Author Archives: Lynn Niedermeier

African-American Heroes of San Juan Hill

"Bill," an African-American soldier photographed by Bowling Green native Frank M. Thomas, then serving as chaplain for the 3rd Kentucky Infantry during the Spanish-American War
“Bill,” an African-American soldier photographed by Bowling Green native Frank M. Thomas, then serving as chaplain for the 3rd Kentucky Infantry during the Spanish-American War

Although he had retired in 1892, Civil War veteran and Warren County, Kentucky native Captain Richard Vance took great interest in all aspects of his country’s prosecution of the Spanish-American War.  Among the topics covered in his personal scrapbooks, letters and essays was the plight of American soldiers who had volunteered for the war only to be met with disease, poor camp conditions, and substandard food and medical treatment. 

For African-American soldiers, Vance realized that the conditions were far worse.  He noted that, in spite of their outstanding gallantry, African-American troops could not escape the racism of their white counterparts; in particular they “continued to be despised objects in the estimation of southern volunteers.”  Vance cited an example in which “certain Virginia gentlemen (volunteers) refused to receive their pay because it was offered to them by a Negro paymaster.”  He had heard stories of “disorders” in some African-American regiments, but dismissed them as no worse than those in other volunteer organizations.  His own long military experience had taught him “that the ‘white-washing’ process is invariably used in such cases.”

Vance included clippings in his scrapbook to illustrate his points.  During the fierce battle around Santiago, Cuba, read one report, African-American soldiers not only “fought like devils” but came to the aid of the wounded, and when wounded themselves showed “more nerve” under the surgeon’s knife “than many of their fellow soldiers of lighter hue.”  When the men returned home, Louisville, Kentucky offered cheers for the 10th Cavalry—“The Colored Heroes of San Juan Hill”—but as the troop trains passed through Richmond, Texas and Meridian, Mississippi, they were targeted with gunfire.  When Charles Mason Mitchell, a veteran of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, attempted to pay tribute to the bravery of his African-American comrades during a lecture in Richmond, Virginia, he was booed off the stage.  “Is there a remedy for these evils?” asked Vance.  “Yes.  Unquestionably.  Will it ever be applied?  That remains to be seen.”

Click here for a finding aid to the Richard Vance Collection, and here for a gallery of primary resources in the Department of Library Special Collections relating to the Spanish-American War.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Side by Side

As we have seen, Edward R. Weir, Sr. (1816-1891) of Greenville, Kentucky took an active role in advocating, arming and funding the Union cause during the Civil War.  His entire family, in fact, opposed secession.  Weir’s wife Harriet defiantly nailed the U.S. flag to a tree when Confederate Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner toured Muhlenberg County.  Weir’s daughter Anna helped raise volunteer home guards and made pocket needle-and-thread cases for soldiers’ kits.  Weir’s son Edward, Jr. served as an officer in two Kentucky infantry regiments, and saw action at Shiloh, Corinth, and Saltville, Virginia. 

But Edward Weir Sr. was also the owner of some 100 slaves, and therein lies the tale of another family.  Weir’s youngest son Miller (1859-1935) recalled the patriarch of this family, known as “Copper John.”  Copper John’s daughter Amy was Miller’s nurse and maid to his mother Harriet.  Amy’s four sisters also worked in the Weir mansion, the centerpiece of a 1,200-acre plantation. 

Four sisters, all servants in the Weir household

The sisters had two brothers, Silas and Jesse (or Jessey).  It was the latter who, as cook, manservant and companion, made Edward, Jr.’s life considerably more bearable after he entered military service.  Writing from Camp Calhoun in McLean County, Edward described his tent, a spartan but comfortable space.  “I have a grand time & live like a king all alone with Jessey,” he told his family. “I sleep on one side & Jessey on the other,” with a small stove for warmth.  His modest dinner table, with its tin cups and plates (and one china plate “for the Captain” as Jessey said), was evidently a source of pride and comfort for Edward.  Even when he was ill and out of sorts at Corinth, Mississippi, he boasted of Jessey’s culinary skills and his ability to make biscuits just as good as those back home.

