BIOGRAPHY OF COLONEL BEN E. CAUDILL

by

Faron Sparkman

Benjamin Everidge Caudill was born on Sandlick Creek near Whitesburg in what is now Letcher County, Kentucky on January 11, 1830, the son of John A. Caudill and Rachel (Cornett) Caudill. Ben, as he was always called, grew up in mountains of Eastern Kentucky, with little advantage of schooling. His first teacher arrived from Virginia without a place to live and began teaching. At the site of a hollow tree centrally located between the Caudill and Hogg property, school was conducted.

The most noteworthy part of his youth was that he followed the local Old Regular Baptist preachers from the time he could talk. Daily two of his brothers and sister served as his congregation while practiced the art of delivering the word. At school in Whitesburg he would preach to his schoolmates. After the usual rebellious years of youth when he left home for a period, Ben returned in September of 1847.

In February of 1848 he married Martha L. Asbury of Tazewell County Virginia and during the summer of 1848 became a devout Christian. He built on home on Sandlick Creek and by 1850 joined the Sandlick Old Regular Baptist Church. Two years later in 1852 he moved to Tazewell County, Virginia and remained there one summer. By the fall of 1852 he moved back to Kentucky because he said his thoughts were so filled with concern for his lost friends in Letcher County that he could not find peace for himself or his family. He also felt inadequate because of his lack of education and not wishing to disgrace the Christian cause kept his strong desire to reach the unchurched a secret. Ben struggled with this dilemma for four years. He tried to take his mind off the situation by immersing himself in various activities. In the 1850s Ben Caudill entered politics by running for and winning the position of Constable in Whitesburg. But after working in the office for a time he found his thoughts were so consumed by his religious convictions that he was forced to resign. Ben Caudill spent much of his time studying the Bible and because of this improved his reading skills. On a Saturday night near the end of February, 1854 he preached his first sermon at the Rockhouse Church. He soon pastored several area churches.

When war came to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky Ben Caudill's sympathies were with the south. He temporarily left his church activities to enlist in the Confederate Army. Captain Oliver A. Patton (later Lt. Colonel) of Covington, Kentucky was sent to Whitesburg to assist Ben Caudill in recruiting and organizing a company of local soldiers as part of the 5th Kentucky Infantry. By November of 1861 Ben was given the rank of Captain and placed in command of Company F. 177 men, mostly from Letcher County, served under Captain Caudill for a one year term in this regiment and saw almost continuous fighting among the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia. Caudill and the men of Company F were engaged in the Battle of Middle Creek and the Battle of Princeton in 1862. As early as August of 1862 Captain Ben Caudill was already underway recruiting a regiment of his own comprised of men from throughout the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. By the fall of 1862 Caudill had raised nine companies of men from over 13 counties and was promoted to the rank of Colonel in command of the 10th Mounted Rifles. Ben Caudill was well known as a charismatic traveling evangelist throughout Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, a tremendous asset in recruiting his regiment of 1,100 men. Many of the soldiers were related in some way to Colonel Caudill and in fact 32 of the men carried the Caudill name, including five of Ben's brothers. Caudill's 10th Kentucky was engaged in small battles in Perry, Letcher, Harlan and Breathitt Counties on a daily basis for ten months. During this period Colonel Caudill's home on Sandlick Creek in Letcher County was looted and burned and his family was forced to take refuge first in Russell and then Washington County Virginia.

Before dawn on the morning of July 7, 1863 while Colonel Caudill's regiment was encamped at the current site of the Wise County Courthouse in Wise, Virginia (then known as Gladeville), a surprise Union attack led to a fierce but short battle resulting in the capture of 122 men. This included Colonel Caudill and the bulk of his officer corps. Several hundred of his men managed to escape but it was devastating blow to the regiment. Caudill himself was taken to Kemper Barracks, Camp Chase, Johnson Island, Baltimore, Fort Delaware, Fort McHenry, and eventually to Hilton Head, where he was chained in the lower decks of the ship, U.S.S. Dragoon for forty days as one of the "Immortal 600." Colonel Caudill said he endured the most extraordinary trials of his life during his time in prison. Not withstanding this he preached the entire time at each of his prison stops. Colonel Ben Caudill was exchanged on August 3, 1864 and returned to his command on Sept. 17, 1864. He continued fighting with the 10th Ky. Mtd. Rifles (renamed the 13th KY. Cavalry in February of 1865) until word of Lee' s surrender reached the regiment while camped on the New River in Virginia.

After the war Caudill settled in Allegheny County North Carolina and immediately returned full time to the ministry, beginning a relentless schedule as an evangelist on horseback throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Even in this area of the south there were many difficult and even life-threatening situations during his ministry in the late 1860s fueled by anti-Confederate sympathies. Blue or Gray politics managed to split many church groups apart in this region of the country but Caudill's vision was unwavering. He spoke of "laying aside all party spirits and placing the churches on the same ground they were on before the war." He said that in the future they must be governed only by the Word of God and they must try to live in peace. In 1879 Ben Caudill moved from North Carolina back to Kentucky, settling in Clay County and working with a new group of churches. His ministry was not without controversy as he spent much of the decade of the 1880s attempting to convert "missionary" Baptist churches throughout Kentucky to the doctrines of the Old Regular Baptist denomination. In 1888 Caudill traveled throughout Ohio and Indiana in revival meetings while starting new churches. On January 7, 1889 Ben Caudill left his home near Manchester, Kentucky for Tennessee to help start a new church. After completing this mission he was hoping to return to Kentucky to visit his son in Barbourville before returning to Clay County but fell ill in Claiborne County Tennessee on January 18th and was confined to stay at the home of a friend. Doctors were summoned but nothing could be done for the ailing preacher who was suffering from a severe cold, pleurisy and exhaustion created by his constant travel schedule. Ben E. Caudill died on February 11, 1889 at the age of 59. His body was returned to Kentucky by his children and laid to rest in the Slate Hill Cemetery just out of London, Kentucky. Ben E. Caudill was more than an ordinary man. A close friend said "As a citizen and neighbor he was seldom excelled. As a professor of the Christian religion he fully demonstrated his faith by living soberly, righteously and Godly and with an ability given him by God. Truly, we as his survivors can say he fought a good fight and finished his course on the field of battle with his feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace."