Effort is being made to return Civil War hero to his native Taylorsville
By John Shindlebower
A small, run-down house at the end of Garrard Street in downtown Taylorsville may not seem to be the kind of structure that would draw tourists. But a story of patriotism, valor and courage that originated inside that home's four walls could make this town a must-see destination for history-minded travelers.
There's nothing special about the house, which now sits unoccupied and could even be labeled an eyesore. However, underneath the red shingle siding is a log home that was the birthplace of a man some historians are beginning to credit with thwarting a conspiracy that could have altered the outcome of the Civil War.
That man was Felix Grundy Stidger, a Union loyalist who served in the army at such battles as Perryville and Chickamauga, but whose most valued contribution came in the role of a spy.
Joe Bowen, one of a small group of area residents working to save the home and tout Stidger's story and his place in history, is convinced the hero's role in the Civil War would make Taylorsville a popular stop for tourists once the story is told.
"This guy literally helped Lincoln save the Union," said Bowen. "He definitely saved the Union from a major conspiracy to take over. It's in the history books. It's buried in different places, but we've read it in so many different places that it definitely happened."
While on his 14,000 mile bike trek across America that Bowen just completed earlier this month, Bowen spent many miles thinking about this Union spy and how his hometown needed to celebrate his memory. While in Illinois, Bowen stopped at the Lincoln Library and researched as much as he could about the conspiracy Stidger helped break up and later visited Stidger's gravesite in Chicago.
Part of the conspiracy involved a plot to help thousands of captured Confederate soldiers escape from prison at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Bowen said had they been able to break away, the south would have had a formidable force in the north ready to wreak havoc.
Ironically, while in Chicago, Bowen visited Oaklawn Cemetery, and not far from Stidger's worn and damaged stone, was a huge, massive memorial to the Confederate prisoners that had spent much of the war locked behind the walls of Camp Douglas. Bowen said he was struck by the contrast, and said his hometown of Taylorsville should make the effort to see that Stidger's contribution to history and ultimately, to the federal victory, is given the honor it is due.
Noted Spencer County Historian Tom Watson agrees that Stidger's story is one that needs telling. Bowen said he first learned of Stidger's accomplishments from some of Watson's writings.
"He is known as the spy who saved the Union," said Watson. He said it's a story that needs telling and said Spencer County should take pride to be his hometown.
"He may be the most important native son of Spencer County," said Watson. "He definitely made a difference."
Stidger was born on August 5, 1836, inside the little log home in Taylorsville. His father died when he was two-years-old, and he spent his youth working in various stores and as a deputy county and court clerk, and even spent three years training to be a carpenter. His work took him to neighboring towns like Fairfield and Bloomfield, but in 1862, he enlisted to fight for the Union cause, not a popular decision in an area where many if not most sympathized with the Southern separatists.
After serving for well over a year in the Union army, he was granted an honorable discharged and returned to Taylorsville to tend to his dying mother. At the time of the visit in 1864, Spencer County and the surrounding area was a hotbed of Confederate guerilla activity.
One day he visited a local drug store to fill a prescription for his mother, and was watched as he took out a large sum of cash to pay for the medicine. Later that evening, three men arrived at the door and they made their way inside at gunpoint, robbing Stidger and his brother of over $250 in cash. In the following days, Stidger was able to learn that the theft was the work of Confederate raiders.
That prompted his desire to further help the Union, and he set off to seek a position with the Secret Service in Louisville.
It was in that role that he would make his greatest contributions.
A group of southern sympathizers in border and northern states known as the Copperheads, were actively plotting terrorist activity against northern cities. Stidger was able to infiltrate the group and pass along information back to federal officials.
Those involved in the Copperheads included some extremely prominent people, including judges, elected officials, doctors and others of influence. Yet, Stidger was able to win their trust and was given a wealth of information about their plans and plottings.
When federal officials thought they had enough evidence, they made numerous arrests, but Watson said even then, most of those charged did not think the Union had enough evidence to hold up in court. That all changed when Stidger was brought in as a principal witness and provided more than ample testimony to send most to prison and others in exile to Canada.
While the war in 1864 was winding down, many agree that had the conspiracy not been uncovered and stopped, the outcome of the war may have been in jeopardy at least, and at the worst, the war would have been prolonged, resulting in thousands of additional casualties.
For his efforts, Stidger returned as a man without a home. His work as a spy made him a marked man in Louisville and surrounding areas and he was unable to return to his hometown and spent the rest of his life living away, mostly in Chicago. Nearly 40 years after the fact, Stidger penned his story and the facts about his espionage in a book. He died in 1908 and was buried in Chicago.
Bowen wants this American hero returned home, and he wants his hometown to honor his memory and contributions that helped save the nation at perhaps its most fragile moment in history.
The little house is now owned by Guy Mock of Bardstown. Bowen has talked to him and an agreement has been made to have the home turned over to a historical foundation charged with preserving the memory of Stidger. Already, Bowen has had bronze plaques made honoring Mock's mother and father for preserving the home as they have.
Bowen thinks having the home turned into a historical site will help tell the story and will draw visitors to the community.
"I've talked to Civil War tourism people and they said it could bring quite a few thousand tourists to Taylorsville, and the potential is there for even more if it was worked and promoted."
He said those officials have told him that one of the main drawing points for international tourists, especially for those from Europe and Japan, is Civil War attractions.
But Bowen is not content with just preserving the home either. He's already started work on having Stidger returned home to Taylorsville. He said descendents of Stidger have supported efforts to have his body returned to Taylorsville and he spoke with officials at Oaklawn Cemetery in Chicago and has been given instructions on the process.
Bowen said this is a good time for such a project. The nation, and Kentucky in particular, is set to begin celebrating the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth and said he'd like to see the Stidger project held in conjunction with those celebrations.
He, and others in the community, including Don Pay and Bill Karrer, have been busy doing research into Stidger's life and about plans to honor him locally. Bowen can foresee holding an elaborate military funeral for a reburial service in Taylorsville, restoring the old home to its original condition and housing memorabilia and other artifacts from Stidgers' life inside.
He said what is essential however, is to get the story out and to educate people about the important role Stidger played in American history. Bowen said the trial and legal arguments stemming from the Stidger case have been cited at least 8 times by the U.S. Supreme Court since then, and said the late Chief Justice William Renquist actually wrote about Stidger.
Bowen said he's never been as excited about a project as he is with this one and said he hopes the community will get behind it.
"It's an incredible thing for the City of Taylorsville. There are thousands of little towns around the country that would love to have a story like this to promote their town."
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