Monday, February 13, 2017

Bill Penn’s book, Kentucky Rebel Town, is a lifetime achievement; reading Thursday evening at library

Penn poses with his book outside his Midway Museum Store.
Story and photos by Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

It could be said that Bill Penn’s book, Kentucky Rebel Town: The Civil War Battles of Cynthiana and Harrison County, is 55 years old.

Penn, co-owner of the Historic Midway Museum Store, first wrote about “the best rebel town of our native state,” a Confederate officer’s reference to Cynthiana, in 1962. Dr. Thomas D. Clark, University of Kentucky history professor and founder of the University Press of Kentucky, taught Penn in his History of Kentucky course. Penn turned in a 40-page paper on his hometown of Cynthiana, the seed of his future book.

Although Penn never went back to school, the history bug never left him. In 1995, he synthesized research he had done since his undergraduate years, self-publishing the book Rattling Spurs and Broad Brimmed Hats. The title was a quote from a letter on Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate raiders who rode through Cynthiana.

When Penn sent the book to Clark, his old professor wrote back: “One can never tell where bread he casts upon waters will come floating home.” His proud appreciation of Penn’s book encouraged Penn to do further research. He expanded his study to nearly 400 pages of historical text, published by the University Press of Kentucky last fall.

Penn will give a reading at the Midway branch of the Woodford County Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, and will be at the Northern Kentucky Regional History Day at the Boone County Library for a workshop on his book March 25.

The Kentucky Civil War Bugle editor, Ed Ford, said of Penn’s work: “Penn deserves an “A” for his research and another “A” for his skill in effectively pulling the story together.”

Close-up of cover shows cropped image.
Penn’s insistence on historical precision begins with the book’s cover. The painting of the Civil War emblazoned on the bottom half comes from Frankfort.

“The battle is realistic,” said Penn, “But an anomaly exists in the bottom right.” According to Penn, rifles are shown instead of a cannon atop a wheeled carriage. Because a cannon carriage is more historically accurate to the time period, Penn had the University Press cut off the image at the carriage wheel.

His research is undoubtedly a labor of love. Unable to find any Civil War battlefield maps of Cynthiana, Penn studied primary texts of citizens and soldiers. The extensive analysis allowed him to redraw battlefield maps for Morgan’s raids, and the subsequent first and second Battles of Cynthiana.

According to Penn, there is an assumption that Morgan rode through town on horseback shooting guns and quickly leaving. But Morgan and his troops actually dismounted and fought bigger battles in Harrison County.

Morgan raided Cynthiana because of its tactical position bordering the Kentucky Central Railroad. But his interest in Cynthiana may have also been its initial pro-Southern leanings. State Rep. and slave-owner Lucius Desha advertised for Southern sympathizers to join a volunteer company led by his sons. At the beginning of the Civil War, a Confederate flag flew from the Harrison County Courthouse.

Penn did several maps. (Click on image for larger version)
Reviewer Lawrence K. Peterson of Civil War News was impressed with Penn’s distinctive story. In his article, “A Gem Concerning Middle Kentucky,” Peterson stated, “This book is a gem for two sets of students of the Civil War: those interested in the fighting in Kentucky other than Richmond/Perryville, and those interested in civilian life during the war.”

Those interested in civilian life can also look forward to Penn’s next book. “A project I had started before I finished this was a history of Midway and northern Woodford County horse farms,” said Penn. “And I laid that aside. I’ve done two chapters of that, I’ve done one on the settlement period around this area from the first surveyors. They actually camped near here. And then I’ve written a chapter on the Civil War period here.”

Penn is obviously a hard worker, but is anything but self-congratulatory.

“I plagiarized all I could,” Penn joked when asked how long it took to complete the book. He teased Dr. James Ramage, a history professor at Northern Kentucky University, when Ramage visited Penn’s shop. “Dr. Ramage was in here about a month ago,” Penn said. “I told him that I had stolen all I could out of his book on John Hunt Morgan.”

Joking aside, Penn’s love of history continues to guide his life. Penn interrupted the Midway Messenger’s interview to greet a customer purchasing books on Versailles from his store’s upstairs library. Hopping up from his stool, Penn ran upstairs to get another book to “throw in” for free.

“This is a prize,” Penn told the customer, handing him a book on the architecture in Versailles. “I just want someone who’s interested to have it.”

“He forgets we have bills to pay,” Leslie Penn teased her husband. Bill Penn smiled and insisted on the gift. History, for him, is just that, a gift.

Penn poses in the upstairs library and bookstore of his and wife Leslie's Midway Museum Store.

No comments: