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ARTICLES James Guthrie: Mr. Louisville

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“truly orthodox and unquestionably available, a loyal and life long Democrat, with unsurpassed intellect, information, integrity, dignity, firmness and purity of patriotism he has the confidence of every intelligent great man in America. He has not an enemy in the world!”

On April 20, 1860, The New York Times wrote that James Guthrie was “truly orthodox and unquestionably available, a loyal and life long Democrat, with unsurpassed intellect, information, integrity, dignity, firmness and purity of patriotism he has the confidence of every intelligent great man in America.  He has not an enemy in the world!”  He was also regarded as a man of enormous strength, courage, indomitable will, and vitality, with no fear.  James Guthrie became a leading figure in Louisville, Kentucky’s history.  He became a promoter of railroads, a controlling force in the Portland Canal and numerous banks, a state legislator, a commonwealth attorney, City Council member, and founder of the University of Louisville.  Unfortunately many Louisville citizens today do not know about the amazing life of James Guthrie.  After this article, hopefully the reader will gain a better appreciation for James Guthrie’s life and career.

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In the early 1700s Adam Guthrie immigrated to America from Cork, Ireland.  In 1788, Adam Guthrie traveled West.  Along the trip he met Hannah Polk, daughter of Revolutionary War hero Edmund Polk.  Adam married Hannah Polk and settled in Bardstown, Kentucky.  Adam Guthrie became known as an Indian fighter and joined the Kentucky militia and given the honorary title of General.  Adam Guthrie served as a state representative in the Kentucky legislature from 1800 to 1808.

James Guthrie

On December 5, 1792, Adam and Hannah Guthrie welcomed James Guthrie into the world.  James Guthrie attended the local schools in Bardstown and later attended McAllister Academy.  After becoming a river trader as a flatboat man, he returned to Bardstown to study law under Judge John Rowan at Federal Hill.  James Guthrie became a prominent member of the Bardstown bar.  In 1820, Kentucky Governor John Adair appointed James Guthrie Commonwealth Attorney, which included the district of Louisville.  After moving to Louisville, Guthrie became a prominent lawyer in Louisville and in 1821, he married Eliza Prather.  James and Eliza Guthrie had three daughters, Mary, Augusta, and Sarah.

After settling in Louisville, James Guthrie served on the Board of Trustees from 1824 to 1828.  While trustee he helped to clean wells, build sewers, drain ponds, leveled streets, appointed watchman and he improved the wharf by paving the streets leading to Water Street.  He served as councilman from March 1828 to July 7, 1839.  While councilman, he helped to establish a Board of Health, establishing a smallpox hospital, a new work-house and a city hospital.  Guthrie helped to construct streets, sidewalks, and alleys.  He helped light the city with coal gas lamps.  On April 21, 1834, he authorized the construction of the Water Works and he helped to organize the first permanent fire company in Louisville.

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Historical marker in Downtown Louisville

In 1831, the Louisville and Ohio Railroad Company hoped to build a road to Louisville and to Portland.  Guthrie arranged for the city to buy stock in the railroad.  Guthrie arranged for the city to buy the Louisville and Portland Turnpike, the road connecting Louisville and Portland.  Guthrie also persuaded the city to buy land, which would eventually become Cave Hill Cemetery.  He helped provide free public schools, with a Board of Trustees.  His school interests included the supervision of building materials, the purchase of equipment, the choice of a faculty and legislation regarding the curriculum.  He took interest in the Collegiate Institute, the Medical Institute, and the University of Louisville.  On October 30, 1837, Guthrie introduced an ordnance to establish the Collegiate Institute.  The mayor of Louisville and the council would choose the faculty for the school.  In 1840, the school became known as the Louisville College.

In 1833, the Medical Institute was chartered with the support of a number of Louisville physicians.  In 1834, Guthrie looked into a medical school.  On November 12, 1836, Guthrie approved of the medical school at Transylvania University in Lexington to relocate to Louisville.  The citizens of Lexington blocked the move, so Guthrie used the charter of the Louisville Medical Institute as a means of establishing a medical school in Louisville.  On March 30, 1837, the city resolved to establish a medical and law school.  In 1837, Guthrie opened the Louisville Medical Institute, which ran successfully for nine years.  In 1846, the Kentucky legislature passed a charter, which combined the Louisville College and the Louisville Medical Institute under one name: the University of Louisville.  James Guthrie was one of the original trustees and on December 7, 1847, he became President of the Board of Trustees.  He held this position for twenty-two years.  Guthrie was the “Father of the University of Louisville.”  On May 1846, the University trustees took over the Medical Institute and decided to establish a law department.  James Guthrie and Judge Henry Pirtle took a lead in establishing the University of Louisville law school.

