Lewis Kinsey Harris left home before he went off to the Civil War. Even though he was still a relatively young man, he had moved on from his father’s house. And his mother was dead.
L.K. was born on May 15, 1838 in South Bend, Indiana. His parents, Henry and Mary, had only been in that area for a few years. They were from Hagerstown in Wayne County, Indiana, but in the early 1830s one of Henry’s sisters had died of the milk sickness that rampaged through that area and Henry’s father had moved the whole family to South Bend.
Henry and Mary already had one young son when they left Hagerstown and L.K. was born shortly after they settled in South Bend. L.K.’s grandfather Jonas built and ran a grist mill; Henry dabbled in land speculation, buying several properties in the area. At a public auction run by the county sheriff when L.K. was a month old, Henry picked up Lot #90 in Fowler’s Addition to the town of St. Joseph’s Iron Works or Mishawaka for five dollars and twelve and a half cents because the former owner couldn’t pay his bills. Whether Henry planned to live there or just flip the property for a profit is unclear, but either way he got a great deal.
A few years later, when L.K. was only three or four years old, his grandfather Jonas died and Henry moved his wife and two young sons back to Hagerstown. There he continued speculating in land and trying other businesses; in addition to several city plots in Hagerstown, he apparently owned a warehouse along the Whitewater Canal. In the 1840s canals were still an important means of transportation and a potential pathway to success; within a few decades they would be entirely eclipsed by the railroads. The shift from canals to railroads probably had a profound and negative impact on Henry’s fortunes.
Even while he was speculating in land or experimenting with new businesses, Henry was always a blacksmith. In the early 1830s, he had the first blacksmith shop in Hagerstown. I don’t know whether he practiced smithing at all while he was in South Bend, but considering the important role a blacksmith played in a frontier farming community, he probably did. After he returned to Wayne County he continued to do the work of a blacksmith.
Henry also seems to have been a bit of a seeker after wealth. In addition to his land speculating, there is some evidence that he joined in the Gold Rush of 1849. Several companies of men left from Wayne County in 1849 and 1850, and Henry is listed in one of the records for a group from Hagerstown.
If Henry did leave for the gold fields of California in the spring of 1849, he left eleven-year-old L.K. with his older brother Cornelius and his mother and several younger children. Most likely L.K. had to be the stable and strong leader of the family if this was the case.
L.K.’s mother Mary was a “weak, feeble woman” (according to their family doctor) who suffered from a “long tedious neuralgic affection of the gastric plexus complicated with hypertrophy of the right ventricle of the heart.” Her final years were surely a struggle and on January 24, 1857, she died.
Less than a year after Mary’s death, Henry remarried to a younger woman who was most likely his distant cousin. Henry and Elizabeth Beeson were wed on November 15, 1857.
After the death of his mother, L.K.’s brother Cornelius seems to have gone off the deep end. Finally in October of 1858, he was admitted to the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, a year and a half after his mother’s death and just short of a year after his father’s remarriage. Several pages of court documents explain the reasons for his admission to the asylum, including that he “could not be prevailed upon to change his wearing apparel, will refuse to eat when the food is offered to him…[and] when vexed or displeased, often threatens to kill himself.”
Around the time of his mother’s death and his brother’s institutionalization L.K. left home. The nation was in a deep depression called The Panic of 1857. His family was probably in a deep disarray of its own.
L.K. moved from Hagerstown to Richmond, a larger city and the county seat of Wayne County. Whether he left of his own volition or whether his father sent him to Richmond to make a living is hard to tell. But by 1859, twenty-one-year-old L.K. was living and working in Richmond.
Richmond was the big city (population, 6,600 in 1860). It undoubtedly held many opportunities for a young man looking to get a start in life. At the very least, it offered L.K. a new beginning and a little separation from a town and a family that surely evoked some painful memories.
Within a few years, he’d be off to the Civil War–and the greatest adventure of his life.