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It was an era in American history that pitted countryman against countryman, neighbor against neighbor, and even brother against brother. The Civil War has been well documented over the past 145 years, and now some of Washington County’s Civil War legacy is featured in a book entitled “The 10th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War,” where author Dennis W. Belcher chronicles the formation and history of the storied regiment that fought for the Union Army for three years, having been formed in Lebanon on Nov. 21, 1861.
“I really think that people in Washington and Marion counties have a lot to be proud of,” said Belcher by phone from his home in Columbia, Mo. “Over half of the regiment came from those two counties, and we don’t know exactly where everybody was from, because back in those days, whenever men enlisted, they didn’t put ‘I live at 124 Oak Street.’ Most of the time, they would say ‘I was born in...’, so what we know is that a majority of the soldiers did come from either Washington or Marion counties. The rest of the regiment consisted of soldiers from Jefferson, Nelson, Hardin and several other counties.”
What is extraordinary about the 10th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry is that these, for the most part, were everyday people, mostly farmers, who put down their daily tools and picked up arms to come to the aid of a country in crisis.
“Most of the people in the regiment were farm boys, about 70 percent of them,” Belcher added. “The leadership of the regiment started with Col. John Marshall Harlan from Boyle County. He was politically connected, and he left the regiment in March of 1863 when he became Kentucky’s Attorney General. Eventually, he served on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Not much happened under Harlan’s watch, and after he resigned, that’s when the regiment saw a flurry of action under the command of Lt. Col. William H. Hays, a private practice lawyer from Springfield, who served as county judge from 1851 to 1859.
“He leads the soldiers into what I would say were the darkest days of the war for the regiment,” Belcher continued. “Starting in March of 1863, things get really interesting for the 10th Kentucky. Another attorney from Springfield, Gabriel Caldwell Wharton, was promoted to Lt. Col. Those are the two ranking officers when things really pick up for the regiment.”
During this period of the war, the 10th Kentucky fought the Battle of Chickamauga, Ga. Belcher reiterates the impact that the 10th Kentucky had on battles during the war.
“What happens at Chickamauga is what legends are made of,” he said. “It’s an amazing three-day battle that the Union Army lost, but I think you learn as much in adversity as you do in victory. Both forces were evenly matched at Chickamauga, and then the general of the Union Army gave a bad order and they couldn’t recover. The 10th Kentucky would reform on a ridge about a mile from the battle site, and they are under the command of George Thomas, who would earn the nickname ‘The Rock of Chickamauga.’ They would hang on to the side of this hill for six hours and fight off the Confederates. The Union was so low on ammunition, Wharton was quoted as saying that if the Confederates had attacked one more time, the Union would have been fighting with bayonets. The regiment lost 40 percent of their men, who were either wounded, captured or killed. Although the battle is considered a Confederate victory, in my mind, the 10th Kentucky actually helps save the Union Army.”
Making the book even more compelling is the fact that the soldiers tell some of the story through personal wartime letters, giving the reader a deeper understanding of what these brave men went through in such a pivotal moment in history.
One Springfield native to lend his voice to the 10th Kentucky’s legacy was former court clerk Capt. Seth P. Bevill. Bevill’s conflict isn’t just with a Confederate Army warring against him and his mates, but also against his own blood relatives.
“He has a brother who is in the Confederate Cavalry,” added Belcher. “He’s got a really nice letter from his sister where she writes that people are saying she should give her allegiance to Seth because he was in the Union Army, but he writes back to her saying that she should be true to herself, and just because their brother is wearing another uniform, that doesn’t mean he loves him any less Within two months of writing this letter, Seth Bevill is mortally wounded at Chickamauga. It’s a very poignant story, and just one throughout the book.”
Eventually, the 10th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry would muster out of service on Dec. 6, 1964, but not before fighting other significant battles of the war such as Battle of Missionary Ridge, the march on Atlanta, and finally, the Battle of Jonesboro, which saw the regiment become the first force to break the Confederate lines.
“What’s important for the 10th Kentucky at the Battle of Jonesboro is that they had only 168 men at this point of the war. At their maximum, they were 850 strong. But they broke the Confederate line late in the afternoon on Sept. 1, 1864 and they would be the first Union regiment to place their flag on the Confederate line. They first fought the 6th and 7th Arkansas regiments and turned to fight the 9th Kentucky Confederate regiment, who was also formed in that part of Central Kentucky. The 10th Kentucky loses another 30 men in that battle, so at the end of the war, there will be about 130 men remaining.”
Belcher grew up in Bullitt County, and his parents’ family lived in Boyle County. He spent a lot of time driving back and forth from Shepherdsville to Danville and always went through Springfield. He never realized that for all of those years, he was driving through some incredible history.
“What got me started on finding out more was the fact that my great, great-grandfather was in the 10th Kentucky named Eli Ball. I put one paragraph about him in the book and the publisher edited it out,” Belcher laughed. “After doing some research and starting work on the book, I would drive through Springfield and I would see Wharton Real Estate and names that I know on the mailboxes.”
“The 10th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War,” published by McFarlane and Company in 2009, serves as a testament to what everyday citizens from Washington and surrounding counties did to preserve the Union, giving of themselves and in many cases, sacrificing all.
“Their story is very good, and I think it’s something that people here should be proud of,” Belcher said. “These were underrated, very good men. I have a strong emotional attachment to the 10th Kentucky. I hope the citizens here can look back and see the price that these people paid. What we are today is what these soldiers helped us to be.”
Copies of “The 10th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War” are available at the Springfield Opera House, or you may order online from major book retailers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.