Colonel Frank Wolford, the acclaimed Civil War colonel of the First Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry, is remembered today primarily for his unenviable reputation. Despite his stellar service record and widespread fame, Wolford ruined his reputation and his career over the question of emancipation and the enlistment of African Americans in the army. Unhappy with Abraham Lincoln’s public stance on slavery, Wolford rebelled and made a series of treasonous speeches against the president. Dishonorably discharged and arrested three times, Wolford, on the brink of being exiled beyond federal lines into the Confederacy, was taken in irons to Washington DC to meet with Lincoln. Lincoln spared Wolford, however, and the disgraced colonel returned to Kentucky, where he was admired for his war record and rewarded politically for his racially based rebellion against Lincoln. Although his military record established him as one of the most vigorous, courageous, and original commanders in the cavalry, Wolford’s later reputation suffered. Dan Lee restores balance to the story of a crude, complicated, but talented man and the unconventional regiment he led in the fight to save the Union. Placing Wolford in the context of the political and cultural crosscurrents that tore at Kentucky during the war, Lee fills out the historical picture of “Old Roman Nose.”
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About the Author
Dan Lee is a Civil War historian and the author of several books, including The L&N Railroad in the Civil War: A Vital North-South Link and the Struggle to Control It and Thomas J. Wood: A Biography of the Union General in the Civil War.
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The Colonel, the War in the West, and the Emancipation Question in Kentucky
By Dan Lee
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Born to Be a Soldier
Franklin Lane Wolford was born on September 2, 1817, in Adair County, Kentucky. His father, John Wolford, was a surveyor and a schoolteacher who had immigrated to Kentucky from Jefferson County, Virginia, in the lower Shenandoah Valley. Frank Wolford's mother was Mahala Lane, and she was the second wife of John Wolford. The first wife, Jenny Lapsley, had borne John eight children before she died; Mahala gave him seven more. Of this second brood, Frank was the oldest.
John Wolford is sometimes described as a poor man, and probably he was cash poor, for there was a depression after the War of 1812 that crippled Kentucky's economy. Out of the wreckage of the Panic of 1819, only two of Kentucky's fifty-nine banks remained, the Bank of Kentucky and the National Bank. They and their branches clamped down on debtors, and Kentuckians howled for relief.
John Wolford may have been among those who were stranded after the flood of worthless paper money subsided in 1819. However, it would have been unusual for any surveyor to be really destitute. He owned several tracts of rolling southern Kentucky land totaling 1,660 acres. Seven slaves worked the land, so it was made to produce, and what the Wolford family did not consume, they could always barter.
John Wolford taught his son Frank at home. The younger Wolford himself taught school for a time, but he was no scholar, and neither teaching nor the solitary profession of surveying interested him. His interests and ambitions pulled him in another direction. After a while he began to read law under Hiram Thomas of Pennsylvania. This work, combining the pursuit of justice and performance art, appealed strongly to him. He devoted himself to his studies and soon earned his license to practice. Judge Rollen Hunt remarked that Wolford "was fairly well grounded in the principles of the common law, especially as it applied to land titles, contracts and criminal law procedure, though so far as was known to the public, and to the members of the legal profession, he was possessed of but few books, and but few persons ever caught him in the act of perusing them."
Judge Hunt added that Wolford "was never known to indulge in any of the trickery which certain persons though sometimes from misinformation so generally attribute to the practitioners of the criminal law." Perhaps it depends on how one defines trickery, but Wolford certainly appears not to have been above a bit of chicanery if it might lead to acquittal for his client. Once, while defending a woman who was accused of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning, Wolford was able to persuade the jury that the man had accidentally poisoned himself by swallowing a fly. The Bluegrass Lucrezia Borgia went free. At other times, Wolford simply wore his listeners down; it was said jokingly that he would not quit talking until it thundered. He was known to speak for three or four hours at a stretch.
Reviewing Wolford's legal talents, Judge Hunt allowed that "there were few men who were more effective as advocates."
In 1846, Wolford was practicing law in Liberty, Casey County, Kentucky. Excitement was in the air. Trouble was brewing with Mexico over the question of where, exactly, the southern boundary of Texas should be, and it appeared that it would only be a matter of time until the nation was at war. Kentucky was preparing. In September 1845, Kentucky Governor William Owsley had been notified by the secretary of war that General Zachary Taylor, who was already with his troops on the edge of the disputed territory, had the authority to call upon Kentucky for volunteers when they were needed.
In April 1846, one of Taylor's cavalry patrols had a violent clash with some Mexicans, and American lives were lost. President Polk announced that a state of war existed. Congress quickly made a formal declaration, appropriated $10,000,000 for expenses, and authorized Polk to raise an army of twelve-month volunteers. On May 22, Governor Owsley called for two regiments of infantry and one of cavalry, which would satisfy the commonwealth's quota. Less than a week later, on May 26, the governor announced that the quota was filled.
Frank Wolford had been raising an infantry company in Casey County when the governor's announcement came that no new companies were needed. He gave up his recruiting and joined Captain William B. Daugherty's Lincoln County company as a private. Companies from all over the state were moving toward Louisville, where they would be mustered into service. Captain Daugherty's company arrived in the city at the Falls of the Ohio on June 8, was mustered in the next day, and was assigned to the 2nd Kentucky Infantry under Colonel William R. McKee. McKee was an 1829 graduate of West Point, but since his resignation from the army in 1836, he had served as a municipal engineer in Charleston, South Carolina, in Louisville, and in Cincinnati. In the two years preceding the outbreak of war, McKee had been the construction engineer for the Frankfort & Lexington Railroad. McKee's second-in-command was Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay Jr., son of the Great Compromiser. Private Frank Wolford, a Whig, would have been proud to serve in the same regiment as young Clay. The lieutenant colonel was another graduate of the military academy, class of 1831. He had finished second in his class, but, like McKee, he did not make the army his career. He had resigned from the service to pursue a career in law and politics. Clay was a Lexington lawyer and a former one-term member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. Though both officers were accomplished and would prove themselves to be brave, it was Lieutenant Colonel Clay who had more of the military temperament. He did not observe McKee for many months before he wrote in a letter to his father, "A regt. may be likened to a limited monarchy. Everything depends upon the head. The commander of this one is a good fellow, but slow in his conclusions with no capacity for organization." He called McKee's excessive use of alcohol a "dangerous fault."
The volunteers bivouacked at Oakland Racetrack, a short distance south of downtown Louisville. They called the encampment "Camp Owsley," and there the game of soldiering quickly lost much of its glamour. They had no weapons, but that would soon be remedied. More serious was the lack of shelter tents and regular rations. The raw volunteers were uncomfortable, restless, and bored with the endless but necessary drill that would turn them into disciplined fighting men.
Louisville was undoubtedly the largest city that most of them had ever seen. They were young and full of sap and away from home for the first time, and the allure of the city was too great to resist. It was natural that they would misbehave. The 2nd Kentucky soon earned a reputation for its rowdiness and drunkenness. It was said that "every visit of the volunteers to Louisville meant a conflict with the peace officers and a trail of outraged citizens." It did not help matters that Colonel McKee was a hard drinker himself.
Louisville must have been as pleased as the boys themselves were in late June when the 2nd Kentucky clambered aboard the riverboats Louisville and Sultana and steamed away down the Ohio River. They churned past Cairo into the Mississippi, past Memphis and Helena and Natchez, and stopped at Baton Rouge, where they received their muskets. On board again, they proceeded to New Orleans. From there, in the second week in July, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Brazos Santiago and from there proceeded to the mainland to begin the long march into Mexico. They spent the next five months on garrison duty in a succession of Mexican cities that had already been conquered by General Taylor, including Monterrey. Monterrey was a beautiful city of fifteen thousand, situated in a pleasing mixed landscape of steep hills and fields of corn and sugarcane. Groves of pecan and oak trees were reminiscent of home. The city's streets were straight and lined by white, flat-topped houses, and near the center of town, in the Grand Plaza, was the domed cathedral. The citizens were not overly friendly, having recently seen the fighting in their very streets end in an American victory. The occupation that followed was tense, and the raucous behavior of these newest arrivals, the Kentucky boys, did not improve relations. Private Frank Wolford is said to have stood apart from his comrades, as far as his behavior was concerned. A Baptist, Wolford did not curse or indulge in addictive habits, and since the regiment had no chaplain, he was usually called upon to perform the burial rites when an unlucky boy died of one of the multitude of diseases that plagued Mexico.
Luckily, the occupation of Monterrey did not last long. In January 1847, the regiment was summoned to join the main army at Agua Nueva, a few miles south of Saltillo. It looked as if the boys were going to see some real action at last. They did not know that in joining Taylor they were complicit in an act of insubordination. After the victory at Monterrey, President Polk, a Democrat, saw Zachary Taylor, a Whig, as a rising political opponent. Polk tried and failed to find an acceptable Democrat to counter Taylor's popularity, so the president elevated another Whig to command. Winfield Scott was authorized to lead a waterborne expedition against Veracruz and open a second front against Santa Anna. From the coast, Scott would drive against Mexico City. His fame would equal Taylor's. Two Whig heroes would divide the party and open a path toward Democratic victory in the presidential election of 1848.
