Meanwhile, On the Homefront

Week 42: #52 Ancestors – Conflict

By Eilene Lyon

To Engage, or Not?

The  Civil War was undoubtedly this country’s most destructive conflict, in terms of damage to American lives and property. Not to mention the permanent scars on the collective psyche of the nation.

Far from the battlefields, discord raged in communities across the land. People in the North were not uniformly abolitionists. And across the South, they were not all pro-slavery. The West was a terrible mess, but sympathy for the Southern cause ran high in many places.

In Indiana, my ancestors had to decide whether or not to participate in the war. Understandably, many young men wanted nothing to do with it. Being blown to bits or suffering camp diseases were both unappealing. They saw it largely as a rich man’s fight. Why should they sacrifice themselves – these poor frontier farmers?

Southern Sympathizers

There were Southern sympathizers throughout Indiana. Some of the settlers had come from southern states. In 1858, father and son William and Samuel McCormick started the Blackford County Democrat, a pro-south newspaper, in Hartford City.1 It failed in 1864.

The Blackford County Democrat one of the most ultra rebel papers in the North, has been indefinitely suspended for the want of “phunds.” – The suspension of the editors also would just fill the bill. It made no pretensions to loyalty, but openly sympathized with the rebellion, and did all its diminutive calibre would admit of to oppose the war and aid the rebels.2

But the Underground Railroad was active in neighboring Jay County where my Jenkins ancestors lived. Many Quakers resided in Jay County and other parts of the state. Two of Henry and Abigail Jenkins’s sons served in the Union Army.

The Draft

What really seemed to rankle many people was the draft. Uncle Sam used conscription to supplement Union forces as the war marched on. Blackford County sent a respectable number of volunteers, but the demand for soldiers was greater.

IMG_5151b
From Blackford County, Dr. Henry C. Davisson, son of an abolitionist (a relative by marriage), volunteered his service to the Union as a surgeon, though his uncle was a Confederate general.

One battle over conscription took place in Hartford City in 1862, when Jesse Williams complained that his name had been added to the lottery twice, doubling his chance of being drafted. As the draft proceeded at the courthouse,

Everything was quiet; one could have heard a pin drop. About the time the second ticket was drawn from the box, Williams stepped forward and knocked the box clear up to the ceiling, and after it lighted upon the floor he smashed it to pieces with the post on which the box stood, he having jerked it loose for the purpose,

Then, seizing the enrolling sheet, he took it out of doors, saying: ‘Here, I’ve got some of their papers, I don’t know whether they are worth a d—n or not. I’m going to see.’ All this in the face of the soldiery; but Williams fled the country, never to return. Having a duplicate copy of the enrolling sheet, the officers proceeded with the draft and finished it the same day.3

East of Hartford City, in the little village of Trenton, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Ransom, was a community leader and member of the Republican party. He owned several businesses and was a Methodist minister at the Millgrove church.4 Having the means, he paid a fee in lieu of serving the Union.5

His younger brother, Mathew Wilkey Ransom, newly wed and with a baby, apparently did not have such means. He was classified as a deserter, not because he abandoned his post, but because he refused to appear when his draft number was called on July 18, 1864.6

His peers were equally inclined. The result was Union troops scouring the countryside, searching for these “conscientious objectors.” The objectors, or deserters, if you will, developed animosity toward the “blue coats,” leading to some cases of cold-blooded murder.

One killing occurred in Putnam County:

In the summer of 1863, there occured an incident showing the terrible community damage from intemperance and disloyalty. Along Eel River…there was a settlement of low, lazy, rough people who were opposed to law and order. A saloon at a bridge site called ‘Plug City’ was the headquarters of the rowdies for loafing and carousing. A sick soldier, being sent home on a furlough, had to cross this bridge to reach his home.

Saloonkeeper Mills had boasted that no ‘dog’ in a blue uniform could cross there, so when this sick man in a blue coat came limping along the road, Mills ran out and shot him. The soldier died in the road. The County sheriff would not even arrest the murderer declaring that there was no good witness, and that public sentiment in that lawless community would not support him.7

Another homicide occurred in eastern Blackford County. In early 1863, a Union soldier, with local militia, rounded up a number of deserters and hauled them off to Hartford City. Some of their friends planned to free them, but the military party had passed by before they could spring their ambush.

