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Yankee arrest of circuit judge prompts protest from the governor

  (June 1, 2012) -  On this date in 1862, Gov. Beriah Magoffin was waiting to hear from Sen. John J. Crittenden over the arrest of Circuit Judge Wiley P. Fowler of Smithland for refusing to take the Union loyalty oath.

     Nothing would come of Magoffin’s protest.

     Trouble brewed between Fowler and the Yankees after Col. Silas R.J. Noble, Union army commander at Paducah, complained to the judge “that many of the officers of your court in different counties are secessionists, and have not taken the oath of allegiance.” Noble charged, “they are constantly oppressing Union men, and talking treason in the very presence of the court.”

     The colonel demanded that Fowler swear the oath and ensure all other judges, lawyers and jurors do likewise. Fowler ignored Noble's order, arguing it was sufficient that he swore allegiance to U.S. and Kentucky constitutions when he took office. That was, of course, before the Civil War started.

     In any event, on May 13, the judge was holding court in Marion, the Crittenden County seat, when Union cavalrymen showed up. Led by a Capt. Stacey, the troopers dismounted and marched into the courtroom. They barred the doors while Stacey demanded that the judge, jury and attorneys immediately swear the oath.

     Crittenden County leaned toward the Union side. When Fowler and four attorneys refused, Stacey arrested the quintet. But he released them on their promise to appear before Union army authorities at Paducah on May 21. 

     Fowler complained to the Southern-sympathizing Magoffin. He urged the judge not to go to Paducah, “for the dignity of the bench, for the honor of the State, in the name of the liberties of our people.” The governor agreed that the Union soldiers’ action was “illegal, unconstitutional, and tyrannical.”

     By the time Fowler received Magoffin’s reply, he had already been to Paducah. He said he was honor-bound to go, adding that a pair Southern sympathizers in Yankee custody in Paducah had asked him to help secure their release. Fowler failed to win their freedom, at least by the time he left Paducah.

     Reportedly, before the war ended, Fowler was twice imprisoned in Louisville for refusing to swear the oath.  Fowler became a hero to pro-Confederate western Kentuckians. To Unionists, he was a traitor, or close to it, who belonged behind bars. 

           -- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at berry.craig@kctcs.edu.


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