Civil War Courier

Follow Us On:

The Battle of Leatherwood: A Historical Perspective

Posted on Friday, February 16, 2018 at 12:00 pm

In September of 1862, Captain Ben E. Caudill of Company F, 5th Kentucky Infantry, requested permission from General Humphrey Marshall to be allowed to form a regiment of mounted infantry. This regiment would be made up of men from the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. General Marshall was not very receptive of the idea at first but after much thought, gave his permission for the captain to leave the 5th Kentucky and attempt the proposal. The general knew that the morale of the men in the 5th Kentucky was low, with many voicing their displeasure with the infantry. He was also aware that the enlistment term of these men would soon expire in October. Marshall hoped that if the men did not re-enlist as expected, they would at least enlist in the mounted infantry of which many had expressed interest.

Captain Caudill left his old infantry company at Abingdon, Virginia, and traveled west to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. He immediately set up an enlistment office in the small town of Whitesburg, urging the men in the mountainous area to join the newly formed 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles. The first men to join were dozens of the captain’s relatives that lived in Letcher County, resulting in the new regiment being nicknamed “Caudill’s Army”. These new recruits were quickly joined by others that liked the idea of riding into battle instead of marching all of the time. In just a few days, the roster of two companies, A and B, were complete. The newly formed 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles began to drill and train in the large bottom located west of Whitesburg. This bottom was the property of John A. Caudill, father of Captain Ben E. Caudill, and located below the confluence of Sandlick Creek and the North Fork of the Kentucky River.

The fledging regiment had not drilled long before it received its first assignment and first promotion. General Marshall promoted Captain Caudill to Colonel and requested that the “new colonel” send one of his companies to protect the salt wells at Brashearville (now Cornettsville) in Perry County (not far from the Letcher County line). The salt wells produced a very important commodity that was very valuable to both armies. Salt was the only way to preserve meat during the war. These wells were owned and operated by Robert S. Brashears, an uncle to Colonel Caudill. Robert’s wife, Polly Everage, was a half-sister to the colonel’s mother, Rachel Cornett Caudill. Three of Robert’s sons, Captain Samuel Brashears, Private William T. Brashears and Private Joseph E. Brashears joined their first cousin’s new regiment. (Samuel and William survived the war but their brother, Joseph, died in 1864. All three brothers are buried at the mouth of Bull Creek.)

Colonel Caudill decided to send Company B, which was under the command of his brother, Captain David J. Caudill. More volunteers were arriving in Whitesburg, forming new companies, and the colonel wanted to keep Company A in town to help train the new recruits. Captain Caudill and his company of approximately one hundred soldiers traveled down the Kentucky River to the site of their new camp. This camp was located in a bottom near the salt wells just above the confluence of Leatherwood Creek and the Kentucky River. Upon completing the construction of temporary huts and shelters, several of the men of Company B began to forage for food while the remainder continued drilling in the large, grassy bottom.

Meanwhile, at Poor Fork (now Cumberland) in Harlan County, the newly formed 1st Harlan Battalion of Kentucky State Guards (known locally as the Harlan Battalion) was drilling and training soldiers to support the Union and to protect local residents from bushwhackers. The Kentucky State Legislature had authorized the formation of these Home Guard units on the 5th of September 1862. The Harlan Battalion was officially recognized as a Home Guard regiment on October 13, 1862. A well-known local resident, Benjamin F. Blankenship, was elected major of the unit. The men of the Battalion were mostly from Harlan, Letcher and Perry County, Kentucky. Also, several men from neighboring Wise and Buchanan County, Virginia, crossed the state line to join.

The formation of the two warring regiments, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles and the Harlan Battalion, represented the division of the people of the Appalachian Mountains. It was not uncommon for members of a family to go their separate ways and join opposing armies. Men that had been neighbors and friends all of their lives were now deadly enemies. It truly was a “Brother against Brother” war for the mountainous people of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia.

While training his new army, Major Blankenship received word that a group of men from the Leatherwood area of Perry County wanted to join the Battalion. These men asked the major to send a representative to their area to meet with them. The major could not go himself due to his duties of forming and training the remainder of the Battalion. He ordered Captain George Morgan to take fifteen men from Company A and twenty-five men from Company B to meet with the Leatherwood group.

