Wednesday, September 8, 2010

J.A. Brents' Banner of Liberty

It is necessary to defend a good and republican government against those who would destroy it. Where it can be, let mind appeal to mind. We are in the midst of a revolution. It is a struggle to maintain the principles of freedom. - J.A. Brents

"As soon as the ordinance of secession was forced upon the people of Tennessee, an army was sent into East Tennessee to look after the loyal citizens (traitors, as the seceders called them). They were imprisoned, their property taken and their families insulted and abused. Many were shot and hung. As soon as this program was adopted, large numbers fled to Kentucky for safety and [they] continued to flee as they could find opportunities for escape. Here [Clinton County], they stopped for a while, and were protected and fed by the citizens of this loyal little county. They were not permitted to remain here long, but were pursued and, together with others who were driven from their homes, fled across Cumberland river."

J.A. Brents of Albany wrote the above in 1863. It is from his book, The Patriots and Guerillas of East Tennessee and Kentucky [the book's title is actually much longer] that I present the following story.

Before the Civil War, John Allen Brents was an attorney. At the start of the campaign, he raised a company of some 85 men in Albany, which became Company C, First Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry, Union Army. He served eleven months, first as a Lieutenant then as Major. He said that his position on the border and in the army gave him an opportunity to obtain much valuable information in regard to the loyal East Tennesseeans, the state of affairs in Kentucky, the progress of the war in the West, what has been done in Kentucky and Tennessee since the rebellion broke out, and the history of men whose hands have been stained with pillage and blood. After the war, he used all the information he had collected and put it into a book. Later, I will tell you how you may purchase a copy of it.

Camp Dick Robinson
Soon after Tennessee seceded from the Union a squadron of cavalry and a body of infantry were sent to Fentress County, Tennessee. The citizens there considered this as a menace, but they were entirely helpless. No United States troops were in Kentucky, nor were any likely to be, as it was said that Kentucky's neutrality would be respected. Realizing they needed to prepare for their own defense in case they were attacked, a public meeting was held in Albany and two companies were organized, one cavalry and one infantry. William Hoskins was elected captain of the cavalry, J. A. Brents first lieutenant, J. P. Pickens second lieutenant and J. A. Morrison third lieutenant. Captain Hoskins was directed to immediately procure arms. He went to Cincinnati, where he obtained one hundred muskets for the infantry but nothing for the calvary. He then went to Washington and, even though he was unable to get the arms he needed, he came back home with something else of great value: Camp Dick Robinson.

Camp Dick Robinson's main purpose was to train fathers and sons sympathetic to the Union cause to be soldiers. J.A. Brents wrote that he was at the camp in Garrard County, Kentucky when those East Tennesseeans arrived. "...and it would have excited the pity of the hardest heart to have witnessed the scene," he said. "They had bid farewell to wives and children, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and their homes, and with broken hearts had taken their squirrel rifles upon their shoulders and started across the mountains for the Union camp, a place where they would be beyond the reach of their persecutors, and where they could prepare to strike a blow for the Union and freedom. Oh, what a bitter cup to them! They suffered and endured all." According to Major Brents, the East Tennesseeans sometimes had to travel several days without food. "What a spectacle to be at Camp Dick Robinson and witness the arrival of these refugees! Their clothes were torn in tatters. Most of them were barefooted [with] their feet bleeding from cuts received on the rocks in the mountains. Some waved little Union flags. Among them were old grayheaded men, midddle-aged men and little boys, who had traveled several hundred miles, and crossed the Cumberland Mountain. Many a stout heart was melted by this sight."

By the 3rd of August, 1861, Brents and Morrison had a full company of cavalry ready to start for camp. "This was a great day in Albany," he said. The entire population of the county assembled to bid farewell to eighty-five citizens who had enlisted in the Union army for three years." All along the route, the one hundred mile march to Camp Dick Robinson was one continual ovation...a one hundred mile parade and celebration. The future soldiers stayed overnight at Monticello and Somerset and were received and feasted like lords. "Men and horses fared bountiously," wrote Brents.

Camp Dick Robinson was alive with hope and renewed vision for a tormented people. Major Brents said, "we had very frequently much amusement, caused by raw soldiers on picket duty getting alarmed, and running into camp and reporting a large force at hand. Then what confusion -- what stirring and moving from point to point -- drums beating -- marching and counter-marching! Excited soldiers would rush to the warehouse, and break open boxes to procure arms and amunition." The cavalry generally got the worst of it. They would often be sent out to hunt the enemy, but were never so fortunate as to find a foe worthy of their steel. Often would they be aroused at the hour of midnight, mount their horses, and ride over hills and down dark valleys, and return to camp just at the break of day. Sometimes the guard at the bridge over the Kentucky river, ten miles distant, would send word to camp that they were about to be attacked. The cavalry would be aroused and sent to their assistance, but on reaching the bridge would find all quiet, the alarm having been caused by a horse running through the woods, or something like that.

