Thomas M. Coombs Letter
[Written from the Ohio State Penitentiary]1
Columbus, Ohio, August 14, 1863.
Although I have written, and am permitted to write almost anything that I desire, or that is interesting to you, and send by the usual channel; that is, through General Mason's office, yet the love of successfully running the blockade, and a natural wish for you to read a letter direct from my pen, and not second-handed as usual, overcomes my conscientious scruples about taking advantage of the natural stupidity of the officers of so great an institution for the reformation of a sinful world, as the Ohio Penitentiary. I will, therefore, write you a letter Lou in which the freedom of speech, or thought, shall be predominant as though the writ of Habeas Corpus had never been suspended, nor Abraham first elected. It will probably not be uninteresting to read a true account of our raid so successfully made, and the cause of its unhappy termination. I believe I have given you a sketch of our swimming the Cumberland River on July 2nd, and the cavalry fight on Marrow Bone, also the flight at Columbus on the 3rd, Green River the 4th, and Lebanon the 5th. The 6th and 7th, night and day we were capturing and burning railroad trains and bridges, cutting open U. S. Mail bags, reading magnificent Yankee communications to wives and sweethearts, and pocketing greenbacks in superabundance.
On the 8th we struck the Ohio at Brandenburg, Ky., and after a short but sharp little fight we crossed the river, all of which you are already informed. On the 9th we fought at Corydon, Ind. From the 9th to 19th was a continual skirmish with the citizens and soldiers. Always a force in our front, scattering parties on each flank, and hovering on our rear; almost every hour could be heard the sharp crack of the squirrel rifles, or shot-gun, immediately followed by a volley from our advance guard scouts or flankers; in a few minutes would be seen a squad of citizens and Yankee soldiers marching to the rear under guard, where if we had time to wait were paroled or sworn to go home and behave themselves, but if we were in a hurry we turned them loose, hundreds of them, to go and fight us the next day. Going on a little distance further your eyes would rest on three or f our, maybe a dozen, dead and wounded on the side of the road, having rendered up their last accounts on this earth in the futile and foolish attempt to stop Morgan by bush-wacking. Occasionally would be seen one of our own, gallant boys, the hero of a hundred battles, lying on the roadside sleeping his last sleep unheeded and alone, left to be cared for by the men who have just covertly taken his life by firing from the thick bushes. Sometimes one of our gallant men, too severely wounded to sit his horse, would be left at a farm house, and remaining with him would be a father, brother or friend; too brave and affectionate to leave him alone, although, ’twas nearly certain death to remain. The God of day was often rivaled in brightness, and the gloom of the darkest night made clear as noontide, by the fire kindled in the palace of the millionaires whose dwellings had covered the retreat of the enemy and used by them as a source of fortification.
Lou, the remembrance of one of those scenes will never fade from my memory’s tablets, though I may live a century. ’Twas a calm still morning (July 10th) all nature had put on her most attire. The steady breeze from the Sunny South caused the forest through which we threaded our winding pathway to appear a living green. I was in command of a scout, a mile to the left of our advancing column, and ascending a gentle slope to a wide plateau of elevated ground, the eye looked over a beautiful landscape to the west, north and east for miles upon miles, On my right, over fields of waving grain, waiting for the sickle, I could just discern our advance guard in command of Colonel Dick Morgan. My eyes followed him leading his gallant men to within two hundred yards of a large, fine dwelling. Suddenly and unexpectedly a sheet of flame lit up the doors and windows of this palace, and one of Colonel Dick’s men fell, to rise no more. The advance was checked, but only for a moment; the yell with which our boys went at them was conclusive evidence of their indomitable courage, as well as their certainty of success.
Ten minutes elapsed before I reached the scene of the conflict; Colonel Dick and his men had all left, and the only sounds that broke the solemn stillness was the roaring of the flames as they fast encircled the beautiful mansion, and the heart-rending cries of the wife and children of it’s owner, who lay mortally wounded on a lounge in the garden, surrounded by his wife and children, who had thus at one fell blow been bereft of husband home and father. Close to the burning house lay two men that a few minutes before had been our enemies, and close beside them lay, weltering in blood, of our own men who was always foremost in the fight; he had fallen in the attempt to avenge our country’s wrongs. I turned from this melancholy spectacle and rode onward ruminating upon the horrors of this unjust war, and thinking of my far distant home, my wife and child. Lou, a volume would not give space to record all the scenes which we have passed through in a few days, and the best idea I can give you of the speed we traveled is that one man would frequently ride five horses down in one day. Mount a fine fresh horse in the morning, start off at a dead run, and before ten o’clock he would hardly be able to put one foot before another, then ride him up to a fine stable, change saddle and bridle, turn the tired horse loose in the lot and go ahead again. For four days and nights we never stopped, except one-half hour in every twenty-four to let our horses eat a bite of corn or wheat; the only sleep we had was on our horses and then going at a gallop. Many is the hour that I have set astride my bay pony fast asleep, trusting solely to his unerring instinct to follow the column and keep at the head of my company. He finally tired out but my affection for him would not let me leave him, and Joe Kendrick led him until the surrender.