Amy, maid to Harriet Weir and nurse to Miller Weir

With the exception of Amy, who died in Chicago, the later lives of the children of “Copper John” are unrecorded.  Edward Weir, Sr., however, praised the intelligence and resourcefulness of his former slaves; one became a missionary, another attended Oberlin College, and others became teachers.  And during the upheaval of the Civil War, he gratefully remembered, they “watched over me and mine, with a devotion which I shall never forget.”

The Weir Family Collection of letters and photographs is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.  

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The Generosity of Jeff

James F. Keel (1827-1883) and his father-in-law William C. Pool were enterprising Kentuckians whose business interests were concentrated in Edmonton, Kentucky, but also took them to Hart and Warren counties and to Nashville, Tennessee.  Late in July 1862, Keel, a Civil War partisan of “southern rights,” found himself in Nashville, undeterred by the city’s fall to Union forces the previous February.  “The excitement here,” he wrote his brother, “has quieted down again but how long it will continue no one knows.” 

Keel reported that the victorious Union troops were keeping a close eye on Confederates banished to the other side of the Cumberland River.  “The pickets converse with each other across the river every day,” he noted, “both armies having agreed not to shoot their pickets unless they should get into close quarters & attempt to escape.” 

The standoff, however, gave the two sides opportunities for some nineteenth-century-style trolling.  In one incident, a Union officer in need of a boat spied an unattended one on the rebels’ side of the river.  After making sure the coast was clear, he stripped and swam over to it.  Just as he began to row away, a voice ordered him to halt, come ashore “& partake of the hospitalities of Jeff Davis, which of course he had to do without a rag of clothes to hide his nakedness.”  The poor fellow had to convince his captors to send someone back under a flag of truce to retrieve his garments.

In another incident, Keel wrote, Confederate pickets called over to their Union counterparts with a friendly offer of “a little good whisky.”  To their surprise, it was accepted.  This time, two men stripped down, swam across the river for their reward, and were duly taken prisoner.  Again, they delivered a request for their clothing under a flag of truce, but this time their commanding officer “sent them word back to go to hell” for their foolishness.  For all he cared, they could “go naked for the balance of their lives.”  Keel concluded with satisfaction that these men would have no recourse but “to appeal to the generosity of Jeff to hide their posteriors.”

James Keel’s letter is part of the Howard and Anne Doll Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“You will ask me, what is going on at Washington?”

Kentuckian Edward R. Weir, slaveowner and abolitionist

Lawyer, legislator and merchant Edward Rumsey Weir (1816-1891) was a prominent citizen and one of the largest slaveholders of Greenville, Kentucky.  In that contradictory fashion common to many Civil War-era Kentuckians, he was also an abolitionist and a supporter of the Union.  As the war approached, Weir was vocal in his animus toward secession.  But he would do much more, putting his time and money to work recruiting and equipping home guards to defend Muhlenberg County and helping to raise troops for the regular army. 

January 20, 1861 found Weir in Washington, D.C., just ahead of the admission of “bleeding Kansas” as the newest member of the fracturing United States.  Observing the tensions of the capital, he wrote his son Edward, Jr. of his impressions in terms we could apply today to the current impasse in its political culture.

After a quick look around, Weir pronounced Washington “a queer city,” its “acute angles,” “sharp ended houses & squares” and “streets that seem to go no where & end no where” guaranteed to mystify and frustrate the stranger.  Lodged at the famed Willard Hotel, Weir spied “six or eight Senators & fifteen or twenty members” of the House among his fellow guests.  Though they all appeared “quiet, orderly & sober,” they did not strike him as “men of commanding talent.”

Weir knew his son would be curious to know “what is going on at Washington,” but answered only “that the newspapers will keep you better advised” than anyone in the city.  There was, in fact, a strange silence on the subject of war: “No man would dream,” he wrote, “that the country was in a state of revolution, from the conduct and appearance of our public men.”  Only the occasional rants of  “some half drunken fellow” gave a clue that anything was wrong. 

Weir, sadly, concluded only “one thing – a peaceful separation is positively impossible.”  More than ever pledged to the cause of Union, he nevertheless feared for Kentucky’s future if his countrymen were to “kill off our friends in the North.”

Click here to download a finding aid for the Weir Family Collection, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For other Civil War collections, browse here or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Fill My Eye”

Postcard of a young woman

But there are other fish in the sea?

