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  • "Within Her Desolate Borders"Reflections of Guerrilla Warfare Through Select Documents
  • James M. Prichard

The Special Collections Department at The Filson Historical Society holds one of the largest Civil War collections in the Ohio River Valley. Historians studying guerrilla warfare in Kentucky will find numerous sources that shed light on the various types of irregular and raiding warfare in the Bluegrass, including, in the words of Lorien Foote, "people's war, partisan war and raiding war by the cavalry of conventional forces." While local and regional studies as well as unit histories are important first steps in the largely ignored history of Kentucky's guerrilla war, this essay uses a selection of documents from the northeastern region of the state to provide a glimpse of "petite guerre" as seen through the eyes of both participants and the civilians who suffered depredations committed by both sides.

The daughter of Joseph and Harriet Hackley Bruce, Alice Bruce Power (1847–1917) had two brothers who served in the Union army. Her brother Joseph, an officer in the 16th Kentucky, died during the Atlanta Campaign. In a lengthy letter dated February 17, 1914, Power advised the historian of the Kentucky Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that she was totally "incompetent to render any assistance" in documenting Kentucky's sacrifices to the Lost Cause. "For at the time of the war," Power boasted, she was a "red hot Unionist living in a little inland village; Flemingsburg." She recounted:

Our village was the mecca for Pete Everett and Bill (sic) Underwood, both of whom were regarded by opposing citizens as bushwhackers. They visited us alternately and frequently, each looting our stores and livery stables and private ones too…as I said from the beginning I was for the Union (and) our village was more for Union than secession. And as the Bushwhackers plundered foes, Bill (sic) Underwood had little to do. But Pete Everett gave us some very exciting times… [End Page 62]

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Flemingsburg, Kentucky.

Found in the Dudley Family Papers, this post-war recollection reflects how, in a border state like Kentucky, war was truly waged "at every door." This document also serves as a key element in constructing a chronological foundation for a more in-depth study of guerrilla warfare in northeastern Kentucky.

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The Rebel Trace.


Although driven from the region in early 1862, Confederate forces continued to raid northeastern Kentucky from their headquarters in southwestern Virginia for the rest of the war. Early in the conflict, federal authorities selected strategic Kentucky cities to serve as bases of operations and Mt. Sterling was generally occupied by Union troops from 1863 until the end of the conflict. The gateway to the Bluegrass, as well as the terminus of the state road to Virginia, the seat of Montgomery County was an ideal base for small-scale operations against Confederate raiders and roving bands of guerrillas. [End Page 63]

So numerous were rebel incursions along this route that Confederate Gen. Basil W. Duke called it the "Rebel Trace." Mt. Sterling and the surrounding communities of Flemingsburg and Maysville became prime targets. On March 22, 1863, Mt. Sterling was captured by a force of Confederate cavalry led by Col. Roy S. Cluke, who was on detached service from Gen. John Hunt Morgan's command. The wartime letters of Pvt. James Viars of the 7th Ohio Cavalry describe the Union counterthrust. On March 27, 1863, he wrote his mother from Winchester, Kentucky:

We heard…that the rebels was in mt. sterling about 14 miles distant and we started on…our march again and we reached mount sterling about one o'clock that day but the rebs was not there [.] they had been there and had a fight with a part of the 14th Kentucky (Cavalry) and taken about 225 prisners and then set the town on fire and left and then we started in double quick after them [.] we followed them about 6 miles before we over took them[.] they drawed up in a line of battel and when we come up to them ower...


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pp. 62-67
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