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The Battles of Warsaw and Ghent

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

An hour's drive southwest of Cincinnati lies Kentucky's rural Gallatin County. The county's modern day claim to fame is the Kentucky Speedway, otherwise most travelers do not have any reason to stop along I-71 on their drives between Louisville and Cincinnati and points beyond. Yet, like nearly every county in Kentucky, Gallatin County also has its own small share of Civil War stories, including two actions that one might think, based on their names, occurred in Napoleonic Europe and not in the rural bluegrass.


Nestled along the south bank of the Ohio River lie the Kentucky river towns of Warsaw and Ghent. Both are situated along U. S. Route 42, once the main road connecting Louisville and Cincinnati, but now mostly utilized by locals going about their daily business. Neither town has much to offer the traveler, although Warsaw, being the county seat, is the larger community and does have a very good restaurant in the heart of town (Jewell's on Main). The cemetery on the eastern edge of Warsaw is the final resting place of John J. Landram, the Federal commander at the First Battle of Cynthiana in 1862 and who would be later wounded at Richmond as second in command of the Eighteenth Kentucky Infantry Regiment.


Like most Kentucky communities, Warsaw, to steal a term from my friend Tim Cooper, was "conflicted." At times friends and families were divided in their support for the north or the south, and at one period four companies of mounted infantry were posted in town at what was known as Camp Burbank at the First Christian Church as a result of the internecine squabbles.[1] One of the issues that caused the Federal garrisoning of Warsaw was the storage of arms in the basement of a building located on the corner of what is now West High and Main Cross Streets. On September 25th, 1861, rebels broke into the building and were in the process of carrying off weapons when they were surprised by Unionists who opened fire on the rebels. One Union man was wounded, and one rebel, mounted on a horse, was killed along the west side of the nearby courthouse. Hence the "Battle of Warsaw" in local history.


If we move forward nearly three years we come across another encounter that took place within Gallatin County. Four miles east of Ghent along U. S. 42 is the modern day Nucor Steel facility. During the Civil War this area was rich farmland owned by the Craig and Gex families. In August 1864 about twenty-six men from the 117th United States Colored Infantry, most likely Company D, were in the area to arrest a local man, James Southard.[2] On August 15th, the officer in command of this detachment stopped at the Judge Albert G. Craig home in order to secure a meal for his men. The family, who was at dinner, agreed to feed his men, and the officer left thirteen men with the Craig's while he left a like number at the Gex home. Virginia Craig, daughter of the judge, would write in her dairy:


Just as they were about to leave the table, we were startled by the firing of guns in the direction of Cousin Lucien’s [Gex]. My first thought was that one of the negroes who was getting dinner there might have been trying to desert but we were not long in ignorance of the facts of the case. For in less than ten minutes from the firing of the guns, our house was surrounded by rebel cavalry. Unfortunately, for the negroes their first impulse was to run. The rebels acted very gentlemanly but of course demanded all the information we could gives about the negroes. Our own servants were very much alarmed. Officers dismounted and searched the house. From what the rebels told me late in the afternoon, I concluded they must have taken about twenty prisoners, killed three perhaps and wounded two. The remaining number (about two I think) must have escaped.


According to Antoine L. Gex, son of Lucien Gex and relaying his father's oft-told tale of the encounter, provides a different perspective. As the account was told second hand and a number of years removed from the event, the accuracy of the details provided come into question:


George Mc. Jessee

A company of sixty colored soldiers, belonging to the 117th U. S. Colored Regiment were surprised by a force of one hundred guerrillas, under Col. Jessie [Jessee] at Gex’s landing three miles above Ghent, KY, about noon Monday and were very badly cut up.[3] They were under the command of Lieutenant Steward [Seward] of the 72nd [117th] U.S. Colored Regiment and had been sent from Covington to Gallatin and Carroll counties for the purpose of recruiting.[4] The troops were eating dinner when they were attacked, the surprise was so complete that not a gun was fired by the negroes. Lieutenant Seward and sixteen of his men were captured by the rebels. It is supposed the rest of his command were either killed or wounded. I have heard my father tell about this attack so many times, how mad my grandmother and aunts were when they had to cook for negro soldiers, the negro that was left on guard going to sleep, one of Colonel Jessie’s men riding up to the window in the old stone house, there the negroes were eating their dinner, his horse throwing his head just as he shot, knocking his musket up, seeing the place on the ceiling and the hole where the ball went into the plastering….The three that were killed in the yard were buried down on the river bank.


