THE FIRST BATTLE OF WHITESBURG
(December 13, 1862)
Richard Glen Brown and David Chaltas
There was a time when brother fought brother, father fought son and suspicion ruled the land. There was a time when the angel of sorrow spread her wings upon the land, casting a dark shadow within the hearts of men. There was a time when men and women shuddered at the sound of menís voices, horsesí hooves or an approaching wagon. There was a time when the peace and tranquility of a small town within the confines of eastern Kentucky was shattered by the sound of battle. There was a time that must not be forgotten so it will never be repeated. This is a tale of that time.
Nestled in the shadow of the beautiful Pine Mountain rests a small community in Letcher County, Kentucky known as Whitesburg. The great state of Virginia borders Letcher County, thus creating very strong economic, community as well as family ties with that state. When first settled Whitesburg was known as Summit City due to being located at the apex of a hill overlooking the North Fork of the Kentucky River. It was renamed in honor of a congressman by the name of John Daugherty White who promised to assist in the creation of the County. In 1843 the fruits of his labor became a reality and the town once known as Summit city was lost to antiquity and the City of Whitesburgh (on January 7, 1892 the h was dropped and the name was spelled Whitesburg) was created.
At the beginning of the War Between the States the small community was comprised of about 350 citizens. Early in the war both Union and Confederate officials recognized the strategic importance of Whitesburg as a base camp for operations. This was due to it being the closest community to several gaps and roads through the steep mountain ranges of the Appalachian Mountains known locally as the Pine Mountain range. Due to the steepness of the terrain, the gaps and roads were the easiest and sometimes the only accessible way of getting troops and supplies between Kentucky and Virginia. The road through Pound Gap (sometimes referred to as Sounding Gap, the Trace as well as Fincastle Trail) was the best traveled of these natural routes in and out of the hills of Kentucky. This gap was approximately 12 miles north east of Whitesburg and at its widest point it was said to be only approximately fourteen feet wide. The largest battle fought in Letcher County took place in this gap. The gap was defended by Confederate troops under the command of General Humphrey Marshall and were defeated by Union troops under the command of future President Colonel James Garfield. Both of these leaders would stay in Whitesburg on several occasions.
On one occasion when the Confederate General Humphrey Marshall was staying within the city perimeters a shipment of a thousand new uniforms arrived for his ill clad regiment of soldiers. But the soldiers noticed that the uniforms were not made out of wool like the ones of other soldiers that they had seen. General Marshall knew that the uniforms were made out of inferior quality cotton. As the grumbling of the troops escalated among the boys concerning the quality of the new uniforms, General Marshall had the men assemble at their campground outside Whitesburg. Here he made a stirring speech commending the men on their courage and patriotism. He told them that the uniforms were woven out of the best quality of Southern wool, with which, doubtless, many of the Kentuckians were not acquainted. The men then accepted their new cotton uniforms and stopped their grumbling. The general had kept a straight face and pulled off the façade.
Other well-known commanders also visited and stayed in Whitesburg including the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy" himself, General John Hunt Morgan and C.S.A. General John S. "Cerro Gordo" (a nickname that he acquired while serving with distinction and honor during the Mexican War) Williams. Union General Stephen Burbridge led his army consisting of both white and black troops through the Whitesburg area on his ill-fated attack of Saltville, Virginia in 1864. Since the town consisted primarily of whites, one can only wonder what the people of this area thought of seeing armed black soldiers. The visitation of such notable leaders may have contributed to the fact that Whitesburg was saved from the burning and destruction of their courthouse and even the town itself. One side or the other burned most of the courthouses in the adjacent counties and surrounding areas of the state.
Though spared from destruction, Whitesburg was in every sense of the imagination torn apart by this so-called "Civil War." The unionist in the area called it " the War of Southern Rebellion" and the confederate sympathizers labeled it "the War of Southern Independence." Regardless of what it was called, it brought devastation and tragedy to the citizens of Whitesburg and the population of the outlying hollows and hilltops. Just as the United States was torn asunder, so were the people of this remote southeastern Kentucky area. It truly was a case of "brother against brother." People who had been the best of friends and neighbors were now willing to kill each other for the cause that they believed in and followed. Not only were neighborhoods split, but families as well. It was not unusual for a father and son or brothers to join opposing armies, each praying that the perilous moment would arrive when they would not face each other in combat. Unfortunately this meeting they dreaded the most would occur one cold December day in 1862. On December 13, 1862, the local hometown boys would square off against each other in the Battle of Whitesburg. The same boys that a few years prior were running and playing in the fields and mountain ranges of the great Pine together would square off in a deadly confrontation.
