The Orphan Brigade: The Kentucky Confederates Who Couldn't Go Home

BOOK: The Orphan Brigade: The Kentucky Confederates Who Couldn't Go Home
5.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Books by William C. Davis


eISBN: 978-0-307-81754-9
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 79–7491
Copyright © 1980 by William C. Davis

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Davis, William C.     1946–
The Orphan Brigade: the Kentucky Confederates who couldn’t go home.

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1. United States—History—Civil War, 1861–1865—
Regimental histories—Kentucky—1st Brigade (C.S.A.)
2. Kentucky Infantry. 1st Brigade (C.S.A.) 1861–
1865—History. I. Title.
E564.5     1st.D38        973.7′469


This work is offered in loving dedication to my grandparents, Colonel Joseph and Melissa Shanks, themselves the products of a Kentucky heritage. They always encouraged a young boy’s interest in history.


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General Simon Bolivar Buckner

The Kentucky State Guard encampment at Louisville, August 23, 1860

Several State Guard companies at the Louisville Fairgrounds in 1860

John Hunt Morgan’s Lexington Rifles in 1860

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Colonel Joseph H. Lewis’ appeal to the Barren County men to join his 6th Kentucky Infantry

Major General John C. Breckinridge

Colonel Robert P. Trabue

Colonel Thomas H. Hunt

Major T. B. Monroe

Captain D. E. McKendree

Brigadier General William Preston

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The brigade bugle

Brigadier General Roger W. Hanson

Colonel Martin H. Cofer

Colonel John W. Caldwell

Colonel Joseph P. Nuckols

Major Rice E. Graves

Brigadier General Benjamin Hardin Helm

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Brigadier General Joseph H. Lewis

Colonel Philip L. Lee

Colonel James W. Moss

Colonel Hiram Hawkins

Lieutenant Colonel John C. Wickliffe

Captain Ed Porter Thompson

Captain Fayette Hewitt

Captain John H. Weller

Governor George W. Johnson

Brigadier General Joseph H. Lewis


have contributed of their time and resources to the preparation of this book. Their mention here is a small but happy measure of recompense for the debt owed. No historian is entirely a free agent. The craft naturally accumulates obligations to those who almost always cheerfully assist in the task of giving the past to the present.

Several private individuals have graciously lent of their private family papers, among them Mrs. J. C. Breckinridge of Summit Point, West Virginia; Mr. and Mrs. Thomas D. Winstead of Elizabethtown, Kentucky; Helene Lewis Gildred of San Diego, California; Mrs. Howard Jones of Glasgow, Kentucky; and W. Maury Darst of Galveston, Texas. All gave materials of substantial value to this current work. Also helpful were items gleaned by several kind Kentucky ladies, among them Sadie M. Wade, Grace E. Reed, and Ruby T. Rabey.

Professional archivists, of course, are the mainstay of any historian’s research, and many contributed to this work. Chief among these have been Michael Musick of the Old Army and Navy Branch, National Archives, Washington, D.C. His is a special patience with the questions and posings of the Civil Warrior. Mrs. Thomas Winstead of the Hardin County Historical Society in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, went far beyond hospitality in making Orphan Brigade documents available to the author. And Pat Hodges of the Kentucky Library, Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green, likewise gave service. Robert Kinnaird and James C. Klotter of the Kentucky Historical Society at Frankfort did all they could to be helpful.

Old and good friends lent their aid whenever asked. Robert J. Younger of Dayton, Ohio, gave unsparingly of his collection of rare Confederate histories and journals, as he has on each of my previous books. Here is a special friend to all who search for the past. Charles Cooney of Alexandria, Virginia; Dennis Byrne of Fairfax, Virginia; and John E. Stanchak of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, each contributed of their time as well in the search for sources.

To everyone the author offers all he can, his thanks.


had an idea. Indeed, for some time in this fall of 1864, there was little else to do. After the incessant months of fighting in Georgia that spring and summer, autumn brought a lull. For the better part of September and October, Thompson and his compatriots had only picket duty and an occasional scout south of Atlanta.

And for Thompson there was even less. He took a bullet in the great charge at Stones River twenty months before, the charge that killed so many of his comrades. It left him unfit for front-line duty. Now he spent his time as brigade quartermaster and commissary—less hazardous and demanding to be sure, but still no simple task for a man whose wound continued to discharge fluid, a man frequently on crutches. The work of filing reports and inspecting and requisitioning stores hardly challenged his bookish, inquiring mind.

