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A General Recalls Civil War Experiences In Kentucky During 1861-1862

Action At Louisville, Frankfort, Wildcat Hill, & Cumberland Gap

By John Coburn, Indianapolis, Ind. - 1895

In the latter part of September 1861, the Thirty-third regiment of Indiana was ordered to report without delay to Gen. Robert Anderson at Louisville. The regiment was not completely organized, only nine companies being mustered in, and some of these had not the full number of men. But an emergency had arisen, and every man possible must be sent to Kentucky at once. At last the period of inaction in that state had terminated; the Confederates had crossed the line and encamped at Bowling Green and Columbus. Zollicoffer was marching an army through Cumberland Gap, and Humphrey Marshall was threatening the eastern border. Gen. Anderson had just opened the headquarters of the Army of the Ohio at Louisville and Rousseau had crossed the Ohio from Camp Joe Holt, at Jeffersonville, and marched out to intercept Buckner's army at Muldraugh's Hill, south a few miles from Louisville. Camp Dick Robinson was established, and Gen. George H. Thomas put in command of it. These preparations for war in Kentucky did not occupy over ten days, and the spell of neutrality that hung over the state for five months vanished like a dream. It seemed as is that state was to be a scene of bloody strife. The burning question was, would the Southern leaders force the fight up to the Ohio River, obstruct its navigation, seize Frankfort, occupy Louisville, threaten Cincinnati, and attempt to carry the state out of the Union?

With these possibilities before them, Govs. Morton, Denison, and Yates pushed, as rapidly as possible, their new troops into Kentucky or to its borders from Cairo to the Big Sandy. During the latter part of the summer and in the early fall of 1861 as many as 400 companies were organized into regiments of infantry and cavalry and into batteries of artillery, in Indiana alone.

With the incomplete regiment I reported to Gen. Robert Anderson on September 25, 1861. Everything about headquarters betokened haste and confusion. The general, a small, delicate, nervous man, complained of ill-health and said that he could not remain long on duty in command of the new department, and that he came to this department at the very urgent request of President Lincoln, and only upon the express promise that he should have the assistance of Cols. Sherman and Thomas, of the regular army (both soon after promoted to the rank of brigadier generals). He said he was greatly in need at his headquarters of officers who had military education and experience. He expressed grave apprehensions of the approach of large Rebel forces into the neighborhoods of Louisville and into the Bluegrass region saying that Thomas had very recently taken command at Camp Dick Robinson and that within a day or so past a few regiments had been ordered to report to him from Ohio, he having then some four or five regiments of Kentucky and Tennessee troops. The day after my arrival I left Louisville by rail with the regiment under orders to report to Gen. Thomas. The train was delayed by an accident at Frankfort, and the surgeon of the regiment, Dr. Joseph G. McPheeters, proposed to go and see his old friend, Gov. Magoffin, who was in the state house nearby. We went and were pleasantly received, informing him jocularly that we had come into Kentucky to help him save the Union. His plan had been to hold firmly Kentucky in a condition of neutrality, thus forming there an immovable barrier 350 miles long in the center of the Union, between the national forces and the armies of the rebellion. He expressed no gratification with our invasion of his state. History records his resignation and departure to his friends a few months after his policy was rejected by the President, after an experiment of almost five months of peace, while the war raged on the western border in Missouri and on the eastern line in Virginia.

Not a man in Frankfort came to see this, the first regiment of Union troops that passed through the capital of Kentucky. As the train moved out of the city we saw quite a large number of Negro women in sheds and fences waving their aprons and sun-bonnets and crying out, "Go 'long, boys; give old Zeelicoffer fits." "Make old Cumb'land Gap bile."

About sunset we reached Lexington. There another atmosphere prevailed. The prominent men of the city came with cordial greetings. Gratz, Dudley, Johnson, Hawkins, Voorhees, Dewees, Yeizer, McAlister, Stephenson, Goodlee, Bush, Letcher, and others, with many ladies, came with bright and eager faces to give us a welcome to Kentucky and to say that they were thankful that the paralysis was no more. We were informed that companies and regiments were being organized for the Union in many places in the state, while many men were quietly abandoning the state, following John C. and W.C.P. Breckinridge, Roger Hanson, and John Morgan. A day's march carried us to Camp Dick Robinson. The Thirty-third was met on the way by Col. Speed Smith Fry and his regiment and escorted into camp. He had long been personally known to me as "Smith Fry," we being alumni of Wabash College and I being on terms of friendship with his brothers and sisters, who resided in Crawfordsville, Ind.

I reported to Gen. Thomas, a plain, mild-mannered, farmer-like man, who seemed to be acting the part of a school teacher in giving instructions to the various young men who constituted his staff. He was constantly referring to them as the regulations of the army and explaining their import in a kind of fatherly way.

