Echoes in the Canyon

Unlike the large armies of the north and south that sought refuge during winter encampment, the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and southeastern Tennessee saw skirmishes almost on a daily basis. It was truly a time of brother against brother and neighbor fighting neighbor. The passes and gaps had to be protected. Cumberland Gap (The Gap borders Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee) was considered a primary target for each army to try to control and was Pound Gap (bordering Virginia and Kentucky). A gap that has been mostly overlooked by history is the one just inside the Virginia border. But it was pivotal in the defense of southwestern Virginia.

On June 16-17, 2018, the sound of shot and shell was heard at the Breaks Interstate Park. A Civil War reenactment took place on the state park known as, ‘The Grand Canyon of the East’. The beauty of the land and the natural barrier formed a perfect location for troops to defend the gap in and out of Virginia.

The 2-day event included living history with a civil war encampment, General Lee talking to the people, reenactors sharing their ancestors’ history and impromptu bushwhacking and skirmishes throughout the day. It reminded all those present that the people of that era had to be on guard to avoid a surprise attack from bushwhackers, home guard and those profiting from the war. Historian Anthony Hawkins sold his books and shared his vast knowledge of the plights or the times. A ladies’ social was held, as the audience was invited to attend any and all activities. The Hunley replica was visited by several. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink a military ship during wartime. The submarine sank shortly thereafter and its whereabouts was not discovered until over one hundred years later. In 2004, a grand event occurred in Charleston, as the crew was finally laid to rest in the beautiful Magnolia Cemetery. The Hunley crew with the exhibit were well versed in their knowledge and expertise about the Hunley and its workings.

At two o’clock a recreation of a typical battle was reenacted. The fighting occurred in a dense foliage of trees, weeds, and brush. The scenario loosely followed the Battle of Cranesnest, which took place on November 9, 1864.

In the fall of 1864, an effort was made to recruit a Union regiment in the Clintwood area of Wise (now Dickenson) County, Virginia. Representatives of the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry conducted the recruitment of soldiers for the Federal army. This regiment was stationed in southeastern Kentucky with its headquarters in Louisa. In an effort to encourage enlistment, the new regiment was referred to as the “Home Guards”. The regiment of approximately seventy recruits elected a local resident, Alf Killen, captain.

The Home Guards began to meet on Long Fork of the Cranesnest River due to several Union sympathizers living in that area of the county. The main objective of the regiment was to protect local residents from deprivations inflicted by bushwhackers and supporters of the Confederate army. Like most areas of the Appalachians during the war, the mountains of southwestern Virginia had residents that supported the ideal of maintaining the Union. These feelings usually resulted in acts of violence against them from their pro-southern neighbors.

General John C. Breckinridge was now commander of the department that included southwest Virginia. Word soon reached the general concerning the formation of the Home Guards. This created a problem for Breckinridge as he had very few available soldiers to send to investigate. As was the case for the entire war, the department was undersupplied and undermanned. To make matters worse, General Robert E. Lee had sent orders requesting that Breckinridge send his best cavalry brigade, Giltner’s Brigade, to support General Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. This left only the 7th Confederate Cavalry that was familiar with the area. This regiment was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Prentice, whom the general did not trust. Fortunately, a company of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles (Caudill’s Army) and one of their commanding officers, Major Thomas Chenoweth, had stayed behind. General Breckinridge thought highly of this regiment and asked the major and this company of the 10th Kentucky to accompany the 7th Confederate Cavalry to the Cranesnest River area to investigate the threat.

The Confederate detachment of approximately three hundred (300) mounted soldiers arrived on the head of Cranesnest River on the morning of November 8th. Continuing to travel North alongside the river, the gray column stopped to camp in a bottom just below Powers’ Mill, a bucket wheel gristmill. At approximately mid-day, Prentice ordered his men to set up their tents and to post pickets. He also sent out scouts into the surrounding countryside.

Unbeknownst to the Rebels, the Home Guards were drilling at a churchyard on Long Fork, about two miles north of the Confederate encampment. Within an hour of the Confederate’s arrival, a local resident informed Captain Killen that the Rebels were setting up camp at the mill. Immediately, the news of the Confederate presence generated talk of an attack. Killen knew that his men were outnumbered but realized that with the element of surprise, the Unionist group could defeat the larger army. The majority of the Home Guards was from this area and knew it like the back of their hand. One of them suggested traveling down the river to Horseshoe Branch, leave the river, and climb up Harm Ridge. There was a low saddle in the ridge that was above the Confederate encampment. Before daylight, the Union soldiers could easily travel down the hollow that emptied across from the Rebel camp. From this location, the attacking soldiers could easily shoot into the unsuspecting camp. Killen and his men greeted the plan enthusiastically, quickly accepting it. Within minutes, the men of the Home Guard were on their way down Long Fork. After making their way up to the gap on Harm Ridge, they quietly made a cold and dark camp.