With the upheaval of the Civil War still a year away, Hattie Binford of Hickman, Kentucky was preoccupied with a smaller, more personal and yet equally consuming drama: the man who got away.  Perhaps because her friend Lucy (Parker) Robbins was 10 years older and married, 17-year-old Hattie looked to her for mentorship on matters of the heart.

Hattie had just experienced a sighting of the object of her affection, a certain “Mr. McBride,” she wrote Lucy in May 1860.  Unfortunately, her glimpse of him was as “the Bridegroom of another.  I had to summon all the courage and fortitude I possibly could to keep from showing my feeling,” Hattie mourned, “which was not very pleasant at that time I will assure you.”  But she vowed to rebound.  “There is as good Fish in the sea as ever was caught out so I will have the pleasure of catching another.”  For instance, that gentleman presently staying with Lucy, what was his name?  “Let me know if he is a candidate for matrimony,” Hattie demanded, “he can have my vote.”

Hattie filled her letter with other local news, including a visit from two admirers, but “I think I can do better than to take either of them.”  Her gold standard remained Mr. McBride, and she deputized her friend Lucy to “pick me out a nice Beau.”  He didn’t have to be rich, as long as he didn’t drink whiskey and play cards (to excess, that is).  “I want the jewel to consist of himself,” Hattie wrote dreamily.  “I want him to be handsome intelligent polite good natured,” as well as modest—“no profusion of fob chains Necktie or big words need apply, for they cannot fill my Eye.”

Click here to download a finding aid for Hattie’s letter, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For other letters about courtship and marriage, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Hickman’s War

One of Lucy Ligon's Civil War correspondents

One of Lucy Ligon’s Civil War correspondents

If we have to die had we not better die together?”  That was the question members of the Parker family of Hickman, Kentucky asked each other in spring 1861.  Lucy Robbins, the recently widowed daughter of Josiah and Lucy Parker, was staying with her brother-in-law near Memphis, Tennessee, but her parents were desperate to have her and their young grandson come home.  Letters to Lucy, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, provide a vivid picture of lives upended by the Civil War.

At the outbreak of war, the Mississippi River town of Hickman was still recovering from a fire so destructive that it was seen from Cairo, Illinois, some 40 miles away.  But now Cairo itself posed the threat, with rumors of soldiers massing there to mount an invasion from the North.  Lucy’s father had heard of still more troops gathering at New Madrid, Missouri.  Caught between these two armies, Josiah Parker feared that Kentucky “will again become the dark and bloody ground.”  Lucy’s mother wrote of the anguish of Hickman’s women: watching in fear as their husbands and sons chose sides and enlisted, many had packed up their households and were ready to “go to woods” if the enemy should appear.  “O what shall we do pray to god for our country,” she cried.

Each successive letter from home told Lucy of the war’s shadow over her family.  Her father, a local judge, lost his livelihood when the legislature temporarily suspended the courts.  Her brother Matthew joined the Union Army (and would die in service), even as some of his neighbors cast their lot with the Confederates.  Nevertheless, some of the town’s young women, including Lucy’s sister Lockey, refused to take a furlough from the marriage market and continued to preen in new dresses and bonnets whenever they could get them from places like St. Louis.  Lucy herself returned to Hickman in 1863, where she contemplated remarrying.  When she asked her dead husband’s brother for advice, he was clear: NO secessionists.  Having been financially generous with Lucy as long as she was widowed, Curtis Robbins declared that his continued support would be jeopardized if she allowed a Rebel to raise his brother’s child.

Lucy, however, didn’t listen.  Not only was he a Rebel, but her new husband, George J. Ligon, served under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and was severely wounded at Harrisburg, Mississippi.  If this condemned Lucy in the eyes of her brother-in-law, another young man who had worked for him and who remained Lucy’s friend was more forgiving.  Writing to her in 1864 during his Union Army service, he expressed regret that Lucy’s husband had been “crippled”; “I guess he is in the Southern army”—but, he shrugged, “you know it is all the same to me.”

A finding aid for family letters to Lucy (Parker) Ligon can be accessed here.  For more Civil War collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Rohna

HMT Rohna

HMT Rohna

Seventy-five years ago today, on November 26, 1943, one of the greatest and least-known losses of Americans in a single naval incident took place when the troopship HMT Rohna sank in the Mediterranean Sea.