The Confederate unit that would fight in this battle was the Tenth Kentucky Mounted Rifles, which in the latter part of the war would be reorganized as the 13th Kentucky Cavalry. Benjamin Caudill (commissioned as a captain and later rose to the rank of colonel), a well-known preacher and citizen of Whitesburg, organized it. His father was John A. Caudill who lived near the mouth of Sandlick Creek on the western end of Whitesburg. John Caudill owned several hundred acres of property in this area including the bottoms that are now occupied by Food City and Mountain Comprehensive Health. Benjaminís grandfather, Stephen Caudill, also lived near the mouth of Sandlick and was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. Stephen Caudill had moved to Letcher County from North Carolina along with some of his brothers in the early years of the 1800ís. The majority of the descendents of these Caudill brothers would join the Tenth Kentucky Mounted Rifles. Benjaminís other grandfather, William Cornett, was also a Revolutionary War soldier and had come from Virginia before 1800 with some of his brothers. The majority of these descendents also joined the Tenth. The Tenthís recruitment center was located in Whitesburg and recruits from adjacent counties began to come to "join up." to protect their homes and families from the invading forces of the North. The majority of these men came from Letcher, Perry, Breathitt, Knott, Floyd and Pike Counties although other counties across the state were represented. The big bottoms belonging to John Caudill were an excellent place to camp and train these new recruits. These mountain men were all tough and fierce fighters but did not take much liking to discipline. Colonel Caudillís fiery temperament and reputation usually kept them in line. They were loyal to the Confederacy but were foremost loyal to their communities. They resisted being transferred out of the area of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. For many of them the majority of the war would be fought in the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia. They did follow General John H. Morgan on some of his raids into Kentucky and participated in the Battle of Cynthiana. A few of the men were with General Morgan when he was killed while in Tennessee. They also fought at the Battle of Saltville under the command of General John C. Breckinridge. They were following General John Echols through the Shenandoah Valley on their way to help defend the Confederate capitol of Richmond when they received word of Leeís surrender at Appomattox.
The Union unit that would fight in this battle was the Harlan County Battalion of the Kentucky State Guard that was disbanded on February 28, 1863. Most of the men would later join the 39th, 47th, 49th Infantries or the 14th Kentucky Cavalry, U.S.A. It was organized and raised by Major Benjamin F. Blankenship, a well-known citizen of Harlan County. The recruitment center for the Battalion was in the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River area near the small community of Cumberland in Harlan County. Its ranks were filled with men from Letcher, Harlan, Perry and other surrounding counties. Men from neighboring Virginia counties such as Buchanan and Wise also joined this Union outfit. These new recruits would train and be encamped in the big bottoms along the Poor Fork just outside of Cumberland. These men, like their Confederate counterparts, were tough and fierce fighters but also didnít take kindly to discipline. Major Blankenship soon proved to be a tough and able leader, earning his menís respect. This respect helped him keep the men somewhat in line. They were loyal to the Union but like their Confederate counterparts resisted leaving the area close to their homes. When funding ran low in early 1863 the Battalion was disbanded. Major Blankenship went on to serve in the 47th Kentucky Volunteer Mounted Infantry as a captain. Toward the end of the war, most of these men would serve together one more time in the Three Forks Battalion, another state guard unit put together mostly to battle bushwhackers. Blankenship would serve in this unit as a Captain as well.
The two Northern and Southern units had skirmished back and forth in the fall of 1862. At first it was almost a friendly affair as no one was killed. The only thing hurt would be their pride when one side would capture a member of the opposing side. A truce would be arranged in which both sides would negotiate terms for an exchange of prisoners. On one occasion, Private Samuel Cornett of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles was exchanged for his uncle, Private Jesse M. Brown of the Harlan Battalion. Both were first cousins to Colonel Ben Caudill .
