Family Stories of the Civil War
Kentuckians share personal stories of their ancestors’ fight in the Civil War and Kentucky’s unique position between the North and South
When Captain Ambrose Duvall took his small granddaughter horseback riding, she had an unusual way of holding on and not falling. She would hook her tiny finger into the hole between his thumb and index finger. Staying on the horse was likely the thing that mattered. In later years, another granddaughter talked of his mangled hand and how she was afraid of him, this stern old gentleman with a long white beard.
Another granddaughter talks of playing with an old uniform in the attic, at the time oblivious to Private Ben Dickerson’s involvement in the Great Conflict. “Many children weren’t interested; it was just Grandpa,” says Jim Prichard.
But as the years pass, recollections and stories start to matter just a bit more, and when it comes to the American Civil War, there are stories and photographs of ancestors, and pictures in the mind of what it must have been like some 145 years ago, from 1861 to 1865, when states fought against states and brother against brother. The Civil War has been enhanced and altered by memory, points out Brian D. McKnight, assistant professor of history at Angelo State University in Texas, who has extensively researched Kentucky’s war experience and has a book forthcoming. It is important not to allow the mythology of the war to obscure the factual story.
For most of the 100,000 to 130,000 Union and Confederate soldiers from Kentucky, no photos remain.
Most were white males, but African-Americans fought as soldiers, too, and even a few women, disguised as men. Melverina Peppercorn from Kentucky reportedly joined the Confederate army with her twin brother. She performed camp duties and could shoot as well as any man. Mary Jane Johnson, as a teenager, reportedly served in the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.A.) and was captured. Most women served valiantly on the homefront, keeping families and farms going, encouraging the soldiers with letters and homemade goods.
Jim Prichard had always heard the story about his great-great-grandfather Duvall’s involvement at Gettysburg. As research room supervisor with Kentucky’s Department for Libraries and Archives, he has also learned to treat stories with a degree of skepticism, but Confederate service records and a pension file revealed that Duvall had indeed been shot at Gettysburg.
Timothy H. Downey’s great-great-grandfather Adam Ellis enlisted in July of 1861 and served until December 1864. His regiment, the 1st Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.A.), saw a great deal of combat and was very well respected and feared by the enemy, says Downey.
From the pension file, Downey learned that Grandpa Adam was in the Atlanta Campaign and participated in General Stoneman’s raid to the south of Atlanta to cut rail lines into the city. Ellis, who died in 1926 and is buried on family land in Ellisburg, is one of 14 Federal and 11 Confederate officers and men in Downey’s family tree.
Except for a pension claim letter sent to a great-great-grandfather who served in the 8th Kentucky, Downey has no tangible family artifacts from the war, but has ordered and placed replacement government markers for four of his ancestors, thus securing a special sort of artifact that will help future generations to remember.
Steven L. Wright of Elizabethtown has spent the past 34 years doing historical and genealogical research, including research on ancestors who fought in the Civil War. Wright’s ancestor, James Henry Spalding, joined the Union Army’s 15th Kentucky Infantry in the autumn of 1861 to avoid prosecution on a murder charge, and deserted on the way to the Battle of Perryville in October 1862. The next year, he obtained a commission as a first lieutenant in Company F, 37th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry, where he served honorably for one year.
Researching the Union’s 6th Kentucky Cavalry a few years ago, Wright got the surprise of his life when he found a March 1865 article in the Louisville Daily Journal: “... A band of fifteen guerillas, led by Wm. Hughes, attacked the freight train on the Lebanon Branch railroad ... The guerillas made their retreat toward Miller’s. J.H. Spaulding (sic), once a Lieutenant in the 57th (sic) Kentucky volunteer infantry, and his brother William were said to be with these guerillas.”
