As secession fever swept the South, Lincoln issued a call to arms for 75,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. Divided between its loyalties to the North and its Union and the South and its Confederacy, Kentucky was split on which side to choose and was unsure whether Lincoln’s call to arms should be heeded or not. However, most people in the state agrees that the April declaration of neutrality in 1861 was the best way to go as an invasion from the north would come if they seceded and if the state was to side with the Union, an internal struggle would occur in the state. Therefore, Kentucky declared its neutrality and decided to watch the world burn as they rocked in their chairs.
Of course, neutrality was a fantasy. Of the two paths, Kentucky went down the latter and in November, the secessionists issued their own declaration of sympathies, organizing a rival government and joining the Confederacy. A schism had occurred and although Kentucky wouldn’t have an invasion from the north, it would have one from the south with support from its own citizens. As a result, many Kentuckians made their way south and cast their lots with the Confederacy, creating their owns units to liberate their native lands. One such unit was the First Kentucky Brigade, better known as the “Orphan Brigade.”
Its not certain why the brigade was given that name but one theory is that they had no Confederate state they could brag about although Kentucky was technically a Confederate state under the rival government. Another theory is that they lost so many commanders and were “orphans.” What is certain is that they were one of the most distinguished units in the Western Confederacy.
Consisting of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 9th Kentucky infantry regiments, with three artillery batteries, the Orphans saw their first taste of combat at Fort Donelson as the 2nd Kentucky infantry were dispatched to reinforce the fort. There they suffered minor casualties with only a handful of dead and wounded but eventually suffered the fate of the rest of the Confederate army there (except Forrest’s breakout forces), being captured and exchanged in time. After the battle and with the collapse of Albert Sidney Johnston’s Columbus-Bowling Green defense line, the Orphan brigade followed the Confederate army south to Corinth, Mississippi.
When the army marched north to counter Grant at Shiloh, the Orphan Brigade, originally commanded by John C. Breckenridge but now commanded by Robert P. Trabue, fought bravely. There they fought on the right, routing the 46th Ohio and forcing the Federals who had held the Hornets Nest to surrender, cutting off their retreat. On the second day theu were forced back by fellow Kentuckians but not without a fight. One-third of the soldiers in the brigade had become casualties at Shiloh.
The Orphans marched back to Corinth with the rest army but was quickly dispatched west to Vicksburg where they were assigned as a garrison. In July they, along with the rest of Breckenridge’s division, were assigned the task of retaking Baton Rouge. The march devastated the division though, and 600 soldiers died of disease or deserted. Once there, on August 5th, Breckenridge’s division assaulted the town with the Orphans in tow. The Federals were beaten back to prepared defenses along the Mississippi and with support from gunboats, they forced the Confederates to withdraw. After Baton Rouge, Breckenridge struggled to get his division north to Knoxville to join the Army of Tennessee in the Heartland Offensive but was too late. The 3rd Kentucky was detached on the way and left to garrison Vicksburg, leaving the brigade.
The Orphans during this time had began getting anxious as their one-year enlistments expired and many deserted. Due to this as well as transportation issues, the brigade was umable to participate in the campaign. They did however get some relief from the mutinies as the 2nd Kentucky rejoined the brigade having just been released from Northern prison camps.
The brigade was not missed in the winter of 1862-63 however. On December 7th, the 2nd and 9th Kentucky regiments along with supporting cavalry and Tennessee infantry fought at the Battle of Hartsville, capturing several thousand Federals with minimal losses. The main highlight of the winter would come at the Battle of Murfreesboro (Stones River) though. They saw little action in the initial days of the battle but on January 2nd, they launched an attack on the ridges on the Union left.
-The gallant Kentuckians at Stones River
The Orphans were on the left of the attacking force and, along with the rest of Breckenridge’s division, would be assaulting positions littered with Union cannons. Now with Roger W. Hanson as their commander and with the company of the 41st Alabama (leaving the 9th Kentucky in reserve), the 2nd, 4th, and 6th Kentucky regiments marched onward. As they charged, the Union infantry were routed with bayonets and volleys of rifle fire. As the Union infantry retreated they revealed the Union batteries with 58 guns in total bearing down on the Orphans alone. The coming barrage was devastating and Hanson was quickly hit with others to follow. But the Orphans were not deterred so easily and trudged on, eager to catch their bloodied prey. Under intense bombardment, the Orphans finally withdrew after they lost momentum, having suffered about 1/4th of their men being killed or wounded and a much higher percentage for officers and the color guard. Hanson was among the wounded but would die two days later. Benjamin H. Helm would take over as commander.