He said that, being only a colonel, he would be superseded in a few days by a general. He was pleased and surprised at the readiness with which the volunteers adapted themselves to army life. In the summer just past he had seen something of the volunteers in the Army of the Potomac, and they learned the drill very rapidly; it was astonishing to see how well they could perform the ceremony of guard mounting. On learning from me that I had twenty-seven wagons, of which seven were loaded with ammunition, he expressed agreeable surprise and said that the Thirty-third was the only regiment so far that had come with a wagon train. None of them could move to the front at present. It was all he could do to feed them there, and as soon as I could, I should get ready and march to Crab Orchard, some thirty miles in advance, on the road to Cumberland Gap.

At Camp Dick Robinson, we found four regiments of Ohio volunteers, the Fourteenth, Col. Steadman; the Seventeenth, Col. Connell; the Thirty-first, Col. Walker; and the Thirty-Fourth, Col. Bradley, who came by way of Cincinnati from six to twenty-four hours in advance of us.

Three regiments of Kentuckians commanded by Col. Fry, Col. Wolford, and Col. Bramlette, none of which was filled up to quota, were also in camp there.

In addition, there were about 3,000 men of East Tennessee in camp, the number being increased daily by men of that region. It was something more to be a Union man in Tennessee than in Indiana, I soon learned. I can never forget the appearance of these forlorn and sad-faced men. Gen. S.S. Carter was in command of them, and was organizing them as rapidly as possible. They had no state authorities to arm and equip them and send them to the field. Their supplies were furnished by the general government.

In camp with them were some of the public men of East Tennessee. The leaders of these were Andrew Johnson, a senator, and Horace Maynard, a representative in Congress; both men had great gifts of speech. Andy Johnson, as he was familiarly called, was a man of medium height, broad shoulders and muscular, with a large head and firm rugged countenance; his coal black eyes gleamed with passion or kindled into mirth, and kindness, at will. Maynard, a tall, slender, long-haired, swarthy man, with the strange stern look of an Indian, was a fit companion for Johnson. I heard them speak to the Tennesseeans one night at the headquarters. With such a subject, with such an audience, such powerful orators seemed to burn and blaze with the intense power of the ancient prophets. Such an exalted situation has rarely been furnished to the orator; there were more tears and sobs than cheers. Home, country, fathers, mothers, wives, and children had all been left behind. I take off my hat to the soldiers of East Tennessee.

In a few weeks I saw these men, armed and in the ranks, faithful, obedient, gallant soldiers. I saw them in June 1862, the day we captured Cumberland Gap, as they marched up Powell's Valley, their families and friends standing by the roadside or rushing into their ranks to greet them on their return. Tears, laughter, shouts of joy, and sobs of sorrow mingled strangely together as the ranks passed slowly along and approached the land from which they had fled a year before.

After a few days' stay in Camp Dick Robinson, my command marched to Crab Orchard, at the border of the hill country. Here we went into camp. In the region beyond, the population was generally loyal to the government. The men of the hills were a fearless, independent race, ready to think and act for themselves. Garrard and Wolford had already recruited two full regiments of these gallant men; the first named of infantry, the second of cavalry. Garrard held the advanced position at Camp Wildcat, some thirty-five miles south of Crab Orchard. The road there was a mountain pass, a good position in which to intercept the forces of Zollicoffer, now approaching from Tennessee.

Daily men came into camp giving me information as to the position of the Rebel forces. All of them urged an advance into the mountains, as they termed this region. Garrard earnestly begged for reinforcements. I visited him one night at Rockcastle River, some two miles from his camp. He insisted on my coming to his help at once upon my return to Crab Orchard. I did so as rapidly as possible, having to levy upon the farmers for transportation in the absence of my teams to the rear for supplies. The Thirty-third arrived at Camp Wildcat on the 20th of October in the afternoon. That night the Seventeenth Ohio came into camp, also Wolford's cavalry. Gen. Schoepf also arrived and took command. The pickets and scouts gave notice that the Confederates were but a mile away on the south. That night the Fourteenth Ohio and the First Ohio Battery came into camp. Early on the morning of the 21st the enemy attacked us and was repulsed. The attack was renewed later in the day, with a like result. That night, the enemy began to retreat. He was allowed to go off unmolested; notwithstanding , the opinion of all the regimental commanders was in favor of a vigorous pursuit. Every road, ravine and pass was known to hundreds of Kentuckians in camp, and it was possible to have given the army of Zollicoffer great trouble in getting out of the dilemma in which his forces were placed. Gen. Schoepf was utterly opposed to a further advance at that time.

This was the first contest of the Army of the Ohio; in it about 4,000 men on each side were in the field. The attack was made by Gen. Rains' command upon the Thirty-third Indianans reinforced by Wolford's cavalry and the Fourteenth Ohio and Bernett's battery. The bulk of the army was not engaged.

