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Kentucky by Heart: Exploring Kentucky’s role in War of 1812; Independence Day memories from Claryville

By Steve Flairty
Special to NKyTribune

After thinking about a Kentucky connection to Independence Day for this week’s column, I recalled hearing some intriguing facts about America’s War of 1812. The conflict included a highly significant number from the state who served militarily, including a two-time governor of Kentucky, Isaac Shelby. Additionally, another iconic Kentuckian used his governmental authority to push the United States into the war.

I quickly began a search for more details and came up with the following, certainly not exhaustive in scope.

First, a quick note. Historians suggest varying causes for the war, but some, such as Andrew Jackson, saw it as a “second war of independence.” I’ll use that reasoning to tie it with this week’s Fourth of July celebration.

According to an article by historian William Ellis, while writing in The State Journal, Frankfort, he cited Lexington politician Henry Clay, the U.S. Speaker of the House in 1811, as one who encouraged America’s involvement in the conflict. “He became a leader of the ‘War Hawks,’ a group of younger members who pushed for war with Great Britain,” said Ellis. “Clay supported a declaration of war that Congress approved on June 18, 1812.”

On June 5, 1812, John Allen, who earlier ran unsuccessfully for Kentucky governor, was made colonel of the 1st Kentucky Rifle Regiment, the state’s first militia troops for the war. He was killed in January 1813, at the disastrous Battle of the River Raisin, in Michigan. Worse, it is reported that 500 Kentuckians were captured and more than 400 killed. Military.wikia.com reported that besides Allen: “Eight other officers from Kentucky died at the battle, and had counties named for them.” Those individuals were: Bland Ballard, John Edmonson, Benjamin Franklin Graves, Nathaniel G.S. Hart, Paschal Hickman, Virgil McCracken, James Meade, and John Simpson.

Five out of six Kentuckians eligible for the military, over 25,000 people, were participants in the War of 1812. The state sent a total of 36 regiments, four battalions, and twelve independent companies. Additionally, six consecutive governors of Kentucky fought in this war.

In his second term as governor, Governor Isaac Shelby answered the call of General William Henry Harrison to lead some 3500 volunteer Kentuckians to help defeat the British and the Tecumseh-led Native-American allies at the Battle of the Thames, in Ontario, Canada, on October 5, 1813. And at the decisive Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, about 1000 Kentuckians helped bring victory to the Americans. This was after the Treaty of Ghent, which effectively would end the war, was signed, but had not yet been ratified. Representative Clay, ironically, was one of the signatories.

Also worthy of mention is that the Kentucky city of Newport was used as an important supply depot and saltpeter, used to make gunpowder, was mined heavily in the state to support the war effort.

One might rightly say that the state of Kentucky gave its sacrificial share to America in the War of 1812.


Military.wikia.com; Wikitree.com; The State Journal; Wikipedia.org; 1812kentuckybattleflag.com; explorekyhistory.ky.gov.

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While growing up in Claryville during the sixties, I remember a telltale sign that the Fourth was coming — hearing shotguns go off in the distance. The number of shots seemed to reach their zenith a couple of hours before midnight on that special day.

Some of our family’s neighbors must have gotten into a happy trance when shooting the guns because we often heard them a day or two after the holiday was officially over. I often wondered if our community was extremely patriotic or if they were simply in love with the pop and kick of a twelve gauge. As a child, I recall the huge kick of my dad’s shotgun made me a one-shot-at-a-time kid, then I’d leave it alone for another time.

Speaking of gunpowder items around that summer holiday, I enjoyed fireworks such as “snakes” (they left the sidewalks a carbon-colored mess after lighting them up), but I also enjoyed the small firecrackers called “lady fingers.” They were small crackers but made big booms…and were cheap. “Cherry bombs” were bigger, louder, and were too expensive for my meager kid budget. Which reminds me of Joey, a local boy about my age (about twelve, I think), who got a hold of some cherry bombs.

I wasn’t there, but I heard the story a day or two afterward. Joey lit a cherry bomb and thinking it fizzed out or was a plain ol’ dud, put it back in his side pocket. It hadn’t fizzled out and wasn’t a dud, though. It exploded and he apparently incurred a sizeable hole in his hip area. I hope Joey is still around and I hope to catch up with him someday to see how all that nasty event panned out. It sure put a scare in me back then.

Happy Fourth, all. I think I’ll celebrate the special day by shooting off a squirt gun and musing about brave souls who gave me a good country with freedoms to enjoy.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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