Native sons of Harford took different paths during the Civil War

Special to The Aegis

They were native sons of Harford County, born a generation and 13 miles apart, who left their homes at young ages and became historical national figures during the mid-19th Century, one as a revered statesman, the other as a mercurial stage actor turned presidential assassin.

Aside from their place of birth and deeply held – if disparate - core beliefs, Samuel J. Kirkwood and John Wilkes Booth were so far apart on the matter of slavery that it took the scorched and blood-soaked soil of the American Civil War to resolve.

President Abraham Lincoln was to figure prominently in both their futures.

Of the two, the handsome Booth, of course, is the better known, primarily for the ugly deed he perpetrated on April 14, 1865 in Washington, D.C., when he murdered Lincoln.

Born in 1838 on his family’s 150-acre farm on the outskirts of Bel Air, Booth was a fiercely pro-slavery Southern Democrat, wedded in mind, body and spirit to the American South.

Kirkwood, who was born in 1813, grew up on a farm in Macton, a tranquil area on the county’s northern doorstep flush with verdant land where corn, grain and bean fields texturize an undulating landscape sliced by narrow serpentine roads, just shy of the craggy blue-gray slate deposits.

Kirkwood would go on to hold a number of high federal posts; however, he became best-known as Iowa’s Civil War governor.

Kirkwood was schooled in Harford County and at an academy in Washington, D.C. After a brief stint as a drugstore clerk, the 17-year-old Kirkwood moved with his family to Richland County, Ohio, where he later worked as a teacher and deputy county assessor.

In 1843, Kirkwood was admitted to the bar by the Ohio Supreme Court. From 1845 to 1849, he served as his county’s prosecuting attorney. In 1849 he was elected, as a Democrat, to represent his county and district at the state’s constitutional convention.

Booth, who, like Kirkwood, left his home at age 17, made his acting debut in Baltimore in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. A scion of America’s foremost acting family, Booth won early acclaim and was invited to tour the country with a Shakespearean acting company based in Richmond, Va.

Until 1854, Kirkwood had affiliated with the Democratic Party, but that ended with the advent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when he and many other anti-slavery Democrats fled the party because the law meant slave owners would be able to bring their slaves into Western territories.

A later move took Kirkwood to Iowa in 1855, the same year John Wilkes Booth made his debut on the stage. According to the Historical Society of Iowa, “the burly-looking Kirkwood had arrived in a quiet way to Iowa and settled two miles northwest of Iowa City,” which, at the time, was the state capital.

In the historical society’s Annals of Iowa, it states that “one evening, while attending a political meeting in the capitol as an auditor, he (Kirkwood) was called out by someone conversant with his past history, and in response he delivered such an address as at once secured for him a reputation of the very highest character, which he has maintained to this day, for native eloquence and off-hand debate.”

After he joined the fledgling Republican Party in 1856, Kirkwood was elected to the state senate representing Iowa and Johnson counties. Kirkwood, through his advocacy, was instrumental in formulating the state’s banking system, which lasted, without the loss of one dollar, from the time of its adoption until it was superseded by the national banking system, according to the Annals of Iowa.

A miller, as well as a farmer, Kirkwood was elected governor in 1859 by a respectable 3,000-vote margin over Gen. A.C. Dodge.

In the days leading up to Kirkwood’s inauguration, the abolitionist John Brown made his ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what now is West Virginia, to obtain weapons he planned to use for a “great rebellion” of Virginia’s slaves.

Brown was later tried and hanged in Charles Town, events that were witnessed by John Wilkes Booth, who had borrowed a uniform and marched to the town with a Virginia militia unit called to guard Brown. According to many Booth biographers, Brown’s willingness to die for a cause – even one which Booth loathed – still had a lasting impact upon the actor.

Soon after taking office, Kirkwood was confronted by the arrival of Springdale, Iowa abolitionist Benjamin Coppock, who had evaded capture when Brown’s daring attack failed.

Kirkwood rejected an initial extradition request from Virginia’s governor, thereby allowing Coppock, a Quaker, who was one of Brown’s 22 insurgents, to more than likely escape a death sentence back East.