Every morning the Captains of Companies would appoint a man for each mess to go ahead and furnish provisions. They would all go ahead of the command and scatter out to the farmhouses for miles on each side of the road, and by ten or twelve o’clock they would overtake us with sacks full of light bread, cheese, butter, preserves, canned peaches, berries, wine cordial, canteens of milk and everything good that the pantries and closets of the buckeye and hoosier ladies could furnish. They were always very glad to give us anything they had as a kind of bribe, for the recruiting militia officers were always ahead of us telling the citizens the most horrible tales, and tremendous lies of our outrageous acts, that we hung every man we caught, cut the throats of the women and children, and putting their life-less bodies in the dwelling, fired it, and then left. That our whole track was marked by blackened ruins of houses, and the lifeless bodies of their inmates. These infamous scoundrels always succeeded in getting the ignorant class of men to volunteer and leave their families to our tender mercy. In approaching a house we would often be met by a woman wringing her hands and weeping, begging for the lives of her innocent children. Numbers of our men wanted to hang those fiends in human form, that could thus take advantage of ignorant incredulity to answer their own base ends, frightening women and children out of their lives to get the men to volunteer. The people were more ready to believe these things because the acts of their own soldiers in our Sunny South were fresh in their memory, and they thought we would retaliate by devastating the whole country.
We paid no attention whatever to the militia of the country. Ten thousand of them collected before us would not have caused us to deviate a yard from our course, a charge from our advance guard, or a shell from Burn's Battery, would scatter them like leaves before an autumn blast, yet the dirty cowards claim the honor and glory of capturing us. July 18th at 10 o’clock p.m. we struck the Ohio River at Buffington Bar. The whole command was tired out in our almost superhuman exertions to reach that point in advance of our Gunboats, that we knew were patroling the river at almost every crossing. When we arrived we found a wide and deep river rising from the recent rains in the mountains, that was impossible to ford in the Egyptian darkness by which we were then surrounded, and sinking down upon its banks, exhausted nature found repose in sleep. (’tis the opinion of many, myself among the number, that had we used greater exertion and arrived at the river two hours earlier, the whole command could have crossed). The first streak of morning light aroused us from our tired slumbers, and mounting our starved and broken-down horses, we prepared to check the advance of the enemy, that in overwhelming numbers, was pressing on our rear, and almost surrounding our gallant little band.
We had not five rounds of cartridges to the man, but the manner in which the Fifth Kentucky went into the fight, and the yell with which the left, under the immediate command, charged and captured the Yankee artillery, gave evidence that our men had not yet given up their hopes of victory, although we were fighting ten times our number, and they with every advantage of artillery and position, greatly assisted by a cross fire from the guns from the gun boats, that was pouring into our ranks. The Fifth Kentucky nobly stood the fire until we were flanked and ordered to rally to our horses, which maneuver was executed silently and in order, bringing off the field the artillery we had just captured. By the time we arrived at our line of horses we were under the heaviest artillery fire that it has ever been my fortune to witness. The enemies’ shells were coming from every point of the compass, and meeting overhead, exploded with their terrible noise, sending their pieces into our ranks with terrible precision. We soon found it impossible to keep the men in line, and there commenced the retreat from Buffington Bar which terminated so disastrously to our division. Colonel Duke and Colonel Smith with about half of our regiment was captured here, in the vain attempt to stop the pursuit of our shattered forces. General Morgan with about 1500 men, myself and about half of our regiment being part of the number, made a wide circuit and struck the river again about nine miles above Buffington, and immediately commenced swimming it.
Here an act of General Morgan’s gives the emphatic lie to the base slander started by Federal Officers and the Yankee Press that the General was taking care of himself and trying to leave his men to get out the best way they could. Some of our men had crossed and the General, who was riding a splendid horse, had started into the river, when the advancing gun boat attracted his attention. His practiced eye saw at a glance that it would arrive before one-third of our men could cross, he turned his horse and came back to the Ohio shore, nobly disdaining to place himself in safety and leave his followers under existing difficulties. Failing the second attempt to cross the river, we again turned and taking a course nearly north, we traveled almost incessantly for twenty-five or thirty miles, passing on the night of the 19th almost through a large camp of the enemy; then turning to the left we again came to the river on the evening of the 20th at Cheshire, some sixty or seventy miles below Buffington.