But things became serious when the two groups met in an all out fight over the salt wells at the mouth of Leatherwood Creek near Brashearville (now Cornesttville) in Perry County. Salt was a highly prized commodity and was hard to come by in this time period. The wounding and deaths of soldiers on both sides brought the reality of war and the lighting of the torch of resentment to both regiments. The Tenth had to retreat that day in October of 1862 leaving all sense of camaraderie between the two groups behind. From then on it would be shoot to kill. The two regiments were destined to meet at Whitesburg and all dreaded the outcome.
Around December 10, 1862 the Tenth had set up their winter camp at Whitesburg. Colonel Caudill left town on official business and placed the burden of command upon the shoulders of Lieutenant George Houck because his brother, Captain David J. Caudill, was recuperating from a wound he had suffered at the battle of Leatherwood. Major Blankenship had been kept informed of the activities of the Tenth and realized it would be a good time to attack the rebel camp. He assembled his men on the 12th of December and had them prepare rations and ammunition for the battle ahead. Mounting up that morning, the Battalion rode out for Whitesburg hoping for the element of surprise. They spent the night in a dark and cold camp on Pine Mountain within sight of the sleepy little town of Whitesburg. The next morning, the 13th of December, the men mounted up and rode quietly into town. Near the western end of the town, Major Blankenship had the men dismount and left every fourth man to hold the horses.
On foot, the men of the Harlan Battalion crept forward toward the rebel camp. But luckily for the rebels, Lieutenant Houck had taken his chance at being in charge seriously and had posted pickets out in advance on both sides of the Tenthís camp. At approximately 10 oíclock in the morning, the Union men encountered the sentinel pickets of the Tenth, which resulted in a lively exchange of gunfire. All hopes of a surprise attack were gone. Realizing their situation, the Battalion immediately charged and started pushing the pickets back toward their camp. Upon hearing the echoes of the gunshots as they recoiled among the hills and hollows, Lieutenant Houck immediately assembled his men and led them toward the sounds of the gunfire.
He met the pickets that were fighting as they retreated near the milldam on the North Fork of the Kentucky River near the outlaying area of Whitesburg (the Letcher County Board of Educationís office is located in the vicinity of the old milldam).
Soldiers on both sides were to obtain an unwanted education this day. Here both armies took up an organized line of fire from behind rail fences that had surrounded a cornfield along the river. Each army was hunting for any additional cover that they could find. The Enfield rifles and shotguns of both armies roared constantly with the fighting being hot and fierce. All thoughts of being neighborly or of brotherly love were now gone. Curses and insults were no doubt slung back and forth accompanied by lead volleys, as men would recognize old friends or neighbors on the other side. Major Blankenship and Lieutenant Houck both exposed themselves to the horrendous gunfire as they encouraged their men. Men began to fall wounded on both sides with some wounds being mortal. For a while, neither side would give an inch and stubbornly fought to hold their ground. Seeing more rebel soldiers arriving, Major Blankenship realized he could not defeat the enemy before him. He ordered a withdrawal though his men were reluctant to retreat. The men that hesitated to withdraw on the first order were charged by the hard pressing Tenth and were pushed back, joining their retreating comrades. Lieutenant Houck did not have to encourage his men very much to fight fiercely as they considered the union attack as an invasion of their "country."
On the other side of the coin, the Union soldiers felt they were fighting to take back their "country." No doubt both sides thought God was on their side. Major Blankenship and his officers kept up an orderly retreat as they fell back toward Whitesburg. The fighting continued as they passed through the bottoms where the Whitesburg Grade School and the football field are presently located. The cartridge boxes of both armies began to become empty as the Union soldiers crossed the river just below where the community college is now located. With their rifles empty, soldiers that had pistols began to pull them from their holster and continued to fire. The old Navy Colts and Remingtons began cracking away at their former neighbors and fellow Kentuckians. The Harlan Battalion Soldiers, having reached their horses, mounted up and sped back through Whitesburg. Due to the nature of the attack, the rebel soldiers having little time to saddle their mounts (the majority of the battle was fought on foot) and realizing that they were either out of ammunition or running desperately low realized the futility of an offensive pursuit.