The Union captain chose the best-trained men out of the two companies for the venture. Each soldier was to carry 40 rounds of ammunition in their cartridge box and put as much provisions in their haversacks as possible. Morgan knew that he would be traveling through rugged and rough conditions and wanted to travel as light as possible. Before daybreak on the morning of October 19, the column of Union horsemen moved out of camp. They traveled down the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River to the Laden Trail. Leaving the river, the column crossed the mountain range on the trail to Greasy Creek. They traveled down Greasy to the mouth of Big Laurel Creek, left Greasy, and traveled up to the head of Big Laurel, crossing into the head of Leatherwood Creek in Perry County. Traveling down Leatherwood, Morgan and his men encountered the group of Home Guards in the early afternoon.

The men of the Home Guards were all local residents and knew the area as well as could be imagined. They informed Captain Morgan that a company of Rebel cavalry was camped near the mouth of Little Leatherwood just above the salt wells. The locals were impressed with Morgan’s patrol and asked the captain to combine forces to attack the Rebels. Morgan and his men were anxious for their first fight as an organized unit and gladly took the Home Guard up on their offer. Traveling under strict orders of silence and following the lead of the locals, the blue column continued traveling downstream.

When the emboldened Yanks approached the mouth of Little Leatherwood, the local scout signaled for the column to halt. Dismounting, they were quietly informed that the Confederate soldiers were across the creek foraging in a large garden. (Local tradition tells that the southern soldiers were in a patch of watermelons that had been grown by a local deaf-mute farmer.) The Union soldiers slipped through the underbrush and positioned themselves behind the plentiful trees that lined the creek bank. Upon hearing the order to fire from Captain Morgan, the hidden soldiers released a ragged volley of gunfire.

The unexpected shots surprised but did not panic the Confederate soldiers, many of whom had been shot at before. They quickly found cover in the grove of trees on their side of the creek and began to return fire. As was common in battles fought in the mountains, neither side fought in military formations such as Hardee’s. Wheeling columns of tightly packed soldiers were replaced with each soldier finding any cover available to fight from.

At the time of the attack, Captain Caudill, and the majority of the 10th Kentucky were in camp, located a couple of hundred yards downstream from the ambush. At the sound of the first shots, Caudill and his men assumed that his foragers were shooting at deer or other wildlife for food. This assumption quickly faded however, when the sounds of continued shooting indicated a general engagement was occurring. Caudill ordered several men to remain in camp to guard the horses and told the rest to follow him to the site of the battle.

Just as the embattled Rebels firing along the creek bank were preparing to retreat, the reassuring sight of their fellow comrades arriving gave them courage to stay. Within minutes the blue smoke from dozens of rifles and shotguns lay heavy among the canopy of trees lining the creek bank. The sound of the crack of guns was mixed with curses and insults as opposing soldiers recognized old neighbors and acquaintances. Any thoughts of sparing the area’s residents from the tragedy of war were now history as the combatants tried their best to kill each other.

The terrible sound of bullets hitting trees, ground and occasionally human flesh echoed up and down the creek bank as the intensity of the battle reached a climatic tone. For what seemed like hours to the combatants, but in reality, was only less than a half an hour, the battle raged with neither side giving an inch. Just when the battle seemed to be at a stalemate, Captain Caudill went down to the ground with a wound to his hindquarters. With his commander down, Lieutenant George Hogg ordered the men of the 10th Kentucky to retreat to their camp downstream. The retreat was completed in orderly fashion with several soldiers laying down a covering fire until their comrades could bring their horses back to them. With the wounded and dying placed on horseback, the mounted Rebels left the scene of the battle and rode upstream of the Kentucky River toward the safety of their main camp at Whitesburg.

Upon seeing their enemy leaving the battle, the victorious Union soldiers cheered and began to congratulate each other. Morgan ordered his men to cautiously cross the creek and advance on the abandoned Confederate camp. He was not positive the Rebels had left and was afraid they were being lured into an ambush. His fear soon subsided though as the Yanks entered the empty camp with no opposition. As the Union soldiers began to rummage through the camp, they were amazed at the sight of the largest pone of cornbread that any of them had ever seen. At the time of the battle, the Rebels were baking cornbread in one of the huge, iron kettles that was used for making salt. Every man in the detachment managed to eat a piece of the giant cornbread that many estimated weighed 50 pounds!