In his inaugural address on Jan. 11, 1860, Kirkwood called Brown’s invasion of Virginia “unlawful” and “misguided.”

But, Kirkwood also strongly supported the Republicans’ nomination of Lincoln in the ensuing presidential election of 1960.

During the secession crisis that followed Lincoln’s election, according the University of Iowa, “Kirkwood made clear his belief that the Union must not be sundered, but he countenanced a number of compromise measures in order to avoid civil conflict, most notably, perhaps, his suggestion that fugitive slaves captured in the North might be taken South again before being given the opportunity to request a trial.”

That proposal, however, ran contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision of three years earlier that slaves were not citizens and thus did not have standing in federal courts.

Kirkwood later armed and outfitted nearly 20,000 Iowans in the first winter of the war; he would frequently visit them in the field. Kirkwood’s determination to preserve the Union impelled him to lobby during the summer of 1862 for the enlistment of blacks into the Union Army.

Booth did not join the Confederate Army during the war – in deference to his mother’s wishes that he not fight, but he supported the cause and as the Confederacy’s battlefield losses mounted, he hatched a conspiracy to kidnap the president, vice president and secretary of state under the belief those men could be ransomed for a favorable end to the war.

Following the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender in early April 1965, Booth and his cohorts decided to kill Lincoln and the others, again believing their actions would embolden Confederate leaders to keep fighting.

After he shot Lincoln, who was seated in the balcony of Ford’s Theatre watching a performance of “Our American Cousin, “Booth leaped from the presidential box onto the stage below and yelled “Sic semper tyrannis! (Thus always to tyrants!) The South is avenged.”

Having broken his leg when he jumped, Booth awkwardly hurried his way to a waiting horse and made good his escape into southern Maryland, where he evaded capture for 12 days.

Booth was hiding in a barn on Richard H. Garrett’s farm in Port Royal, Va. that was eventually surrounded by pursuing federal troops. When Booth refused to surrender, the barn was set ablaze. Soon thereafter, a paralyzing bullet fired by Union soldier Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett struck Booth in the neck.

Three hours after he had been carried from the crackling inferno, the 26-year-old Booth died.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Kirkwood stayed active in politics for another 20 years. When Sen. James Hardin was appointed to President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet in 1865, Kirkwood filled Hardin’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.

When Iowa Republicans found themselves in the grip of factionalism in 1875, party rulers turned to the popular Kirkwood to once again run for governor. This time, Kirkwood won by 31,000 votes.

His term, however, was cut short when he was elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, an office for which had had long pined. Kirkwood vacated his senate seat in 1881 when President James Garfield tapped him to become Secretary of the Interior. After Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Kirkwood left his post in April 1882. He died on Sept. 1, 1894 at age 80.

To this day, Kirkwood remains a Hawkeye State icon. His likeness, on one of two statues apportioned to each state, is in Statuary Hall in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Kirkwood Community College, which includes 27 buildings, a farm and vineyard on an 885-acre spread in Cedar Rapids, also is named in his honor, as is Kirkwood Elementary School in Coralville, where Kirkwood operated his mill.

The Kirkwood House in Iowa City is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are Kirkwood Avenues in Iowa City and Davenport. A hotel in Des Moines bears his name, as does rural Kirkwood, Ill.

The Booth family left Harford County for good more than 150 years ago and sold their property in 1878, but their home, known as Tudor Hall, is still standing. Owned by Harford County, it is operated as an interactive museum by the Junius Brutus Booth Society.

Kirkwood, meanwhile, has long has been a familiar surname in Harford County, particularly across the lands northwest of Route 1. Retired Harford County educator Dr. Dennis Kirkwood and Samuel J. Kirkwood are descendants of Robert Kirkwood, whose son, Jabez, was Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood’s father. Dennis Kirkwood represents his family’s seventh generation to reside at Newark Farm on Harford Creamery Road.

Churchville resident Mac Lloyd is a history buff and occasional contributor to The Aegis, as well as the paper’s former sports editor.

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