The plan that Killen and his men had created was a sound one, with the chances of success very high. Unfortunately for them, there were also men from the area in the 7th Confederate Cavalry. Some of these local Rebels were assigned the job of scouting for the Home Guard. One of these scouting parties found the abandoned Union camp at the old churchyard and immediately started asking questions of local residents. One resident knew of the plans and told the details to the scouts. Whether the scouts tricked the informer into telling them or if he secretly was a southern sympathizer is not known. It is possible the information on the informer was hidden to protect him. Regardless, the scouts knew the Home Guards plans and hurriedly returned to the Confederate camp to inform Prentice.

Armed with this valuable information, Prentice prepared to ambush the ambushers. He quietly placed men on both sides of the hollow that the Union soldiers would be slipping down. These men were ordered to allow the Yanks to pass by and not fire until all of them arrived at the mouth of the hollow. To keep the camp looking normal, soldiers would be needed to attend the fires and make their presence known. This would be a dangerous job therefore straws were drawn to see who would be left in the camp. Three or four men were selected by this method and warily took their place around the campfire. The stage was now set for the suspected morning attack.

As the first hint of daylight began to brighten the dark, Wednesday morning of November 9th, the men of the Union Home Guard began to slip down the hollow from their camp in the gap of Harm Ridge. Unknowingly, they passed by the deadly guns hidden in the brush on the hillsides forming the hollow. When all of his men were in position across from the Rebel camp, Captain Killen fired his pistol to signal the beginning of the attack. The Yanks fired a ragged volley of gunfire into the camp, killing one Confederate and wounding another. Just as the Union soldiers began to charge across the river toward the camp, a tremendous volley of fire from the Rebels lying in ambush lit the dawn sky.

The unexpected gunfire caught the attacking Federal troops by surprise, dropping several of them in their tracks. The sight of what appeared to be hundreds of screaming devils’ running toward them was more than the Home Guards could stand. All that could still stand or walk began running down the river in an effort to save their lives. Union officers managed to rally several of their men long enough to fire one or two volleys at the Rebel onslaught, but the fight was over in minutes. Even the bravest of men could see that nothing would stop the gray tide surging toward them. Luckily for the Yanks, they were no strangers to the area and knew exactly how to escape the hard charging Rebels. This knowledge plus poor visibility of the early morning hour allowed the remaining Home Guards to elude the Confederates, averting a complete disaster.

As the combined cloud of black powder smoke and fog lifted above the valley floor, a scene of death and destruction became visible. Lying in the river and grassy bottom were the bodies of eight Yankee soldiers. Another saga of the “Brother against Brother” war had occurred once more. Before the war, many of the men involved on both sides of the battle had been friends and neighbors. Tragically, many of the combatants were related to each other. Some of the very men who had only moments before tried to kill the Union soldiers were now carefully burying the dead in the bottom.

The battle ended the high hopes of the men of the Home Guard that they would be a force to be reckoned with in the isolated mountains of southwestern Virginia. The remnants of the regiment decided to move into southeastern Kentucky where many had relatives. Several of the families of the soldiers moved with them as well, afraid of the wrath of their Confederate neighbors. After the war, many of these families moved back to their abandoned homesteads while others chose to continue their lives in a new location.

Prentice and Chenoweth’s men stayed in the Cranesnest River area for several days after the fight, making their presence known to all Union sympathizers. They hoped that their presence would discourage other local residents from taking up arms against the Confederate government. Even these hardened soldiers preferred to fight foreign Yankees rather than their own neighbors and kin. When it appeared that the Home Guard had either disbanded or moved away, the gray-clad cavaliers rode back to Castlewood to re-establish a camp there. (Courtesy of Appalachian Rebels; David Chaltas and Richard G. Brown)

After the reenactment, the spectators were present for the pass and review in which the troops paid homage to God, Country, Veterans, and family. General Lee talked about being an American and the importance of maintaining values and morals in an enlightened age. That night a grand ‘night battle’ took place to the delight of all. The musket fire in the dark made the silhouettes and shadows come alive from the fiery blazes. The sounds of the battle echoed through the canyons, bouncing off the mountain with such an eerie sound that it chilled the spectators as well as those reenacting to the bone.

Sunday witnessed a stirring church service, as Brother Darrell Thacker brought the message. The service was God sent and the spirit moved amongst those present. Gospel music rang through the valleys as the Word of God was spoken. The battle once again was almost hand to hand and very intense. The weekend culminated with a special volley and salute to Fathers, all who attended to America, our Veterans, and foremost, to God’s grace.

For more information about next year’s event and if you wish to participate, go to the following addresses: Jackie Branham @: 339 Sanctuary Farm Rd Haysi, VA, 24256; Phone 276-865-0016, or go to Breaks Interstate Park website and/or Facebook.