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The Historical
First Kentucky Cavalry
 
 

"I am always glad to think and write about the gallant old First Kentucky Cavalry. It was as brave a body of men as any officer had the good fortune to command. If I sent them into action oftener than I should have done, it was because I knew they would be equal to any heroic duty which might be imposed upon them."
Lt. General Joseph Wheeler
Commander of Cavalry, Army of Tennessee


PAGE CONTENTS

Highlights
Benjamin Hardin Helm, Commanding Officer
Commanders of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Battles of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Generals of Cavalry (Under Which the First Served)
Uniforms of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Weapons of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Horses of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Primary Sources for History of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry
 


HIGHLIGHTS

It's first commander, Benjamin Hardin Helm, was the brother-in-law of Union president Abraham Lincoln.

It's men were the first Kentucky cavalrymen to respond to the call for service to the Confederate States in 1861 ...

... and it served to the very last, as President Jefferson Davis' guard when he was captured in Georgia in May of 1865.

Part of the first cavalry brigade established in the Western theater (with the 8th Texas cavalry).

Served under famous cavalry generals Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest, among others.

Was the first unit to break the Union line in the last great Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Georgia

Was the first unit to cross the field and start the last large battle of the War, at Bentonville, NC in 1865.

A member of Kentucky's famous Orphan Brigade, being officially adopted in 1884.


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Benjamin Hardin Helm
Original Commander of the
First Kentucky Cavalry, CSA
Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm
General Helm was considered one of the three "beloved" officers of the First Cavalry (along with Captains Noel and McCauley), all of whom died in combat with the regiment. Then Major Helm was an officer in the Federal service prior to the war, and brother-in-law to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew that Helm's heart lay with the South, and offered to give him a higher position and assign him to the western territories so that he would not have to fight against the men of the South. Nonetheless, Helm resigned his commission and was first commissioned into Confederate service as a Colonel of cavalry. He formed, trained, and led the First Kentucky Cavalry into the field before being promoted after the Battle of Shiloh to general and being transferred to the infantry. Helm found his greatest fame at the head of Kentucky's Orphan Brigade and died leading it in a charge at the Battle of Chickamauga. One of his cavalrymen, temporarily serving with the Orphan Brigade due to a medical issue, marched into that charge with Gen. Helm, uniting under his banner for his last action a representative of his first command. When Gen. Helm's body was removed from Georgia in 1884 to be reburied in his native Kentucky soil, soldiers from both the Orphan Brigade and the First Kentucky Cavalry accompanied it on the journey, and after the burial the infantrymen of the Orphan Brigade adopted the First Kentucky Cavalry into their ranks. In Heaven, Gen. Helm must have smiled.

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Commanders of the First Kentucky Cavalry, CSA
 
Col. Benjamin Hardin Helm 1861-62
Lt. Col. Thomas G. Woodward 1862
Col. John Adams 1862
Maj. J. W. Caldwell 1862
Col. J. Russell Butler 1862-64
Lt. Col. Jacob Wark Griffith 1864-65
 
NOTES:
Col. Helm was promoted to be a general of infantry and was later assigned to command the highly famous Kentucky "Orphan" Brigade. He was mortally wounded leading them in a charge at the last great Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Georgia on Sept. 20 and died with the words, "Victory! Victory!" on his lips.

Col. Adams, a brief and unpopular commander with the 1st Kentucky, was also later promoted to a general of infantry. He went on to become one of the five generals killed at the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) on Nov. 20, 1864, and died gloriously atop his horse on top of a Federal parapet, with his hand on the Federal flag staff.

Lt. Col. Griffith was the father of D. W. Griffith, who later became known as the father of the modern film-making business and had the most prestigious of Hollywood's award, the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, named after him before a fit of political correctness had the name removed because his views of racial issues were commensurate with the times in which he lived.

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Mustered into Confederate service on October 28, 1861

The First Kentucky Cavalry's most significant service was in the Army of Tennessee, the Confederacy's main army fighting in the Western Theater. Cavalry units served in three unique ways in the war. Some were part of raiding units, such as those under famous Kentuckian John Hunt Morgan, others served as the main force holding a certain region, such as those under Nathan Bedford Forrest, while the third kind served with the large battle armies. The First Cavalry belonged to this last group, being part of the eyes and ears of the large army, scouting the way when it was on the advance, serving in the fight during the battles, and protecting it's rear from the enemy when on retreat. The fortunes of the First Kentucky, therefore, mirrored those of the Army of Tennessee, and its predecessors, through most of the war. It was present for many of the most famous actions, often playing a principal part in them, and experienced both the joys and agonies of that army as it's fortunes waxed and waned.

This service was mostly in the Kentucky Cavalry Brigade, under general of cavalry Joseph Wheeler. The First Kentucky "grew up" with this famous cavalry general. It was part of his first brigade command, and the first cavalry brigade of the western army, when it was teamed with the 8th Texas Cavalry in a small brigade under Wheeler's command. As both Wheeler's fortunes and the size of the cavalry command grew, the First Kentucky was there for the ride.


