The “Battle” of Brooksville, Kentucky, September 28th, 1862

During the summer of 1862 northern Kentucky was the scene of several small encounters between Confederate and Federal forces. Some, like Snow’s Pond, a small skirmish along modern U. S. 25 north of Walton, are graced with a roadside Kentucky Historical Society marker. Others, like Cynthiana, have a Confederate monument in a local cemetery. And Augusta has a (little known) walking tour. But the affair that took place at Brooksville, Kentucky, the morning after the fight at Augusta, is a forgotten paragraph to all but a handful who have heard of this skirmish. There is no tour, no monument, no historical marker, nothing to indicate an encounter that was the final action of Basil Duke’s efforts to cross the Ohio River and possibly threaten Cincinnati, which in turn would cause the removal of Federal forces from northern Kentucky. This might have allowed Confederate forces to occupy the heights in northern Kentucky that overlook the “Queen City of the West.”

Let us turn back to the winter and spring of 1862. Confederate fortunes in the Western Theater were waning. The defeats at places like Ivy Mountain, Middle Creek, Mill Springs, Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh had shattered the confidence of Southern leadership in their ability to defend the midsouth. By late spring Corinth, Mississippi had fallen, and by mid-summer Don C. Buell was moving his Federal Army of the Ohio across northern Alabama, threatening to capture the important rail town of Chattanooga, which would open the path towards Atlanta. The Confederacy needed a bold stroke to reverse its fortunes.

For some months leading pro-secession citizens from Kentucky had been clamoring for assistance, for a military presence to throw off the yoke of Yankee oppression. Capped by the excitement of John H. Morgan’s First Kentucky Raid during July 1862, and the resultant misinterpretation of support from the Kentucky populace, Confederate general Edmund K. Smith conspired with fellow general Braxton Bragg to go on the offensive. Smith would threaten and take Cumberland Gap, then move his forces to join with Bragg to bring Buell’s army to heel in a great battle in central Tennessee, recapturing Nashville as a result. Smith, while offering to place his own forces under Bragg’s command, created a larger problem when he moved into Kentucky via various gaps west of Cumberland Gap, in an effort to surround and force the surrender of the Federal forces under George W. Morgan who was holding Cumberland Gap. Morgan had other ideas and settled in for a siege. Smith could not keep his command supplied in the immediate area due to a lack of forage, and hence moved north along the Wilderness Road towards the Bluegrass. This movement, not part of the agreed upon original plan between Smith and Bragg, forced Bragg to support Smith’s efforts by passing around Nashville and crossing the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. The stage was set for what is known variously as the Kentucky, Heartland, or Perryville Campaign.

Late summer of 1862 saw Confederate optimism on the rise. Having defeated George B. McClellan’s forces in a series of costly affairs known as the Seven Days Battles, Robert E. Lee sent Thomas J. Jackson to harass another Federal army under John Pope. Lee would bring the rest of his Army of Northern Virginia to join Jackson and put to rout Pope’s army, and then take advantage to invade Maryland. On the same day that Second Bull Run was being concluded, Edmund K. Smith’s newly christened Army of Kentucky was winning the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky, one of the most complete Confederate victories of the war. This period of the war was perhaps the true high tide of the Confederacy.[1] In early September Confederate general Henry Heth, later of Gettysburg infamy, was just miles from the Ohio River and Cincinnati, the seventh largest city in the United States, and a major manufacturing center. While Heth might have been turned away by the strength of defenses stringing across northern Kentucky, Confederate forces stayed in the region to recruit and to look for ways to continue pressure against the Queen City.

Basil W. Duke

Basil Duke, lieutenant colonel of the Second Kentucky Cavalry (C. S. A.) was using his regiment to cause confusion in the region.[2] Based at Falmouth, Kentucky, Duke would attack a Federal force at a place called Snow’s Pond north of Walton on September 25th, capturing approximately fifty Union soldiers, before falling back to Falmouth. Duke received word from one of his subordinates, who had been scouting with a small force along the Ohio River, that there was a Kentucky Home Guard (Union) unit being formed in Augusta, and that there was also a ford about one mile below town that could be used to cross over the Ohio River, allowing Duke to threaten Cincinnati from the east, and perhaps force the retreating of Federal forces out of northern Kentucky as a result. To that end Duke left Falmouth on the night of September 26th, passing through Brooksville, and would arrive on the heights above Augusta on the early afternoon of the 27th. The result would be the Battle of Augusta (and a story for another day), in which Duke eventually defeated and captured the Union Home Guard, but in doing so used up most of his artillery ammunition, and hence had to retreat to Brooksville, leaving behind a burning Augusta in his wake.[3]

On the morning of September 28th, Duke was still in Brooksville, overseeing the paroles of several of the men captured the day before at Augusta. He was not aware of the Federal forces closing in on his position. Reaction to the attack on Augusta had been swift. Various small Federal commands were on the move, thinking that Duke was still in Augusta. But with the Confederate withdrawal, the Federals would concentrate on the sleepy Bracken County seat of Brooksville, which according to the 1860 United States Census, had a population of just over 250 citizens. The Federals closed in, and the result was a confused encounter during the mid-morning of September 28th, 1862.

