WILL UPHOLD THE FLAG
Life of Colonel Reuben May
Dale & Sharon Sternberg
Fred T. May
A book about the life of Colonel Reuben
May has been published by Gateway Press of Baltimore, MD and is now
available for purchase. This 318 page book with index and photos
relates the life of a son
of Thomas May [1787-1867], who was born in a log cabin on Shelby
Creek in present-day Pike County, Kentucky.
If one word were chosen to describe the
Reuben May we discovered while researching and writing this book, it
would be passionate. Once this man -the oldest child of a
pioneer family in the remote mountains of Eastern Kentucky- set a
goal or took up a cause, he pursued it with a tenacious fervor.
During Reuben's childhood and early years of marriage he developed
qualities that destined him to become a leader of men. The Kentucky
State Militia recognized his leadership abilities when he became a
Lieutenant Colonel in the Pike County Militia by the time he was thirty.
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In his twentieth year Reuben married
Emmeriah Honaker, the daughter of a prominent public official,
surveyor and landowner in Pike County. Their parents were well-acquainted
with each other and it was a good match. Reuben's father was a large
landowner who accumulated a substantial estate during his lifetime.
Reuben and his siblings -like all children in the region- had a
limited education, but they were fortunate that their father could
help each of them establish large farms for their own families.
Impatient to find new ways to build a
better life for his growing family, Reuben became acquainted with
some influential men in the state who needed someone to manage their
investments in saltmaking operations in Clay County. At the age of thirty-four
-and most likely with some financial backing from his father- he
ventured west over the mountains to establish himself in the salt
manufacturing business. His ninth child was born soon after the
From deeds and court records we know
that Reuben was not averse to taking risks. He was determined to gain
100% ownership of the facilities he operated and at every opportunity
he bought shares from his partners -with mortgages on properties as
security- even though he knew that previous owners had failed to
manufacture and transport salt from the region and manage to earn
sufficient income to pay their debts. After about ten years in
business, Reuben's creditors also began to foreclose on his mortgaged
properties. Soon afterward he was faced with a duty to serve his
country in the Civil War.
Although Reuben was well aware that his
brothers and in-laws were showing support of the rising cause of the
Confederacy, he made his choice for the Union with the same vigor he
made other choices in life -with great determination. Impassioned
speeches that he gave years later were unequivocal in their message:
"The old flag
under which Kentucky had thrived and grown, and under whose beautiful
folds I have grown to manhood shall be my flag, and I will defend it
against my neighbors, relatives and brothers who assail it, though my
life be taken, I shall stand for the Union, I will uphold the flag!"
Reuben's military enlistment ran for
three years and during that period his leadership abilities were
sharply honed. He trained his men in the fundamentals of warfare,
encouraged them with his speeches, was wounded at a major battle at
Stones River, Tennessee, and led his regiment in the Siege of
Jackson, Mississippi. His inspiring speeches to the troops, the
confidence placed in him by military superiors and his promotion to
Colonel in the Seventh Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment tell us
of the officer he became.
The years that Reuben spent in the Union
Army defined him for the remaining thirty-eight years of his life. He
became known -to friend and foe alike- as Col. Reuben May. While the
war was still enmeshed in massive troop movements and bloody battles,
his wife and nine of their children had to flee to Wisconsin to seek
refuge from Rebel marauders in Clay County. After mustering out of
service, Reuben moved to a large farm they had purchased in Vernon
County and his pent-up political ambitions soon came to the forefront.
Like his uncle Samuel May, who had
served in both houses of the Kentucky State Legislature, Reuben was
nominated and elected to serve as a Republican in the 1870 Wisconsin
State Assembly. Of his eight political races from 1869 to 1890, he
won only two -both to the Assembly by large majorities on the
Republican ticket. In Reuben's six other Wisconsin races -one for
State Assembly, one for State Senate, two for U.S. Congress and two
for Governor- he spearheaded the hopes of four different parties.
Two races for legislative seats were
lost by only a few votes, but the others were not close contests. He
became a spokesman for popular movements of the period, including:
the Grange movement opposing the power of railroads and excessive
grain elevator charges; "greenbacks" vs. the gold standard;
compulsory education of children; and women's suffrage. Details of
the ideologies he espoused are preserved in his speeches and in
editorials of supporting and opposing newspapers in Wisconsin.
There is no lack of evidence that in
every cause he supported, Col. Reuben May was a very passionate man.