Though Morgan’s men were in control of the Confederate camp, the captain knew that his force was not strong enough to keep it. He realized how far away any Union re-enforcements were and knew that it would not be long before Colonel Caudill would bring a much larger army to the salt wells to recapture them. He allowed the men to bask in the glory of their first victory that night but at the crack of dawn the following morning, began the long ride back to Poor Fork.

Later the next day, the men of Company B of the 10th Kentucky arrived back in Whitesburg with their injured captain and other wounded comrades. These brave men were treated in the small Confederate hospital located there. Military records of the battle were destroyed but at least one of the wounded men died but possibly more did as well. Captain David Caudill survived his wounds and would later be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 10th Kentucky.

At least one soldier died from each army that fought that cold October day and several more were wounded. Though these casualties were not high like major battles such as Perryville, the fight at Leatherwood forewarned of the vicious, small battles that would play out throughout the mountains of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. Added to the wounds of the body of the mountain warrior would be the mental wounds of neighbor fighting neighbor and brother fighting brother that would last a lifetime. (Taken from Appalachian Rebels; Brown, Richard G. and Chaltas, David)

On October 27-29, 2017, a recreation of those events occurred on the actual ground one hundred-fifty-five years ago. Friday was education day and witnessed twenty-nine bus loads of students attending the stations. They came from Knott, Letcher, Leslie, Perry, and Harlan counties. Several ‘home schoolers’ were also in attendance.

General Lee was in station one and greeted the students, along with Gary Begley. Jim Haynes demonstrated how to make lye soap. Mitch Whitaker had his raptor program, better known as birds of prey. The students were delighted to learn about them. Greg and Gemma Bentley had set up a period camp and talked about camp life. Greg also demonstrated open fire cooking. Ron Hornsby provided a lesson on the flags of the period while Jim Bay and Willis Strong discussed the importance of artillery and shot rounds off to the delight of the crowd. Wayne Watts had several weapons from frontier days, colonial times through the War Between the States and discussed their importance. Anita Holland taught a period lesson in the little log cabin school built on the premises. Brenda Taulbee shared period nursing with the students while her husband, Paul Taulbee, told of the importance of salt and Battle of Leatherwood. Brenda Nease, Eddie Campbell, and Jeanette Campbell ran the Brasherville General Store. Jo Ann Oborski demonstrated weaving and how to use the spinning wheel. The Blacksmith shop was busy with Wayne Whitaker and Danny Estep. The world’s largest anvil was on site. It weighs three tons and is owned by J.D. Napier. Susan Hull discussed herbal medicine of the day and its ramifications in today’s society. Ron and Denise Feist talked about making honey. Carl Oborski, a West Point graduate, talked about the military school and its history. Dr. Miniard performed a rousing interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and gave a copy to every teacher. The students and staff visited sutler roll. Several teachers came back and thanked the presenters for offering their time for the students. One teacher stated it was one of the best hands-on field trips he had ever taken.

Saturday’s battle was soggy, but some diehard fans came and watched as drenched men and women of valor honored the memory of both sides in the downpour. The fog entwined with the smoke, giving an eerie feel over the battlefield. A pass and review was assembled (along with the Perry County DAV) and a ‘21 gun salute’ was presented to honor God, Country and our Veterans. Saturday night’s ball went well on Calvary Campus. Sunday church service was inspirational, as General Lee spoke on the topic of Celebrating Freedom. The battle was attended by a smaller than usual crowd due to the cold weather. The reenactors put on a very powerful performance with six artillery pieces, cavalry charges and the infantry fighting for possession of the ground. A final pass and review, in conjunction with the Perry County DAV was given to the audience. Everyone went away content in the knowledge that they did justice in honoring the history of our area.

-By Richard G. Brown and David Chaltas

If you liked this article and would like to see more, subscribe to our print and/or digital editions. We have the only online library of the best researched reenactor information dating back to 2005. Click here to subscribe