Built in 1926, the Rohna was a converted British cargo ship—“crummy and dirty,” remembered soldier Charles Finch—with an Indian crew and an Australian commander.  Carrying 1,981 American troops, it was part of a convoy headed from North Africa to the China-India-Burma theater.  Late in the afternoon, a German aerial attack sent the vessel to the bottom of a cold, rough sea.  Of the 1,138 resulting deaths, 1,015 were American—only 162 less than the toll aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

The incident was quickly shrouded in secrecy.  Survivors and families of the dead were told little about what had happened.  Only with the passage of time and the declassification of military reports did the story become clearer.  The 8,602-ton Rohna had perished in 30 minutes after a single German aircraft launched a new and terrifying weapon: an early “smart bomb,” propelled by a rocket engine and guided to its quarry by an operator via radio signal.

When WKU history professor Carlton Jackson set out to write a book about the Rohna disaster, he gathered letters, narratives and official testimonials from survivors, witnesses, and families of the victims.  The stories he received were harrowing: of the fiery inferno ignited when the bomb slammed into the engine room, of men trapped below decks, of the ensuing chaos as the Rohna’s civilian crew abandoned their stations, of lifeboats that couldn’t be lowered because of rusted pulleys, of desperate men clambering down ropes to the sea or simply jumping, of rafts crashing down on the heads of men in the water, of German planes strafing overhead, and of the ordeal of injured survivors awaiting rescue for hours, clinging to debris or trying to remain afloat in heavy seas with only small inflatable lifebelts.

On board the nearby HMS Banfora, Abe Kadis remembered the Rohna with a hole blown completely through it, the screams of wounded men, and “heads bobbing in the water.”  Nevertheless, the rest of the convoy was forced to sail on until it was safe for rescue ships to return.  “I felt so alone and completely helpless,” remembered Charles Finch, who had gone over the side by rope.  “There was now nothing in sight except the dead bodies that continued to bump into me from time to time.”  The USS Pioneer eventually picked up Finch and many of the Rohna survivors.  One of them, Private Henry Kuberski, spent weeks in hospital recovering from burns.  “Hank,” read the telegram to his wife, had been only “slightly injured.”

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Carlton Jackson’s research for his book Forgotten Tragedy: The Sinking of HMT Rohna (reissued as Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Protection from Hacking

"Best Cough Recipe in the World"

“Best Cough Recipe in the World”

Well, it’s that time of year when the Hill is alive with the sound of coughing, not to mention the sneezes, aches and runny noses.

For Kentuckians in the past, the cough was often a portent of worse to come.  Frankfort merchant Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson (1813-1845) experienced his cough as a constant reminder of the tuberculosis that would carry him to an early grave.  In 1855, Edward Ground wrote his grandfather in Warren County that the family was all well except for “the [w]hooping cough.”  During the Civil War, Kentucky infantryman John Tuttle found “the spasmodic coughing” of his comrades distressing, and not just as a sign of widespread measles: all that noise actually made it difficult to hear orders given during dress parades.

But sometimes, a cough was what it is today: just a nuisance, the last thing to depart when all other cold symptoms have slunk away.  “This cough grows persistent and troublesome,” complained a young Hopkinsville woman to her friend in 1874, “keeping me awake last night till I feel worn out and out of patience with the world today. . . . This season of the year is rather trying everywhere.”

But nineteenth-century medicine was rife with potions and remedies for the bronchially challenged.  And how fitting that a Kentuckian, John W. Beauchamp (1804-1879), one of Metcalfe County’s first physicians, would possess the “Best Cough Receipt [Recipe] in the World.”  Here it is:

One pint pure Holland gin
One pint white wine vinegar
One pint molasses
One pound clarified honey
One gill [about 4 ounces] of pure olive oil

The ingredients were to be mixed in an earthen jug, tightly corked, shaken well, then imbibed in wineglass-sized doses three times daily.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these materials, and search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more collections in WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections relating to medicines and prescriptions.

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A Century Since the Armistice

Bowling Green's Times-Journal announces the Armistice

Bowling Green’s Times-Journal announces the Armistice

GREAT WAR IS BROUGHT TO AN END: Greatest Struggle in World’s History Ceases With Signing of Armistice Terms.