Historical marker in Downtown Louisville

As President of the Board of Trustees, Guthrie joined forces with the Trustees of the Common Schools to hold a high school in the academic building of the University.  The school became known as Male High School.

In 1835, James Guthrie began construction of the Jefferson County Courthouse.  He hoped that Louisville would one day become the state capitol.  Unfortunately the building became known as “Guthrie’s Folly” because the work on the building stopped until 1858, and finally completed in 1860.

Guthrie served as a state representative from 1827 to 1831 and later elected to the Senate.  He served as chairman of the judiciary and internal improvement committee and twice elected speaker of the Senate.  He also served on the finance and education committee.  While senator he helped to improve the Louisville and Portland Canal, turnpikes, bridges, ferries, roads, and railroads.  In 1850 the state revised their constitution.  Some of the legislators wanted gradual emancipation, while others wanted stronger provisions against emancipation.  Guthrie was a pro-slavery member.  Louisville made Guthrie a delegate to the State Constitution Convention.  The Committee elected Guthrie as President of the Convention.  Guthrie felt that private property should not be invaded under any pretense without a fair and just compensation.  He felt that owning slaves was not a sin, since the law sanctioned the activity.  James Guthrie, along with most white Americans of the time period, believed that the white and black man could not mingle and become one.  If freed, Guthrie felt that the ex-slaves would crowd the cities, become idle, vicious, and ungovernable.  The new constitution stated that no amendments to the Constitution could be passed within eight years.

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Guthrie was a charter member of the Louisville and Portland Canal.  Guthrie was President of the Canal Company from 1862 to 1867.  He was director of the Marine Hospital, and director of the Bank of Kentucky from 1836 to 1844 and in 1852 he served as President of the Bank of Kentucky.

Guthrie helped to incorporate the Lexington and Frankfort railroad, which eventually became part of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  He was also a major influence in connecting the railroad lines from Jeffersonville, Indiana to Indianapolis, Indiana.  He also pushed for a rail line with Cincinnati.  In 1850, Kentucky granted a charter for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  Guthrie became one of the incorporators.  On August 1, 1851, Guthrie, Joshua Speed, and Robert N. Miller published in the Louisville newspapers that they would sell stock in the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  In 1857 Guthrie became vice president of the company.  Guthrie was largely responsible for the completion of the railroad.  In 1859, the L&N Railroad was completed.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed Guthrie Secretary of the Treasury.  While Secretary he managed to reduce the federal debt by seventeen percent, the Treasury Act had been enforced, many old debts had been collected, and a number of reforms had been instituted.  He also installed a new bookkeeping system, dispensed with useless clerks, and paid off forty-five million dollars worth of debt.

In 1858, Guthrie took interest in the education of the blind and helped charter the Printing House for the Blind, with Guthrie becoming a charter member of the Board of Trustees. He also served as President of the Board.

In 1860, Guthrie became a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President at the Charleston Convention.  Guthrie did not obtain the position.  Guthrie did not agree with Abraham Lincoln’s election, he tried to reconcile the seceded states.  At the Peace Convention, Guthrie became one of the representatives elected by the Kentucky legislature.  Guthrie suggested that the 36' 30" degree be used to divide the existing territories of the United States into free and slave.  No new territory would be acquired except with the consent of the North and South.  In February 1861, another peace convention was held in Washington, D.C. and the committee adopted Guthrie’s plan, but in April 1861, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War.  Guthrie returned to Kentucky to debate whether Kentucky should remain neutral or join the Confederacy or the Union.  Guthrie insisted on neutrality.  Although Guthrie supported the institution of slavery, he supported the Union.

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When the Civil War broke out, James Guthrie was President of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  The Louisville and Nashville Railroad became one of the most important railroads in the Western Theater.  Louisville became the basis of supplies and of operations for the Union army.  Both Union and Confederate forces knew how important the L&N railroad could become to one side or the other.  In September 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky.  Confederate forces under Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Western Theater, took Bowling Green, Kentucky and fifty miles of the south bank of the Green River, and as far north as Lebanon Junction.  Confederate forces under General Felix Zollicoffer took the Cumberland Gap and General Polk took Columbus, Kentucky.  Confederate Simon Bolivar Buckner seized the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, including eleven locomotives and 170 cars, with other railway equipment.  Buckner burned bridges, demolished culverts, with the estimated damage at over a quarter million dollars.  South of Bowling Green he tore up the track for five miles.