The day after the affair at Brooksville, a report was written by the Federal officer in command, given us the first details of the fighting.[4]

Report of Lieut. Col. H. Blair Wilson, Forty fourth Ohio Infantry.[5]

Hdqrs. U. S. Forces, Maysville, Ky., Sept. 29, 1862.

Sir: About dusk on the evening of the 27th instant a special messenger brought me the intelligence from Ripley[6] that Col. Basil W. Duke, with about 750 of John Morgan’s gang of rebels and two small pieces of artillery, had attacked Colonel Bradford’s command at Augusta, 18 miles below this place, and, after a most desperate resistance on the part of Colonel Bradford and his men, had succeeded in capturing Colonel Bradford and his entire force.[7] I immediately assembled all the available force at my command, being 325 infantry and one 6-pounder piece of artillery, and sent them, under command of the Hon. William H. Wadsworth, to Germantown, 12 miles distant from Maysville.[8] I also dispatched a courier after 100 cavalry (the only mounted force I had) that I had sent to Flemingsburg, about 2 o’clock that afternoon, to capture or drive off a rebel recruiting party and some of Humphrey Marshall’s cavalry, which were there.[9] I instructed Colonel Wadsworth to reach Germantown before daylight and remain there until I could arrive with re-enforcements. In the mean time a boat had been sent up the river about 8 miles to bring down a body of Home Guards to take possession of Maysville and repel any attempt that I feared might be made to make a raid on that place in my absence. I then took a boat and went to Ripley, where I found 175 of the armed and organized militia and one smooth-bore 6-pounder field piece. I appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Edwards, of the Militia, commander of this force, and immediately crossed the Ohio to Dover, and started with them to Germantown, 11 miles distant, where we arrived a little after daylight. I ordered Col. E. Grand Girard, of Ripley, to procure provisions for my men, and after collecting all the force he could to press on after me.[10]

Colonel Wadsworth had reached Germantown before daylight. He had posted pickets on all the roads and had taken every necessary precaution to aid my design of surprising the enemy. My original design was to march down from Germantown to Augusta, having ascertained that a march of only 3 miles from Germantown in that direction would bring me completely in the rear of the enemy and render a successful retreat on his part quite improbable, my design being, however, to surprise him at Augusta; but some scouts that Colonel Wadsworth sent out brought in the intelligence that Colonel Duke, after burning the best part of the town of Augusta, had retired in the direction of Brookville, and had probably reached that place before midnight. I at once set out for Brookville, 7 miles distant from Germantown, and was overtaken on the way by the cavalry from Flemingsburg, which had then marched since 2 o’clock the preceding evening more than 60 miles. I arrived within three-quarters of a mile from Brookville about 8 a. m., when I halted and ordered Captain Youart, commanding detachment of the Forty-fourth Ohio Volunteers, to proceed by a circuitous route and take possession of the Falmouth road, concealing himself from the view of the enemy. I did this, being well assured that the enemy would retreat on that road.[11] Captain Youart had just started when Judge Bush, who had been sent with his cavalry to the heights to reconnoiter, informed me that the enemy was forming in line of battle. I was then satisfied that the enemy had notice of our approach, and my principal force being militia and undrilled recruits, and knowing that the enemy outnumbered me, I thought it imprudent to divide my force, and countermanded my order to Captain Youart. It was very unfortunate that I did so. The truth was that the enemy had no notice of my presence, and had formed his line with the view of marching out on the Falmouth road. This was detected upon my arrival at the heights overlooking the town. It was then too late to take possession of the Falmouth road, and I could not, from any position on that side of the town, play on the rebels with artillery. I therefore ordered my detachment of the Forty-fourth Ohio Volunteers to charge at double-quick time down into the town, and I ordered the artillery and the remainder of my force to follow them promptly at quick-time. This was the first notice that Colonel Duke had of our presence. He, with a guard of 25 men, was in the courthouse at that moment, and he was paroling prisoners. Some of my cavalry, seeing the Forty-fourth running into town, became excited, and imprudently and without orders rushed in advance of the Forty-fourth down a road leading to the rear of the court-house. Colonel Duke rushed out, mounted his men, and dashed off on the Falmouth road, passing within 25 yards of my detachment of the Forty-fourth Ohio, which mistook them for our own men, who had charged around the court-house. They were dressed very much as our own cavalry. I felt greatly annoyed, but under the circumstances I could not censure the men for not firing on them. We pressed to the other side of the town, and perceiving that the main body had halted about half a mile distant on hearing the alarm, I ordered the artillery into position and commenced shelling them. The third shot exploded in their midst, killing 6 and wounding 1, when they retreated precipitately toward Falmouth and were soon out of the range of our cannon. Between 30 and 40 prisoners were released that Duke did not have time to parole. Some of them rushed out and fled, and I do not know the precise number thus released.