Meanwhile, back home a real battle was brewing. One-thousand rebel troops had invaded Clinton County from Fentress County and captured several home guard guns. When word spread to Camp Robinson, Colonel Hoskins called upon all home guards in the area to assist him in defending the area and they did; not only from Clinton County, but from Adair, Casey and Russell counties as well. "This was a rich campaign, said Major Brents." A fight was expected every hour, and all were excited, however no attack was made as the rebels became alarmed and moved to the Monroe community in Overton County, where they commenced fortifying. Colonel Hoskins grew impatient at not being attacked, and decided to become the aggressor. The rebels had established a camp at Travisville, and the Colonel ordered Captain Morrison to take his company and attack them. The captain, a gallant and brave officer, being quite anxious for the expedition, proceeded to the camp and made the attack in a fierce and derermined manner. Captain Morrison himself fired upon the enemy with such promptness and precision that they broke and fled, leaving horses, saddles, guns, pistols, papers, etc. behind. Major Brents said, "There were two things connected with this campaign worthy of notice. Number one, the citizens were loyal and willing to repel the invasion, although they were not in any army, and number two, Captain Morrison's company of the 1st regiment of Kentucky Cavalry were the first Union troops on the soil of Tennessee after the commencement of the rebellion; and this, the first expedition to that State, was entirely successful. Today, the battle is known as the Affair at Travisville.

Camp Wildcat
When word came that General Zollicoffer was advancing upon Camp Wildcat in Northern Laurel County, the 3rd Kentucky regiment marched to the area to help. Among the soldiers was J.A. Brents. "We traveled until about ten o'clock p. m., when we halted, dismounted, and turned in for the remainder of the night," he said. "Many lay down upon the cold ground without any fire or covering except one blanket; others built fires before attempting to sleep. Early in the morning we were again on the march -- halted and took breakfast (a cracker and a slice of bacon) about nine o'clock -- resumed the march, and reached Camp Wildcat Sunday evening." On Monday morning, October 21, 1861, all were on alert. Several hours passed away but no attack was made. According to Major Brents, it was concluded that none would be made that day, so the cavalry retired to the rear to get breakfast and feed their horses. The men had just commenced broiling their bacon, when word came that the enemy was advancing. "We had not been in position long before two regiments of rebel troops advanced against us," he said. About three hundred fifty of the 33d Indiana regiment and three hundred fifty of the cavalry were the only forces to repel this attack. But nobly did the Kentuckians and Indianians stand to their post. The latter were trained troops, and fired volleys  in quick succession. The Kentuckians were not so well drilled, but made "pretty music" with their rifles, according to Major Brents. This was something more than the rebels expected as they broke and fled in confusion, leaving 53 soldiers dead and a portion of their wounded upon the field. The Union fatalities totaled 25.

A Welcome to Waitsboro
The rebels had established camps in Fentress and Overton counties and were continually making raids into Kentucky as far north as Monticello, taking property, arresting citizens, etc. They had two regiments of infantry and perhaps a thousand cavalry, but no artillery. Captain Morrison proceeded to Albany and drove the rebel advance back into Tennessee. In a few days word came that the enemy, including General Felix Zollicoffer and his entire command of three to six thousand rebels, had marched to Waitsboro, where Col. Hoskins and about eight hundred Union soldiers were stationed. Major Brents was among two hundred men who marched to the area to assist the Colonel. He said, "We started about ten o'clock A.M., and rode the whole day, not stopping till after dark. It rained the entire day. We bivouacked for the night, and next morning started again, not having heard a word from Colonel Hoskins or the enemy. It was still raining. We passed Logan's Fields but saw no enemy. Moving on, we thought perhaps we might meet a rebel force at Fishing Creek. The citizens on the road told us that we could not cross the creek -- that it would swim our horses. We pushed on to the creek, however, finding no enemy. The stream was over the banks, and more like a river than a creek. No delay could be made: if we waited ten minutes, it was certain that we could not cross. It was still raining in torrents, and the creek rising rapidly. We rushed into the boisterous stream, the water nearly reaching the backs of the horses, and swam the low horses; reached the opposite bank, and with a yell announced our relief. We were soon in the streets of Somerset, and, although it was still raining heavily, the men rushed out to welcome us; the women came to the windows, the doors and on the sidewalks, waving their handkerchiefs.

