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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

Kentucky Valor - Deeds of Her Sons, Both Blue and Gray.

Met Face to Face on Many Fields – The Fifteenth Union Regiment and the Confederate Orphan Brigade – Stories of Shiloh, Stone River and Chickamauga.

Kentucky tried to be neutral at the opening of the civil war and play the role of “the outside dog” for once. That course would have settled Kentucky, for she has an ancient fighting reputation to maintain. So her gallant sons mutinied when the war drum throbbed wildly for other ears and rushed into the field some of the sturdiest bands of fighters of purely American blood mustered in either army. For this reason the hearty handshaking between the blue and the gray, which was a feature of the G.A.R. encampment at Louisville, has a significance. There was no politics in it, neither forced nor morbid sentimentality in the demonstration. In a social and public sense the Union veterans were the guests of the men who fought them 30 years ago. Not that Kentucky was one sided in the conflict. Her sons served in both armies; the horrors of civil war, families and neighbors pitted against one another, made the contest for them one of terrible fierceness.

For Kentuckians fought each other face to face. On the field of Shiloh a father belonging to the Sixth Kentucky, Union, lay dead facing the body of his son, belonging to the Fourth Kentucky of the other side. Upon that bloody spot Kentuckians contended with Kentuckians with all the fierceness of their race. Trabue’s Confederate brigade, containing four Kentucky regiments and two Kentucky batteries, stood in the pathway of Hazen’s Union brigade as it led Nelson’s column in the grand advance the second day. Hazen charged up to the muzzles of the guns and captured two of them after a fierce struggle with the cannoneers and Trabue’s infantry. Trabue’s Kentuckians were of the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth regiments; Hazen’s of the Sixth. The Union Sixth and the Confederate Sixth met in the struggle over Cobb’s guns. Two of the guns were taken, but over a third a most terrible combat was waged between Kentuckians only. During the melee Private Young of Company A, Sixth Union regiment, spiked the third piece when he saw that his comrades were not able to hold it. The Confederate Kentuckians rallied to defend it and finally gained control. Private Irving, also of Company A, Union Sixth, killed five of the enemy. Colonel Whittaker of that regiment seized a bowie knife from the hands of a Confederate Kentuckian and cut down on of Cobb’s cannoneers. Lieutenant Chilton of the same regiment was taken prisoner by six Kentuckians in gray. Two of his comrades rushed to his aid, and the trio killed all of Chilton’s captors, he himself dispatching one with a revolver. The Fifth Kentucky, Confederate, lost four color corporals killed and three wounded during that fight and a color sergeant killed. Cobb’s battery lost 37 men killed and wounded. In that same remarkable combat the Confederate governor (provisional) of Kentucky, George W. Johnson, was killed. Realizing the desperate nature of the southern cause when the battle opened that morning, with heavy odds to contend against, he took a musket in his hands and joined the ranks of Trabue. He fell in the struggle over the guns, where the grounds was three times lost and won again by Trabue’s men, only to be surrendered at last.

It was at Stone River that Trabue’s Kentuckians next met with antagonists from the blue grass country. Meanwhile Kentucky valor had displayed itself on the Union side at Perryville. One of the regiments in Rousseau’s division in the terrible fight on Chaplin hills was the Fifteenth Kentucky, organized and led by Curran Pope, a West Point graduate. It is a matter of history that the Union line that day was caught napping and literally run down by overwhelming numbers of Confederates exulting in their easy success. Without a moment’s warning the enemy broke from cover on a charge and opened fire upon Rousseau’s men, most of whom were away from their gun stacks, getting water from a creek between the lines. An officer of the Fifteenth, describing the fight, says: ‘The regiment was lying on the side of a road in rear of a rail fence with a stone fence a short distance in front. A barn of logs and boards partly sheltered the position. The enemy advanced to the stone fence and took shelter behind it. Here the battle raged from 1 o’clock until dark; the rail fence was almost demolished by the enemy’s artillery and the barn set on fire. Notwithstanding the Fifteenth held its ground. The color guard, comprising nine corporals and sergeants, was cut to pieces. As each successive color bearer was shot down his comrade took the standard. The fight was so fierce and continuous that the colors were completely riddled and the flagstaff shot in two. As the staff was severed and the colors fell Captain James B. Forman of Company C grasped them. The staff had been cut off so short that the banner could not be made visible, and he mounted the rail fence, waving it and cheering the men to continued resistance.

‘At almost the first shot Colonel Pope’s horse was killed under him. The colonel immediately moved along the line patting the men on the back, cheering them and encouraging them to fight to the end. He received a wound to which he paid no attention at the time, but which cost him his life.’

