Sunday, August 18, 2013

An Early, Committed, Confederate Kentuckian

It is common knowledge that Kentucky delayed its involvement in the Civil War due largely to its unenviable geographical position and its attempt to serve as a mediator between the North and the South.  A brief attempt at neutrality (May-September 1861) ended with the Confederate invasion and capture of Columbus, Kentucky, and thus the state legislature chose to remain in the Union.

However, less known are those Kentuckians that committed to their respective cause before the state officially made its decision.  Men that were unconditional Unionists did not wait for the state to make its declaration; rather they crossed the Ohio River to Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois and joined up with regiments forming in those states.  Some Confederate Kentuckians, too, mustered into regiments soon after Fort Sumter.  One such individual was Joseph Desha, Captain of Company C, in the 1st Kentucky (CSA).  Desha was the grandson of former Kentucky Governor Joseph Desha.  The 1st Kentucky left the state by train to Nashville, Tennessee, then to the seat war in northern Virginia in the spring of 1861. 

In a letter written just a month after the Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run, and now housed in the Special Collections of the Kentucky Historical Society, Joseph Desha wrote home to his brothers Cave and Lucius in Harrison County.  The letter shows Desha’s concern for his family and the men in his command, his commitment to his cause, hatred for his enemies, and even a touch of humor.  The letter serves as an excellent example of the many things Civil War soldiers thought about while at war.

Writing at Camp Bartow, about four or five miles from the battlefield at Manassas,  Desha explained “in these troublous times . . . one feels a satisfaction in knowing that his friends hear from him, altho’ he may feel anxious for weeks, not having heard from his friends.”  He mentioned that he understood things were changing fast and that at anytime “War & battles . . . may be by this time right among the people at home.” Desha also wrote about the deaths caused by disease in his regiment.  One soldier, L. D. Taylor, had died of typhoid fever.  Taylor’s death made the third man lost to sickness in the unit.

Desha’s early commitment to the Confederate cause is witnessed by his strongly written words. “Every good & brave man – aye & boy too – will stand up square & meet . . . and fight the invaders and the cowards & dogs who sympathize with them.”  He explained that as long as there were cartridges to ram and bayonets to be fixed, and as long as there were “rifles & shotguns - & knives [,and] pistols” the men of Harrison County would “defend their rights.”  Desha also described seeing the aftermath of the First Battle of Manassas, where the “stench was insufferable” from “dead horses and blackened Yankees.” He felt little pity after viewing a Union soldier only partially buried in a gully.  The inveterate Confederate wished “everyone of the infernal heathens meet the same fate.”

Captain Desha also brought a bit of levity to his otherwise passionate letter.  Near the end of the missive he explained that attempts to find musicians for his unit had proved to be in vain.  After advertising for field musicians all the regiment had to show for its effort was one man, who made “such execrable racket” on a “tenor drum,” it made the would-be musician the “laughing stock of the whole brigade.”

The captain however, finished with a flurry of advice to his apparently younger brothers that sought to reinforce the all important ideals of southern honor. “Boys act right all the time – no matter where you are or how situated – Tell the truth & fear no man – Act Right – Let consequence go to the devil.” 

These closing sentiments bear firm witness to Desha’s early and strident commitment to his cause.  When the twelve month enlistments of the 1st Kentucky ran out and the unit disbanded he formed Company I of the 9th Kentucky Infantry, which was later transferred to the 5th Kentucky Infantry.  He fought at Stones River and Chickamauga among other battles and somehow managed to survive the war.  In 1866, still firm in his idea of southern honor, he fought a duel with a former Union soldier.  Desha survived the altercation and lived until 1902, when he was buried in the same Harrison County cemetery as his duel opponent.

Image courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society.

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