Mill Springs
On January 10, 1862, Major Brents and company began moving to Logan's Cross Roads in preparation for major assault on General Zollicoffer at Mill Springs. Major Brents said the march to Logan's Cross Roads was an extraordinary one. "It was the middle of winter," he said. "The march had to be made over a dirt road in a swampy country. The wagons would sink almost to the axle, sticking nearly every hundred yards and an hour or so was consumed in extricating them." Major Brents' company reached their destination on January 16th. He writes, "On the morning of the 19th, at daylight, our pickets were attacked by the rebel cavalry. Twenty of our cavalry were sent immediately to re-enforce them. On their arrival, the rebel cavalry had retired, and our pickets were confronted by a regiment of infantry, whom they met and kept in check until the arrival of other forces." Realizing the mounted calvary was useless, Colonel Wolford ordered his men to dismount and march to the left of the Indiana regiment, which they did just as the attack was made. It was there that the Calvary and the Indianians stood shoulder to shoulder in open field and fought the entire rebel force for about one hour, before being compelled to draw back. Union forces had not retired far when they met the 4th Kentucky. A new line of battle was formed, this time behind a fence and in a skirt of timber. "The conflict was again renewed, and continued perhaps an hour or more, when the 9th Ohio and 2nd Minnesota arrived and, after pouring several heavy volleys into the enemy's ranks, made as gallant a charge as was ever witnessed," said Major Brents. "The enemy could not stand it, but broke and fled in great confusion, pursued by our victorious troops." By early next morning, the enemy had retired across the river in a steamboat, leaving behind artillery, wagons, tents, camp equipage, trunks, and everything except their small arms and four pieces of artillery. The victory was complete. Four regiments and four companies, and a few pieces of artillery, had completely routed eight regiments of the enemy. Union losses were 39 killed and 207 wounded. Confederate losses were 125 killed, including General Zollicoffer, and 404 wounded or missing

A Call For Help
After Mill Springs, Major Brents turned his thoughts to the guerilla raids that were taking place in Clinton County. In a letter to Col. Wolford, dated Feb. 5, 1862, he wrote, "Last June, Clinton County had nine hundred voters, nearly all of whom were loyal to the Union...Clinton County has about five hundred troops in the Army...they [soldiers] have left wife and children, father and mother, brother and sister, their homes and property, and taken up arms in defence of our common country. The rebels invaded the county, oppressed her citizens at home, put them in fear, abused them, murdered several, and stole their property. Stlll her citizens in the army submitted to it quietly for the good of the cause. But, now the rebels have been whipped and routed and driven back, except a small number of thieves, who are now hanging upon the border, threatening destruction and extermination to everbody. Why cannot a force be sent to the border sufficient to protect that country, and stand between the rebels and the families of those in their country's service, who are bound to suffer greatly if not protected? ...Are a loyal people to be left unprotected, and to be plundered and murdered by two or three hundred thieves after the main army has been routed and driven from this part of Kentucky, when fifteen or twenty thousand troops are within thirty or thirty-five miles? As a citizen of Clinton county, who has suffered at the hands of the rebels, I humbly and earnestly ask that one or two regiments, if not more, be sent to the border, so as to render protection to as loyal people as ever lived."

[After the war, guerilla Champ Ferguson was arrested, convicted and hung for the deaths of 53 people, both soldiers and civilians...many of whom lived in Clinton County.]

A Wonderful, Beautiful Place
I include the following excerpt from J.A. Brents book because in the midst of the bloody Civil War he took the time to reflect on the place he called home...the same place that I, too, call home. A wonderful, beautiful place...

In April of 1862, after crossing Obey River at the onset of a march into Tennessee, Major Brents saw what he described as the most picturesque scene he ever witnessed. "About half a mile from the river, on the north side, the road makes a precipitate descent into the river bottom. I stood upon the brink of the hill at this point, and took a view of the surrounding country. There lay the beautiful river at my feet, and a vast plain upon the opposite side, perhaps three miles in width, while a range of hills is presented to the view. Just beyond this range is another, then a third one, and so on to the farther range, which is of great height. These hills approached theriver both to the right and left, thus forming a basin. The timber, which was very heavy upon them, was just getting green; the warm spring days had pushed out the buds and leaves. The soldiers marched down to the river, and, with the waving of hats and banners, rushed into the foaming water, which was nearly over the backs of our horses. It was a beautiful scene. I am no poet nor have I imagination enough to describe the scene as I would wish, yet I have given the outlines, from which a highly wrought fancy can form a beautiful picture."

The march into Tennessee was J.A. Brents last involvement in the Civil War. He resigned his commission on July 2, 1862.

"We must not let the banner of Liberty fall. In the name of all that is sacred, keep the banner of Liberty waving. - J.A. Brents.

To obtain a copy of this book, visit the Clinton County Historical Society's website at:

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