Rolling Fork Historic Preservation Association

According to local lore, Samuel Pottinger Jr., whose family had been in the area since the late 1700s, founded the town of New Haven Kentucky in 1819. The sale of the first town lot was recorded in the Nelson County courthouse in 1824 and the town was formally recognized by act of the Commonwealth Legislature on April 14, 1839. The location was ideal for a town, setting at the upper reaches of the Rolling Fork River and astride the Cumberland Pike.

From nearly the start, the town boasted many conveniences including a steam grist and sawmill where flatboats were built for the shipment of produce downstream. The street leading to the flatboat landing and the river ford was lined with several warehouses, storehouses, and an inclined wheel used to run a wool carding machine. The four-corners formed by the intersection of the newly established Bardstown and Green River Turnpike and the Springfield - Elizabethtown road, were fully occupied by stores and a large hotel, which also served as a stagecoach stop.

As the years passed, New Haven continued to grow and, by 1855, it was a substantial place with a business district containing several stores and warehouses, and a moderately large local population. The large Catholic population in town had built a large brick church, St. Catherine’s, at the north end of town in 1845 and a Methodist church was built across the street from it a few year years later.

In 1856, a branch line of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad arrived in town, adding one more mode of travel and increasing the opportunities for additional businesses. The railroad was completed to Lebanon by 1860 and business in New Haven boomed. More substantial buildings were built to handle the extra commerce and by 1861 an additional hotel had been constructed along the railroad. That very same year Mr. Silvester Johnson, the Representative from Nelson County and a local businessman completed his new combination mansion and business building at the major crossroads in town. By the eve of the American Civil War, the population had grown to around 600 souls, not including the slaves and free blacks.

The American Civil War began at 4:30 am on the 12th of April 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. On the 16th of April, President Lincoln called for 50,000 troops to put down the rebellion, but the Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky gave a less than enthusiastic response. A supporter of the secession movement, that was the limit of the action that the Governor could perform in support of the Confederacy. The Commonwealth legislature leaned more towards the Union and had cut off monetary support to the secessionist leaning State Guard.

On May 16th, after a month of discussions and unable (or unwilling) to take sides, the legislature of the Commonwealth of Kentucky met to consider staying neutral in the coming fight. The representative from Nelson County, the Honorable Silvester Johnson, a New Haven resident for over twenty years voted with the majority and agreed to the motion. On the 20th of May, Kentucky officially declared neutrality. Neither the North nor the South would be allowed to move through the state for any warlike purpose, and recruiting for either side was forbidden.

Map of New Haven in 1861

Much of the remainder of 1861 was spent carefully watching and following the news of the war. Groups of Kentuckians continued to secretly form military units in support of both sides - both in Kentucky and in the surrounding states. With Kentucky officially neutral, most of the battles fought in 1861 were in Missouri and in Virginia.

This uneasy peace would not last and on September 4, 1861 General Leonidas Polk ordered his Confederate troops into Kentucky. The next day, Polk’s troops seized and occupied Columbus, Kentucky in the far west, effectively ending Kentucky’s attempt at neutrality. Two days later Union troops, under an obscure Brigadier General named Ulysses S. Grant, occupied Paducah.

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