In an instant, Wright learned that Spalding had switched allegiance to the Confederate side. “To read that was like reading a shocking event in my family,” says Wright, who has one of the best collections of Kentucky Civil War newspapers in the state. Spalding was later brought before a military tribunal in Louisville, convicted of being a guerrilla, and sentenced to death, but eventually he was given a full pardon and sent back to Howard’s Mill, now known as Howardstown, where he died in 1877 still as a young man.
Guerrillas Raid Kentucky
It is easy to make assumptions about a war 145 years ago. One is that Kentuckians had a slightly easier time during the war, not having the likes of an Antietam or Gettysburg on its soil and not being in the path of William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea. But if we look carefully through the lens of time at the solemn faces of Kentucky men and women in the 1860s, and listen to what historians and some families are now uncovering in old records, a more accurate picture begins to emerge that it was not only the huge armies of men that made wartime so personal and dangerous for families.
Small bands of soldiers, many of them deserters, and even individual soldiers roamed towns and countrysides. Confederate guerrillas struck throughout Kentucky. Horse farms in the Lexington area were raided. Men too old to enlist and women tending their children and homes were exposed to the dread and uncertainty of not knowing who might ride onto their land. Nowhere in Kentucky was this worse than in eastern Kentucky. “With small independent forces or individuals, there is no way to manage that,” says Brian McKnight, author of Contested Borderland (The University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and a forthcoming book on Champ Ferguson, a Confederate guerrilla from southern Kentucky. “The individual conflict is much more scarring.” Thus the unforgettable deep emotion—some positive, some negative—that some people feel toward the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed martial law for all of Kentucky on July 5, 1864, and it continued for the remainder of the war and afterward until October 12, 1865. Many Kentuckians complained about this, and it did little to quell the more volatile borderland regions of the state.
An estimated 1,798 members of Kentucky’s Union units died in combat. Another 6,207 Kentucky soldiers died of sickness and other causes related to their service.
Some 482 men were captured and spent time as prisoners of war, according to the Kentucky Adjutant General’s Report. The statistics for Confederate soldiers are not as well documented. Kentucky’s Orphan Brigade (1st Kentucky Brigade C.S.A.) started with about 4,500 men in 1861, but at its surrender in 1865 only 526 officers and men are recorded (one historian estimates 800-900). Desertions could account for some absences, but some 3,600-3,700 of the 4,500 men are considered Confederate “casualties”: either killed in action, captured, wounded, or missing.
Some members of the 6th Kentucky Cavalry and other Kentucky units lost their lives on the way home from the war on April 27, 1865, when the steamship Sultana exploded and burned on the flooded Mississippi River.
An estimated 1,500 of the 1,800 passengers died, most of them soldiers returning from the war, including James Morris, one of Steven Wright’s collateral relatives.
Despite the recordkeeping done by the armies throughout the war, there were lapses in information. A number of families never received word of what happened to the soldier they sent off to war, and would spend the rest of their lives wondering, waiting, and hoping.
Discoveries About an Ancestor
To find out if your ancestor served in the Union or Confederate army, the first place to look is the Adjutant General’s Report on the War of the Rebellion, Kentucky. This report is in four volumes—two on Union troops and two on Confederate troops—and accessible at the Kentucky History Center and major libraries. New editions of this report include indexes to help locate a specific soldier. A fast search can also be done by accessing the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System at www.itd.nps.gov/cwss.
Stuart Sanders, now a Civil War heritage specialist at the Kentucky Historical Society, worked for three years for the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association before stumbling onto information that he was related to Confederate Brigadier General James Patton Anderson, one of 17,000 Confederates in the battle.
That Sanders was related to Major Thomas Sanders, an assistant Union surgeon of the 27th Kentucky Infantry and one of 58,000 Union troops in the Perryville area at the time of the battle, was not as remote a discovery. Besides being Kentucky’s largest and bloodiest battle, the Battle of Perryville in late 1862 is acknowledged as being a turning point of the war, says Sanders.
