Monday, November 29, 2010

Henry Watterson's Interesting Life

Most people have probably never heard of Henry Watterson, but if you have ever driven on I-264 through Louisville, Kentucky, you might be familiar with the name. The Watterson Expressway connects I-64 to I-65 just south of downtown.

Other than knowing that Watterson was the longtime editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, I too knew little about the man. But, doing a some quick research, I turned up some interesting information on this individual who experienced many momentous events.

Watterson was born in Washington D.C. to Tennessee congressman Harvey M. Watterson and Talitha Black Watterson on February 16, 1840. Watterson was drawn to writing and the newspaper business at a young age. With the help of his father he started and edited the McMinnville, Tennessee New Era from 1856 to 1858. He left the Volunteer state for New York City and wrote for several publications there before landing in Washington D.C. and writing about politics for the Daily States, a Democratic sheet. While in Washington, Watterson later explained that he was sent to Harpers Ferry to report on John Brown's raid.

While doing research recently at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, I ran across an article called "An Abortive Hero" that Watterson wrote in about 1910 or 1911 that briefly described his impressions of Harpers Ferry. Watterson wrote, "I reached Harpers Ferry about noon on Wednesday [actually Tuesday], the 18th of October, 1859, following the descent of the preceding Sunday night and Monday morning. I found there a good deal of suppressed feeling; not any tumult, or noise, or confusion. There had assembled quite a little army of us, newspaper reporters for the adjacent cities, but chiefly from Washington, whence the regular correspondents of the leading newspapers proceeded to the scene of what seemed a catastrophe, news of which fell upon the capital and the country like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky."

Watterson continued that, "I saw and talked with John Brown. I was as much opposed to human slavery, as earnest a devotee of human freedom, as he was, and therefore, I had no personal aversion to overcome. The horror I might have felt was deadened by the dramatic intensity of the moment. Col. [Robert E.] Lee was still there. Lieut. [J.E.B.] Stuart was my near friend and from his lips I learned all the details of what had happened. He [Stuart] uttered not a word of bitterness or reproach. 'The old man is crazy,' said he."

"An Abortive Hero" is a long article in which Watterson vents his disgust of contemporary (early 20th century) praise for John Brown. Watterson points particularly to two examples of what he saw as unwarranted deification: Oswald Garrison Villard's recent (1909) biography of Brown, and President Theodore Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech at Osawatomie, Kansas on July 31, 1910, that dedicated the John Brown Memorial Park. I will share more of "An Abortive Hero" in a later post.

After Harper's Ferry Watterson returned to writing and Washington D.C. where he had a front row seat to cover the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. He then took a position with the Department of the Interior. Watterson claims that he was offered a secretary position with the Lincoln administration, but turned it down. Apparently not realizing the importance of the impending events Watterson returned to Tennessee. Although he didn't enlist in the Confederate service immediately, Watterson moved toward the Southern cause. He explained how he became a Confederate. "The boys were all gone to the front. The girls were - well, they were all crazy. My native country was about to be invaded, Propinquity. Sympathy. So, casting opinions to the winds in I went on feeling." In his autobiography Watterson also explained that he jumped from position to position in Confederate service. He rode for a while with Forrest immediately after the Fort Donelson disaster and then served as an aid and scout for general such as Joseph Johnston, Leonidas Polk and John Bell Hood.

During and in between his sporadic terms of service Watterson continued to write. Among others, he wrote for the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, the Nashville Banner and the Chattanooga Rebel. Watterson abruptly left the South before the war was over and landed in Cincinnati, Ohio where be began editing the Cincinnati Evening Post; a Republican sheet of all things. In September 1865 Watterson returned to Tennessee to become editor and part owner of the Nashville Banner. Watterson began to advocate for reconciliation between the North and South, and increase rights for African Americans during Reconstruction, and brought his ideas for a "New South" to Louisville where he merged the Louisville Courier with the Louisville Journal in 1868. Watterson retired in 1919 after an unresolved dispute with the Courier Journal's new owner Robert W. Bingham. Watterson died in Jacksonville, Florida in 1921 and is buried in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery.


  1. Many letters sent to Henry Watterson over the years are on my desk. I have become engrossed in them. I am entering this history through the back door. Read a letter and them reference the characters and slowly put the stories in place. Learning history I never studied. As I continue to be astonished by all the historical figures Henry Watterson interacted with and influenced I wonder why he does not have a little more prominence in our history. I still have my to read and will save his biographies for last. Thank you for you above article.

  2. You're welcome. Thanks for reading!

  3. Here is an entire book on him
    Henry Watterson and the New South - › Henry-Watterson-New-South-Globalization