Schoepf's brigade at length advanced to London, and remained there until the department commander at Louisville became alarmed for its safety and ordered a retreat to Crab Orchard, leaving a regiment at London. It would have been impossible to haul supplies for Schoepf's command there in winter, such was the condition of the roads. There were men enough in this army to have repaired and turnpiked this road by the 1st of June, next following, to Cumberland Gap, thus pushing a thorn into the side of the rebellion at a vital point and holding a perpetual threat over the great eastern and western artery of the Confederacy-the Virginia and Tennessee railroad-worth more than 50,000 men to the Union cause every day from its completion. Had this been done, a large army could have been subsisted there when Kirby Smith and Bragg came into Kentucky, and could have gone to this railroad and cut the Confederacy in twain in the fall of 1862. The Kentuckians and Tennesseeans begged and pleaded for this in vain.

It is safe to say that had three months supplies for 80,000 men been deposited in Cumberland Gap, Kirby Smith would not have invaded Kentucky in the fall of 1862. He would never have dared to leave the line of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad, as it was left comparatively defenseless.

When these armies got in our rear we had but a scanty supply of provisions and feed for a few days. It was impossible to lay up a store. The evacuation of Cumberland Gap was a necessity, with starvation or surrender staring in the face of 10,000 men, under Gen. Morgan, of Ohio. Greater armies occupied the attention of the authorities at Washington, but a greater opportunity never was offered at a smaller cost during that eventful time.

As the evacuating army faced toward the North and wound down the declivities of the mountain, taking a last look at the towering cliffs and vast earthworks of this great central fortress, there was not a soldier so thoughtless as not to feel that we were the victims of a blunder, which left to our enemies, as an idle plaything, that which had cost so much treasure, labor, watching, marching, and struggle.

The march throughout the mountain region to Greensburg, on the Ohio, was safely made over the most difficult roads. We heard on the way that Bragg and Kirby Smith had captured Louisville and Cincinnati and that Lee had occupied Washington with his victorious army, and only learned the true condition of affairs when we reached the Ohio River. Not a letter, not a newspaper, not a man could be found to give us true information.

My command was again ordered to Central Kentucky in the fall of 1862. The agitation of the slavery question had begun to excite many persons. An includent occurred under my eye that may illustrate the condition of affairs. A slave of Judge Robertson, who had been Chief Justice of Kentucky, escaped and came into the lines of the Twenty-second Wisconsin, where he was employed as a cook. This regiment was commanded by Col. William L. Utley, in the division commanded by Gen. A. Baird, and the brigade was under my command. Judge Robertson desired an order from the Division Commander upon Col. Utley to deliver up to him the slave. This he declined to give. The brigade commander declined to do this also. Col. Utley was told that he ought to allow Judge Robertson to go into his camp and talk to his slave freely, and if the latter would go with him, then to allow him to go, that no restraint should be put upon the slave, except that if he wished to order him out of the camp that would be proper. He could do this at any time of his own accord, without orders. He should tolerate no disorder in preventing Judge Robertson from taking his slave away peaceably, if he was willing to go.

The slave remained in the camp. Whether Col. Utley prevented his going, or the men in camp did so, or if he refused to go with the judge, I have forgotten. Soon after this the judge sued Col. Utley in the United States Court at Louisville and obtained judgment against him for the value of the slave. This judgement was there rendered against him. He, being compelled to pay the amount, applied to Congress for relief, and a bill was passed making an appropriation to that effect some twenty years ago. It is supposed that this was the settlement in full of the last debt charged up to the account of human slavery in the United States.

My army experience brought me in contact with a large number of Kentuckians who never wavered in their devotion to the Union cause. Rousseau I had known as a member of the Supreme Court bar, and as a representative and senator in the Indiana Legislature. No wonder he came into Indiana to organize the Louisville Legion. Few men possessed such grand and imposing personal tributes. A finer specimen of manhood has rarely been seen. Add to this, courage, quickness, generosity, and common sense, and you have the basis of heroic character. There was Wm. J. Landrum, of the Nineteenth Kentucky, a mild, modest, quiet yet brave man, a poet, a musician, an accurate man of business, careful and methodical. And Smith S. Fry was a man well-educated, a sound lawyer, a good speaker, a daring soldier, and a most worthy citizen. There, too, was Theophilus Garrard, a strong, plain, firm man, who had his convictions of right and wrong and stood by them; a farmer born in the mountains, a hale fellow well met with the men of his region. He had been across the plains, when the California gold fever raged, with his ox teams, as staunch a Union man as the oaks on his native hills. There, too, was Frank Wolford, the rough-hewn man of the hills, kind-hearted to a fault, bold, manly, blunt of speech, frank and free of expression as the air of his mountain forests, and ready to fight for his principles and his rights. Seldom has such an original rough diamond of a man been seen. I might mention Lindsay, Adams, Boyle, Speed, McKinney, Dunlap, Luke Mundy, Elkins, Bramlette, and many others; men of rare courage and noble manhood, but time and space will not suffice.


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