He found much on which to reflect this autumn. To most mature minds the outcome of the war was self-evident, as predictable as it was immutable. The Confederacy would not survive the next twelvemonth. The Federals controlled the entire length of the Mississippi, splitting the South in two. Sherman and his “bummers” had wrenched the citadel of Atlanta from its defenders. Robert E. Lee and the once invincible Army of Northern Virginia now huddled in trenches around Petersburg, facing the besieging hordes of a man who lost battles, but never a campaign—Grant. Foreign recognition of the Confederate States of America—and concomitant military intervention and assistance—still lay an unrealized dream, now more distant than ever. To face the overwhelming might of the North, the Confederacy on every front could offer only too few with too little. Thus the winter ahead would be for many like Captain Thompson, the worst of the war, a cruel pause in which he and others must pass the time in agonizing anticipation of the inevitable denouement. The New Year would bring more hopeless fighting, more losses. For the slaves in the South, after two centuries in bonds, it would be the year of “jubilo.” For their masters, it would be the day of judgment.

Thompson had studied history before the war. He knew the exploits of the Roman 10th Legion, of Bonaparte’s Old Guard, of many of the immortal military units of antiquity. And he knew even better the record achieved by his own command in this war. For, though sometimes detached in hospital thanks to his wound, and once held captive in an enemy prison, the captain was always attached in spirit to the 1st Kentucky Brigade. In his kindly eye this brigade’s performance looked every bit as bright as that of the legions of old.

Why not, he thought, prepare a history of the command, a memorial to the men and their service? Should the South through some miracle achieve its independence, then such a history would present to the victorious people an example of the heroic deeds that helped gain their freedom. In the more probable event of defeat, this same book might offer solace, a sense of pride, to the veterans as they faced the dark and uncertain days ahead. And on the most personal level, the work on such a history would help Captain Thompson to pass the lonely hours of the winter. Nothing could dispel the gloomy sense of impending disaster, but at least it would give him something to do.

In his mind he laid the boundaries of his story. Not only would he tell the story of the brigade as a unit, but also that of its component regiments individually. The work must be exhaustive, including even biographies of general and field officers, and of the men in the ranks themselves. He would, he believed, do “more for the private soldier than was ever before the case in military annals.” Fortunately, Thompson knew well all of the officers of the brigade. He prepared an outline or statement of purpose for the contemplated history and circulated it among them. The response was universally affirmative. Thus encouraged, the captain determined to proceed.

By November 1864, as the days grew shorter and the nights more cold, he was ready to commence in earnest. In order to interest the men and officers of the brigade in the project, he put his intent in writing, printed several hundred copies, and distributed it. With the pardonable pride of youth, he declared in the circular, “However this war may terminate, if a man can truthfully claim to have been a worthy member of the Kentucky Brigade he will have a kind of title of nobility.”

Thus launched, the work began, though in a desultory fashion. The brigade staff, chiefly the assistant adjutant general, Fayette Hewitt, offered the use of the organization’s official papers and reports. From the individual companies comprising the several regiments, Thompson gathered muster rolls and a smattering of personal recollections. Slowly the story came together. But of course it was a tale already familiar to the captain. Perhaps because of this, as well as a certain diehard hope that the Confederacy might yet prevail, the Kentuckian did not press the work as he might. Then later in November the brigade resumed active operations. Sherman was moving toward the sea, and the 1st Kentucky Brigade joined in the futile attempt to stop him.

Still, from time to time, Thompson gathered his information. Out of the gleanings came a host of old names, old memories. Men living and dead appeared in the pages of the reports and diaries—names like Hanson, Helm, Trabue, and Breckinridge. Places that once had been only sluggish streams or farmers’ fields, or peaceful churches, came back to him with visions of terrible battle and imperishable glory. Shiloh, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta—all leaped from the stiff, formal script of the handwritten accounts. These men, these places, the memories of both, haunted Captain Ed Porter Thompson. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps these men, this brigade—a unit unique in all the Confederate Army—perhaps they did have “a kind of title of nobility.” If so, they earned it with their blood. In this last war winter, Thompson might well shudder not only from the icy north wind blowing across the South but from the inner chill of recollection as well.

BOOK: The Orphan Brigade: The Kentucky Confederates Who Couldn't Go Home
5.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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