Both the lieutenant colonel and major were killed on the field and Pope refused to abandon his command. The regiment lost 82 killed and 114 wounded.

Gallant Captain Forman was promoted to lead these fighting Kentuckians. He was only 21 years old and was known in the army as the ‘boy colonel.’ His enjoyment of the unique distinction was brief, however, for two months later he was killed in the bloody ‘cedar brakes’ at Stone River. ‘On that field the Fifteenth again played the role of martyrs in a forlorn hope. It held the right of McCook’s line just as it had done at Perryville. When sent into the cedar thicket, it was with orders to hold the ground until the last cannon had been taken off in safety. Bravely holding on, the Kentuckians had to fight enemies in front, right flank and rear. The ‘boy Colonel’ was shot from his horse and instantly killed. Around him fell 80 of his brave men.

On another part of this same field of Stone River Kentuckians fought against brothers and friends. There it was that the First Kentucky brigade of Confederates received its unique title, ‘The Orphans.’ This command had been organized soon after Shiloh by placing the Sixth and Fourth regiments of Trabue’s old brigade with the Second and Ninth and Cobb’s battery together under the leadership of General Hanson, an old officer of the Mexican war. The brigade served under Breckinridge, the great Kentuckian of the southern army. It requires a book to tell all the good things known of the ‘Orphans,’ a body of men whose history is unparalleled in American annals. They had to run away across the border to organize, for Kentucky was under Union surveillance. Breckinridge, Buckner and George B. Crittenden, brother of the Union general, Thomas L., met them there and put them into fighting trim.

The annals of Company D, Fourth Kentucky, have been written out by a survivor. That little bank mustered some striking characters, among them the noted Sue Mundy of guerrilla fame. Mundy and a companion, who was like a brother, were among the earliest recruits, and one day in a vagrant skirmish these two fell into the hands of the some of the brutes who disgraced the blue they wore, and Mundy’s companion was butchered. Swearing vengeance, Mundy left his command and entered upon the life of a partisan to take revenge for the death of his friend. Mundy’s real name, which he bore in Company D, was Jerome Clark. Another character of the company was ‘The Silent Man.’ He was a crack shot, a lad in years, being about 18, but standing 6 feet 3. The annalist says that at home he was a ‘mother’s boy,’ driving up the cows, milking and tending the baby, ‘but I tell you in a fight he was every inch a man and a very tall one at that.’ He would never shoot unless he could draw a bead upon an enemy and then would take deliberate aim and fire and load as coolly as though shooting at squirrels.

To return to the ‘Orphans’ at Stone River. Hanson led them in the terrible assault of Jan. 2. The brigade had the advance, and in the rush for the key to the Union position came to close quarters. The Sixth Confederate and the Eighth Union regiments of Kentuckians crossed bayonets over the guns. All was going well for the southerners, led by Breckinridge, when the other noted Kentuckian on the field, Thomas L. Crittenden, entered the lists. He had placed 52 cannon in position to meet the attack and suddenly let loose their awful power. The Kentucky brigade was caught in the hurricane of missiles. Hanson was killed, and when the brigade marched its shattered ranks past Breckinridge he gave them the name they bore ever after, ‘Orphans.’

General Ben Hardin Helm, a man that Lincoln declared would be worth more to the Union cause than the whole state of Kentucky, stepped into Hanson’s place as leader of the ‘Orphan Brigade.’ In the next battle he followed him to glory. He fell at Chickamauga, leading a charge upon Beatty’s Union brigade, which included the fighting Fifteenth Kentucky. Helm’s Fourth Kentucky grappled with their kinsmen of the Fifteenth in a struggle over Bridge’s battery. The Kentuckians in gray shot down the battery leader and all his cannoneers and horses, but the gallant Helm were down also, killed by Union Kentucky rifles.

The ‘Orphans’ were reduced to a handful by the time the armies confronted each other at Atlanta. The corps badge of the Fifteenth Kentucky was the accord, and one day the regiment and the ‘Orphans’ faced once more. It was on the picked line, and General Lewis, speaking for the ‘Orphans,’ called out in answer to some chaffing, ‘All right; we’ll hull your acorns for you some day soon.’ At Jonesboro most of the ‘Orphans’ were captured by the acorn corps, and the Kentuckians in blue and gray fraternized in the prison bivouac, greeting old friends. The leader of the ‘Orphans’ grasped the hand of Colonel Taylor of the Fifteenth, and referring to the past encounters on the field said, with a smile, ‘Well, colonel, we have come over to hull those acorns.’

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