Second Battle of Whitesburg

The ironies of the War Between the States were not finished with the small community of Whitesburg.

The winds of war howled.

The little community of Whitesburg, Kentucky, would still taste one last battle.

The first Battle of Whitesburg had occurred on the same date as the Battle of Fredericksburg and now, ironically, one of the last engagements of the War Between the States occurred in this small hamlet of the mountains.

Within the pages of our history it should be duly noted that this action took place 6 days after General Robert E. Lee’s General Order Number 9 (dated April 10, 1865).

That order effectively disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

As if their destinies were entwined, some of the same men that had fought against each other in the Battle of Whitesburg in December of 1862 returned on April 16, 1865, to face each other once more.

The men in this latter fight were the same but the regiments that they served in had changed. As of March of 1865, the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles had been reorganized and now known as the 13th Kentucky Cavalry.

The Union unit had evolved even more, changing from the Harlan Battalion to the 47th Kentucky Infantry and finally being called the Three Forks Battalion.

Even more coincidental was the fact that the commanding officers of the two units involved in both fights (December 13, 1862 and April 16, 1865) were the same. Lieutenant George Houck of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry, Confederate States of America and Captain Benjamin F. Blankenship of the Three Forks Battalion, United States of America, once again stood on opposite sides facing each other in mortal combat.

On April 12, 1865, Major Elisha B. Treadway, commander of the Three Forks Battalion, dispatched Captain Blankenship with a detachment of men from Company F to the Pound Gap area.

Their orders were to bring under control a band of bushwhackers operating in the vicinity of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia.

The Yankee patrol entered Wise County, Virginia, and skirmished with the bushwhackers, killing two (2) of their leaders and capturing four of their men. Captain Blankenship returned to his camp of operations in Harlan County, Kentucky, to deliver the prisoners.

He and the detachment then continued on their mission and rode once again into Whitesburg on the 16th of April.

The normal, heavy rains of spring had been falling in the mountains, swelling the streams and rivers. This made traveling by horseback a muddy and miserable trip for the horse soldiers.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant George Houck was on the same mission as his Union counterpart. Colonel Benjamin Caudill had dispatched Lieutenant Houck with a small detachment of men from the 13th Kentucky Cavalry (the majority of the 13th Kentucky was on their way to Richmond, Virginia, to reinforce General Robert E. Lee) to protect the Whitesburg area from the bushwhackers. Davis S. Fields stated in his Confederate pension application that he was in the Beaver area with Houck when General Lee surrendered.

According to his sworn testimony, they were rounding up stragglers. Probably, Houck was in command of the security of the home area around the Whitesburg area. Regardless, the two groups of warring men met on opposite banks of the rain-swollen North Fork of the Kentucky River within the Whitesburg area.

By chance or preordained by the winds of providence, the 13th Kentucky soldiers were on the north side of the river and the Three Forks men on the south side.

The thoughts of Gettysburg echo upon the page of history and sends chills down the spine as one recalls the events of July 1, 1863, when Lee entered Gettysburg from the north and Meade entered the city from the south.

Upon spotting each other, gunfire erupted from all sides, with both companies of men bravely, blazing away.

Long years of war had hardened and dulled these warriors and now only bullets blazed across the river with no thoughts of slinging insults as before.

The superior firepower of the Union men started to take its toll on the Rebels, resulting in the wounding of several of them.

In an effort to gain time to withdraw his wounded men, Lieutenant Houck hoisted a white flag. As his men casually started pulling back, Lieutenant Houck pretended to negotiate the terms of surrender. Captain Blankenship shortly realized it was just a scheme and ordered his men to continue firing, shooting down the truce flag.

Captain Houck and his men retreated downstream toward the mouth of Sandlick Creek, destroying all skiffs and canoes that they encountered along the river.

With no boats available, the Three Forks soldiers could not continue the fight nor pursue the Rebels as the river was swollen out of its banks, allowing no fording.

The men of the 13th Kentucky made good their escape, removing their wounded with them. No known casualty list is available for this skirmish; however, several men were allegedly wounded, perhaps fatally.

Lieutenant Houck and his men may have been blessed more than they realized. The next assignment that Captain Blankenship and his men received was to escort Confederate prisoners of war from Irvine to Departmental headquarters at Lexington, Kentucky.

On this trip, Captain Blankenship was accused of allowing his men to murder some of the prisoners.

Upon learning that orders had been issued to arrest him on his arrival at Union Headquarters, he reversed his course and moved his men back into the mountains along the border of Kentucky and Virginia.

The Yankee patrol probably followed the renegade captain because they were afraid of the repercussions that might be awaiting them as well. Another irony had developed in that Captain Blankenship and his followers had become exactly what they were supposedly fighting to stop, bushwhackers! He disobeyed all orders to return to Union Headquarters. Shortly thereafter the war ended and he fled the state, evading a trial for murder and disobeying orders. Lieutenant Houck and his men may have met the same fate of the murdered prisoners if they had also been captured at Whitesburg!

At the time of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the main regiment of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry was under the command of General John Echols at Christiansburg, Virginia.

Upon hearing of the news of the surrender, the general ordered the 13th Kentucky Cavalry and the remainder of Giltner’s Brigade to return to Kentucky. Whether the men of Caudill’s Army involved in the action at Whitesburg were unaware of this surrender or just stubbornly refused to give up the fight has not been ascertained. At any rate, “Ole” Joe Johnston was still out there somewhere in North Carolina and was a force to be reckoned with.

Regardless, the war would be over shortly for both sides.

The men of the 13th Kentucky Cavalry that remained as home guards within the mountains of eastern Kentucky were mustered out in May of 1865 and the Three Forks Battalion was mustered out on July 17, 1865.

Soldiers on both sides came home to find their homes and barns in disrepair and their fields in need of being tended. Most of the fences were either burnt or torn asunder.

Hardships from the war would haunt the proud mountain people for years to come. As the soldiers aged, the significance of their stories began to fade and with the passing of each generation their memory is being lost forever.

For the most part they are forgotten, along with their final resting places.

Most soldier graves were marked with sandstone rocks with names or initials carved into them. The years have weathered these marks and with the vanishing of the lettering, the noble men of valor from a by-gone era slips into the abyss. Some gave their full measure but all were willing to do so.

Is it not worthy for us to put forth every effort at capturing their stories for future generations and to instill pride of our heritage? (Taken From APPALACHIAN REBELS; Brown, Richard G., Chaltas, David P; Amazon Books; 2007)