History of Henderson County, KY written by Edmund L. Starling 1887, pages 456, 547 – 557.  Wife and children’s names were taken from the Henderson County 1860 Census records page 24.

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS