Chautauqua characters Harlan, Green featured at battle reenactment

Oct. 8 marks the 147th anniversary of the Battle of Perryville — the most destructive Civil War battle in Kentucky. Kentucky Chautauqua performers and father-and-son duo Ed and Ethan Smith will participate in reenactment events this weekend, Oct. 3-4, as they portray Justice John Marshall Harlan and Orphan Brigade soldier Johnny Green.

Johnny Green was 19 when the Civil War broke out, and was one of the only soldiers in the Orphan Brigade alive when it ended. Orphan Brigade soldiers were unable to return to their home state of Kentucky until the war was over — lest they be tried for treason — because they chose to fight for the Confederacy. Though he had learned to love the Union, as his mother was from Boston, Green felt passionately that states should have the right to govern themselves. And when President Abraham Lincoln called for men and arms, Green left his job in Florence, Ala., to travel to Bowling Green, Ky., to join the Confederacy on the day before his 20th birthday. Green’s story, as detailed in a journal he wrote for his daughters years later, provides extraordinary accounts of courage and bravery, and brings the story of the Orphan Brigade to life.

During his 33-year tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented in some of the court’s most important civil rights cases, earning him the title of “The Great Dissenter.” In one of the most famous dissents in U.S. Supreme Court history, Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of segregation, Harlan wrote: “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows or tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

His words were an inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement to Thurgood Marshall, NAACP chief counsel who would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Marshall cited the dissent as he argued to end segregation in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education. Though Harlan was born in Boyle County to a prominenty slaveholding family, and was once a slaveholder himself, he fought for the Union during the Civil War after graduating from Centre College and earning his law degree at Transylvania. As he became involved in Kentucky politics—being elected as county judge of Franklin County and Kentucky attorney general, and running two unsuccessful campaigns for governor in the early 19702—his political leanings shifted, and he became a major force in the Republican Party. He was often chastised for contradicting himself politically, being once a slaveholder and later one of slavery’s biggest opponents. But Harlan always maintained that the law afforded him the right to change his mind—and his support for equal rights after the Civil War never waned.

For information and an event schedule, visit Perryville Battlefield’s Web site. For information about Kentucky Chautauqua, click here.


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