Sunday, March 28, 2010

The War In The Mountains Of Kentucky

The following letter was written by a soldier in the 39th KY Mtd. Infantry by the pen name "Gitaway". It vividly describes the hardships people in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky had to endure during the Civil War. The letter appeared in the Ironton Register on January 22, 1863. Transcription by author.

Special note: I'd like to warn the reader that parts of this letter may be considered offensive but are reproduced "as is" in order to retain historical accuracy. It does not reflect in any way, shape or form the opinion of the author of this blog.

Russell's Place, Lawrence Co., O.
January 16, 1863

Editor Register: Supposing that my experience in Northeastern Kentucky might interest some of your readers and have a tendency to make them more happy in the enjoyment of their homes, by eclipsing their imaginary evil by a rehearsal (though in a very imperfect manner) of the real evils to which their less fortunate loyal neighbors are subjected in the mountains of Kentucky I venture, for the first time, to place myself before the public as a letter writer, and ask the sympathy of your readers in looking over my many imperfections. In introducing myself to your readers I will just say that I am a refugee from Southwest Virginia - I was a man of small means, but prospering in business. I could not advocate a rebellion against the best Government the world has ever seen, and help to establish upon its ruins an aristocracy. I lost all, and by circuitous journey of about five hundred miles, enduring untold exposure of myself and family, reached Ohio in a shocking state of destitution. I have pretty successfully battled with privation.

In October last, I cast my lot upon the tented field, in the 39th Kentucky Regiment, and engaged to raise a company for that regiment. I was getting along tolerably well recruiting, when we left Catlettsburg, (about the 28th day of October) and marched up Big Sandy to Piketon. -

Your readers are already informed of our success of running the rebels, capturing guns, horses, &c., &c., and about eighty prisoners. After we got to Piketon, a respectable citizen of Letcher county, adjoining Pike on the west, (an ex-member of the Senate) and myself, went to Letcher for the purpose of recruiting. We heard of no trouble until we got to Letcher, where we learned from the faithful women, that the country was full of the most inhuman guerrillas. By taking the side of the mountain a part of the way, we reached my friend's residence. He had not been at home before three months, having been compelled to leave his home when Marshall invaded the State last summer. We entered his house, and I witnessed the hurried greeting pass between him and his wife and children, lasting about five minutes, when his faithful wife convinced us that we were trifling with life itself by staying a moment longer. We left, to seek refuge in the holes and cliffs in those mammoth mountains. We took up our quarters on the top of a spur, leading to the towering misty top. After dark, our faithful adviser came to us, and did not forget to bring that most needed by us, something to eat. While we were devouring the content of the tin pan, she lost no time in telling us the news; we had missed being murdered only by our hasty retreat. The guerrillas came in fifteen minutes after we were gone, tried to track us, cursed, and beat the earth with rage. She then went on to tell us the nature of their warfare, &c., -

They did not hesitate to forcibly enter the house, and after having searched for and devoured, whatever might be found to eat, they proceeded to plunder chests, trunks, &c., -

Never did they stop, after searching in the usual places for valuables, but would open bed-ticks, pillows, &c., and search them; and finish by taking the clothes of the family. -

They took the mother's dresses, even the underclothes, and the children's clothes of every description; then they turned their attention to cups, plates, knives and forks, spoons, &c. and even the thimble, needles, pins, scissors, &c., and on two occasions made women pull off their shoes, and some bare-footed things, who could get them on, would strut off in them. As to bee-stands, and out-of-doors property, they have settled that point long since.

On the following day we got with half a dozen others, who were saving their lives by hiding in the caves and cliffs. Let us imagine, for a moment, the feelings of those unfortunate women, destitute of every thing almost that sustains life, or affords comfort to themselves or children. See the mother wade through snow ten inches deep, climb to the top of a steep ridge, chop her wood, drag it to the bottom, and with caution watch for fear of losing her axe, chop her wood at home, and keep fire, get corn, and go to a neighbor's house, and grind their meal, cook for the family, and for us, and then, after dark, bring it to us, sometimes two miles, up a huge mountain. -

Horse-mills are substituted for water-mills in the dry season, but there are no horses to run them. It is heart-rendering to witness the suffering of those unfortunate people and their unwavering and unshaken fidelity and loyalty to the Union, although there seems to be but little hope of their country's redemption from the hands of their merciless invaders. They do not ask pay for their patriotism; they are not for the Union only so long as it adds weight to their purse; they are not for the Union to save even their property; but they are for the Union because they love the Union. No section of the country is more entitled to our sympathy, East Tennessee not excepted - than Letcher and Perry counties, Kentucky.

We found on the top of a huge mountain a house where our camp fire could not be seen from any frequented place, and in fact it was so nearly surrounded by cliffs, that it was scarcely visible from any point, until within a very short distance. Here, in this horrible condition, we remained for one long and wearisome week, hearing every day the tales of sorrow and murder, while saving our lives by concealment; others, less fortunate, fell into the hands of an enemy, who is a stranger to mercy, and dumb to the positions of their victims. The widow's wail and the orphan's cry seem to be but music in their savage ears.

