Sidney’s Civil War general led storied life

By Mike Barhorst

Brigadier General John Cummins

Brigadier General John Cummins

Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: To promote the Civil War Living History Weekend Sept. 17-18 at Tawawa Park in Sidney, the writer has traced the war’s impact on a Sidney family.

SIDNEY — If an early Sidney resident could be said to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it might well have been John Evans Cummins. Born on April 5, 1831, in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, Cummins was the fourth son of Joseph Cummins and Jane Harris Knox (their first two sons died shortly after they were born).

The Cummins family moved to Sidney in 1834, just 14 years after the first log cabins were erected in the village that had become the county seat of Shelby County. Although Joseph Cummins had large tracts of farm land, the family settled in Sidney.

The Cummins Block, which stood on the Chase Bank corner, is said to have been the first brick building erected in Sidney. The Cummins house, which was situated a few doors west of the corner, was long noted as the place where William Henry Harrison was entertained in Sidney, when he visited the village during the campaign of 1840.

John Cummins enrolled at Washington and Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and studied law. He became a lawyer, practiced law in Sidney, and married Harriet Carey, a daughter of John Carey. Carey owned the Carey Block, the brick building on the north east corner of Ohio Avenue and Popular Street (now Poplar Street). John and Harriet had three sons, Knox, Carey and Frank.

At 31 years of age and the outbreak of war, Cummins left his law practice to enlist. He was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel of the 99th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on Aug. 26, 1862. He took part in many hard fought battles with the 99th Ohio. Those battles included Stones River, Chickamauga, and the several battles that became known as the Atlanta Campaign.

The 99th and 50th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiments were consolidated on December 31, 1864, so that together, they would form a full regiment. Cummins transferred to the 50th Ohio as lieutenant colonel.

Cummins resigned his commission Feb. 16, 1865, to accept the command of the newly formed 185th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He led that regiment through the remainder of the war.

Along with his regiment, Cummins was mustered out Sept. 26, 1865, at Lexington, Kentucky. He was brevetted Brigadier General, US Volunteers on Nov. 4, 1865 for “gallant and meritorious services during the war.”

Cummins returned to Sidney following the war, and joined his father’s firm, Smith and Cummins. He was disappointed to find that nearly all of his clients had engaged the services of other local attorneys who had chosen not to serve in the war. He found new clients, however, and worked tirelessly on behalf of former soldiers, many of whom had served under his command.

In 1866, Cummins received word that one of the officers in the 99th, Benjamin Lefevre, had also been brevetted brigadier general through the intercession of his patron, Donn Piatt. Cummins’ passions were immediately aroused. Lefevre was apparently absent without leave on more than one occasion, completely missing several battles. In another instance, Lefevre reportedly left most of his uniform on the field of battle in his haste to avoid the fight.

Cummins had not sought Lefevre’s court martial during the war, as he did not want to sully the reputation of a fellow Shelby Countian. Cummins quickly organized a letter-writing campaign and solicited the assistance of the other officers who had served with him. Every officer (Lefevre excepted, of course), signed the letter.

The letter was immediately sent to Ohio Sen. John Sherman. Apparently after consulting with his brother, Major Gen. William T. Sherman, Lefevre’s promotion was rescinded. In addition to the fact that Cummins was a Republican and Lefevre a Democrat, the promotion “business” was to create lasting enmity between the two.

Like many of his brethren who did serve in the Civil War, Cummins became politically active. He served three terms as a state senator. He was a candidate for the United States House of Representatives, apparently bested by Benjamin Lefevre. During the campaign, a debate in Lima between Cummins and Lefevre dissolved into a fistfight.

Following his defeat, Cummins was reported to have begun drinking heavily. After a disagreement with his family, he abruptly left Sidney, and was not heard from again until contacted by authorities from Denver, Colorado.

The April 10, 1875, issue of the Rocky Mountain News carried the following notice of John E. Cummins’ death in Denver: John E. Cummings [Cummins, and hereafter spelled Cummins], a prominent lawyer, an astute politician, and withal an esteemed citizen of Sidney, Shelby County, Ohio, suicided in this city, at the Inter-Ocean Hotel, yesterday forenoon, by shooting himself through the head with a pistol ball.

The chambermaid, while passing through the hall about 11 o’clock, heard sounds of distress proceeding from the room occupied by Cummins, and reported the fact to Mr. Selkirk, the steward, who immediately repaired to the apartment. The door was unlocked, and upon entering, he found Cummings in bed, with a pistol lying across his breast, and blood oozing from a wound in the right temple. He spoke to Cummins, but could get no reply, though the victim frequently gave a low, moaning sound, apparently uttered in great pain.

Physicians were called in and Dr. Justice probed the wound, but the bullet could not be found. Though his death was momentarily expected, the wounded man’s agony was prolonged until a quarter to six o’clock p.m. when he died.

Coroner Stein proceeded to hold an inquest, the jurors being Joseph Arnold, O.J. Goldrick, Nathan Colman, W. M. Newton, and E. H. George. Several witnesses were examined, an the deceased “came to his death by a pistol shot from a pistol in his own hands.” In the meantime the body had been given in charge of Mr. Rogers, the undertaker, to await the wishes of his relatives in Sidney.

Mr. Cummins, or, as he was commonly called at home, Col. Cummins, a title which he fairly earned as commander of the Ninety-Ninth Ohio Regiment, was about 47 years of age. He served three terms as state senator in the Ohio house of representatives, and was a colleague of that body with out fellow townsman, General Sam. E. Browne. He was also an aspirant for congressional honors, and in the nominating convention in the Sidney district last fall, came within three votes of being nominated.

At home he has always been regarded as honorable and upright in his business transactions, and his practice at the bar has been sufficiently lucrative to enable him to support his family in good style, and at the same time indulge in his political ambitions. His father-in-law, Col. Carey, is one of the wealthiest men in central Ohio, while all his relatives are people in good standing.

Col. Cummins reached Denver last Monday, having been a passenger per the Denver Pacific. Though well acquainted with General Browne and Robert E. Wilson, Esq., the latter having known him intimately from boyhood, and knowing that both were residents of Denver, yet they were not apprised of his presence in town, and only learned of it through the reports of his death.

He had been under the influence of liquor ever since his arrival, and seemed sorely disappointed at not receiving any reply from his wife to a telegram which he forwarded the day after his arrival. He felt sure of receiving an answer night before last, but, failing to get it, took a drink at the Inter Ocean bar and retired early, after which he was not seen alive. Two nickels comprised the sum total of found upon his person.

Cummins body was brought back to Sidney, and is buried in Graceland Cemetery atop the hill just inside the main gate. The local papers did not report his death a suicide. His wife died the following year, some believe of grief, and is buried next to him.

Brigadier General John Cummins General John Cummins Courtesy photo

By Mike Barhorst

The writer is the mayor of Sidney and a local historian.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney and a local historian.