BATTLE AT COLLEY BRANCH
(THE ROCKHOUSE RUCKUS)
MAY 13, 1864
Richard Glenn Brown
With contributions by David Chaltas
The year was 1864 and spring had just arrived in the mountain region of eastern Kentucky. It had been ay ear since General Stonewall Jackson, the hero of the South had "crossed the river and was resting under the shade of the trees" in that Land of Eternal Peace (he was shot on May 2 by his own men and died on May 10). JEB Stuart had fallen at Cold Harbor (he was mortally wounded on May 11 and died on May 12). The VMI Cadets would march into the pages of history on the fields of lost shoes at New Market, Virginia on May 15, 1864. General Grant with a force 4 times that of his opponent was assaulting Leeís chivalrous Army of Northern Virginia in areas known as the Wilderness and Spotsalvania Court House resulting in the siege of Petersburg and was a prelude to the upcoming ultimate showdown at a place called Appomattox in April of 1865. The gallant Army of Tennessee had its hands full and would soon be engaged in a disastrous campaign that would result in its total destruction on Franklinís fields in the wintry day of November 30, 1864. Yet the struggle between kindred men continued.
The great conflict continued within the hills and hollows as armies from both sides constantly patrolled the mountainous terrain of Letcher County, Kentucky. The county was considered of strategic importance due to the fact that a crucial roadway (Pound Gap) was located there with the other side being in the southwestern portion of Virginia (Wise County). It was also the seed of Southern resistance maintaining one of the largest organized armies in Kentucky. It represented a constant threat to the cause of keeping the state within the boundaries of the union. The rebel movement must be monitored at all costs.
The Confederate units usually did not hesitate to camp or stay in Letcher County as itís population were mostly pro-confederate. Most of her mountain-raised sons were in the rebel army. For the same reason, the union units did not linger long when they would enter the mountainous terrain of Letcher. Usually the Union patrols would scout the area to keep tabs on the boys in gray. It was during one of these scouts that a union patrol decided to fight instead of just observing the southern maneuvers.
The 11th Michigan Cavalry under the leadership of Major Charles E. Smith conducted the patrol. The 11th Michigan Cavalry was stationed in Lawrence County, Kentucky in the city of Louisa. They were superbly equipped from their uniforms to the new Spencer repeating rifles that had been issued to them. The Spencers were deadly weapons, as they held seven of the new metallic cartridges. One man could now produce seven times the firepower as that of the single shot Enfield rifle that was usually carried by the rebel cavalry in the area. Most newly formed union cavalry units were being issued this revolutionizing weapon. Unfortunately the only way the ragged but fierce fighting rebels could obtain one was to capture it from a Yankee counter part, a hard task as by now they were usually out numbered and outgunned.
The 11th Michigan had moved to Painstville, Kentucky during early May of 1864. On May 9 Major Smith was ordered to scout into Letcher County and check on alleged rebel activities around Pound Gap, the roadway between Virginia and Kentucky. Major Smith ordered boots and saddles and departed from Paintsville with enough provisions to last them several days. They traveled through Piketon (now Pikeville) up Middle Creek and by the Forks of Beaver Creek finally reaching Pound Gap. Upon arriving at Pound Gap, they were informed by a union sympathizer that a small rebel patrol of approximately 45 men was camped on Colley Branch of Rockhouse Creek. The rebel encampment was about seven miles north of the small town of Whitesburg, which was about fifteen miles from Pound Gap. Major Smith and his men were tired of scouting and were itching for a fight. It didnít take them long to decide to head for Colley Branch.
The rebels that had been spotted at Colley Branch were a company of Caudillís Army known as the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles. Most of the 45 men in this company were from Letcher County and probably had come home to plant their spring crops. They were encamped near the mouth of Colley Branch where it enters Rockhouse Creek near the present community of Isom, Kentucky. The rebels were no strangers to the area as the bottoms and gentle hillsides of the area had been used for campsites and outposts since the beginning of the war. During this time, Colonel John S. Williams (later promoted to General) had used the area to camp and train the newly formed 5th Kentucky Infantry. When the men of the 5th Kentucky enlistment were up in 1862, most of the men left to join the newly formed 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles (later in the last fleeting and desperate months of the war to be designated as the 13th Kentucky Cavalry). Since the areaís population was friendly to them, the rebel cavalrymen were usually not bothered when camped here. All of this was about to change.
Early on Friday morning of May 13, Major Smith and his men slipped through the sleeping little town of Whitesburg (the stronghold and base camp of Colonel Caudillís Army) and rode north, having acquired the exact location of the rebel camp. Nearing the rebel camp, the Yankee cavalry dismounted, checked their weapons and approached the camp. When within range, the 11th Michigan charged the camp, their Spencer rifles rapidly spitting out volleys of lead at the rebel soldiers. The men of the 10th were seasoned veterans and immediately returned fire. An intense and fierce battle was taking place in the normally quiet and peaceful valleys on Rockhouse Creek. The shots echoed off the mountains and it was said that the ruckus raised could have been heard for miles. The men of the 10th soon realized that they were outgunned and could not sustain a firing power that would match the fast shooting men of the 11th Michigan. They must have thought they were being attacked by a large army due to the tremendous amount of fire being poured into them. As seasoned veterans, they knew to scatter to make it harder for the Yankees to capture them. Mounting their horses, the rebel cavalry disappeared into the surrounding mountains that they knew so well. The Yankee cavalry triumphantly entered the deserted camp to claim the spoils of war left by the retreating rebels. The Yanks were disappointed when they found very little items of value in the camp. The long years of war had devastated even the remotest parts of the country, creating hardships for the worn down rebel army even in their own home area.
The 11th Michigan Cavalry had gotten the fight they wanted, finding out the new Spencers were a more superior and reliable weapon than anything they had ever used before. Both sides suffered minor casualties, which was remarkable as to the amount of shots fired. Major Smith and his men returned to Paintsville, knowing all too well they could never safely stay in this area. The small rebel army regrouped at a pre-arranged location. They moved back into Virginia, defeated this time but not beaten, carrying in the back of their minds a great lesson about firepower. The very next month they would be following General John Hunt Morgan back into Kentucky on his last raid, again having to face the awesome firepower of the deadly Spencers of the 11th Michigan when they met at Cynthiana.
And the gallant men would fight on for another eleven months, some signing the loyalty pledge and some vowing on their deathbeds that they would never betray their beloved cause. All of them remembered and treasured that there was a time for a brief period in the annals of time; there existed a free confederation known as the Confederate States of America.
Adjutant General Reports of the 11th Michigan Cavalry, U.S.A.
Colonel Benjamin Caudill Camp No. 1629 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans
Diary of a Bluegrass Confederate; Guerrant, Edward; Louisiana State University Press; 1999
The 7th Battalion Confederate Cavalry; Weaver, Jeffery & Pritchard, Jim; 1996-1997;
Captain Tod Carter of the Confederate States Army: A Biographical Word Portrait; Carter Rosalie; 1978
Stonewall Jackson: the Man, The Soldier, The Legend; Robertson, Jams I. Jr.; Macmillian Publishing; 1997
The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart; McClellan, Henry B.; Boston; Houghton; 1885