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  • The First Refuge of a Scoundrel
  • Mark Wahlgren Summers (bio)

"In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last refuge of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit it is the first."

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary1

Of Major Abram G. Wileman, his fellow soldiers in the Eighteenth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment (U.S.) had nothing but good to say. A doctor with an extensive practice in Pendleton County, he had enlisted and been elected captain in 1861. Bravery and good conduct in the face of the enemy won him promotion. As "brave and true a man as ever lived," he had "behaved with marked gallantry at the battles of Richmond, Howe's Gap and Chickamauga." It was in the last that he was wounded and furloughed home, to a welcome he did not expect. One evening soon after his return in late 1863 he was entertaining company when the door was broken in. Guerrillas proclaiming themselves part of General John C. Breckinridge's command brandished pistols and demanded money. They had been sent for Wileman, they announced. After relieving the guests of two [End Page 245] hundred dollars, they ushered him out the door. A mile and a half from his house, they stripped him of everything but boots and shirt, tied him to a tree, and shot him through the head. When a Union squad sent in pursuit found him, his face had been badly disfigured. Whether his chin and jaw were beaten in with gun-barrels before or after was not clear. The body had then been dragged down a creek some distance, and there he was left with his shirt over his head.

Their night was not complete. Soon after, the partisans robbed a store in the neighborhood, perhaps because its own was a former lieutenant in the Eighteenth Kentucky, who had been badly wounded at the battle of Richmond the year before. A farmer along the road was seized. "You d—d old Abolition son of a b-h," one of the band shouted, "you are played out; we intend to kill you and all the other Abolition scoundrels in this county." Huddling together, they decided "to serve him as they had the Major." Their intended victim, overhearing them, had no intention of staying around to learn particulars. He dug his spurs into his horse as they were arguing and managed to escape, with a volley of shots roaring behind him.2

Leading the raiders was one "Colonel" James Keller, who did not remain at large for long. Over the next ten days, he robbed one man of four hundred dollars, collected both the money and jewelry of a husband and wife, and added a horse to their pickings from still another victim, William Watkins.3 Watkins should have felt himself lucky. Before heading to his hideaway, Keller took the credit for killing Wileman, and announced that he had meant to kill Watkins, too, "but as he was a pretty clever fellow he would not do it this time; but said if ever another Union flag was put up in Flat Rock, he will kill him and [another]." That was his mistake. Soon after that, the Seventy-First Indiana Regiment caught up with Keller, and when he had been brought into the provost marshal's office at Mount Sterling, Watkins [End Page 246] stepped into the room and put two bullets through him, finishing his career. Of the $375 that the accused had handed over to one of his accomplices, two hundred were in hundred-dollar bills, taken from Watkins, who begged the governor to see that it was returned, as his "family is destitute, and absolutely need all their just dues."4

Keller's career was just one among many in the most uncivil war of all, the guerrilla warfare that reached one of its peaks in Kentucky that October. Over the course of eight days, persons unknown fired on the Louisville & Nashville passenger train; some eighty-five irregulars raided Glasgow and took $9000 from the Southern Bank, emptied stores of their contents, and destroyed government property. Near Woodburn, desperadoes...


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