One of the major disappointments for families researching a Civil War soldier is learning that the soldier switched allegiances or deserted the army, says Jim Prichard, who over the years has interviewed as many as 100 descendants. Because ill soldiers were sent home on convalescent leave to recuperate at home—such as happened to one of Prichard’s Union ancestors, Ben Dickerson of Carter County, who contracted measles—some soldiers did not return to their units and were reported as deserted. After two years, Dickerson was arrested, court-martialed, and returned to his regiment, losing a year’s military pay.
Another disappointment that Prichard has witnessed among families is the discovery that the family story is not true. For instance, an ancestor might have talked of participating in many battles and yet is listed in the records as having been in a unit that never saw combat.
Records can also reveal pleasant surprises, and that’s why reaching beyond family word-of-mouth into written documents is such a good idea. Some African-American families have been delighted to learn that their ancestor actually fought in the war, Prichard points out. In fact, an estimated 23,703 African-American men joined the ranks of the United States Colored Troops, says John M. Trowbridge, military historian for the Kentucky Historical Society. Many of these troops came from other states, but Kentucky provided the second highest number of troops to the USCT.
Reuben Butler of Anderson County was born a slave, and records show the Blakemorr family owned him. He enlisted in May of 1865. With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment in early 1865, some slaveholders in Kentucky freed their slaves. For slaves not freed by their masters, word-of-mouth said that if a slave could get to a recruiting station and raise his hand to take the oath of a soldier before being caught by his master, then this slave would be a free man.
Butler’s records show he was a slave at the time of enlistment. What motivated Butler to enlist is not fully known, but either way his enlistment tells us a lot about him.
Standing at 5 feet, 6 inches according to 1906 Bureau of Pensions papers, Butler served as a corporal in the 119th Infantry Regiment, Company F, of the U.S. Colored Troops. Kentucky was later than most states in accepting black soldiers, and some soldiers, like Butler, enlisted after the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox. Some were not mustered out until 1867 as black soldiers performed army duties, some as far away as the Texas/Mexico border.
After being honorably discharged in 1866, Butler married Louisa Utterback, built a house on two acres in Alton, and was known for “big Sunday dinners” as African-Americans from as far as five miles away walked from Lawrenceburg to the house. The house is still standing today, but is no longer owned by the family. “That’s Grandpa Butler’s house,” says great-great-grandson John N. Cunningham decisively. “The front porch reminds me of the pictures of him in his big black hat.”
John’s mother, Gertrude Cunningham, now 90, did the family research on Butler, assisted by John Trowbridge’s military research. Before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her memory, Gertrude liked to talk of Butler, recalling her memories of visiting him when she was a child. Butler would give her a 50-cent piece each time she visited. This was a huge amount of money in the 1920s.
This wealth had a direct tie to the Civil War as Butler collected a pension for his military service. Papers in the National Archives show he received $15.50 a month beginning in 1912, $22.50 monthly in 1918, and in 1922 began receiving $72 monthly as part of his pension and medical benefits. Butler would go to Lawrenceburg just once a month to get groceries, John recalls Gertrude Cunningham saying. This would always be “on pension-check days.”
A farm laborer by occupation, Butler was known in the community for his honesty and fairness in dealing with people. Influential white citizens helped Butler apply for pension benefits. “He must have been a man of strong character and convictions,” says great-great-grandson Cunningham, “to go off to war and be one of the main targets.”
African-Americans arrived at army camps with just the clothing on their backs and thus were outfitted in new uniforms. Besides the color of their skin, the fresh clothing and new equipment made them an additional target for the enemy, whose clothing was in bad shape and supplies were dwindling.
This Memorial Day, John Cunningham placed a 2-foot-high flower-decorated white cross on Corporal Butler’s grave as he has done for the past 20 years or so. It is unusual for a black man, who died in the 1930s, to have a headstone, but this was also made possible by the monies Butler earned from his military service.
Soldiers of a Different Kind
Union and Confederate guerrillas prolonged and worsened Kentucky’s wartime experience. One such man was Champ Ferguson, whose notoriety reached all the way to Harper's Weekly, although today he is not as well-known as John Hunt Morgan, who Ferguson helped guide through Kentucky. Ferguson’s band of Rebel guerrillas ranged from a dozen to some 500 men. Before the war, the family was all pro-Union, says great-nephew Jack Ferguson, who writes of Champ Ferguson in his Early Times in Clinton County, Volume III.
But when 11 pro-Union neighbors mistreated his wife and daughter, he set out to exact revenge on them and others in eastern Kentucky. According to one court transcript, Champ Ferguson shot and killed William Frogg as Frogg lay sick in bed and denied being a Union soldier. Ferguson told a different story: that he had been cautioned by several persons that Frogg was waiting for an opportunity to kill him. “I consider myself justified in killing him,” Ferguson told a Nashville Dispatch reporter during his trial after the war.
Ferguson’s brother, James, was an ardent Unionist and corporal in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry (U.S.A). Both James and Champ Ferguson are said to have claimed they would kill one another if they met during the war, and knew that the other would do the same. Brother and Unionist Ben Ferguson was said to be at least tolerant of Champ, even though they had differing views. Champ Ferguson was convicted after the war and hanged in October of 1865. Had the Confederates won the war, it would have been the Union guerrillas who would have been hanged, Jack Ferguson surmises, but he wouldn’t have wanted the outcome of the war to be any different. “I’m glad there’s one nation, that’s all.”
Today we wince at the thought of a family with divided allegiances—it caused awful rifts and heartbreak—but here again we should be cautious about assumptions.
“A lot of families thought it was a good idea to have a soldier on both sides,” Brian McKnight found in his research, especially in borderland regions. Concerned families wondered how would they be treated if they supported the losing side. The thinking in some families was “once the war ends, whoever wins can protect the loser,” McKnight believes.
For some families, even as early as the 1870s, Union and Confederate families worked together and helped one another in securing claims for losses, such as a neighbor attesting that he took a mule from a neighbor on the opposite side of the conflict. For others, particularly those on the Confederate side, coming to terms with the war’s loss was much slower in coming.
“Some families could not and would not accept the results,” says Lowell Harrison, author of The Civil War in Kentucky.
Deep unrest and animosity followed. This has diminished over time but not entirely ceased, observes Harrison, professor emeritus of history at Western Kentucky University. By the 1890s, some veterans of both persuasions gathered for battlefield commemorations. In the 1960s, a full century after the war, an elderly woman scolded Harrison for his choice of words: “Dr. Harrison, we don’t refer to it as the Civil War; it is the War Between the States.”
The absence of records or evidence suggests that courts did not convene from 1862 to 1866 in eastern Kentucky. “I believe along the borderlands that the Civil War was worse for the four years than anywhere in America,” McKnight says. “The law was whatever the local resident said it was, and people could enforce the law as they saw fit.”
That’s what made the Kentucky experience of the Civil War so complex, says McKnight. Probably only about 5 percent of Kentuckians actually witnessed battles or skirmishes. But the individual conflicts and confrontations among neighbors and soldiers created an ongoing battle. “It was a nightmare in eastern Kentucky,” concurs Northern Kentucky University historian James A. Ramage, pointing out that research has yet to be done on guerrilla activity in all of Kentucky.
Still, Differences of Opinion
Timothy Downey, a past department commander of the Kentucky Department of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and commander of the Kentucky Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, hears many stories at re-enactments and Civil War events. “Strange ideas about Kentucky’s true history” still abound, he says.
Some Confederate descendants believe that Kentucky was invaded by “Yankees,” as if Kentucky were a Confederate state. He cites, as an example, his ancestor Adam Ellis. “So here was a Kentuckian in a Kentucky regiment formed very early in the war, yet many want to insist that somehow Kentucky was ‘invaded’ by ‘Yankees,’” says Downey, an adult education instructor from Hustonville. Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Mill Springs in Pulaski County in January 1862 were said to be fighting for their homes when in fact they were from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Union colonel of the Kentucky 1st said after the battle that he had “men dying within earshot of their homes.”