Battles and Fights of the First Kentucky Cavalry, CSA

List is incomplete!

 Hewey's Bridge (Tn.) May 8, 1862
 Sweeden's Cove (Tn.) June 4, 1862
 Munfordville (Ky.) Sept. 17, 1862
 Perryville (Ky.) Oct. 8,1862
 Loudon (Ky.) Oct. 1862
 Battle of Murfreesboro (Stone's River) Dec. 31, 1862 & Jan. 2, 1863
 Tullahoma Campaign June-July, 1863
 Hoover's Gap June 24, 1863
 Battle of Chickamauga Sept. 19-20, 1863
 McLemore's Cove Sept. 21, 1863
 Sequatchie Valley Oct. 2, 1863
 Missionary Ridge Nov. 26, 1863
 Ringgold Gap Nov. 27, 1863
 Charleston, Tn. Dec. 28, 1863
 Atlanta Campaign (AC) May- Sep, 1864
 AC: Dug Gap May 8, 1864
 AC: Resaca May 14-15, 1864
 AC: Cassville (Ga.) May 24, 1864
 AC: Peachtree Creek July 20, 1864
 AC: Stoneman's Raid (SR) July-August 1864
 AC/SR: Sunshine Church July 31, 1864
 AC/SR: Jug Tavern (King's Tanyard) Aug. 3, 1864
 Saltville (Va.) Oct. 2, 1864
 March to the Sea Nov - Dec, 1864
 Carolinas Campaign (CC) Jan - April 1865
 CC: Columbia (SC) Feb. 17, 1865
 CC: Bentonville (NC) March 19-21, 1865
 Jefferson Davis Escape April - May 1865
 

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Surrendered at Washington, Georgia on May 10, 1865
1 month and 1 day after Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender
2 weeks after Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee's surrender

Very Brief Narrative History of the First Kentucky Cavalry

During the earliest days of the war in the west, as both sides were beginning to make their moves and muster men into service, a Southern army began to form around Bowling Green, Kentucky during the summer of 1861. At various points throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but mostly in the western and south central portions, men rallying to the Southern cause recruited groups of men for cavalry service and began moving these groups to the army at Bowling Green. Benjamin Hardin Helm, brother-in-law of Union President Abraham Lincoln, had been commissioned as a colonel of cavalry and assigned to Bowling Green. As these companies of men arrived, he began training them for military cavalry service. By October enough companies were present to form a regiment of cavalry and these soldiers were mustered in as the First Kentucky Cavalry. Many others would follow: 13 more regiments before the war was over, and battalions and smaller units. But these men were the first.


 


Famous Generals of Cavalry Under Whom the First Kentucky Served
 
 Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler
Commander of Cavalry,
Army of Tennessee
Gen. Joseph Wheeler   Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest  
 Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
Commander of Cavalry

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UNIFORMS OF THE FIRST KENTUCKY CAVALRY

Though the references have been few, in our research some clues have surfaced concerning the uniforms of the First Cavalry. Currently, we have two references.

 
Private, 1st Kentucky Cavalry Brigade

 

The picture at right, with the title above, is from Uniforms of the Civil War, by Philip Haythornthwaite. It is from Plate 39, and is accompanied by the following description below.

 

"39. C.S.A.: ... c) Private, 1st Kentucky Cavalry Brigade
"The Confederate cavalry greatcoat was double-breasted with standing collar and brass buttons, the cape long enough to reach the cuffs of the coat, the whole being grey in colour. It is doubtful, however, whether many such overcoats conformed exactly to regulations, a wide variety of styles and designs being used. The private illustrated wears the official pattern, and has the distinctive all-yellow kepi of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry Brigade. ... The Kentucky Cavalryman is shown armed with a Deane and Adams revolver fitted with a Kerr patent ramrod."

Unfortunately, though Haythornthwaite gives an extensive listing of source material used in developing the uniform graphics in his book, he does so as a general listing, and does not cite sources for individual graphics.

Here is the official citation for this book:
Uniforms of the Civil War
Philip Haythornthwaite
Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1990

First published in the United Kingdom under the title of
Uniforms of the American Civil War
Blandford Press, Ltd., 1975

From a University of Cincinnati report, quoting the "Russellville Democrat," [Logan Co., Ky.] dated October 5, 1861:
The "Russellville Democrat ... gives a description of the unit [Company A] as they appeared, smart in their new uniforms, at the mustering-in ceremony. The men appeared "dazzling" in their short gray coats, "trimmed and piped in cavalry gold," and blue breeches "seamed in the same bright hue."

