January 25, 2014

Civil War anniversary: Those wild Kentuckians of the “Orphan” Brigade

By Dr. Elizabeth Hoole McArthur Dalton 150th Civil War Commission

— Known to history as the “Orphan” Brigade, the First Kentucky Brigade was one of the finest and fiercest in Confederate service.

Before arriving in Dalton in November 1863 with Gen. Braxton Bragg’s retreating Army of Tennessee, they had served with distinction in major battles, including Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. Their hard-fighting, independent, determined, and sometimes reckless ways had earned them a reputation on both sides as “those wild Kentuckians.”

Though the condition of Bragg’s army was generally deplorable as it limped into Dalton for winter encampment, the Kentuckians, according to their brigade’s historian, “maintained their morale admirably,” and quickly set out to make the best of their new circumstance. The soldiers built wood huts in the general vicinity of the Hamilton House, though somewhat scattered due to the terrain.

“The nature of the ground does not permit the brigade to be all camped together,” explained one soldier, “and the different regiments have selected grounds to suit themselves.”  

Their commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph H. Lewis, used the Hamilton home as his headquarters while Rachel Hamilton was away in middle Georgia. His tent was located near the spring house.  

Their new winter huts would provide welcome retreats during the cold, harsh winter months. “Our habitations are pleasantly situated on the hills,” declared one soldier, “and add a strange beauty to the surrounding scenery, which is naturally romantic, while the blue columns of smoke, curling up from the rude chimneys, speak of comfort to the weather-beaten soldiers.… All manner of rough architecture is displayed.  Yet, in every case, the well chincked [sic] walls shield inmates from the rude blasts of winter, and are generally comfortable, no matter what the over-fastidious may say to the contrary.”

The location offered an excellent water supply.  

“We were camped near a … spring,” recorded another soldier, “which afforded water amply sufficient for the whole brigade — and ran off waste water in a branch about four feet wide and fully two feet deep.  Once a week throughout the winter I took a bath and a good plunge in this branch and many times the water a few feet farther from the spring was hard frozen.”

Part of the fame and celebrity of the “Orphan” Brigade was due to its intriguing name and unusual origin. While the term “Orphan” was in limited use during the war, it was actually popularized by veterans afterwards. Its original source remains a matter of conjecture, but the several theories proposed as possibilities reveal much about the brigade’s distinctive history and feisty character.

When the war broke out, Kentucky initially declared neutrality, then sided with the Union. While nearly 60 Kentucky infantry regiments were mustered into Union service, only nine fought for the Confederacy. Most of the men who joined the Confederate regiments crossed into Tennessee to enlist at Camps Boone and Burnett near Clarksville. When combined with others in Bowling Green, they formed the First Kentucky Brigade, well over 4,000 strong, and departed their state in February 1862.

“From the time we turned our faces Southward from Bowling Green to the very close of the war,” declared one, “[there was] an air of indifference, a ‘devil may care,’ happy-go-lucky spirit, about these young Kentuckians that made them ready to cheerfully undertake any enterprise, no matter how dangerous or exacting the duty or perilous the undertaking.”

From the outset, then, these Confederates were displaced, expatriated by their identification with a cause their own state had not endorsed.  But after Union troops captured Fort Donelson in 1862 (in northern Tennessee, near the Kentucky border), their situation became even more isolated. With Kentucky now behind enemy lines, they were cut off from supplies and recruits.  They could not safely go home on furlough, nor could they be assured of receipt of letters from family. The only home left for these “Orphans” was the Confederate Army.

Their unusual name has also been attributed to an incident involving the brigade’s popular original commander, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. A former vice president of the United States and presidential candidate in 1860 representing the Southern Democratic Party, Breckinridge was a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, and, despite their political differences, a friend of her husband.

When he was promoted from brigade to division commander in 1862, he was replaced by Brig. Gen. Roger W. Hanson. At the Battle of Stones River on Jan. 2, 1863, Hanson vehemently disputed an order given by Gen. Braxton Bragg for his men to charge. When Bragg insisted, the brigade suffered tragic, disastrous casualties.  Breckinridge, distraught and anguished, rode among the survivors, crying out time and again, “My poor Orphan Brigade! They have cut it to pieces!” 

Further contributing to their feeling of being “orphaned,” these troops repeatedly lost their admired commanders. Breckinridge was promoted, his replacement Hanson was mortally wounded at Stones River, and his successor, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln, was mortally wounded at Chickamauga in September 1863. Helm was replaced by Lewis, who was their commander in Dalton and would continue until war’s end.

Though ferocious and daring in battle, off the battlefield the Orphans were creative and fun-loving. They formed their own debating society, started a glee club, performed theatricals and organized a library.

Recalled one veteran, “While [in Dalton] we enjoyed more liberty and recreation than any time during or since the war began. Some of the men were furloughed and enjoyed a few days of rest with relatives and friends (if perchance they had any) in the South. … All amused themselves as best they could in camp and town. … A great sham battle broke the monotony once, and a snowball battle at another time was a diversion indulged for one day.”

One of the most literate and educated brigades in the Army of Tennessee, the Orphans’ diaries, journals, recollections and brigade histories have provided insightful descriptions of Dalton, as well as details of soldier life, during the winter of 1864. Clearly impressed by the geography of the area, one Orphan declared, “This is almost a mountainous country.  Rock[y] Face Ridge looms up as a young mountain; the dirt road & the Rail Road find their way through this range by way of Mill Creek Gap.” Another, some years later, asserted that Rocky Face Gap was “one of the grand sentinels of nature.”

Yet, when called upon, these same thoughtful and playful Orphans were ready. In February, when Union Maj. Gen. George Thomas probed the Confederate defenses, they formed part of a “living” telegraph line on Rocky Face Ridge, and one of their number, Pvt. George Disney, was killed.

After a long, cold winter, April brought lovely weather. “Beautiful this morning,” an Orphan recorded in his journal.  “The birds seem rejoicing, as well as man, at the return of pleasant weather, for they are singing merrily enough…. The flowers are blooming, and the trees leaving out. I welcome the spring-time.”

But all knew that, with warmer weather, the relative security of Dalton was nearing an end and war’s brutality would soon return. “All are expecting the ‘ball to open’ soon,” declared an Orphan. “There is no telling these times, what is going to take place.”

Beginning in May, the Orphans would fight on to Atlanta, desperately trying to stop Sherman’s advance through Georgia. Reorganized in September as mounted infantry, they would continue on to Savannah, then into South Carolina in 1865.  

The Kentucky Rebels had been wild, hard-fighting and reckless, but they were not invincible. In the end, of the more than 4,000 who had marched out of Bowling Green in February 1862, defying their state and risking their lives, barely 600 remained. The once-proud and defiant First Kentucky Brigade surrendered at Washington, Ga., on May 6, 1865.



This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or robert.jenkins@robertdjenkins.com.