While the men who were bent on releasing the captives were still at the side of the road debating what to do, and chagrined and disappointed at their failure, Whittaker, wearing his army uniform, happened along the road. He was in no way connected with the militiamen, and probably did not know that they had been in that neighborhood.

He was married, his home being over the line in Jay county, and is said to have been a very inoffensive man, quiet and gentlemanly in demeanor, and had but recently come home on a furlough, or perhaps had been discharged from the service. He was unarmed, and had been to Trenton, and was returning to his home when he passed the squad on the road.

He bid them good-day as was the custom, and was proceeding quietly on his way when some of the crowd suggested that they shoot the ‘d— Lincoln hireling.’ and Foreman, resting his gun on the top rail of the fence, took deliberate aim and fired.8

Whittaker “fell on his face and expired.” Though most of the “squad” were local boys, Foreman was not. He quickly fled the county, never to return.9

Lingering Resentments

In another example of even when it’s over, it ain’t over, a fracas took place in Trenton on October 6, 1866. When the incident was reported in the papers, Robert Ransom was cited.10 However, two weeks later, Robert declared in a published retraction that he was not the source of the story, and he exonerated the “Union men,” i.e. his Trenton neighbors, effectively placing the blame on the aggressors, who were from neighboring Delaware County.11

History books give a very different story than was published in the paper at the time, so I can’t relate the event with certainty (the books even get the year wrong). But it’s clear that opposing political groups were having rallies, one in Hartford City (the abolitionist Disunion party) and one in Trenton (Johnson conservatives and Democrats).

Someone found an excuse, based on supposed union loyalty, to start a riot that was violent, bloody, and resulted in at least one alleged fatality.12 Likely not the last death to be attributed to the “cause.”

You can read the news account: Terrible Riot.

Feature image: The Civil War Veterans monument in front of the Blackford County courthouse (E. Lyon)


  1. “Old History of Blackford County Found In Recorder’s Office Files” The Evening News (Hartford City, Indiana), July 12, 1915. Compiled by C. Beeson, 1977, Miscellaneous Records of Blackford Co., Indiana, p. 129. Online at FamilySearch.org. 
  2. “Blackford Co. Democrat suspended” The Jay Torch Light (Portland, Indiana), April 13, 1864. Digitized, available at the Jay County Recorder’s office, Portland, IN. 
  3. Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1887. pp. 742 – 743. 
  4. Shroyer, Mark. 1972. History of the Millgrove United Methodist Church (Blackford County, Indiana) p. 1. https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/485775?availability=Family%20History%20Library 
  5. Family history about Robert Ransom, by his daughter, Clara Ransom Davis. 
  6. Blackford Co., Indiana men in the Civil War; death records, 1882-1930; cemetery records, Delaware and Grant counties, compiled by Cecil Beeson, image 280. https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/307664?availability=Family%20History%20Library 
  7. Finley, George W. “A Quaker Pioneer in Indiana: James Milton Finley.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 26, no. 1, 1930, p. 39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27786423
  8. “Bits of Local History: Incidents of Civil War Times” The News (Hartford City, Indiana), June 28, 1919. Compiled by Cecil Beeson in Scrapbook of news clippings of Hartford City, Indiana, 1917-1958. Allen County Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. “Terrible Riot” Weekly Review (Crawfordsville, Indiana), October 13, 1866, citing the Indianapolis Herald. Hoosier State Chronicles https://newspapers.library.in.gov 
  11. “The Affair at Trenton” Indianapolis Daily Journal, October 29, 1866 p. 4. Newspaperarchives.com 
  12. Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana, p.743. 

17 thoughts on “Meanwhile, On the Homefront

Add yours

  1. This illustrates one of the many hazards of war; the breaking apart of communities and families it is “fighting” for. Why has humanity always struggled with the concept of tolerance and acceptance, only to be illustrated once again as I listen to the news this morning!

    Like

    1. I started this blog with the idea that we could learn lessons from history. But we never do. I fear the U. S. is on a similar trajectory to either the Civil War, or the violent riots that closed out the Gilded Age.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s disheartening to remember what happened during the Civil War and then see vestiges of the violent partisan behavior reappear in today’s news. I guess my takeaway is that haters gotta hate, and will find a way to do so regardless. Not an uplifting reality to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

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