When doing my genealogical research, I’ve been especially interested to come across notable Louisvillians in my family tree, both because my mother grew up there and because I still have a lot of cousins there.
One such find was John Millbank Delph. To say he was a cousin seems an understatement: He was my mother’s second cousin three times removed and her third cousin three times removed and her fourth cousin twice removed, on her mother’s side, having also descended from the Germanna colonists.
John Millbank Delph was born in Virginia in 1805. His father died when John was three years old, and his mother moved with her three boys to Scott County, Kentucky, where her father had a farm. John went to school and helped on the farm, then apprenticed to a carpenter in Lexington and opened a bagging and bale-rope manufacturing business. In his early adulthood, John moved to Louisville, becoming a builder and entering real estate, where he made his fortune. He was appointed city tax collector and also held the positions of constable, sheriff of Jefferson County, and deputy marshal of the chancery court. He was elected to the City Council in 1844, 1848, and 1849.
Delph’s most interesting, and surely the most challenging, civic service began when he was elected Mayor of Louisville in 1850. History books tell us about the issues facing Louisville that Delph had to deal with.
During his first administration, Louisville experienced the cholera epidemic that had plagued other parts of the state for several years. It is thought to have spread from Irish immigrant ships from England, killing more than 3,000 in New Orleans and making its way north by steamboat throughout the Mississippi river system. In 1849, cholera killed more than 715 in the state of Kentucky; in 1850 there were 137 reported deaths from cholera across the state, including dozens in Louisville. The Louisville Daily Courier on August 10, 1850, reported that in the city’s population of 60,000, there had been 15 deaths in the past 24 hours, and “only” six were due to cholera.
Mayor Delph called for an all-out drive to improve sanitary conditions throughout the city, and in 1851 a Board of Health was established to recommend measures which would “prevent the introduction of contagious, malignant, dangerous and infectious diseases” to the city. The City Marshal, deputies, police and street inspectors were given authority to “enter into and examine the condition of any building, cellar, lot of land, enclosed vault, privy, or any other place . . . found damp or otherwise prejudicial to public health.” Quarantine laws were to be established and “practitioners of medicine, keepers of public houses, and boarding houses, and officers of steamboats” and cemetery superintendents were required to report all cases of infectious diseases they became aware of. Louisville also began to construct sewers, establish a waterworks and build a station to pump water from the river to the city’s reservoir; by 1866, when the next cholera epidemic hit the country, most of Louisville’s water came from the new system rather than from easily contaminated wells.
John Millbank Delph was again elected Mayor of Louisville on April 6, 1861, less than one week before the start of the Civil War. Again he faced a monumental challenge to keep his city safe. Delph had originally favored neutrality in the conflict between the North and South, but he became a staunch Union supporter. When the Confederate states seceded, he demanded the keys to the state magazine to secure the supply of weapons and ammunition from seizure. Newspaper articles and other historical accounts of the times describe Delph’s further decisive actions to protect Louisville from occupation by Confederate troops.
In early September 1861, General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Confederate troops had advanced as far north as Munfordville in Hart County and were expected to proceed to Louisville. Accordingly, for the purpose of resisting, Mayor Delph, commander of the Home Guard companies (county-based auxiliary Union militia), offered their services to the Union generals, and the city moved rapidly to prepare what defense it could. By the 17th, General Buckner’s men were at Lebanon Junction, more than halfway to Louisville. There they captured a train of cars which they ran across the Rolling Fork River, burning the bridge behind them. Some railroad hands brought the news to Louisville, and Mayor Delph at once called all the Home Guard captains together to ask whether their companies would go out to meet General Buckner; all volunteered. The entire 2,000-man Home Guard appeared at the L&N depot that night, ready to move out. Additional troops from General Rousseau’s Brigade boarded and the train left Louisville about 2:00 a.m. on September 18. A New York Times reporter wrote, “I saw them as they left. They went off excited and exasperated, yet collected, cool, and firm, and without noise or bluster, and I reckon they will give a good account of themselves as though they were veterans in the regular service.” In the end, Buckner’s forces went back to Bowling Green and the Home Guard returned to Louisville.
Again, on April 10, 1862, the New York Times carried news of activities in Louisville, reporting that “in response to Mayor Delph’s call, our citizens assembled in mass last evening, to extend aid to the patriotic wounded in the tremendous battles. . . [unanimously adopting this resolution]: That, whilst we, the citizens of Louisville, deplore the ravages of this war, recklessly and without provocation, waged against the people of the United States, by the rebellion of the south, we rejoice in the great and immortal triumph of the Union arms, near Savanna, Tennessee; that we will cheerfully take care of all the wounded brought to this city, no matter what the number; that we deeply sympathize with the mourning relatives of the loyal dead, who have fallen as the champions of the right; that a deputation of citizens and a steamboat load of hospital stores be immediately sent to Savanna . . . and as many ladies as can go, serve as the deputation from Louisville to the wounded heroes of Savanna.”
In September of 1862, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate forces were approaching Louisville, intent on severing Union supply routes on the Ohio River. Union General “Bull” Nelson made arrangements to defend the city. The New York Herald reported that “Governor Robinson and Mayor Delph have issued strong proclamations to the people.” A pontoon bridge made of coal barges was laid across the river and women and children of the city were ordered to use it to evacuate to Indiana “upon the near approach of the enemy.” On October 1, the Union army marched out of Louisville with 60,000 men, decisively winning when they met the Confederate forces at Perryville. Federal forces suffered 845 dead, 2,851 wounded, and 515 missing; the Confederate toll was 3,396. On the 15th of October, 1862, a week after the battle of Perryville, a long train of ambulances arrived in Louisville, bringing 700 wounded men. Hospitals were set up in public schools, homes, factories and churches. To care for the wounded and sick soldiers, the needy refugees and prisoners of war was a work of immense magnitude. Ultimately, Louisville was never attacked and remained a Union stronghold throughout the war.
John Millbank Delph served as Louisville’s Mayor until April 1863; he was elected to the state legislature in that year, serving until 1865. He must have decided then that he had experienced enough drama for one lifetime; the 1870 Census shows him living comfortably back on his Jefferson County farm, which was valued at $125,000, or more than $2.3 million in today’s dollars. He died of “old age” in 1891 when he was 86. He is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.