Kentucky Colonels in Americana

American Literature (Americana)

Kentucky and its colonels are referred to extensively in American literature (Americana). This is traced back to John Filson in 1784 in the book, "The Discovery, Settlement and present State of Kentucke". Since Filson, the stories about Kentucky, its first settler Col. Daniel Boone, and the stories of these first pioneers have grown. Likewise the crossroads of Kentucky served as a base for the westward movement starting in 1780. There have been quite a few works of fiction that are mixed with folklore and legend about the colonel, our focus here is on non-fiction or based on true stories as best as we can consider such.

Titles of Honor in Kentucky

Colonels without regiments, and captains without companies.

That readers unacquainted with Kentucky manners and customs may understand how Thornton, whom they have known at The Falls as plain Robert Thornton, after a short residence in the country, in a time of profound peace, came to have a military title and to be on all hands called Colonel Thornton, it becomes necessary to say, parenthetically, something of the sources of titles of honor in Kentucky. Their chief technical source is the prerogative of the governor, who may appoint an indefinite number of gentlemen to be commissioned as colonels, and to constitute his military staff. By the exercise of this prerogative every fourth year since the inauguration of Governor Shelby in 1792, a very considerable addition had been made, and will continue to be made, to this array of Kentucky colonels, already in number an army in themselves. For a time these officers were accustomed to consider their corps as only the skeleton of an army, of which the muscles and sinews and other requisite parts were to be supplied when the proper occasion should occur. It has now attained gigantic proportions, for which, if it were desired to hide it, the Mammoth Cave itself would not afford a sufficient skeleton closet; and there is some talk in military circles of a provision for subaltern officers and a few privates.

But the prerogative of the governor is not the only source of these titles. A more prolific source — the very 'officina' of titles of honor — lies in the "unbought grace'' and the "omnipotent fiat" of the people. 'They delight in titles, and bestow them with a liberal hand ; not indiscriminately nor capriciously, but with well-defined fitness and order.

The necessary qualifications are three in number: popularity, aquiline features, and a martial bearing. Every popular man, willing or not, is liable to have a title of honor imposed upon him. This is not always the title of colonel, to which the governor's appointment seems to be restricted, but is graduated according to the measure in which the requisite qualifications are possessed by each individual, reaching as high as general, and as low as major, within which limits lie all the military titles thus conferred. In cases where all the required qualifications are possessed, the individual is sure to be made a general, except he be handicapped by some unwarlike feature, as great breadth of back and sesquipedality of belly, suggestive of the commissariat, when he is remitted to that department with the title of "Major." Where the individual is only popular, possessing neither aquiline features nor a martial bearing, and is, moreover, handicapped by the unwarlike features indicated, he is regarded as clean out of the category of military men, and is relegated to civil life with the title of "Judge." Some confusion is made in two of these titles, that of judge and that of general, by the fact that a judge of horses often has this first title conferred though he may know nothing of law, and every attorney-general has all his rank merged in the sonorous military title, and is called general. Sometimes of a judge it is necessary to ask whether he be of stock or of the law.

The army of officials thus created by the governor's prerogative and the fiat of the people, vast as it is, is yet by no means expensive. None of them receives any pay, and all furnish their own rations. Moreover, though some zealous members of the governor's staff have been known, on receipt of their commissions, to buy copies of Vauban and Jomini, with a view to important active service, they are not required to possess any technical knowledge, nor "to know more of the divisions of a battle, or how to set a squadron in the field, than a mere spinster."

Many of these dignitaries affect to think lightly of their titles, speaking of them with "a mocking lip and noble scorn," as if they despised greatness. Yet it is observed that they are not pleased to have their rank ignored and are mortally offended on being called by an inferior title; as when a general is saluted as colonel, a colonel as major, a major as captain, or a judge as squire. Thornton's title came by the popular fiat

Gray, John Thompson, A Kentucky Chronicle, 1906, Neale Publishing Company, pp 203-205

A Kentucky Metaphor

Every Kentuckian is born to the literary purple. His first articulate cry is a dactyl; he prattles in hexameters. We are not always deeply impressed by everything the Bluegrass editor says; but the way he says it — his verbal pyrotechnics, his lingual chiaroscuro, his sudden swoops and pirouettings, the rumbling thunder of his polysyllables, the rippling tinkle of his penults — these delight us perennially. The Kentucky Colonels are fountains of words ; they flow from them with the murmuring gurgle of bottled-in-bond from a Pendennis Club jug, the gentle tinkle of ice in a julep glass. Consider the Honorable Augustus Owsley Stanley, Member of Congress from Henderson County. Congressman Stanley was endeavoring to picture to his fellow-statesmen the more subtle and recherché qualities of a beverage which is one of the chief commercial products of his own district. "'It will," said he, in describing the local brand, "turn an anchorite into a howling dervish, and make a rabbit spit in a bulldog's face."

