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The Life and Times of Colonel Ben Caudill

Posted on Saturday, October 1, 2016 at 9:44 pm

Nestled in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, underneath the shadow of Pine Mountain, exists a small community known as Sandlick.  It is in close proximity to Whitesburg, Kentucky.  Prior to 1844, the fledgling town was known as Summit City.  That was the location where one of Letcher County’s most prominent and controversial figures was born.

Benjamin (Ben) Everidge Caudill was the son of John A. Caudill and Rachel (Cornett) Caudill.  At an early age Ben found religion.  Family oral history stated that he even practiced his preaching skills on his brothers and sister.

It was recounted that since there was no building to house a school, classes were conducted beside an old hollow tree on John and Rachel’s farm. The teacher was from Virginia, and at times allowed Ben to tune his preaching skills on the class.  The date of his entering the church was 1848, which was a few months after his marriage to Martha L. Asbury.  She was from Tazewell County, Virginia.

Ben built a home at Millstone that was only a few miles from his parents.  In 1850, joined church and became a member of the Old Regular Baptist at Millstone.  For some unknown reason he moved to Tazewell County but returned to his home place and became a constable.  Before long he became restless and felt the spirit move him to preach.  He studied the Bible and worked diligently on improving his reading.  After four more years he felt the calling.  He preached his first sermon in February of 1854, at Rockhouse.  Soon he was preaching at several churches in the area.

When the drums of war were heard in Kentucky, Ben chose to fight for the Confederacy.  He was given the rank of captain in November of 1861.  He began recruiting men and by the fall of 1862, he had recruited nine companies mostly due to his preaching abilities.  A total of over 1,100 men from 13 counties came and Ben was elevated to the rank of colonel.  They were engaged in several skirmishes and battles.  Because of his affiliation with the Southern cause, his house was burned by the home guard loyal to the Union and his family moved to Virginia.

On July 7, 1863, while encamped at Wise, Virginia, “Caudill’s Army” was surprised.  The officers had been advised by the sentries that Federal forces were at hand but they did not heed their warning.  They thought it was Confederates returning from their duties at the infamous Pound Gap.  Soon they would discover that the municipality was in danger.

Three days after Gettysburg, Colonel Ben E. Caudill was in the town of Wise.  He must have been uninformed of the major Battle at Gettysburg.  He must not have received notice of the fall of Vicksburg.  He was unaware that General Julius White was close at hand.  The blue line crept silently around the town while the Confederate soldiers relaxed with the inhabitants of the city.  The morning light brought back the realization of the war being so close at hand.

One first-hand account by “Devil” John Wright stated, “There were 15 of us in one tent and before we knew it, they had us surrounded and we had to surrender.”  Some of the soldiers rallied and made a last ditch effort to resist.  They barricaded themselves inside the courthouse but soon they realized the futility of their efforts.  Upon threat of being burned alive with the court house, they surrendered.  “Devil’”John Wright later stated, “They lined us up between their soldiers and started marching us towards Kentucky.  Down Indian Creek the laurel grew thick right up to the edges of the road.  I watched (for) my chance and stepped out of line into the laurel, and I doubt if they ever even missed me.  That was one of two times I escaped the Yankees.” (Appalachian Rebels; Brown & Chaltas.)

The Federal troops were harassed all the way across the mountain trail and one report stated they actually killed horses and stacked them one on top of another, in an effort to block the road from those trying to help the prisoners escape. The slaughter of the horses proved to be a successful deterrent, as the majority of the prisoners were taken to Piketon (Pikeville), Kentucky.

Eighteen officers and 99 enlisted men of the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles and 7th Confederate Cavalry surrendered and became prisoners of war.  Colonel Caudill was captured and taken to Kemper Barracks.   He was later transferred to, Camp Chase, Johnson Island, Baltimore, Fort Delaware, Fort McHenry, and eventually to Hilton Head, South Carolina.  All the while he continued his ministry to anyone who would listen.  At Hilton Head, Ben was chained in the lower decks of the U.S.S. Dragoon for 40 days and became one of the “Immortal 600.”  He was later exchanged on August 3, 1864, and immediately returned to assume command of his “army” on September 17, 1864.

Following the end of the war, Ben chose to continue preaching.  For a few years he lived in Allegheny County, North Carolina, and preached all over the state.  He even went to Virginia with his circuit riding.   In 1879, Ben moved back to Kentucky, and lived in Clay County where he helped establish new churches.  He began a new circuit into Ohio, and Indiana, holding revival meetings and building churches.  On January 7, 1889, he headed to Tennessee, and established a church.  On his way home he stopped at Barbourville, Kentucky, to see his son.   While there he became sick from all the traveling he had done as a circuit rider.  He died on February 11, 1889, and was buried at Slate Hill Cemetery (Levy Jackson State Park).  He had just turned fifty-nine years old.

-By Dave Chaltas

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