Here, again we found the river past fording and gun boats covering its surface, while overpowering numbers of the enemy were rapidly advancing in our rear; half our men were without guns, having left them in the fight and retreat of the previous day, and nearly all without ammunition. Confusion took the place of order, and Officers could not control the men, and thus every man for himself, we again commenced to retreat down the river. In the confusion the general part of Duke’s and Cluke’s regiments became separated from the rest of the command. We kept our way down the river three or four miles, took a position on a high hill and prepared to fight them again, but soon discovered that we were not only cut off from our leader and the head of the column, but that we were surrounded by a vastly superior force of the enemy. ‘Twas madness to contend against fate, and after a consultation, we surrendered. General Morgan with the remainder of the force was not captured until the 26th.
August 15, 1863.
I am scrawling over a number of pages, but I expect you will read every line with interest, not that they are meritorious, but because they eminate from my pen. I have described to you the excellent treatment we received from the Federal Officers at Cheshire and on the trip to Cincinnati. When we arrived there and left the boat, we were marched to the 9th Street City Prison. That was a very hard place, even to us who had been used to everything rough. We staid there three days and finer living can not be had at the Burnet House than we had there. We then came here, stepped off the cars, marched round to the entrance of the delectable building three at a time, marched into a private room and searched, all valuables, including our knives and pipes taken from us, all these things we had a right to expect as it is according to the usages of a civilized warden — but hear the sequel — We were then marched around to the convict cells which are 3-1/2 feet wide, 7 ft. long and 7 ft. high, each man was put in one, and the heavy door came to with a clang. In a few minutes a convict dressed in stripes (I think they should have stars too) came around and put through the iron bars of the door a piece of bread and beef, that a man would have to starve seven days before he could eat it. For 36 hours we were only out of the cells tell minutes. Monday morning we were marched out three at a time to the convict’s dressing room, and there, surrounded by an admiring crowd, we were made to strip off every article of clothing, and when in a perfectly nude state, soused into a tub of dirty water, rubbed all over with soap and was then scrubbed down with a horse brush in the hands of a big negro convict, then took a seat in the barber’s chair, tile hair trimmed off as close as possible, and the whiskers shaved so deep under the skin that I think mine will never reappear, they are clear gone, roots and all. We then had the extreme happiness of returning to our splendid apartments.
Lou, I have given you a rather laughable description, but I have not varied from the facts. I sometimes laugh until I am sore at the following picture which come up vividly in my imagination. A magnificent Yankee Officer with a head covered with long curly hair locks, and his waving raven-colored mustache, goatee and whiskers reaching down to the waist band of his breeches, sitting astride a big log of wood ‘way down in Tennessee — sitting across the log and facing the perfumed gentlemen, is one of Morgan’s ragged horse thieves; with his left hand he clasps the Yankee’s wool, and his right hand he brandishes a long dull butcher knife as he cooly prepares to raise the gentlemen’s hair. Hair being hard to cut with a dull instrument, a bit of skin occasionally comes off, and the cries of rage and pain is music to my ears. The day after the shaving, there came an order from Burnsides not to shave any of us. Oh, what kindness, and how forcibly we all felt it with our beardless faces and almost hairless heads. It was a fine stroke of policy in the General, by which he expects to save his own wool, if he should ever be so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the Confederates.
Things have been improving day by day until we are really doing very well. We have breakfast at eight a.m. consisting of good boiled beef, baker’s bread, good coffee, butter and onions. We dine at the fashionable hour of three p.m. and have good soup, beef, potatoes, corn and baker’s bread. For seasoning our meat and soup, we put worcester and walnut sauce, tomato catsup, mustard, and all the epicurean delicacies, bologna sausage, oysters, sardines, cheese, cake, lemonade, ginger cakes, bottle ale, apples, peaches, water and musk melons. All these things we purchase at reasonable prices. Our cell doors are locked from daylight to dusk, and we have a splendid place to prominade. About seven o’clock each man is locked up in a separate cell. We can then sit on an iron lounge, and read and write until nine when the gas is turned off, but I can then light my candle and sit as long as I please. I am sitting now on my lounge in this narrow cell writing these lines to you. I often sit here, Lou, and think deeply of the past and the present and try to look into the deep and obscure future, which I hope will be happier to you, dear, than the last twelve months have been but you have proved yourself a soldier’s wife and have borne up bravely under your many trials.
Yet a little longer, Lou, and we will be reunited never more to part. Our country is now in its darkest and most gloomy hour and threatening clouds almost obscure our horizon, but the dark clouds must give way before the weight of justice and truth, and the smiling rays of the midsummer sunlight up with beams of celestial brightness our glorious confederacy, upon which the eyes of the civilized world are fixed with intent anxiety. I want a good lot of number one clothes before I go back south, and will have to go about the thing systematically, but I will have plenty of time and no need to hurry. Shirts, drawers, socks, handkerchiefs, etc., which I wrote to you about, you can send here whenever you get them ready. To get other clothing I must wait and watch for opportunities. If I had money in this prison I could get many things that I need by the same line that I send this letter, but I do not want any more money sent by the usual way, it does me no good to have money in Captain Marion’s hands and be permitted to buy nothing that I really need; or will need after a while. If Burnsides (who I understand has moved his headquarters to Lexington, Ky.) has refused to permit you, or Pa, to see me, which I expect he has done, tell your Pa to come here anyhow, and bring my box of tricks. Tell him to stop at the Neil House in this city and he can correspond with me through the Warden’s office, and I will find means to get money. Your Pa won’t mind coming out here if he has nothing to do, it will be beneficial to his health and he can see his friends, Sam Medary and Judge Thurman.
When you write to me again be careful to say nothing by which the authorities here can tell that you received this letter by the Underground Mail. I wish that I could receive an answer by the same line, but I want you and my friends to do nothing that will place you in opposition to Federal orders, and for myself there is no danger of getting into trouble, I am already in and am perfectly willing to stand the consequences. I believe I will close this letter, as it is already of unusual length, but not being able to talk to you, I do love to write, but my opportunities of sending you long letters like this will be few and far between, and you will have to content yourself with two pages of letter paper. Write to me often, One letter a week will not satisfy me, write at least twice a week. If your Pa cannot come, or you either, send me the things as I have before directed. My love to Martha and tell her she can send me some wine by labelling it Strengthening Cordial, or something of that kind.
All a brother’s affection to Ada, and tell her not to marry until the war is over. There is no young man in Kentucky who claims to be a southerner that is worth a continental damn, unless he belongs to our army. All their talks and hopes of our success is played out; and if they knew with what contempt we look upon them, they would certainly be ashamed to acknowledge themselves our political friends. Tell her I think she is better and more firm in her principles than Jo Little. My best love to all of them, and tell them that my affection for them increases with the length of my absence. I have become perfectly confirmed in my opinion that your Pa is the best man in the world knowing that he will always protect you and the baby, it removes the remorse of conscience that I sometimes have when I think that I ought not to have left you, although following the pathway where honor and duty pulled me. I must now say adieu.
Always and forever thine,
T. M. C.
Published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 46: 397-403. Return.
John Sanford Mason (1824-1897, USMA '47, Brig Gen USV) was a professional soldier from Ohio who had served in Mexico and on the frontier. His war service had included western Virginia, Antietem and Fredericksburg, before returning to his native State. Return.
President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed martial law within Kentucky on 5 July 1864. Similar actions had taken place earlier in other localities. Harrison, 77. Return.
Joseph Kendrick not identified. Return.
Edward P. Byrne commanded a battery of mixed artillery attached to Morgan's division. Return.
Not, as I first thought, Stygian darkness. The phrase, arising out of the plagues visited on Egypt (Exodus 10: 21 et seq.), also gained currency through its use by John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Return.
The Burnet House, one of Cincinnati's leading hotels, was located at the northwest corner of Third and Vine Streets. See Williams' Cincinnati Directories for 1861 and 1866.
Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881, USMA '47, Maj Gen USV). Follwing the debacle at Fredericksburg in December 1862, Burnside was transferred to the Department of the Ohio, which included Kentucky. He was noted for his luxuriant whiskers, which became known as "sideburns" in his honor, so he may have been sympathetic to his hirsute captives.
The Neil House survived into the twentieth century. Return.
Sam Medary not identified. Return.
Squire had some powerful friends. Allen G. Thurman (1813-1895), a lawyer and jurist born in Virginia, had been as a young man secretary to Ohio Governor Robert Lucas, who may have been a distant relation of Squire's. In 1844 Thurman married Mary A. Dunn, daughter of Walter Dunn of Fayette County, Kentucky, who may have been kin to Squire's wife, Martha. A conservative Democrat, he later served two terms in the United States Senate. DAB. Return.
Lou's stepmother, Martha Ellen Lucas. (See above) Return.
Adaline Estella Lucas, a younger sister. (See above) Return.
Jo Little not identified. Return.