Mystery at the Museum: What treasure links two opposing Civil War families?

On the second floor of the Bluegrass Heritage Museum in the Williams-Holloway Room, a battered 161-year-old heirloom sheltered within a glass case connects two families who were on opposing sides of the Civil War.

James H. Holloway was a colonel in the Union Army who fought with Ulysses S. Grant. Molly Williams, who lived with her family on a farm called The Pines in Clark County, was the daughter of a general in the Confederate Army, John S. Williams—who would later become a U.S. senator—and his wife, Ann. Eventually James and Molly met, fell in love and married.

Fortunately, this family drama did not play out like the Capulets and Montagues, or to put a Kentucky spin on it, the Hatfields and McCoys. Rather, following the war the families united as one and peace prevailed between them. In fact, James and Molly lived at The Pines—Ann’s family home.

Among the portraits (including one of Williams), bullets, buttons, buckles and other Civil War memorabilia on the walls and in the cases in the Williams-Holloway Room are personal effects that belonged to James, including his Union coat.

Another is a black leather-bound diary that James kept during his time fighting for the Union, from 1860 to 1863. In the journal, James recorded his thoughts about the battle at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, which fell on February 6, 1862, and at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, which took place February 13 to 16 of that same year.

Both rivers were key to the success in the Western Theater. For the Union Army, a win would mean forcing the Confederacy to give up southern Kentucky and much of Middle and West Tennessee. Both battles, led by Grant, were decisive victories for the Union and immediately thrust the general into the national spotlight.

It was also something of a milestone for Col. James Holloway.

In his diary James wrote: “At Fort Donelson on Feb 15, 1862, in presence of General Grant and staff, with my company I was ordered to intercept Col Forest who attempted with his regiment of cavalry to cut their way out south through our lines. We succeeded in turning them back and with this incident and other successful action in 50 battles General Grant brevetted me Major.”

The diary provides a soldier’s factual but personal perspective about moments in the Civil War—both significant and every day—and the role he played in those moments. For instance, James also writes of pursuing John Hunt Morgan into Ohio. Morgan, the Confederate general who raised the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment and fought at Shiloh, launched a raid in Kentucky in 1862. In the case of James’ pursuit, Morgan escaped along with many of his men.

The James H. Holloway Diary is considered such a treasure that it has been transcribed and published. The book ($16) is sold exclusively in the museum’s gift shop. For more information about this Civil War diary and other treasures to be found at the Bluegrass Heritage Museum, visit Museum hours: 12-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Admission: $5/adults; $2/ages 6-18 and seniors.