So declared the now century-old news clipping of November 11, 1918 that Bowling Green’s Martha Potter pasted into her scrapbook.  As we have previously blogged, the Armistice was met with worldwide joy and relief.  Finally, an end to “1,567 days of horror,” read the Associated Press story, “during which virtually the whole civilized world has been convulsed.”

Few Bowling Green newspapers from that period survive, but other clippings in Martha’s scrapbook tell us of the local celebrations.  The very afternoon of the Armistice, citizens took turns ringing a “Liberty Bell” in an improvised belfry in front of the Palace Confectionery on Park Row.  Even a bull terrier belonging to Martha’s son Douglass got involved, tugging on the end of the rope to the delight of onlookers.  The Chamber of Commerce summoned everyone to gather that evening in the public square, promising that “bedlam will be turned loose and a last farewell will be given ‘Kaiser Bill.'”  Officials warned, however, that NO drunkenness or celebratory firing of pistols would be tolerated.

A few days later, “one of the largest crowds ever seen in the city” made up a “peace parade” nearly a mile long, beginning at the Mansard Hotel at Main and Center streets and winding its way through town.  Prominent citizens, schoolchildren, Red Cross women, Canteen Girls on horseback, firefighters, police, and WKU’s Student Army Training Corps joined the parade, headed by a band and festooned with flags, banners and a bust of President Woodrow Wilson.  Those absent were not forgotten.  The day after the Armistice, the News-Democrat published the names of Bowling Green and Warren County men, both white and African-American, as well as nurses, serving overseas at the war’s end.  This, too, became part of Martha’s scrapbook, as her son John was currently “over there.”

Red Cross workers parading in Bowling Green during World War I

Red Cross workers parading in Bowling Green during World War I

Search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat for more collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections relating to the Great War, or browse a list here.

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Frankly, She Gave a D-mn

The 1939 movie blockbuster Gone With the Wind is as legendary as the novel of the same name.  Gone With the Wind’s author, Margaret Mitchell, had no desire to participate in the film project, but insisted that producer David O. Selznick employ a technical adviser to keep him honest about its portrayal of Southern accents, customs, wardrobes and etiquette.  Mitchell’s choice for the job was her good friend and fellow Georgian, Susan Myrick.

Raised on her family’s plantation near Milledgeville, Myrick (1893-1978) was a teacher, journalist, civic leader, and arbiter of all things Southern.  Despite long days on the set of Gone With the Wind, she reported regularly and candidly to Mitchell about her quest to keep the movie’s production values authentic (in a 1939 kind of way).

"Hattie," by Carlton Jackson

“Hattie,” by Carlton Jackson

While researching his biography of Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in the movie, WKU history professor Carlton Jackson discovered how opinionated Myrick could be.  Jackson’s research includes a copy of one of her gossipy letters to Mitchell, written just before filming of Gone With the Wind began.  Myrick was “sick at heart” that “three Britishers”—Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland—had been cast in leading roles (Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton); but she liked Howard, who she found had “more sense than anybody I’ve seen around here” except for director George Cukor (a “grand person,” though he would soon be replaced).

Myrick was pleased with the exterior set for Tara, the O’Hara plantation, but battled with various technical personnel over other details of the production.  She insisted that Tara have “feather beds” and that a magnolia tree grow outside Scarlett’s window.  She put a stop to the agricultural faux pas of having “cotton chopped while dog woods were blooming,” and “nearly died when they asked me if they couldn’t show cotton right at the front yard!”  She was also determined that “Prissy” and other African-American characters “NOT wear ten or twenty pink bows on their hair” so they would look “pictorial”—a word that made Myrick want “to scream.”

As for 44-year-old Kansas native Hattie McDaniel, the singer/songwriter/actress just signed to play “Mammy,” Myrick grumbled to Mitchell that she “hasn’t the right face” and “lacks dignity, age, nobility and so on.”  Director Cukor admitted that he was still looking for another actress for the role; in fact, he sent Myrick to see the play Run, Little Chillun in order to scout its African-American cast for a replacement.

But the rest, of course, was history.  Not only did she keep her job, Hattie McDaniel owned the role of “Mammy” and received an Oscar for best supporting actress, making her the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Carlton Jackson’s research for his book Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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