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  • The Rise and Fall of Edwin Terrell, Guerrilla Hunter, U.S.A.
  • Matthew Christopher Hulbert (bio)

As the final days of summer gave way to autumn in 1867, a German man named Charles Gass quickly finished boring a fist-sized hole in the wall. Without wasting a moment, he reached through, picked a lock, and swung the door open. We can not know with certainty, but odds are good that before he strode from his cell at the Louisville City Prison, Gass cast a final, pitiful glance back at his cellmate, Edwin Terrell.

During the war, "Bad Ed" had snuffed out many of Kentucky's fiercest guerrillas—men such as Bill Marion and Hercules Walker—and even hunted down William Clarke Quantrill, the Missouri guerrilla chieftain of Lawrence Massacre infamy. But those days were long in the past, and now Terrell watched helplessly as Gass and other prisoners broke for freedom. With paralyzed legs, "frozen bowels," and arms "not much thicker than willow-wands," he was incapable of even dragging himself across the threshold of a wide-open cell door. How had the life of a man once lauded as the deadliest of the borderland guerrilla hunters and then feared as an outlaw in his own right arrived at this pathetic end?1

By bringing Terrell to the analytical forefront and reconsidering his personal narrative in the context of Civil War Kentucky's evolving antiguerrilla policies, it is ultimately revealed that the same war-torn conditions—a neutrality farce, borders shared with both belligerent nations, an internally divided populace, and resultant federal military occupation—that made his rise to power possible in 1863–64 also necessitated his elimination by Union leadership at conflict's end. Terrell's story is a wartime counternarrative that challenges much of what we think we know about Civil War Kentucky: namely, that Union officials generally kept control of the state via conventional military means and that notorious pro-Confederate partisans like Sue Mundy constituted the state's deadliest internal guerrilla threat. The trajectory of Terrell's ascension and demise reflect both the moment at which the state came to understand irregular warfare as violence waged by and against "the people" and the instant in which it believed the Union had secured the victory needed to transition from making war on citizens to reconciling with them. In other words, the saga of Edwin "Bad Ed" Terrell is not one-sided, nor is it a side story. Rather, it underscores how and why Union policymakers never achieved a problem-free solution to irregular violence in the Commonwealth—and the extent to which those policymakers resorted to irregular means to both maintain their version of regular law and order in the postbellum period and preserve their own personal authority within it. [End Page 42]

For more than a century, an air of mystery has surrounded the origins of Edwin Terrell—so much so, in fact, that historians have even struggled to agree on whether to call him "Terrell" or "Terrill." His military service record includes both versions (sometimes even on the same page), while newspaper articles and correspondence also used the spellings interchangeably. Likewise, Terrell's contemporaries never quite managed to decide how old he was, where he had come from before the war, or even which side he supported when the conflict broke out. Thus, in many ways, our uncertainty regarding Terrell's backstory has been bequeathed to us by the Civil War generation; because he was something of an enigma to Kentuckians in the 1860s, as the posthumous legends of his adversaries grew, mysteriousness only enhanced his role as a shadowy hunter of men on the fringes of Kentucky society.2

Born in Virginia in 1735, Henry Terrell Jr. was the first of the Terrell clan to homestead in Kentucky. After the American Revolution, he brought his family from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, to Clark County, Kentucky, around 1800, most likely in search of more accessible land. Henry's son Zachariah Terrell (b. 1779) came with his father and later fought in the War of 1812 as a captain in the Thirteenth Regiment, Kentucky Militia. After the war, Zachariah relocated to Spencer County, Kentucky, where he worked...


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