Our loss was 1 killed. He belonged to the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry. He was shot from an alley, I think, by a citizen of Brookville about the same time Colonel Duke escaped from the court-house.[12]

At noon we started for Augusta, 9 miles distant, and were overtaken by two wagon loads of provisions and 100 more men, under Colonel Grand-Girard. We reached Augusta before sundown, where boats were procured, and we arrived at this post the same night before 9 o’clock.

I do not think men could be found who will bear up with more fortitude under privation, hunger, and a most fatiguing march than did all the men on this occasion. Col. Charles A. Marshall[13], Hon. William H. Wadsworth, and Judge Bush[14], of Maysville; Colonel Edwards and Colonel Grand-Girard, of Ripley, volunteered to accompany me, and I feel under great obligations to them for the part taken by each. More than half of my command were citizens, but all marched and behaved like veteran troops, excepting on the occasion when the cavalry charged without orders, and their zeal and eagerness deprived us of Colonel Duke and 25 of his men. They made, however, a most handsome dash.

I am, sir, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Post.

Maj. N. H. McLean,

Asst. Adjt. Gen. and Chief of Staff, Dept, of the Ohio.

John W. Finnell

As small as the “battle” of Brooksville might have been, we are fortunate to have yet another source to provide more details to the movements leading up to the skirmish. On October 3rd, 1862, a letter was penned by the aforementioned Judge Bush and sent to John W. Finnell who was then serving as Kentucky’s adjutant general. This account contradicts Wilson’s statement that the cavalry charged without orders.[15]

Maysville, Ky., October 3rd, 1862

General J. W. Finnell

Dear Sir, I hasten to say, I sent you a letter by Quartermaster Rickets of the 14th Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry.[16] And he has returned without having brought any further instruction concerning the consolidation and organization of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry.[17] Since that time we have lost some by death - captured by the enemy and desertions, so that we now lack about seventy men, of having the number requisite for a battalion — counting Finnell’s Company as being full - he having been elected & commissioned, heretofore.[18] Please send me instructions how to proceed as we have not enough to make a major's command. Can’t you send us seventy recruits to fill up the quota? Do send us two or three Six-pound cannon or some Mountain Howitzers. Our boys, in spite of all, are greatly demoralized [and] without some more efficient commander they cannot be controlled. They are a perfect mob straggling out of camp, whoring & drinking &c &c - officers afraid of them as they are elected.

General W. H. Wadsworth has been trying his hand at Cincinnati with General Wright[19] but it is no go — He did send Lieut. Col. Wilson, the commander of this post, and two gunboats (the same that fled from Augusta when Duke attacked that town last Saturday).

There have been enough able-bodied young men [who have] passed through here and gone to the state of Ohio, for safety, to make two full regiments, but they could not be prevailed upon to take arms and help us to drive the enemy out of Kentucky. We have about sixty or seventy good men that we are subsisting for their services, they work well and are quite willing. We appear to be rather a graceless set here and utterly unworthy of help - or this point is too insignificant to need protection. You have had many rumors concerning the Augusta & Brooksville fights, no doubt; but I must give my version. On Saturday last a messenger informed me that sixty men had took Flemingsburgh. Our mounted men - about eighty-five all told – were, or many of them, on scout duty. Lt. Col. Wilson requested me to take what mounted force I could raise & go to Flemingsburgh seventeen miles and feel of the enemy. I raised sixty-three men and marched from camp at half past two o'clock P. M. for Flemingsburgh in dust from two to four inches deep. We got to Flemingsburgh at seven o'clock. It commenced raining and was very dark. I ordered a halt and led a reconnaissance [but] found no enemy [with]in two miles of the place East or South. I fed and got supper having first picketed the town closely.

