April 6, 2018
Whole Number 156
THE DEATH OF JAMES PRESSLEY ["PRESS"]
ANOTHER CIVIL WAR TRAGEDY
For some time we have delayed publishing the following record in the hope that we might discover its origin. We have not succeeded, but we are publishing it now with the thought that a reader may remember having seen this account somewhere among the documents of the Civil War. We shall welcome hearing from anyone having such information.
As will be seen, this is an account of one of the countless tragedies of the Civil War and is similar to the story told by Dr. Paul E. Sparks of his great-grand-father appearing also in this issue of the Quarterly. This incident took place in the village of Pleasureville in Henry County, Kentucky, on the 9th of June1864. While this document, itself, is not dated, nor does it give the month or the year in which the incident described took place, the writer indicated that it occurred on "Thursday, the 9th." The only month in 1864 on which the 9th fell on a Thursday was that of June, and it was on June 9, 1864, that James Pressley Sparks dictated his brief will as he lay dying.
Kentucky was one of the "border states" in the Civil War, giving large numbers of its sons to both the Union and the Confederate armies. While remaining in the Union throughout the War, many of Kentucky's citizens had kinship ties with the South and were sympathetic to its cause. Roughly 80,000 Kentuckians served in the Union Army, while at least 35,000 fought with the Confederates. Bloodshed was by no means limited to the battlefield as families, as well as entire communities, became bitterly divided.
A copy of the following document is owned by Mrs. Ted Wheeler, 1742 Lilly Lane, New Albany, Indiana, 47150. It obviously came from Washington, D.C., for the word "Congress" appears as a raised stamp on the stationery on which it was written, with the firm name "Owen and Hurlbert." It was probably written as a report either to or by a member of the Kentucky delegation to Congress shortly after the event which is described. The writer's sympathies were obviously entirely with the Union. While concerned regarding the death of Sparks, he used this tragedy primarily to decry community attempts to bring about a degree of local peace between the warring factions.
Press Sparks, as he was called, served in the Kentucky Legislature during part of the Civil War. Dr. Paul E. Sparks has perused the Proceedings of the Kentucky House of Representatives during that period and has found that Press Sparks participated actively in many debates, often voting in the negative on bills that were adopted by the majority--sometimes his was the only negative vote. He could not be described as a "Party Man." While strongly pro-Union, he was also a strong anti-Abolitionist.
Dr. Sparks has prepared a record showing to which branch of the Sparks family Press Sparks belonged. This record appears at the end of the following document which has been shared with us by Mrs. Ted Wheeler.
"The killing of J. PRESS SPARKS at PLEASUREVILLE, HENRY COUNTY, last week by the rebels, was a fiendish and deliberate murder. We have received from several citizens of that place detailed accounts of the circumstances which will place the affair in its true light.
"Since the commencement of the difficulties now existing, there has been a tacit understanding in that locality that each of the parties into which the community is unhappily divided should cultivate amicable relations and render mutual assistance as occasions presented the opportunity. In accordance with this feeling and as its consequence, when a band of men, supposed to be guerillas, entered the village on the 8th and arrested MR. SPARKS in his own house, and with much violence and abusive demonstration, threatened his life, and took from him his watch, pistol, and knife, two citizens exerted themselves successfully with his captors for his release.
"On the next day, Thursday, the 9th, thirty to forty of the rebel cavalry dashed into the village, threw out their pickets, and had the place surrounded. Their leader, B. W. JENKINS, demanded of one of the citizens to point out to him the residence of MR. SPARKS, and, upon the hesitation of the citizen to do so, JENKINS, with cocked pistol in hand, renewed his demand. They were thus proceeding in the direction indicated when the report of a carbine was heard. One of MR. SPARKS'S neighbors had informed him of the presence of the rebels, and having advised him to elude them he had gone out by a back way, and upon reaching an adjoining field, had been ordered by a picket guard to halt. Not obeying the order, the picket fired at SPARKS, who then changed his course, but still went on.
"Upon hearing the report of the gun, and being informed that it had not been from a house, JENKINS rode rapidly to where he could have a view of what was going on, and seeing some one running, ordered him to halt. Not being obeyed he repeated the order a second and a third time, and then fired with fatal effect. JENKINS, when leaving the place, told some of the citizens that he had shot SPARKS and requested them to go to his assistance.
"The first one who reached the point indicated by JENKINS, found a rebel soldier with his hand in the pocket of MR. SPARKS and heard the demand for his pistol, his watch, and his money. SPARKS replied that they had already taken [them] from him, but putting his hand in his vest pocket took out and handed to the rebel a postage currency bill, saying it was all he had. Poor SPARKS lived but a short time after this, and it is clear that his murder was premeditated, as he offered no resistance, and was the object of brutal treatment the first day of JENKIN'S earnest inquiries on the second appearance of the rebels.
"The principal facts which we have detailed were furnished to us by MESSRS. JOHN ALLANPORT, E. R. WILSON, JOHN D. GARDNER, and M. B. IRELAND, citizens of Pleasureville, and we presume the narrative is correct.