The Battle of Whitesburg had ended but now the realization that men were wounded and had died during this engagement. Both the Tenthís and the Battalionís men had fought with courage and devotion for the cause that they believed right and just. Major Blankenship and his men gathered their wounded comrades and returned across Pine Mountain to the safety of their own camp. The men of the Confederate 10th did the same. Several men were wounded on both sides with at least two Union soldiers killed. Though the numbers wounded and killed were small in comparison to the major battles fought in the war, they were devastating to this area. This small community knew almost all of the combatants involved. Before the war was to end nearly two and a half years later, many more of the areaís young menís lives would be offered on the altar of freedom for their individual cause and beliefs. Many more would be crippled and suffer from their wounds for the rest of their lives. But the resentments, bitterness and hatred that grew out of the carnage would result in mountain feuds and poor politics that even prevail today.
The Second Battle of Whitesburg
(April 16, 1865)
The ironies of the War Between the States were not finished with the small community of Whitesburg however. The first Battle of Whitesburg had occurred on the same date as the Battle of Fredericksburg. One of the last engagements of the War Between the States occurred in this small hamlet of the mountains village. Within the pages of our history it should be duly noted that this action took place 6 days after General Robert E. Leeís General Order Number 9 (dated April 10, 1865). That order effectively disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia. It is our generationís responsibility and honor to pay tribute to the fighting spirit of the mountain men serving within both ranks by keeping their legacy preserved.
As if their destinies were entwined, some of the same men that had fought against each other in the Battle of Whitesburg in 1862 returned on April 16, 1865 to face each other once more. The men in this latter fight were the same but the regiments that they served in had changed. As of February 1865, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles had now been reorganized and were now known as the 13th Kentucky Cavalry. The Union unit had evolved even more, changing from the Harlan Battalion to the 47th Kentucky Infantry and finally being called the Three Forks Battalion. Even more coincidental was the fact that the commanding officers of the two units involved in both fights (December 13, 1862 and April 16, 1865) were the same. A Confederate Officer by the name of Lieutenant George Houck of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry and Union Captain Benjamin F. Blankenship of the Three Forks Battalion once again stood on opposite sides facing one another in mortal combat.
On April 12, 1865, Major Elisha B. Treadway had dispatched a detachment of men from Company F under the command of Captain Blankenship to try to bring under control a band of bushwhackers that were operating in the vicinity of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. They entered Wise County, Virginia and skirmished with the bushwhackers killing two of their leaders and capturing four of their men. Captain Blankenship returned to his camp of operations in Harlan County, Kentucky and delivered his prisoners.
He and his detachment then continued on their mission and rode once again into Whitesburg on the 16th of April. The normal heavy rains of spring had been falling in the mountains, swelling the streams and rivers. This made traveling by horseback a muddy and miserable trip for the horse soldiers.
Meanwhile Lieutenant George Houck was on the same mission as his union counterpart. Colonel Benjamin Caudill had dispatched Lieutenant Houck with a small detachment of men to protect the Whitesburg area from the bushwhackers. Davis S. Fields stated in his pension application that he was in the Beaver area with Houck when Lee surrendered. According to his sworn testimony, they were rounding up stragglers. Probably Houck was in command of the security of the home area around the Whitesburg area. The two groups of men met on opposite banks of the rain-swollen North Fork of the Kentucky River within the Whitesburg area. By chance or preordained by the winds of providence, the 13th men were on the north side of the river and the Three Forks men on the south side. The thoughts of Gettysburg echo upon the page of history and sends chills down the spine as one recalls the events of July 1, 1863 when Lee entered Gettysburg from the south and Meade entered the city heading north.
Immediately gunfire erupted from both sides, with both units of men bravely blazing away. Long years of war had hardened and dulled these warriors and now only bullets blazed across the river with no thoughts of slinging insults as before. The superior gun power of the union men started to take the toll on the rebels and the end result was the wounding of several of them. To gain time to withdraw his wounded men, Lieutenant Houck hoisted a white flag. As his men casually started pulling back, Lieutenant Houck pretended to negotiate the terms of surrender. Captain Blankenship shortly realized it was just a scheme and ordered his men to continue firing, shooting down the flag. The men of the 13th retreated down stream toward the mouth of Sandlick Creek destroying all skiffs and canoes that they encountered along the river. The Three Forks men could not continue the fight as the river was swollen out of its banks, allowing no fording. The 13th made good their escape taking their wounded with them. No known casualty list is available for this skirmish however several men were allegedly wounded, perhaps fatally.