The Orphans didn’t see major action again until the Battle of Chickamauga although they would have if Joseph E. Johnston hadn’t abandoned Vicksburg. At Chickamauga they attacked the Union left flank on the second day, smashing into the traitotous George Thomas’ Corps, inflicting heavy blows on the Union troops (again encountering fellow Kentucky troops in the Union 15th Kentucky regiment) and the 88th Indiana in particular. They even captured part of Bridges’ Illinois Light Artillery. Their advance slowed however as they reached the enemy breastworks and began trading devastating with the Federals at ranges as close as 30 yards in some sections. The result was a horribly high casualty which forced the Orphans to retreat. Both the 2nd and 9th Kentucky had lost about half their strength as the Orphans in total lost a third of all men engaged. Among them was yet another commander, Benjamin H. Helm.
To replace him was Joseph H. Lewis. To replace the losses, the brigade received the 5th Kentucky into their ranks but lost the 41st Alabama. Following Chickamauga, the Confederate Army of Tennessee moved to siege Chattanooga. The Orphans were held in reserve and when Grant made his breakout attempt, the Orphans were called up. At Tunnel Hill the fought back a Union charge but their main role in the battle was covering the Confederate retreat.
In the spring of 1864, the Union army began the Atlanta campaign, now under the command of Sherman. It was during this campaign that the brigade truly displayes its resiliance. With 1,512 officers and men, the brigade suffered 1,860 deaths and woundings, meaning that quite a few of the Orphans were wounded multiple times only to return to service. Out of the 1,512 men, less than 50 survived the campaign without a wound and only 10 deserted.
They followed Johnston south as he stalled Sherman’s army. At Resaca, he fought to stop his continuous retreating. There the Orphans from the 2nd and 4th Kentucky eegiments saw heavy fighting while the other regiments remained relatively unscathed.
At the Battle of Dallas the division’s leader since Chattanooga, William B. Bate sent the Orphans and his Florida brigade to assault the Union lines a bit too early. Johnston had assumed the lines would be lightly defended as Sherman had moved troops from it but he was horribly wrong. As the Kentuckians and Floridians advanced, the Floridians were told to withdraw seeing as how it was a mistake but the Orphans never got word to fall back. As they reaches the Union lines, the overran them and captured a battery. The Union lines were better defended than expected however and the Orphans began getting chewed up in the volleys. Finally they retired from the battlefield although the 5th Kentucky stubbornly fought on until its colonel grabbed the colors and led it back.
Held in reserve, the Orphans sat out the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. As John Bell Hood overtook command from Johnston he formulated an attack plan to push back the Union army. At the Battle of Peachtree Creek his first major attack was unleashed and Bate’s division with the Orphans in tow was ordered to assault the extreme Union left. The Orphans were able to capture part of the Unions lines but were soon forced back. The Orphans were largely inactive during Hood’s other attacks and the Battle of Atlanta but they did see action at Jonesboro as Sherman attempted to cut off the Confederate supply lines. There the Orphans were cut down to just 500 men.
After Atlanta fell the Orphans were converted to mounted infantry and now had the task of opposing Sherman’s march to the sea. They skirmished all through Georgia and helped defend Savannah. Throughout the Carolinas Campaign they kept skirmishing until the campaigm reached its climax at the Battle of Bentonville. After Bentonville however, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was devastated, low on morale, and generally worn out. At the end of April, the army surrendered at Bennett Place. The end of the line had been reached for the Orphans. Though valiant in their resistance and determination, the war had been lost. They were one of the bravest brigades of the Western Theater and ironically hailed from a state that wasn’t all that Confederate. What was left of the brigade slouched back to Kentucky to pick up their lives where they had left them. They may not have won the war but they did win glory.