"But the circumstances involve the consideration of another question of paramount importance, which is this, what was the nature of the assistance rendered by one of the Pleasureville parties, and upon what grounds did they exercise an influence to restrain marauding rebels entering the village with murderous intent from injuring MR. SPARKS? If appeals were made to them upon the highly improbable ground that they were possessed of humane feelings, the conduct of those who interfered was highly commendable. But the people of KENTUCKY will demand to know and can be satisfied with nothing short of the most direct and circumstantial reply, whether there was any apparent understanding or intimacy between the rebels and any party of the citizens. In other words, were rebel sympathizers able to stay the demoniac works of the rebels until their leader reached the village the next day?
"We repeat that it is of paramount importance to know these things, for, if there was any complicity between the citizens and the rebels, it is very clear that the former were accessory to the murder of MR. SPARKS, and should beheld to a strict accountability. We are in hopes that the arguments used were simply addressed to their humanity, but we are told distinctly that there had been a tacit understanding and agreement in that locality, that the parties into which the citizens were unhappily divided, should render assistance each to the other, as occasions presented the opportunity "These parties were, of course, loyal or disloyal. Union men and rebel sympathizers. Has there been any occasion at Pleasureville when the rebels were assisted by the Union men, or has the occasion ever been presented where rebel sympathizers, by pleading their sympathy, could render assistance to Union men? If so, the facts must be investigated, for any interposition in behalf of rebels to shield them from arrest and punishment is a crime almost as great as that of vaunting sympathy with the accursed rebellion, to secure immunity to loyal neighbors. Such an agreement was doubly dangerous for it was against the law, and was certain to be broken by the rebels when ever they could do it with impunity. We can readily appreciate the apparent necessity of this treaty of amity, but it is very questionable whether such necessity could be recognized in a court of law. It was a one-sided bargain and did not prevent the rebels from marauding and destroying property, while, at the same time, it permitted that locality to be made one of the highways of rebel travel into and from the state.
"We trust, therefore, that the nature of this agreement, the parties to it, and their respective acts on the occasion of raids will be thoroughly investigated. We cannot see why the 'cocked pistol' of the scoundrel JENKINS show his extreme anxiety to find out MR. SPARKS when he was surrounded by others who were professedly Union men, and not a finger was lifted in defense of the place."
[Editor's note: It appears that a word or phrase may have been omitted from the final sentence of the above report. John A. Sparks, whose grandfather (Martin Sparks) had been a first cousin of Press Sparks, when writing from North Pleasureville, Kentucky, to a relative on August 16, 1928, recalled that Press Sparks had been "a Union man" and that he had been "killed in North Pleasureville in 1863 or 4 by a rebel squad, who were passing thru and he was running to get out of their way, and was shot by a man whose name was Bart Jenkins." Following is Dr. Paul E. Sparks's account of the branch of the Sparks family of which Press Sparks was a member.
[As noted in the above account, Sparks "lived but a short time" after being shot. He apparently realized that his wound was fatal, for he dictated a brief will and testament before he died. Two men subsequently presented this document to the Henry County Probate Court. It was probably E. R. Wilson who recorded what Sparks dictated because, after Griffen Kelly signed his name as a witness, Wilson also signed. (Note that the author of the above account cited E. R. Wilson as one of his sources for the information regarding Press Sparks's death.) From its wording, Sparks's will was obviously written in haste, the key word "estate" being omitted, for instance. Sparks was too weak to sign his name, making only a mark. Kelly and Wilson probably did not know Sparks well, for his name appears as "Preston" rather than Pressley. Recorded in Henry County, Kentucky, Will Book 13, page 234. this document is as follows:
Being of sound mind, I make my last will. I wish my sister and her three small children to have half of my real and
personal [the word "estate" omitted] after my just debts are paid; the rest to be devised as follows: the balance to be
for my daughter, Mary Jane Brackman.
Griffin Kelly Preston X Sparks
E. R. Wilson mark
Press Sparks had three sisters, and while it is clear from his will that he wanted half of his estate to go to one of them, she was not identified by name; perhaps because he did not say her name or because the man writing his words did not understand him. The three sisters were Lucinda ["Lucy"], Mary Catherine, and Elizabeth. We suspect that it was Lucy whom Press Sparks intended, but whether her siblings accepted this as his intention, we do not know. born ca. 1810, Lucy had twice been left a widow. Her second husband, Daniel Bradley, had died in Mississippi ca. 1848, at which time Lucy had, indeed, been left with "three small children," although they were no longer small in 1864. We can speculate that as he was dying, Press Sparks may have thought of Lucy's children as they had been when she returned to Kentucky following her husbands death. When a sale of Press Sparks's personal estate was held, Lucy purchased a number of her brother's belongings, including some household furnishings, books, and dishes.
There is also a mystery regarding the Mary Jane Brackman to whom Press Sparks left the other half of his estate. She was called his daughter in his will, yet no evidence has been found that Sparks had ever been married. If Mary Jane was, indeed, his daughter, it would appear that she must have been illegitimate. Again, we can speculate, however, that Wilson and Kelly, in trying to understand Sparks's dying wishes, may have misunderstood him. Might Mary Jane Brackman have been a niece, the daughter of one of his siblings, rather than his own daughter? We shall welcome any information that a member of this branch of the Sparks family might have regarding Mary Jane's identity.
An inventory was taken of Press Sparks's property, which included a sizeable investment in whiskey--no fewer than 42 barrels (1,744 gallons) located in Anderson County, Kentucky (probably. at a distillery there). When sold as part of his estate, these 42 barrels of whiskey brought $8,460.91. His other property was sold for $9,740.77.