• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

History buff Bill Penn writes 'Kentucky Rebel Town'


Midway author William A. "Bill" Penn has always had an interest in Kentucky history. He loves learning, reading and writing about his native state's past. "I read once," says Penn, "that people who do a lot of research - they don't want to stop. And they call that 'research rapture.'" While doing research for his latest book, Penn acknowledges, "I had a hard time stopping." Writing a book focused on his native Cynthiana and Harrison County during the Civil War was an opportunity for Penn to delve into the six months that Kentucky was officially neutral when this "War Between the States" began in 1861. Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County also explores a pro-south movement to secede from the Union. Two Cynthiana legislators, most notably Lucius Desha, were among the leaders in Kentucky pushing for secession. "That's how Cynthiana became known as a Rebel Town," says Penn. In addition to the politics of the Civil War, Penn writes about a company of Confederate soldiers - one of the state's first - being formed in Cynthiana. And he offers insight into a Confederate flag being raised at the Harrison County Courthouse as a public display to mark the occasion. "Within six months the 'secessionist flag' was taken down, symbolizing the plight of the city and county officials, many of them Confederate sympathizers, who found their influence diminishing as local government control fell into pro-union hands..." -Kentucky Rebel Town Penn spent countless hours reading official records of the Civil War, newspaper accounts, personal journals, memoirs and letters to gain a deeper understanding of his hometown and its citizens during a war that divided the United States. "I've always loved Harrison County history. It seems like a whole lot of things happen there," says Penn, editor of the Harrison Heritage News for nearly 16 years. ".It wasn't Gettysburg. The battles weren't like Perryville.," but growing up in Cynthiana made him keenly aware of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan's two Civil War raids on this Kentucky town, where Union military supplies and troops came through by rail. "The danger was real, for Confederates succeeded in burning railroad bridges and capturing locomotives on raids through Harrison County. Federal soldiers regularly patrolled the railroad, making its protection the central focus of military interest in Harrison County throughout the Civil War." - Kentucky Rebel Town Morgan's battles in Cynthiana - the biggest fights during his first and last raids on Kentucky - inspired Penn to write a term paper about the Civil War in his hometown for a class during his freshman year at the University of Kentucky. The paper that Penn wrote for Thomas D. Clark's History of Kentucky class became a starting point for a self-published book, Rattling Spurs and Broad-Brimmed Hats: The Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County, Kentucky. Inspired by a complimentary letter from Clark about his first book, which he self-published in 1995, Penn continued doing research on his hometown during the Civil War. One of Penn's biggest finds was a diary written by Jeff Oxley, who detailed everyday life during the summer of 1862 when Cynthiana was occupied by Union troops. Soldiers arrested some 60 people for disloyalty while occupying the small Kentucky town under martial law. Locating W.W. Trimble's memoirs (from his great-granddaughter in Seattle) provided Penn with valuable insight from a Cynthiana attorney and leading Union supporter. "It was full of quotes to give the Union side," says Penn. For him, Trimble's writings confirmed that many citizens living in Cynthiana were southern sympathizers. When Penn finally completed a draft for what became Kentucky Rebel Town, he contacted an editor at University Press of Kentucky for guidance on finding a smaller publishing house to publish his new book. To his surprise, University Press showed interest in his history of the Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County. Timing may have been one catalyst in University Press publishing Kentucky Rebel Town. "The 150th anniversary of the Civil War was going on, and they were doing regional studies of the Civil War in Kentucky," says Penn. Autographed copies of Kentucky Rebel Town are now available at the Historic Midway Museum Store, which he and Leslie, his wife of 31 years, own. Penn, 73, has already begun work on his next project, a history of Midway and northern Woodford County horse farms. "That's been on the back burner while I finish this," he explains.

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