Lieutenant Houck and his men may have been blessed more than they realized. The next assignment that Captain Blankenship and his men received was to escort rebel prisoners of war from Irvine to Departmental Headquarters at Lexington, Kentucky. On this trip, Captain Blankenship was accused of allowing some of his men to murder the prisoners. Upon learning that orders had been issued to arrest him on his arrival at Union Headquarters, he reversed his course and moved his men back into the mountains along the border of Kentucky and Virginia. They followed him because they were afraid of the repercussions that might be awaiting them also. He had become what he supposedly was fighting to stop! He disobeyed all orders to return to Union Headquarters. Shortly thereafter the war ended and he fled the state, evading a trial for murder and disobeying orders. Lieutenant Houck and his men may have met the same fate of the murdered prisoners if they had also been captured.
The main elements of the 13th were under the command of General John Echols. They were disbanded on April 12, 1865 at Christiansburg, Virginia. Whether the men involved in the action at Whitesburg were unaware of this surrender or just stubbornly refused to give up the fight has not been ascertained. At any rate, Ole Joe Johnston was still out there somewhere in North Carolina and was a force to be reckoned with.
Regardless, the war would be over shortly for both sides. The men of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry that remained as home guards within the mountains of eastern Kentucky were mustered out in April of 1865 and the Three Forks Battalion was mustered out July 17, 1865.
Soldiers on both sides came home to find their homes and barns in disrepair and their fields in need of being tended. Most of the fences were either burnt or torn asunder. Hardships from the war would haunt the proud mountain people for years to come. As the soldiers aged the significance of their stories began to fade and with the passing of each generation their memory is being lost forever. For the most part they are forgotten, along with their final resting places. Most soldier graves were marked with sandstone rocks with names or initials carved into them. The years have weathered these marks and with the vanishing of the lettering, the noble men of valor from a by-gone era slips into the abyss. Some gave their full measure but all were willing to do so. Is it not worthy for us to put forth every effort at capturing their stories for future generations and to instill pride of our heritage?
The Colonel Benjamin Caudill Camp #1629 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are determined to keep their memories alive and mark as many of the soldiersí graves as possible with military stones supplied by the Federal Government...
They are also keeping the memory of these men from completely fading away by recording each of the individualís stories. They participate in monument dedications, reenactments of battles (the Battle of Whitesburg will be held on September 20, 2003) and visit schools with living historians. If you are interested in finding out more about the Civil War or you know of any soldierís grave that needs to have a monument, log on to www.bencaudill.com or notify any member of the camp. You also can call the authors, David Chaltas at 633-5559 or Richard Brown at 633-0475 in the evenings. If you are interested in becoming a participant or reenactor call any of the members listed on our website. The camp meets the third Thursday of each month at Isom (Breedingís Plumbing and Heating) at 7:00 P.M. Everyone is welcome to attend.
A Sifter Full of Bullets; the Life of John s. Sparkman; Sparkman, Faron; 4th Edition; copyright 1997; pages 41-42
Eastern Kentucky Scene of Much Civil War Action; Guerrant, Rev. Edward O.; The Kentucky Explorer; October 1991; pages 41-44
Fights With Guerillas; Tri-Weekly Commonwealth; Frankfort, Kentucky; May 5, 1865
Future President Led Civil War Troops in Eastern Kentucky; Mittlebeeler, Emmet V.; The Kentucky Explorer; September 1988; pages 30-31
Harlan County Battalion-Roster; Harlan Footprints, Volume I from Footprints P & R; pages 1-5
Letcher Co.ís Methodist Heritage; Green, Bob; The Mountain Eagle; September 14, 1994; page 9
Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky, Union Kentucky Volunteers, Volume 2, Three Fork Battalion, page 784