As service continued, the colorful and martial appearance of the First Kentucky in the early months of the war soon deteriorated. Hard service in the field quickly wore out uniforms and replacements came from whatever was to be had. Additionally, since the First Cavalry was isolated from its home state, it could not be supplied by them as were troops from other Southern states, who often received uniform allotments from their own state governments. Several citations are found in historical references in which, at times, the First Kentucky was in dire straits for clothing and uniforms, and sometimes wanted for basic items. They were occasionally given an issue from Confederate stores, and on a couple of occasions may have been given an issue from one of the other states. During an inspection in the middle of the war it was threatened that any non-commissioned officer who was found not wearing his stripes would be demoted to the ranks. One hapless fellow who could not find suitable stripes burned the end of a stick and used it to mark black stripes on his uniform.

Nonetheless, some of the men, certainly including the officers, continued to maintain a fine and proper military appearance. Just before a surprise raid by Kilpatrick's cavalry in January, 1864 it was noted that the regiment's major, J. Q. Chenoweth, was in the process of putting on a fine new uniform that he had just received. When a bullet from one of Kilpatrick's men damaged his hat, it put him into such an anger that he greatly exposed himself to the enemy as he fought off the attack.

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WEAPONS OF THE FIRST KENTUCKY CAVALRY

What has been found by research thus far:

Long Arm:
"Columbus Carbine," officially known as the J. P. Murray Artillery Carbine (until August, 1863)
Belgian rifle (from last week of August 1863 until Battle of Chickamauga, Sept. 20, 1863)
Enfield rifle (after Chickamauga)
[These three facts are from Thompson's "History of the Orphan Brigade."

NOTES ON THE COLUMBUS CARBINE
From the "History of the Orphan Brigade."
"
Through its campaigns succeeding Stones River the regiment was indifferently armed. Their gun was the Columbus carbine, a weapon made at Columbus, Ga., short of range, loosely constructed, unreliable in almost every respect, and a cause of uneasiness in battle, and of much complaint."

Contributed by Maj. Tod Lane, Cavalry Commander of the Kentucky Cavalry Brigade (reenactors):
The infamous Columbus carbine was made by J. P. Murray in of all places, Columbus Georgia. It looks like a short Mississippi Rifle (officially known as the U.S. Model 1841 Percussion Rifle). There is one at the museum at Chickamauga. It was 35 1/2" long., 58 caliber with brass furnishings, the brass being donated by citizens, i.e. their personal belongings.
 

From the 1997 Dixie Gun Works Catalog, pg. 46
J. P. Murray Artillery Carbine: Originally manufactured by Eldridge S. Greenwood and William C. Gray of Columbus, Georgia, between 1862 and 1864 for Confederate Artillery units during the Civil War. Since raw materials were difficult to obtain in the South, Southern citizens donated their personal brass items to be melted down to manufacture some of the hardware for these guns.

 

 

Pistols and Other Weapon Notes:
From the "History of the Orphan Brigade."
[Following the Battle of Chickamauga] "After the capture of the Kentucky Federal Cavalry, noticed elsewhere, almost every man had also more pistols than he had any use for. These Federal troops carried excellent carbines, but they were broken in pieces, as they could not be turned to good account by Confederate cavalry for want of suitable ammunition."

The troopers pistols apparently played a major role in repulsing repeated infantry charges at the Battle of Dug Gap (with the action at Mill Creek Gap known collectively as the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge). In this battle Federal infantry men tried to force the way through the gap by charging up the narrow access, but concentrated fire from the trooper's pistols aided in turning them back.

Sabers:

From a University of Cincinnati report, quoting the "Russellville Democrat," [Logan Co., Ky.] dated October 5, 1861:
"
Each man was armed with a bright new English saber" (most probably used as a generic term rather than a brand name).

Later, it was noted that a cavalryman with a saber was assumed to be a new inductee to the service, and would be laughed at. The indication is that the First Kentucky, as did many other Confederate cavalry units, soon discarded the saber for general use and almost exclusively used their pistols and long arms for combat. (History of the Orphan Brigade)

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HORSES OF THE FIRST KENTUCKY CAVALRY

From a University of Cincinnati report, quoting the "Russellville Democrat," [Logan Co., Ky.] dated October 5, 1861:
"The Editor of the Democrat goes on to state that the blaze of the men's uniforms and the glow of their martial ardor was outshone only by the 'most justly famous product of our noble state, its horseflesh.' Each trooper provided his own mount and horse furniture, thus supplied, the company was composed of 'centaurs astride Pegasus.' Although clearly a mythological impossibility it is an indication that the unit was well mounted."



PRIMARY ORIGINAL SOURCES FOR THE HISTORY OF THE 1ST KY. CSA

History of the Orphan Brigade, 1861-1865
by E. Porter Thompson
Morningside Bookshop
ISBN: 0890290962
(This is the modern reprint of the first edition, published in 1995)

Reminiscences, Or Four Years in the Confederate Army
by John Will Dyer
Published locally in 1898

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"The First Kentucky did its duty... It was true to its colors under all circumstances."
Unknown First Kentucky Cavalry trooper,
quoted in Thompson's "History of the Orphan Brigade."

 


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