An aged citizen, of high respectability, was led out in the presence of his family and shot down in the road. A boy of fifteen years with whom I was intimately acquainted, was treated in like manner; leaving his widowed mother in a hopeless condition, she being poor and dependent upon this son for her support. A third was shot in both arms and the shoulder, but he did not die; others had the name of being parolled, but were followed by them and shot. We were told by many of those good women, that even their own lives were threatened, and to be cursed, and abused in the most shocking manner, was an every day occurence. One woman told us that in a few days after her house had been plundered, she saw some of the plunderers pass, wearing her clothes, having been cut and made into shirts.

After a week of suffering in our rock house, and being sickened to hear those tales of murder and robbery, I determined to try to get through to Harlan county, where there was a State guard numbering something over two hundred, and by passing through great danger, we succeeded in getting to the State guard. We tried in vain to get that organization to go and attack the guerrillas; there was a want of guns and ammunition, &c., and a number of the men lacked shoes and other articles of clothing; so after staying there a week, I started with the intention of getting back to Piketon to my regiment.

At this time the rebels were out on a scout; they were going to Perry county to gather stock. They met with complete success in driving a home guard off, and taking all the property in the neighborhood. This band of robbers is under command of Ben. Caudill, a Minister of the Gospel; he takes the liberty, however, to curse the Union and Union men; he says they are cursed and damned, and why may he not curse and damn them, and God damn them. I and four recruits who were willing to risk their lives through the dangers we had to pass in getting to Pike, started on our dangerous march; we went as far as we could by day-light, and having no hope of escape. -

We then decided to take the night for it, and as the snow was about eight inches deep, and the night very cold, we supposed the secesh would not travel. We had to wade the water, where the ice would not bear us, and our road was in the creeks a great part of the way. It was not long till our pants up to the knees were as stiff as stove pipes. So we made our way through the worst of the danger, but I found that I was frost-bitten; so we determined to call at a house and thaw, and risk the consequences. The people were all loyal on this creek, but the dangers was in the rebels being scattered through the country to stay all night, for it was their custom to rat around all day, and stay where night overtook them. We found no one at the house, however, but the lady and some small children. There we were thunderstruck by the unwelcome tidings that the 39th had been routed, scattered, and driven from Pike, losing all our guns, clothes, ammunition, suppiles, &c.

All hope was lost of our getting through to any Union forces in that direction. We were then in the midst of enemies, being fifty miles in any way we could go before we were clear of them. Pike, Letcher and Perry counties having for their lines on the South side, the Cumberland Mountains; Pike being at the head of Big Sandy waters, and Letcher, Perry, and a part of Harlan counties at the head of Kentucky River. From the Cumberland Mountain can be seen confused masses of huge mountains for fifty miles northward. To view the country from the top of any of those mighty monuments, one would suppose that he was in the midst of an uninhabitated wilderness, as there is no sign of human habitation, the settlements being buried beneath or between those wonderful mountains; The spectator is almost lost in profound admiration; such a vast, almost endless field of wild and romantic scenery, is presented to the view. As far as the eye can see, is the summit of one lofty mountain towering above another one.

We had a hard and dangerous journey of it, but, thankful to say, we got out side their lines. When we got where we could travel the road in the day time, I was pained, and yet gratified to witness the kindness and attention of the people to a soldier; after they had done all in their power, and more than a soldier wished, they were not satisfied, and seemed to be pained, because they could not do more.

After we began to get nearer the old settlements, these attentions began to wane; as we had no money, the recruits began to fear, that we would have rather a hard time of it in making so long a journey, so I went alone to Richmond, Kentucky, and obtained transportation to Lexington. I went to the Provost Marshall's office to report myself, and when I entered my eyes were almost dazzled. I beheld a blue ground streaked with shoulder straps, and the room was full of officers. The Marshal was not there. A jug sat under the desk, which seemed to command a great deal of attention. The shoulder straps were all in a good way; they played ball with chairs, bats, &c. I got transportation to Covington the next day, and after staying there two days, I got transportation to Catlettsburg on the "Fannie McBurnie".

I was very sick when I got on the boat, so I did not feel like drawing rations, and I supposed that I would get cabin fare, and would not need anything to eat that day. But, on the following morning I asked the cooks if I could not buy some breakfast; one said I could in one hour, so I waited till I thought the lazy hour had crept away, and went to see about it, I asked if it was ready. A thick-lipped nigger answered, "we have to fix for de white folks first, and you next," I had no gun or pistol, I replied that he was devlish saucy nigger, he said he knew he was and had something to uphold him. I did not understand what it was. I went to a young man belonging to an Ohio regiment to talk the matter over, and to see if I could not get redress; he was as nice a young man as I could wish to see; moral, educated, and intelligent. He told me he had been ordered down from the cabin, and his feelings were much hurt. I will close this hasty and imperfect letter, by asking the reader to look over errors, as it is my effort and written in haste.



  1. Very interesting, and very well written for a 39th soldier

  2. Wonderful letter giving the reader a good visual of the hard aches.