Confederate units in the war, including those from Kentucky, faced many more enemy bullets than Union units did. “It’s not unusual for a Confederate unit to have a casualty rate greater than 50 percent,” points out Don Shelton, editor of The Lost Cause, published by the Kentucky Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The Union army had more men, resources, and bullets. One school of thought says that Confederate soldiers attacked too often and were more at risk, but even that is controversial, says Ramage, who cautions about comparing which side faced the fiercest fighting. Losses varied greatly from regiment to regiment, Ramage points out.
Confederate soldiers were fighting for the freedoms of the U.S. Constitution and their homes regardless of their state of residence, says Shelton of Nicholasville. Honoring ancestors who served in the Confederate army is a celebration of families’ heritage, which today is sometimes twisted by modern interpretations. Slavery and racism were an American problem, not a Southern problem, Shelton stresses. Prejudice toward Southerners still exists, but does not address the real problem. The Sons of Confederate Veterans experience this prejudice today as they are sometimes denied parade permits.
Most Southerners will point to the fact that the war was not necessary, says Shelton, that nearly a million lives were lost because of the war. “We do blame Lincoln for an unnecessary war.”
Military historian John Trowbridge believes that some people, enamored with the Confederacy’s independent fighting spirit, have gravitated toward this allegiance as the years passed. “Kentucky is the only state that joined the Confederacy after the war,” says Trowbridge, echoing many Kentucky historians over the years.
Many Kentuckians were ready to join the Confederacy by war’s end, but by then there was no Confederacy to join. Truth is that Kentucky declared its neutrality five weeks after the assault on Fort Sumter, but five months later the Kentucky General Assembly voted for the state to align with the Union. Some families tried to remain neutral during the war, but even this incited anger from the more ardent neighbors, so neutrality also placed some families at risk.
“You can’t research these people and not empathize with them in some way,” says Wright, who has completed research and is now writing a book on the 6th Kentucky Cavalry that he hopes to complete by 2008.
Says Downey, “I would say that the vast majority of descendants have no idea why their ancestors fought, other than some combination of duty to home, family, moral beliefs, country, etc. Unless they left behind a written record that details their reasons for enlisting, it can’t be known other than in broad terms.”
What we do know is that most soldiers on both sides of the conflict served honorably, and the lucky ones went back to their towns and farms after 1865. But lives and families were changed forever because of this war. It is no wonder then, as Downey believes, that “the causes and the ‘rightness’ of the war will be debated, argued, and spun from now on.”
MEET A REAL SON OF A CIVIL WAR VETERAN
Among family members venerating ancestors who served in the Civil War, Charlie Brock stands extra tall, even taller than his 6-foot frame. At age 92, with brown discerning eyes that are bright and instantly noticeable, he stands in very rare company indeed. The veteran in his family, Amon Brock of Company E, 49th Kentucky Volunteers (U.S.A.), was Charlie’s father.
It is the human, more mundane family moments that Charlie talks about, though, not the battle scenes sort of stories that at first we had hoped he would be able to share. But in some ways that, too, is a lesson to us in the 21st century. “My dad didn’t care about talking about it a bit,” Charlie says.
Charlie was born on February 16, 1914, to Amon and Dora (nee McHargue) Brock, one of four children in what Charlie calls his father’s “second family.” Amon Brock also had eight children from a first marriage. Amon, born in 1845, was 69 years old when Charlie was born. His mother, born in 1880, was 34 when Charlie was born.
Charlie remembers his father’s wood-bottomed shoes as the man moved about his farm. “Brogans,” they were called, with the soles attached to the uppers with small wooden pegs, says Charlie. His father was a stern man, 5'9" or 5'10" in stature, and heavy, Charlie remembers, and he didn’t look like his son. Amon Brock worked his farm even on Sundays, not taking time for a day of rest.