At ¾ past eleven o'clock P. M. I received by special messenger an order from Lt. Col. Wilson, requiring me to march my command to Germantown - a distance of twenty-nine miles - as there was then a fight going on at Augusta and Col. Marshall & Genl. Wadsworth were moving all the foot troops at Maysville to reinforce at Germantown – Lt. Col. Wilson having gone to Ripley for the troop at that place. I was to be at Germantown at seven o'clock A. M. and I got there at three minutes before the time amid the shouts of our boys. We got a cup of coffee, fed & watered our jaded horses & in twenty [minutes] were on the march. We heard that Duke was at Brook[s]ville arresting & paroling citizens. Col. Wilson ordered the cavalry to double quick to the head of the column & look out for the enemy. We plied the spur and were soon in position passing the Ohio 44th and the 14th Kentucky Cavalry that were not mounted and some Ohio Volunteers under Col Edwards. When within two miles of Brooksville we met a woman bare headed and bare footed crying “go fast, go fast, they are there yet and got the men in the Court-House.” I sent Genl. Wadsworth and Lt. Col. Wilson word that we had a chance & where I was &c. The messenger returned with an order from Lt. Col. Wilson to flank the road & proceed cautiously & he would soon bring up the infantry & artillery.

When in less than [a] half mile of the town but in plain view I halted and formed the cavalry in a ravine densely covered with timbers [and] ordered a dismount [and] proceeded alone on foot under cover of a hedge of bushes to a point commanding a fine view of Brooksville.[20] I supposed our advance had been discovered as the Rebels were forming a line on the Augusta road[21] - I sent this word to Col. Wilson - who was marching very rapidly and in three minutes his advance came up. Genl. Wadsworth was ordered to deploy the infantry and form them into a line of battle. This was done in a trice. Col. Wilson & Genl. Wadsworth & Col. C. A. Marshall went forward to examine the ground.

I was ordered to send forward a squad of cavalry covered by the fences and hill to see the exact position of the enemy. I throwed forward thirty men to make this reconnaissance and found the enemy in full retreat. I communicated this fact to Col. Wilson and he ordered a charge. We darted in; it would have pleased you to see how willingly thirty fellows pushed forward to attack over six hundred well drilled Cavalry.[22] We had not gone far when I found seven of the boys were going at full speed on a nearer road. I ordered a halt intending to keep my hand full of men together, charge up to the [enemy’s] rear guard, empty our guns and return to the left flank — but it was too late [as] they were thundering away. It only remained for us to change our course and by a flank movement go to their support. The firing commenced when our van guard got up to the Court House. When the balance of the cavalry was from 300 to 400 yards of the enemy's was a crossfire and whistled through our cavalry only killing one man - Private Carrington of Capt. McKee's company.[23] Three of our boys were in front flying after some retreating rebels, at this juncture Baz Duke with sixteen or eighteen men fell upon our boys in their rear but their shots failed. They were hurrying off our boys whom they had captured but one of them wheeled his horse & made his escape. With little Bob Trumbo (a son of Honl. A. Trumbo of Bath[24]) at my side I proceeded with two others (Mr. Fred Berbower & another I did not know) we pressed upon Baz Duke & [his] party so closely we cut off one of their men and took him prisoner.[25] We fired upon the rear guard twice [and] they returned the fire once. We then found that the main body of cavalry had halted. I sent Mr. Beerbower back to enquire the cause, & the other man to inform Col. Wilson that they were close at hand. He ordered up the artillery and commenced shelling the enemy - they replied with their little swivel once only. We captured four Horses, two guns, and one prisoner and paroled for Col Duke about thirty-five citizens. We then marched to Augusta and took [a] boat & arrived at Maysville at nine o'clock P. M. We had marched our cavalry more than seventy Miles besides skirmishing &c. All praise is due to Lt. Col. Wilson who exposed himself to the fire of the enemy and was as courageous and as cool as on dress parade, also Gen. Wadsworth. He seemed to be delighted at the prospect of a battle, all parties have full confidence in him. The officers and men all behaved well as far as I could see.

