A Preacher's Experiences During The Civil War


By John W. Cunningham - 1903

The Kentucky Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, includes Oldham, Shelby, Spencer, Nelson, and other counties above an extension of that line. Below is the Louisville Conference. The Kentucky Conference for 1862 commenced its session at Flemingsburg, September 17th. I rode with James C. Minor, then on the Taylorsville circuit, in a buggy to Lexington, via Lawrenceburg and Versailles. At Lawrenceburg, we saw Confederate soldiers, and they were seen at Versailles. We reached Lexington before noon on Tuesday the 15th. The city was thronged with Confederate soldiers on foot and on horseback. The fairgrounds were used as a camping ground for the infantry.

I saw "Abe Buford" swear in a company of Scott County mounted men in citizens' dress. There was little ceremony about it. I chanced to be standing by the courthouse yard railing, saw the horsemen ride up, and right about face their horses. Abraham, afterward known as "General Buford," was standing on the steps of an office building on the east side of the square. He appeared to be a large, substantial, full-formed, country man. He spoke a few words, which I could not distinguish, raised his right hand, and up went the right hands of the men. He spoke again, repeating the obligation to the Confederacy; they gave the required answer, down went his and their hands, and they were transformed from citizens of the United States to soldiers of the Confederate States.

I found about the courthouse square several preachers on their intended way to the conference. Among the preachers in the city were three presiding elders, representing three districts; the Lexington, Harrodsburg, and Shelbyville. They included 38 pastoral charges and 43 preachers. The elders were J. C. Harrison, J. G. Bruce, and L. G. Hicks. All in the city were in a state of uncertainty.

Bishop Kavanaugh was in the city. I called to see him. He asked me to call on General Kirby Smith and request for the Bishop's permission for him and all his preachers in the city to go to Flemingsburg to the conference. When I reached the courthouse square, I saw General Smith crossing a street. I never had seen him, but I had seen a late picture of him wearing spectacles and with a black, feathered, stylish, military hat on his head. He was a man of medium size and height, was dressed in best style of Confederate gray, and was altogether a stylish and handsome man.

I went directly to him and as he reached the sidewalk, asked, "Is this General Smith?"

He answered, "I am the man."

I introduced myself and delivered the request of Bishop Kavanaugh.

He promptly answered, "My army is thundering at the gates of Cincinnati, and I cannot allow any person to pass through my lines."

I urged that we were not men of war, were not going on other than a religious mission, and that there would be no danger to his cause in allowing us to cross his line.

He hesitated so far as to say, "Call at my headquarters in an hour; hence, and I will give you my decision."

I called, but did not get to see him. I saw his chief of staff, who said, "The general's decision is that none of your party can cross our line."

I repeated to Bishop Kavanaugh. He then said, "Can't you run the blockade, get to Flemingsburg, tell the preachers who may be there to hold the conference session, but leave the stationing of the preachers to me, and I will attend to that when I see a favorable time for it?"

I went back to the courthouse fence about which preachers lingered and repeated to them the state of affairs. Walter C. Campbell, from Maxville, came up and said, "Brethren, we have all to go home. I have seen the provost marshal, and he told me, 'If any of your men attempt to cross our line, I will put them in jail and keep them there until the war ends.'"

Visions of a coming conference faded from the minds of all but two.

Young George T. Gould was there. I knew that he came alone from Simpson-ville in his buggy and desired to join the Confederacy. It was said to him, "Let us get in your buggy and go to Flemingsburg."

"Agreed," said George. The others were amazed at our purpose, but within 20 minutes we were on our way to Flemingsburg.

We drove out from the courthouse square along the street that led onto the Paris Turnpike; we followed it to Paris, then to Millersburg, 24 miles. We saw the pickets at their places and cavalry in small parties from two to ten scattered along the highway, as far as Millersburg.

Not a soldier asked us, "Whither goest thou?" or spoke to us about anything. We met men and women in carriages at different points, whom I interviewed as to the state of affairs beyond us. All were Kentuckians who had been to Cincinnati and were homeward bound. In Cincinnati they were requested to get passes to ascend the Ohio River on a steamboat. At Maysville there were Union soldiers, but the travelers had not been asked to show their passes anywhere. We passed Millersburg about dark, but went on to Alec Miller's, where we spent the night, and then continued our journey. We started early, left the main highway in Nicholas County, struck across the county, and about the Licking River, came upon a few Union soldiers who said nothing to us. They were probably scouts sent out from Maysville to look after the rebels of Kirby Smith's army.

We reached Flemingsburg Wednesday morning about 10:30 and found the conference in session in the courthouse, W. B. Kavanaugh, brother of the Bishop, presiding. About half the preachers were there. I delivered my message from the Bishop. The preachers were about half and half in their sympathies as to "Union" and "Rebellion." But as to the Bishop's proposition to leave the stationing of the preachers to him, rebellion was strongly developed.

By a unanimous vote, they decided that the session or the conference, if not complete in the attendance of its members, should be complete in all it business departments. It was determined that the presiding officers should station the preachers for the ensuing conference year, by and with such assistance as might be available. As I had seen the Bishop and three presiding elders in Lexington, had ignored the decree of the chief Confederate General, and come through his army to reach the conference, I was invited by a unanimous vote to assist the presiding officer in the stationing work.

So, with ten presiding elders as helpers, we met every night and every afternoon in determining the whereabouts of the preachers for the year to come. W. C. Kavanaugh was presiding elder of the Covington district, and S. L. Robertson of the Maysville district. There were two mountain districts. W. W. Chamberlain was presiding elder of the Irvine district and Elias Botner, of the Barbourville district. There were only four conference preachers in the two districts. Ten circuits had been supplied that year by as many local preachers. The mountain presiding elders were absent, and Elkanah Johnson, who had been a presiding elder in the mountains, was called in to help us.

The light of Thursday morning revealed the fact that the town and courthouse were in the company of soldiers. The officers were protected by arms. Anyone could come into town without a pass, but no one was allowed to go out without a pass, and no pass could be obtained without proof of loyalty. The commanding major had an advisor in the person of the then jailer of the county, who was often present to pass his opinion on applicants for passes. It was manifest that so far as some preachers were concerned, the conference was in a military box not to be easily unlocked for them. The conference sessions were held on succeeding days in the Baptist church, and the stationing of the preachers went on in an upper room of a private house.