Southern cause creates rift in prominent Sidney family

By Mike Barhorst

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 — It is not unusual for even the best of families to have a child with a rebellious bent. Those who have read the Bible know that prodigals existed in Biblical times. What does seem unusual is that in a community that sent so many husbands, fathers and sons off to fight to preserve the Union, a member of a family so well-connected as the Cummins family would choose to fight for the Rebel cause.

Reynolds Knox Cummins was the third-born son (his two older brothers had died in early childhood) of Joseph Cummins and Jane Harris Knox. Known from the earliest times by his middle name, Knox was born in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 8, 1828.

At age five, Knox moved with his family to Sidney in June 1834. His father owned large tracts of land in Shelby County and in addition, was a miller and merchant. Joseph Cummins was soon named the county’s probate judge.

The son of one of Sidney’s wealthiest families, Knox grew up in the comfort of the family home on Popular (now Poplar) Street on the north side of the court square. It was at Judge Cummins’ home that General William Henry Harrison spent a couple of nights during his successful Tippecanoe and Tyler Too campaign for the presidency in 1840. His father constructed the first brick building in Sidney on the corner of Main and Poplar, currently the site of Chase Bank.

In 1846, Reynolds Knox Cummins entered his father’s alma mater, Washington and Jefferson College. Knox studied law at the school, located in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. Classmates included James G. Blaine, William West, Blanton Duncan and Mattheu Stanley Quay. Knox was described as an “apt pupil, and could have graduated with high honors had he been so disposed.”

At age 20 and bitten by the “gold bug,” Knox set out for California in 1848 with a group of similarly inclined local lads. His search for gold, like that of so many others who journeyed west at this time, was wholly unsuccessful.

In 1853, Knox and his friends boarded a ship and began their long journey home. For reasons known only to them, they stopped off in Ecuador. They began to explore the country. Convinced that the ideas of Manifest Destiny should apply to all the Americas, they plotted to take over the Ecuadorian government.

They were arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Judge Cummins used his considerable political clout and family connections. He appealed to President Franklin Pierce for assistance in rescuing his wayward son.

As a result of the president’s intervention, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent a warship to Ecuador. Enjoying favorable seas, it arrived just three days before the executions were to be carried out. Diplomacy and a warship bristling cannon convinced the authorities to release Knox and his friends. They were brought back to the United States.

Having returned to Shelby County by 1857, Knox secured a position as a deputy clerk in the office of Col. Jonathan Counts, Shelby County Clerk of Courts. He performed his duties ably. He was an outspoken proponent of states rights.

When the War of the Rebellion broke out, Knox, believing that he owed Jefferson Davis loyalty for saving his life, cast his lot with the Confederacy. He enlisted on May 2, 1861, at Memphis, Tennessee. He was assigned to Company I of the 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery. He was stationed in New Orleans until May 1862 when the regiment was ordered to Vicksburg.

On July 4, 1863, Knox was among the 30,000 Confederate troops who surrendered when Vicksburg fell. Along with the other rebel troops, Knox was paroled. The captured soldiers were in various states of starvation. Knox was hospitalized at Enterprise, Mississippi and later at Montgomery, Alabama.

After a near year-long period of hospitalization, Knox eventually rejoined his unit in July 1864. On August 30, 1864, he was promoted from private to quartermaster sergeant while stationed in Mobile, Alabama.

After brief stints in Meridian and Tupelo, Mississippi, the unit returned to Mobile and garrisoned the batteries at Cuba Station, Alabama until Mobile’s surrender on May 8, 1865. The unit was paroled at Meridian, Mississippi as part of General Richard Taylor’s Army of the Tennessee on May 12, 1865.

Knox’s war service was undoubtedly painful for his family. A letter dated July 22, 1861, from Joseph Cummins to his sister Sarah Evans Wallace in Pennsylvania, reflects a father’s anguish. “The rebellion & consequent war is unfortunate. It will all go right & will purify our government. War is necessary sometimes to purge out corruption & iniquity. The Southern leaders are like the rebellious angels of heaven. They must be cast out.”

Judge Cummins concludes his letter with a couple of brief sentences. “My letter must be short. It is painful for me to write. My nerves are too agitated.”

A dedicated member of the Democratic Party, Knox Cummins returned to Sidney following the war. He again secured a position in the Courthouse, working for a time as a clerk in the Shelby County Auditor’s office. His obituary in The Sidney Daily News reflects that “as an arithmetician he was almost a marvel, and on all subjects, he was well read.”

Knox Cummins was eventually elected Shelby County Commissioner, and served in that capacity for nearly three decades. His consistent reelection is a testament to his fellow Shelby Countians’ ability to forgive.

Given the enmity that existed between Knox’s brother (Brevet Brigadier General John Evans Cummins) and Benjamin LeFevre, it is interesting that Knox supported LeFevre’s candidacy. In fact, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported in their October 19, 1882, issue that Knox had fallen while hanging “transparencies” in the unfinished Courthouse, breaking his arm while preparing for a celebration for Congressman Benjamin LeFevre and Congressman Robert Murray.

Reynolds Knox Cummins died on Friday, June 10, 1892. He was found “asleep in his chair” by the Courthouse custodian who was cleaning the offices. He had been found in a similar position on numerous occasions over the more than two decades he served as a Commissioner, both in his office in the second Courthouse and in the new building after it was erected in 1883.

As the obituary in The Sidney Daily News reported, on this occasion, “he fell asleep and awoke in another world!” The coroner examined the body and “gave the opinion that death was from heart failure.” The body of Reynolds Knox Cummins was taken to the home of his sister, Mrs. E. H. (Jennie Knox Cummins) Arbuckle, and buried the following day. His earthly remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Arbuckle Family plot at Graceland Cemetery, some sixty feet from where his brothers are buried.

His obituary reveals a bit more of his life. “He never married, and if he had a romance no friend was ever told it. In life he had almost vainly pursued happiness, searching the varied paths by the light of an intellect that burned as brightly in but few places elsewhere, yet finding only a small measure of happiness. Nothing came to him so easily as death, and in it, forgetting his frailties, may we not all hope he found happiness?”

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.