On September 18, 1861, General Buckner wrote to Guthrie informing him that he intended to reopen the traffic on the Louisville and Nashville railroad under his command and to re-establish passenger trains.  Buckner had a considerable amount of rolling stock and proposed that Guthrie manage the railroad to within the limits under Buckner’s control.

Confederate forces approached Louisville and Guthrie feared that they might seize the city.  He wrote to Secretary of War Simon Cameron that Kentucky needed disciplined men.  He knew that Indiana and Ohio troops wanted to serve in Kentucky.  He asked Cameron for sixty thousand men to be sent to Kentucky to support Union General William T. Sherman, commander of the District of Kentucky.  If Cameron sent the sixty thousand men, “we will awake the Union men in Tennessee.”  Cameron wrote to Guthrie that “no effort shall be spared to concentrate a powerful army in Kentucky.  The Federal government would procure arms, men, ammunition for Kentucky and with the Union friends in Kentucky, they will drive the rebels into Tennessee.”

During the months of January and February 1862, Union forces under General George Thomas defeated Confederate General Zollicoffer’s forces at the Battle of Mill Springs, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant seized Fort Donelson and Fort Henry on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.  Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston left Bowling Green and fell back to Nashville, Tennessee, but no Confederate defenses had been erected, so he fell back to Corinth, Tennessee.  Kentucky was free of Confederate forces.  By March 1862, work crews repaired the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and began to run trains into Nashville, pouring Union troops, supplies, ammunition, horses, and cattle into the South.

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James Guthrie momument
in Cave Hill Cemetery

On May 11, 1862, Kentucky native and Confederate General John Hunt Morgan attempted to cut the Federal lines of communication by seizing and destroying a train of fifty cars at Cave City and two months later he tore up the track in Nelson County.

During July of 1862, Union General Don Carlos Buell’s army requested Guthrie to send three hundred tons of supplies daily by rail to his army in Alabama.  By July 21, 1862, three hundred horses were ready for shipment to Buell’s army, with another three hundred horses already being sent to his army.  Guthrie used the rails exclusively for supplying General Buell and Union General Jeremiah Boyle’s army, but during his July raid, General John Hunt Morgan defeated Union forces at Tunnel Hill, seven miles north of Gallatin and burned boxcars pushing them into the tunnel, setting the support timbers on fire.  The tunnel collapsed.  Confederate forces drove off the L&N workmen sent to repair the tunnel.

By August 1862, Confederate forces under Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky.  Union General William “Bull” Nelson wrote to Union General Horatio Wright that Guthrie should send an ample supply of mechanics.  Nelson wanted transportation on a massive scale at the depots on the railroad to supply Kentucky with troops.  James Guthrie wrote to Union General in Chief Henry Halleck that he feared Confederate forces would not take Cincinnati, but would cut off the line of communication with General Buell’s army and Louisville and take the city.  The possession of Louisville would give the State to the Confederates and lead to the capture of Buell’s army.  Many Union Generals agreed with Guthrie’s evaluation.  Confederate forces tore up nearly all the bridges and trestles on the main stem and the railroad branches were destroyed and rebuilt, sometimes two, three, or four times.  On September 7, Confederate forces burned the Salt River bridge at Shepherdsville, and L&N workmen rebuilt the bridge, but on September 28, Confederate forces again retook Shepherdsville and destroyed the Salt River bridge a third time, but by October 11, 1862, L&N workmen completed the repairs to the bridge.  Confederate forces did not take Louisville.  Bragg and Smith were never able to combine their forces.  Bragg took Bardstown and Frankfort: Kentucky’s state capitol, and Smith took Lexington, but sixty thousand Union men marched out of Louisville to take on Bragg’s thirty thousand men.  The final showdown between Union and Confederate forces occurred at Perryville, Kentucky.  Union forces suffered heavy losses, but Bragg left the battlefield and headed back into Tennessee.

On October 19, 1862, Albert Fink, chief engineer and superintendent of roads and machinery for the L&N railroad, reached the Green River and prepared to rebuild the bridge, but General Morgan destroyed several bridges and trestles, which Fink and his men just completed repairing, but by November 25, Fink repaired the railroad up to Nashville.

