Berry Craig: Washington’s biggest ever birthday bash in Louisville?

Nobody from the Louisville Courier-Journal hoisted the Stars and Stripes ceremoniously at the old Jefferson County courthouse on Washington’s birthday.

“With Kentucky firmly entrenched in the Union, I don’t feel the need to raise the flag,” said Joel Christopher, the C-J’s executive editor.

Nonetheless, on Feb. 22, 1861, two of the Falls City’s most famous newspaper editors teamed up to hoist the Red, White and Blue in honor of the Union and its first president.

George D. Prentice and John H. Harney ran Old Glory up the rooftop flagpole to signal that “Kentucky is true and loyal, and by the blessing of Heaven and under the precepts of Washington, she will be the last State to leave the Confederacy,” the Louisville Journal reported.

By “Confederacy,” the Journal meant the Union. Kentucky rejected secession.

Prentice was the Journal’s editor. His seated stone statue is a landmark in front of the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St.

Harney was editor at the long gone Louisville Democrat.

Louisville was a unionist bastion during the Civil War. Prentice’s paper was the state’s most influential pro-Union organ. The Democrat, the Journal’s erstwhile rival, was also staunchly anti-Confederate.

No fewer than 50,000 people gathered to cheer the ceremonial flag raising at the multi-columned stone courthouse, according to the Journal and Democrat of Feb. 23. The 1837-vintage building at 527 W. Jefferson St. became Louisville Metro Hall after the city and county governments merged.

Local unionists were probably ready to whoop it up on Washington’s birthday in 1861. The Union-majority General Assembly recessed on Feb. 11 after refusing to put Kentucky out of the old Union and into the new Confederate States of America.

“Hurrah for our last Legislature!” the Democrat exulted on Feb. 14. “They have acted nobly in the present crisis.”

The Journal described the courthouse festivities as “an exhibition of loyalty” unprecedented in the history of Louisville, population 68,000 in 1860. “‘From early morn till dewy eve’ salvos of artillery were firings salutes; from all the houses of our prominent citizens flags of all sizes were displayed, and it was curious to observe how the home constructed banners crowded their fields to bring in every star of the thirty-four in the constellation.”

By Feb. 22, seven southern slave states had seceded. Kentucky was one of eight slave states still loyal.

Too, flag festooned farm wagons rolled into Louisville for the birthday celebration. “Enthusiastic patriots” crooned “Hail Columbia” acapella and chorused “The Star Spangled Banner” to music provided by “Haupt’s fine band.”

Smartly-uniformed Kentucky State Guard companies drilled and paraded under the watchful eye of Inspector Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who commanded the militia.

Companies included the “Hunt Guards,” led by Capt. Clarence J. Prentice, son of the Journal chief.

The throng “continued to swell and increase until the hour appointed for the grand ceremonial of the day, and each heart seemed hushed in anxiety for the moment to arrive,” the Journal recounted.

At 2:30 p.m., Maj. William E. Woodruff of the hometown “Independent Zouaves” and Capt. David C. Stone’s Louisville Battery lined up in front of the courthouse.  The Zouaves fired three musket volleys; the Rev. Dr. James Craik of the Episcopal Church said a prayer and James Speed delivered a passionate Union speech.

“We have come together this day with a two-fold purpose—one to celebrate the anniversary of the birthday of Washington, the other to erect over this public building the flag of our country, the cherished emblem of our nationality,” explained Speed, a friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Speed proceeded to read from Washington’s Farewell Address. (Farmington, the Speed family’s antebellum brick home at 3033 Bardstown Rd. is a museum.)

After Speed’s remarks, Prentice and Harney “assisted by four ladies,” climbed onto the roof and unfurled the huge flag. “The glorious banner streamed to the breeze of as lovely a vernal day as Providence ever breathed upon the earth,” the Journal said.

“As the gorgeous folds were unlocked the flag dipped toward the Northwest, as if to salute Illinois, then to the Northeast in comity to Ohio, and finally settled down pointed from due South to North to our brethren of Indiana.”

Below, “such an acclaim of hands and hearts it has never been our good fortune to hear before. From every roof-top, from the windows of the Court-house, Engine-houses, and private residences rose up the glad shout as the mother flag flashed upon the sight.”

The Journal also noted that the Stars and Stripes were also fluttering over the offices of the Journal, the Democrat and the Anziger, a staunchly unionist German-language paper.

From the start of the war in April, 1861, to its end four years later, Kentucky—and Louisville—furnished many more men to the North than to the South. Woodruff and Stone volunteered for the Union army.

But Buckner, from Hart County, became a Confederate general. Prentice was a Rebel cavalry officer.

Like many Kentucky families, the Prentices were divided. George stuck by the Union, though his wife, Harriette, was a Rebel sympathizer. Clarence’s kid brother, William Courtland Prentice, also joined the Confederate cavalry.

William Courtland was mortally wounded in battle; Clarence survived the war.

Apparently, Old Glory didn’t grace Walter N. Haldeman’s Louisville Courier on Feb. 22, 1861. Rabidly secessionist, Haldeman battled Prentice and Harney word-for-word until September, 1861, when federal authorities closed the Courier as treasonous.

Haldeman fled Louisville to avoid arrest. He published his paper behind Confederate lines in Bowling Green and elsewhere in the South but came home after the war and restarted the Courier.

In 1868, he bought out the Journal and the Democrat. The new paper was the Courier-Journal.

At any rate, Haldeman’s Courier of Feb. 23 put the crowd size at 30,000, adding that many people crossed the Ohio River from New Albany and Jeffersonville, Ind. The paper said the flag raising was in honor of Washington, “that great and good man, and should not be accepted, as we fear it will in the North, as unconditional submission to a Union of injustice and inequality.”

But “a more imposing demonstration has never been witnessed in Louisville,” the Courier conceded.

On the other hand, the Democrat was fulsome in its praise of the program. “The natal day of George Washington was chosen with peculiar aptitude for the elevation of the national ensign upon our magnificent Court-house, and every citizen, no matter what were his former political associations, who still remained loyal to the flag of his country, could not be but filled with patriotic emotions.”

Added Christopher: “As a native-born Wisconsinite, though, I was pleased to see two newspaper editors led the pro-Union event. Conversely, I was disappointed to read the Courier’s editor was a secessionist.”

— Berry Craig is an emeritus profess or history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase.

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