We have yet a third accounting of this skirmish, again a source far removed from the war. In 1939 James T. Ellis of Ghent wrote[5]:


In the summer of 1862 a company of colored soldiers numbering 62 belonging to the 117th Colored Regiment passed through Ghent under the command of Lieutenant Seward. They arrested James Southard, a citizen of Ghent who had been outspoken in his feelings for the Southern Confederacy. The soldiers made camp on the Gex farm and others went to the homes of Albert Craig and John Anthony Gex. The women folks were ordered to prepare supper for these colored soldiers. John Southard, a brother of James Southard rode over into Owen County where Colonel Jessie of Henry County was in camp with a troop of cavalry. The colored soldiers were all seated at the table enjoying the fat of the land when Colonel Jessie moved in on them at the Anton Gex home and when the firing began the soldiers leaped up and began to run helter-skelter, some five or six of them were shot down in the yard. The commanding officer, who was at the Albert Craig home, tried to swim the river on his horse, but was captured and he was about the most scared of the whole outfit. Every colored soldier who in that ten-minute engagement left the country and was never heard of until after the war.[6]


Notice one theme the Antoine Gex and James Tandy accounts share - that of the civilians being forced to provide meals for the black soldiers. These accounts contradict Virginia Craig's diary entry, written the day after the "battle" of Ghent (or Gex) took place:


While we were at dinner a number of negro soldiers came up and their Captain, who was a white man, very politely inquired if we could furnish dinners for half his men. Upon being answered in the affirmative, he separated them leaving us about thirteen, and taking that number to Cousin John’s.


As the diary was written the day after the skirmish, I am inclined that the women of the Craig and Gex families were not forced to provide meals, nor were they upset in having to do so. As to the number of 117th men present, as Miss Craig is very specific in mentioning the equal distribution of "about thirteen" so most likely the Federals numbered twenty-six men.


The story goes on though as there were claims that when the black troops surrendered that some of them were murdered. From the Official Records we have this correspondence:


Louisville, Ky, August 30, 1864


Captain J. Bates Dickson, Assistant Adjutant General, Lexington,


Last Evening Jessee, with 150 men, captured a squad of 8 or 10 colored troops at Ghent, and murdered them. Other squads are in the county where he is hunting. Can't you send some men there?


Thos. B. Farleigh

Lieutenant Colonel


As Lieutenant Farleigh was not present, and Virginia Craig does not make mention of murdered soldiers in her diary, we might call into question if any murders took place.


And so we have the "Battle of Ghent," the second "battle" in Gallatin County during the Civil War.

 

[1] Now the location of the United Methodist Church on the corner of 1st and Main Streets.


[2] James L. Southard, who had been a member of the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry (C. S. A.) and is buried in the Ghent Consolidated Cemetery.


[3] Owen County's Lieutenant Colonel George McCracken Jessee, who had served in both the Third and Sixth Kentucky Mounted Infantry Battalions (C. S. A.). Jessee is buried in New Castle Cemetery in Henry County.


[4] Lieutenant Frederick D. Seward, who as a private of Ninth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment saw service during the Sioux Uprising before resigning to become an officer in the 117th USCT. He would later study at Western Reserve in Ohio and become a reverend. He is buried in Inglewood, California.


[5] James Tandy Ellis was a poet, columnist, writer, and a soldier. He served as the Kentucky Adjutant General during the First World War. He is buried in Ghent.


[6] Thus far I have been able to identify one man of the 117th, a Frank Watkins, who was mortally wounded during this encounter. He would die of his wounds at the Woodward Hospital in Cincinnati and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery. He was listed as being yellow in color (most likely a mulatto), having been born in Roanoke County, Virginia. At the time of his enlistment he was twenty-two years old and was 5 feet nine inches in height.

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