For several days past the enemy have been threatening an attack on this place and the vigilance of the post commander Lieut. Col. Wilson for his energy untiring and indefatigable exertions both by night and day are worthy of all praise. He executed his plans in an admirable manner. On the 30th September he ordered a complete reconnaissance of all the roads &c. At four o'clock P. M. our pickets under Mr. Campbell were driven in, two being captured. I mounted my horse & with thirty Men followed the cavalry of Holladay & Bob Stoner five Miles.[26] Finding they had fallen back upon their reinforcements I returned at night. Our whole force slept on their arms guarding every entrance to this city. On the 1st October Major Smith with twenty men was ordered to find the enemy & if practable feel him.[27]

About four miles from the city on the Flemingsburgh pike the major came up to the enemy. He charged and fired upon him. The firing was kept up at long range until the major had expended three rounds at the enemy, when the enemy retreated in haste carrying off his wounded one man, [having been] wounded in the arm. Bully for the Major. The enemy was 230 strong — there were from 300 to 600 in the vicinity — Show this to Governor Robinson.[28] I will do the best I can in your matters. Do write soon.

as ever your friend

Jas. H. G. Bush

P. S. The conduct of Robt. Trumbo, a private in Capt. McKee's company - and Maj. Smith - is certainly deserving especial praise & I hope you will also commend Mr. Smart, the man who escaped from the rebels at Brooksville after he was taken prisoner, to his excellency Gov. Robinson and at least send a letter praising their conduct in a deserving manner.

J. H. G. Bush

Reflect on Wilson’s report as he makes the statement “Some of my cavalry, seeing the Forty-fourth running into town, became excited, and imprudently and without orders rushed in advance of the Forty-fourth down a road leading to the rear of the court-house.” This is in reference to the cavalry under command of Judge Bush. However, compare that to Bush’s letter above in which he claims “I throwed forward thirty men to make this reconnaissance and found the enemy in full retreat. I communicated this fact to Col. Wilson and he ordered a charge.” Yet we have a third source might shed additional light.

In 1900 Thomas W. Parsons started to write an account of his life, part of this accounting included his part during the Civil War, a portion of which was his service with the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry (U. S. A.). This manuscript was edited by Frank Furlong Mathias and published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1975. While this account was written some years after the war and an old soldier’s memories might not be as clear and details not as accurate, Parsons’ account of the movements leading up to Brooksville, the action that took place there, and the movements after the encounter, add a bit more to the telling of the Brooksville story:

Our little expedition had a good effect. Holliday [Holladay] seeing we were disposed to assume the offensive left that section entirely. We returned to our camp and for a season matters ran along in an even way as eveness goes in war time, till Duke burned and captured Augusta. That same evening we got the news and left camp a little after dark and passing through the city halted at the intersection of the Germantown pike and remained there till 11 o’clock. I had not been very well for a few days and Capt. McKee told me I had better stay in camp, but I preferred going and he gave in.

At 11 o’clock we took the Germantown pike, Col. Wilson in command. We reached Germantown just at day break, and halted to eat some breakfast. We started with two days’ rations in our haversacks, but as our bread was load-bre[a]d two large loaves and other trimmings made a topheavy load for a webfoot cavalry man to march with. Soon after we halted the union citizens began to come out with coffee and other things such as could be gotten up in a hurry. Conspicuous among these were Rev. Mr. Nash, an Episcopal clergyman, whom I had heard preach at Olympian Springs from the text “And these things were not done in a corner,” and his two sweet little girls. About the time we were through our breakfast the Ohio militia with the two brass cannon came in on another road from the north. They had been gathered up in such haste they had not [been] provided any rations. We divided with them. I gave them all my bread, and the citizens kept cooking and feeding as long as we stayed.

When we fell in we were put on quick time till we came within two miles of Brookville where we were met by a country woman on horseback. Col. Wilson questioned her and she said she was just from Brookville and that Duke was still there paroling prisoners. Wilson ordered us to stack our blankets and every makeweight we could spare, and there was a pile of them. We then fell in line and the Col. made a short speech to us, and said at the close, “Boys if we get into a brush aim at the knees, and do not run till you see me run.”

We were then ordered forward on [the] double quick and kept it up till we reached Brookville. We had about sixty mounted men, and all but six of them were kept in the rear, Judge Bush and five men, Smart of Finnell’s Co., Hardwick and Carrington of McKee’s co., and James Fizer and Thos. Shultz of the 4th Ky. Who were at home on furlough and were with us.

On entering Brookville from the north we had to cross a small brook and ascend a steep bluff. Here Bush halted and ordered the line to charge, he did not see or know what. They dashed forward and were into the Rebels in a minute. Smart and Hardwick in the advance were cut off and captured. Carrington captured one man and failed to disarm him, and he caught an opportunity and shot Carrington off his horse, mounted it and made his escape. Fizer and Shultz wheeled just in time to save themselves and fell back on the main force. Duke was in full retreat, we ran the artillery up on a low ridge and threw some shells after them, but did no damage. It was useless for us to attempt a pursuit, so an arrangement was made to haul young Carrington who was yet alive but unconscious and who died on the road.