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Close-up of monument plaque

By December 1862, the Federal government relieved Buell of command and replaced him with Union General William S. Rosecrans.  Union forces under Rosecrans faced Bragg’s forces at Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Guthrie tried to supply Rosecrans army, but numerous problems faced his trains between Bowling Green and Nashville.  One of the major problems facing Guthrie was the condition of the railroad and the need for wood and water for the engines between Franklin and Nashville.  Confederate forces destroyed the wood, the water tanks and raising apparatus.  The wells were dried up and the streams reduced in volume.  Bridges and trestles had to be rebuilt along the route.  At Muldraugh Hill, two massive trestles spanned the L&N railroad at Colesburg in Hardin County.  On December 28, during another of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s raids, he managed to burn the trestle at Muldraugh Hill and took Elizabethtown, Kentucky.  Morgan managed to cause $543,000 dollars worth of damage between 1862 and 1863.  By February 1, 1863, Fink reconstructed the trestles and trains ran from Louisville to Nashville.  In his annual report, Fink reported that the L&N’s entire length had been open only seven months and twelve days during the past year.

By September 1863, Rosecrans continued to rely on Guthrie’s railroad to supply his army.  He wrote to Guthrie that he heard that Guthrie’s trains took private freight and express goods over military transportation.  Rosecrans wrote to Guthrie that military “transportation is a military necessity, and we must have it, even if we have to press the whole road into the service, which I shall not hesitate to do unless things are remedied.”

By 1864, guerilla warfare raged in Kentucky and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad became a target for the guerillas. Guthrie wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stanton that he asked for three hundred Henry repeating rifles for his employees on the railroad.  The increase of guerillas bands forced the men who ran the trains to arm themselves.  The Federal government had an interest in the protection of the L&N and the trains, which had been stopped and fired upon by guerillas.  General Sherman assured Guthrie that Union troops would be placed along the L&N railroad to prevent guerilla attacks.

Although the L&N railway became a target for Confederate forces, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, and guerillas, and caused massive damage to the railway, Guthrie and his work crews managed to keep the railways open for the Union army and businessmen.  Revenues in 1861 amounted to $822,998 dollars but by 1865 revenues amounted to $3,143,189, with a net income of $1,592,000.

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In 1864, the Kentucky Democratic committee sent Guthrie as a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Chicago to vote for Union General George B. McClellan and Kentucky Governor Thomas Bramlette for President and Vice President.  The committee also instructed Guthrie to vote against the Wade-Davis Bill and declared that the war was to preserve the Union and not destroy the Constitution.

By 1865, the Kentucky General Assembly elected Guthrie a United States Senator.  He served as Senator from March 4, 1866 until February 19, 1868.  He opposed radical reconstruction measures.  He fought for the protection of white supremacy in the South.  He accepted the 14th Amendment and the freedom of the black man, but he opposed the Freedman’s Bureau.  He found the Bureau a system of plundering the people.  He resented that Kentucky was the only loyal state that was included in the Freedman’s Bureau Bill.  He also supported favoring citizenship for the Indian.  On January 22, 1866, the Kentucky Legislature passed an act, which chartered the Citizen’s Passenger Railway Company, in which James Guthrie was one of the incorporators.  Guthrie organized the Louisville Bridge Company, with the L&N as the major stockholder.  In 1866, construction began on the bridge to connect the L&N with the railway in Jeffersonville.  Guthrie proudly watched as Kentucky’s first railroad-bridge began to span the Ohio River.  Unfortunately, Guthrie would not live to see the bridge’s completion.

Ill health forced Guthrie to resign from the Senate.  Guthrie returned to his home on Walnut Street, between Second and Third Streets.  On April 8, 1868, a stroke forced Guthrie to his bed.  On March 13, 1869, Guthrie died.  His daughters, Mary, Augusta, and Sarah were present with their husbands at his deathbed, including his grandson, James Guthrie Coke and number of his grandchildren.  At the time of his death, James Guthrie was worth $500,000 dollars.  Guthrie’s three daughters buried their father in Cave Hill Cemetery and the daughters bought a huge monument to their father.  The bottom of the inscription reads: “Would You Know His Worth, Ask His Neighbor, His City, His State and His Country.”  If we asked the same question today would we know James Guthrie?  Unfortunately his neighbors are long gone, there are no signs, buildings, or markers named after James Guthrie at the University of Louisville.  There are no state buildings or school buildings named after Guthrie.  The only historical marker dedicated to James Guthrie stands on Guthrie street near 4th Street live.  Has Louisville forgotten her best son?


Spiegel. Ann Ruth, The Public Career of James Guthrie, M.A. Thesis, University of Louisville, 1940.

Yater, George, "We Could Have Been Guthrievull," Louisville Jan/Feb 1994, Vol. 5, 50-51.

Coulter, E. Merton, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, University of North Carolina Press, 249, 1926.

McDowell, Robert, City of Conflict: Louisville in the Civil War, 1861-1865, Louisville Civil War Roundtable Publishers, 1962, 122-124.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

The New York Times

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