Unlocking the “Keys” to history

By RAYNA GLASS

rayna.glass@jpinews.com

People have long been drawn to history for the answers and lessons it provides, but there is something even more interesting and special when those history lessons become part of one’s own story. The desire to learn more about family and genealogy has grown in popularity the last several years with sites like ancestry.com making genealogy more readily available.

For William “Tres” Seymour, executive director of the Battle of the Bridge Preserve in Hart County, the connection between the county’s rich history (which is of vast significance to the nation’s history) is more than an interest, it’s personal, it’s family.

“You wouldn’t call me a history buff,” said Seymour. “But I’m interested in our local history.”

Growing up Seymour heard from his grandfather, William “Bill” Seymour, Sr. the stories of his ancestors, the Keys, and their role in the Confederate army. Today he works to preserve the stories of his family, and countless others whose lives were forever changed from 1861-1865 right here in Munfordville, KY.

166 years ago in 1851 the world was a different place. The United States had not yet known the ugliness of the Civil War, the Union ecompassed only 31 states and a new wave of immigration from Ireland and Germany had made its way to Lady Liberty’s shores.

For John W. Key and his family 1851 changed the course of their history forever. Originally from Ireland, the family would board the ship, New World in Liverpool, England to the Port of New York, where they embarked on their new life in America.

Traveling with Key were his wife and three sons- Albert David Louis Key (ADL), John Martin Key and Jesse Key.

Stonemasons by trade, it was not long before the family relocated from New York. Ireland was a country rich in limestone, which is perhaps what attracted them to their new home, Hawesville, KY.

There, they received word that the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L & N) was undergoing a major project at Green River. The company intended to construct the longest iron structure in the United States, spanning two banks of the Green River in Munfordville. Engineer Albert Fink had patented his designs for the trusses that would hold the weight of the railroad. Help was needed for construction.

Stone piers had to be made to hold the bridge, bringing John W., John Martin, and ADL to Munfordville. Construction began in 1857 and completed in 1859. In 1860 the last link opening the railroad that would connect the cities of Louisville, KY and Nashville, TN opened. The first locomotive to cross would be a donkey engine christened The Hart County.

The feat was marvelous, spanning 1,074 feet; not only was it the longest in the nation but the second longest in North America, second only to Canada’s Victoria Bridge.

All was well, until 1861.

Matthew Arnold, National Park Ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park, created this model of the Green River Bridge, as it was in 1860. The model is on display in the Anthony Woodson House. The design was preserved in a drawing from a Civil War soldier that is also on display in the home.

Tensions had been rising for several years throughout the young nation as decisions for the future were hotly contested. Those living in the North and the South lived different lives, with different sources of income, and very different views. Even in Hart County, families and friends were divided by thought and by the Green River. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, who had said, “Government cannot endure half-slave, half-free,” was elected president and one month later, South Carolina seceded from the Union followed by six other states within two months time.

By January of 1861 the Confederate States of America was established, gaining 11 states in total, and on April 15, 1861 Confederate forces under General Pierre Beaureugard attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, beginning the Civil War.

For the entirety of the war, 1861-1865, Munfordville was occupied by troops that equaled or surpassed the population of the town, being approximately 436 people.

Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner had served in the Mexican War and attended West Point. When the Civil War broke  out he was the General of the Kentucky State Guard and would take the position of brigadier general in the Confederate Army in September of 1861.

While in Kentucky, Buckner began an instruction camp in the fields of Anthony Woodson’s home (the Anthony Woodson House and Farm are available to visit and tour today). It was here that John Hunt Morgan and the Lexington Rifles learned how to be Confederate Calvary and were inducted into the Confederate Army.

Under the command of Buckner, three recruits originally from Ireland adopted the southern way of life and joined the Confederate Army- John W., John Martin and ADL Key. The three men were part of the Buckner Guard, with their priority being to guard the Green River Bridge.

A lost concept with the ease of travel today is the extreme importance of the bridge itself at this time.

“There were three ways to move south, west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Cumberland Gap, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, or cross the bridge at Munfordville. The Cumberland Gap was narrow and mountainous, and easily defended. The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were already fortified, so the bridge in Munfordville was the main source for military to move north to south,” said Seymour.

General Albert Sydney Johnston, stationed in Bowling Green, the capitol for the Confederate Army in the west, sent a direct order to Brig. Gen. Buckner in October of 1861 to destroy the Green River Bridge, and with it, any chance of Union advance.

Concerned by the importance of the bridge to the town of Munfordville and to the nation, Buckner gained permission to disable the bridge instead of destroy.

“He chose three men to go down and mine the pier with explosives. He chose well, because they were the same ones who built it,” said Seymour.

Dropping explosives at the south pier, the Keys men disabled the very bridge they had built just two years prior.

“There are no family stories concerning how they felt about the job, just that it was done,” continued Seymour.

The destruction of the south stone pier kept the Union army from advancing for the entirety of that winter.

A bad winter and Union stall gave Confederates time to spy on their opponent leading to an attempt to mount a resistance. On December 17, 1861 the Battle of Rowletts Station took place and created the spark that President Lincoln needed. Union forces had sustained such loss that the public was beginning to question if it was worth fighting to keep the Union together.

Union forces were victorious at Rowletts Station as 500 German immigrants overcame 1,500 Confederate soldiers using old war tactics. Their first victory of significance in the west led to another victory at Mill Springs two weeks later and Prestonburg another two weeks later.

“He (Lincoln) was able to report the Union was winning in the west, which gave the argument to wage war and preserve the Union,” said Seymour. “Rowletts Station was the spark Lincoln needed, and the work of the Keys to disable to bridge was the timber.”

The Keys men, aside from Jesse Key, a farmer, continued to fight. Following their time in Munfordville, the father and two sons joined Morgan’s men.

Following the war, in 1867 the Keys chose to relocate to Munfordville where they had both built and destroyed the longest iron structure in the United States. They settled in Woodsonville where they built both homes and families, and continued to work with stone, building headstones.

John Martin and ADL moved on to other places, but Jesse Key stayed. His daughter Sally would marry George Dixon Seymour and remain in the area to raise their children, including their son William “Bill” Seymour. Confederate veterans (and one Union solider in the family who could only enter the home once out of uniform) raised Bill.

“(They) shared their stories and gave him an appreciation for what they had seen and what they had done. They gave meaning to the pile of earth left of Ft. Craig and the trenches where soldiers fought and the wreckage of the bridge,” said Tres Seymour, Bill’s grandson.

Bill Seymour’s son, also William would raise his son, William “Tres” in the area as well. Today, Tres Seymour lives on the same property his ancestors called home, and continues the work that his grandfather desired, the preservation of the field and the stories that built not only the history of their family and the history of Hart County, but ultimately the history of the United States of America.

The plumb bob used by the Keys men in the construction of the Green River Bridge has been passed down through the family. It is now on display in the Anthony Woodson House.

Tres Seymour reads a headstone where John Martin, ADL, and Jesse Key are buried with their families.

 

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