“What he said was law and gospel,” says Charlie, then further explaining. It was like that in those days.
Amon Brock and his two brothers joined the Union army. He served in Camp Burnside, Camp Nelson, and likely on railroad guard duty near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, between Wartrace and Mill Creek until he was mustered out due to an eye disease. One enlisted man and one officer were killed in his regiment and 74 enlisted men perished as a result of disease, something not uncommon during the Civil War. “I remember him telling me that they slept on the ground,” Charlie says. One cold morning, his father woke up and his hair had frozen to the snowy ground and he had to use a pocket knife to cut his hair loose. Amon’s hip bothered him all his life, and he attributed it to sleeping on the ground during the war.
Amon Brock enlisted because he was against slavery, believes Carol Sams, Amon’s granddaughter and a fourth-grade teacher. “He did not want the country split into two countries.…I’m proud that he fought for the North.”
Among his duties during the war was helping to guard the Wilderness Road at the Cumberland Gap so it would not be captured by Confederate armies. Two versions of Brock’s time near the Gap remain. One version says Amon was captured and held in Soldiers Cave (what was known as Cudjo’s Cave after the 1890s, now Gap Cave) about a mile east of the Cumberland Gap. Brock made friends with a Confederate guard and the guard eventually helped Charlie escape, according to Charlie’s older half-brother, Bill Brock, now deceased. Charlie recalls hearing that his father had hidden in the cave and was not captured. The outcome of the story, though, is agreed-upon: a Confederate officer told Amon Brock to “go home and start plowing. You’re too young to be killed.”
After the war, Brock bought the 135-acre farm in London that Charlie still lives on. Amon’s grandson, James Brock, discovered in records the first mention of the farm in 1898. Amon built a 52-foot-long log house on the land, which has not survived.
When Charlie was 5 or 6, his father had a kitchen added to the log house, and had the house sided. One of the hired men used Charlie’s wood sled to stand on while painting the ceiling of the porch. The wallplate timber that traversed the eaves was yellow poplar and “12 inches square,” all in one piece. A fireplace and chimney were at the outer ends of each 18 x 20-foot room, and in between the two rooms was a 12-foot hallway where the family’s dining room was. Amon Brock loved talking about farming at the dinner table and loved pork sausage. He would slaughter three hogs as the main ingredient. Charlie’s mother would make the sausage. Dora Brock was proud of her husband’s service in the Civil War. “She always called him Mr. Brock,” says Charlie.
Amon Brock died in 1922 when Charlie was 8 years old. Charlie remembers holding his father’s bolt-action rifle and looking at it and the cartridges his dad still had. It was a heavy army rifle with a leather sling to carry it on the shoulder. Soldiers would sharpen a lead bullet and use the bullet to write letters. The writing it produced would be dim, his father had said, but you could still read it.
Amon Brock and John M. Roberts—who Charlie today describes as “another old man”—would march, military-style, in front of the house with their guns as late as 1920, Charlie remembers. Brock and Roberts had not served in the same army unit but no doubt shared a veneration for their days in the army. “My father was proud of his service,” Charlie says, and the cause of freeing the slaves. “Dad thought a lot of Abraham Lincoln.”
The rifle is gone, but Charlie still prizes the old nail puller his father owned. Recently awarded plaques from respected Civil War groups, like the Sons of Union Veterans, corroborate Charlie’s status as a “Real Son of a Union Veteran.”
Charlie gets off the phone to retrieve the plaques that sit on the dresser top. He reads the inscriptions to us. “It’s kinda rare,” he says. “I feel good about it because they (the Union) won.”
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ON THE CIVIL WAR IN KENTUCKY
For more information on the Civil War, including organizations to join in Kentucky, and information on the roster of Kentucky soldiers who served, click here: Civil War.