Now, there is real literature for you. Picture the scene. Was the quality of inspiring reckless daring, of filling with death-defying, fate-scorning courage, ever so concisely, so aptly, so vividly expressed as by picturing the timid, shrinking, and pusillanimous bunny spitting defiantly into the menacing countenance of the fierce and terrible bulldog? Beside this, how inept and futile those clumsy figures of speech with which Homer tried to tell how brave his heroes were, how tame and tautologous Shakespeare's description of the courage-inspiring virtues of sack : "Warming of the blood; which, before, cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice." It is no disappointment to our pleased anticipations to learn that Congressman Stanley is an emeritus professor of belles-lettres in a Kentucky college.

Sullivan, Mark, National Floodmarks, 1915, Colliers Magazine Publishing Co.

Colonels Defend the Union

A committee of Union men at once visited Mr Lincoln at Washington, and they returned and said that the President gave every assur- ance that their armed neutrality would be respected ; yet in thirty days, secret emissaries were sent from Washington to organize in the State of Kentucky recruits for the Federal Army. The chief of them was one William Nelson, a native Kentuckian and a lieutenant in the United States Navy, who was well ac- quainted with a number of Southern Leaders, so he mingled with them without suspicion ; at the same time, he was em- powered to issue commissions to officers, and make contracts for mules, beef and other army supplies. Through Nelson's instrumentality there were 5,000 stands of arms shipped into Kentucky by May 20, 1861. How could he have gotten these arms and had them shipped into Kentucky without the consent of President Lincoln, who had promised the Union men of Kentucky not thirty days before that he would respect the armed neutrality agreement? These arms were shipped to Camp Dick Robinson, where several Federal regiments were organized and armed.

This same William Nelson who was sent here by the Washington Government, went all through Middle and Eastern Kentucky, issuing commissions from the Federal Government to Colonels, Captains and so on, if they would raise commands. This is where the by-word originated, " as numerous as Kentucky colonels." The Legislature of Kentucky met in called session May 6, 1861, and appropriated $750,000 to arm the State in defence of neutrality, under the direction of a military board composed of the Governor, Samuel Gill, Geo. T Wood, Gen. Peter Dudley and Dr Jno. B. Peyton, with instructions that these arms were not to be used against the United States or the Confederate States unless in protecting the soil of Kentucky against lawless invasions. In the meantime recruiting was going on from both sides. The Confederates had a camp in Montgomery County, Tenn., which they called " Camp Boon," and the Federals had a camp in Southern Indiana that they called " Camp Joe Holt." The recruiting that was going on in Kentucky was secretly done by William Nelson and Joshua F. Speed, the latter was a bosom friend of President Lincoln. This same William Nelson received a letter from L,. Thomas, Adjutant General of the Federal Army, dated Washington, July 1, 1861, authorizing him "to raise regiments of infantry in East Tennessee and one regiment of cavalry ; also one regiment of infantry in West Tennessee, and appoint their officers and send their names to that office, and he would send to his care 10,000 stand of small arms, and one battery of six guns at Cincinnati, Ohio."

McMurray, William Josiah, History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment, 1904, pp. 197-198

Kentucky History from 1774

In the month of June, 1774, CoJ. John Floyd, accompanied by Col James Douglass, came through this country, which was then Fincastle county, Virginia, making military surveys, and stopped at the Big Spring, a stream of water that attracted the attention of pioneers and caused a settlement to be made, which has since become the Belle of the Blue Grass —Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky.

In the month of April, 1775, John, Ales, and Wm. McClelland, Col. Robert Patterson, Wm. McConnell and Stephen Lowry came from Pittsburg, Pa., by boat and erected a fort near Floyd's Spring.

The mint that once grew so profusely around this spring, combined with its cool water and some of “ Rev. Elijah Craig’s Best,” helped no little to inspire the pioneers of those days of trouble. We are sure that the sentiment of the pioneers then has not changed with the sentiment of the Kentucky Colonels now.

Cornbread when I’m hungry, Whisky when I’m dry, Greenbacks when I’m hard up, And Heaven when I die.

The best information we have been able to get is that the fort was built on a lot now owned by John Hunt, in Elley’s alley, a few hundred yards from the spring. The fort was a rough shack about 12 feet wide by 70 feet long. It was built of logs pinned together and the space between the logs was chinked with rock and daubed with mud. For many years an old negro named Elley lived in this fort and it has only been in recent years that the old building was torn away. Those who have passed the old hut could hardly escape noticing the old building.

Gaines, B. O., History of Scott County, 1905

Colonel Wintersmith, a Kentucky Colonel

Few men were better known in Washington, a quarter of a century and more ago, than Colonel Dick Wintersmith of Kentucky. He had creditably filled important positions of public trust in his native State. His integrity was beyond question, and his popularity knew no bounds. Without the formality of party nomination, and with hardly the shadow of opposition at the polls, he had held the office of State Treasurer for nearly a score of years. An ardent Whig in early life, he was a devout worshipper at the shrine of Henry Clay. In the later years of his life, he would often with the deepest emotion refer to himself as 'the last of the old guard.' He never tired of relating interesting incidents of Mr. Clay. It was his glory that he had accompanied "the great pacificator" to Washington, when, with the fond hope of being able by his historic "compromise" to pour oil on the troubled waters, he returned to the Senate for the last time.

Wintersmith was the close friend of Theodore O'Hara, and stood beside him when at the unveiling of the moment to the Kentuckians who had fallen at Buena Vista he pronounced his now historic lines beginning —

"On fame's eternal camping-ground; Their silent tents are spread."

Colonel Wintersmith knew, as he knew his children, two generations of the public men of Kentucky. His memory was a marvel to all who knew him. He could repeat till the dawn, extracts from famous speeches he had heard from the lips of Clay, Grundy, Marshall, and Menifee. More than once, I have heard him declaim the wonderful speech of Sargent S. Prentiss delivered almost a half-century before, in the old Harrodsburg Courthouse, in defence of Wilkinson for killing three men at the Galt House.

It is hardly necessary to say that the Colonel was the soul of generosity. It was a part of his living faith that —

"Kind hearts are more than coronets."

That he was possessed in no stinted measure of wit and its kindred quality, humor, will appear from an incident or two to be related.

The Hon. Ignatius Donnelly, member of Congress from Minnesota, had written a book to prove that Lord Bacon was the veritable author of the plays usually accredited to Shakespeare. Soon after the appearance of Donnelly's book, he met Colonel Wintersmith on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After a cordial greeting, the Colonel remarked, "I have been reading your book, Donnelly, and I don't believe a word of it."

" What? " inquired Donnelly, with great surprise.

"Oh, that book of yours," said the Colonel, " in which you tried to prove that Shakespeare never wrote 'Hamlet' and 'Macbeth' and 'Lear' and all those other plays."

"My dear sir," replied Donnelly with great earnestness, "I can prove beyond all peradventure that Shakespeare never wrote those plays."

"He did," replied Wintersmith, "he did write them, Donnelly, I saw him write three or jour of them myself."

"Impossible!" exclaimed Donnelly, who was as guiltless of anything that savored of humor as the monument recently erected to the memory of Hon. John Sherman, " impossible. Colonel, that you could have seen Shakespeare write those plays; they were written three hundred years ago."

"Three hundred years, three hundred years," slowly murmured the Colonel in pathetic tone, " is it possible that it has been so long? Lord, how time does fly!"

The Colonel often told the following with a gravity that gave it at least the semblance of truth. Many years ago, his State was represented in part in the Upper House by a statesman who rarely, when in good form, spoke less than an entire day. His speeches, in large measure, usually consisted of dull financial details, statistics, etc. He became in time the terror of his associates, and the nightmare of visitors in the galleries. His ''Mr. President," was usually the signal for a general clearing out of both Senate Chamber and galleries.

''Upon one occasion," said Colonel Dick, "I was seated in the last tier in the public gallery, when my Senator with books and documents piled high about him solemnly addressed the Chair. As was the wont, the visitors in the gallery as one man arose to make their exit. With a revolver in each hand, I promptly planted myself in front of the door, and in no uncertain tone ordered the crowd to resume their seats, and remain quietly until the Senator from Kentucky had concluded his remarks. They did so and no word of complaint reached my ears. Hour after hour during the long summer day the speech drew itself along. At length as the shadows were lengthening and the crickets began to chirp, the speech ended and the Senator took his seat. I promptly replaced my pistols and motioned the visitors to move out. They did so on excellent time. As the last man was passing out, he quietly remarked to me, "Mister, that was all right, no fault to find, but if it was to do over again, you might shoot."

Stevenson, Adlai E. (Adlai Ewing), Something of Men I have Known, 1909, Chicago, A.C. McClurg & Co.

A Bouquet of Nux Vomica

I have often wondered whether a fish drank, any more than a dog worked. And his drinks are of all kinds — except water. He partakes of the latter element as sparingly as does the much-maligned Kentucky colonel. "Water does not set well with him. He drinks liquors because he is dry, because he is warm, because he is cold, because he feels bad, because he feels good, because his wife has had a new baby, because his mother-in-law is sick unto death — but mostly at some other fellow's expense. He rarely gets " full." He can hold a good deal. His mind will be active in the midst of the bodily debauch. He may not be able to raise his finger, nor articulate a word, but still he is conscious. And long before you can touch his limit he will get sick, emulate the poor Indian, go out, come back, and drink more — at your expense. Therefore, beware of this fellow if you are inclined to take him out to have some fun with him. He eats in the same way that he drinks — everything that comes along, from angel cake to limburger. He gets in trouble shortly after eating. He will then drink more and eat more, just to see if it will make any change in his feeling.