To pursue his campaign, Scott was authorized to take the bulk of General Taylor's army, including all of his infantry regulars and most of his battle-tested volunteers. Also, Taylor was ordered to confine his operations to the vicinity of Monterrey.
Taylor was angered at having his army stolen from beneath him and at being restricted in his movements. He knew what was happening. A tricky knave of a president and a grasping, ambitious general were conspiring against him for political gain. They were slowing the progress of the country's most successful general in the midst of a war whose outcome was far from decided. Taylor's honor was outraged and his military sense offended, and he decided on a course of open defiance. Instead of remaining near Monterrey, he advanced to Saltillo and beyond to Agua Nueva with 4,600 men. It was at Agua Nueva that the 2nd Kentucky joined Taylor.
Taylor was not only a newly minted American hero; he was a Whig and a Kentuckian as well. His unorthodox style suited the Bluegrass volunteers exactly. He dressed like a farmer, in a dusty green coat, a checked shirt, and rumpled trousers, a cotton kerchief carelessly tied around his neck. His hats were a daily surprise. Sometimes he wore a broad-brimmed straw hat, at other times a little old cap that was oiled to keep out the weather. He was even seen in a Mexican sombrero on occasion. Neither was his posture ramrod straight. He walked like a plowman crossing his field, and graceful riders scoffed that he slumped in the saddle "like a toad." Yet, the man's natural dignity shined through. He was clear thinking and strong willed. He was imperturbable in all situations but one, when he observed men not doing their duty. Zachary Taylor was a man the volunteers were proud to follow. He would be the model for Frank Wolford's own career in the next war.
From his camp at Agua Nueva, Taylor dispatched scouting parties to watch the southern approaches. On February 21, they returned to Taylor with the alarming news that the Mexicans were at La Hedionda and La Encarnacion, less than thirty miles away. Santa Anna had quietly moved his army of 15,000 north behind a screen of 2,500 cavalry. Taylor ordered all surplus stores to be burned and fell back to La Angostura, about a mile south of the hacienda Buena Vista.
La Angostura was the most easily defended point on the main road between Agua Nueva and Saltillo, and it was here that Taylor decided to dig in to face an enemy that outnumbered him by a factor of three to one. General John Wool, Taylor's second-in-command, was ordered to place the troops while Taylor rode on to Saltillo to perfect his defenses there. Rumors abounded that Mexican cavalry was patrolling in that direction, and Taylor was concerned about his base.
At La Angostura, the San Luis Potosí–Saltillo Road ran through a narrow defile. A few artillery pieces could easily hold it. General Wool posted Major John M. Washington's artillery there, with the 1st Illinois Infantry in support. On the right (west) of the road, as one faced south, the land was broken into a series of sharp, narrow ridges that came together and widened out at the top to form a small table. The terrain was so difficult as to discourage enemy gun crews from dragging their pieces to the top, and they would be observed if they tried. It was the American left flank that was worrisome. In the far distance was a mountain and in the near distance was a series of deep ravines and long ridges extending toward the road. In between was a broad, rolling plateau. Wool was tactician enough to realize that it was here the main attack would come. On the extreme left, near the base of the mountain, the Kentucky and Arkansas cavalries were posted. Slightly in front and to the right of the horse soldiers were Captain John Paul Jones O'Brien's artillery battery, the 2nd Indiana Infantry, the 3rd Indiana, a company of Texas Rangers, and the 2nd and 1st Illinois Infantry. The defensive line ran from the mountain base northwest, terminating near the road and Washington's artillery. Two squadrons of dragoons, Captain Braxton Bragg's and Captain Thomas W. Sherman's batteries, the Mississippi Rifles, and the 2nd Kentucky Infantry were held in reserve on the big plateau.
Santa Anna's army had been close behind Taylor's. They appeared at La Angostura late on the morning of February 22, but if the Americans expected immediate action, they were disappointed. Nothing happened. Both sides waited. Taylor thought that Santa Anna was waiting for the rear elements of his large army to arrive. By afternoon they had, and now Santa Anna wasted no time in testing each American flank. Enemy movements on the right caused Bragg's battery and the 2nd Kentucky Infantry to be ordered to the top of the small ridge west of the road. At the same time, Santa Anna threw a more serious infantry attack against the left flank. From their new position on the right, the boys of the 2nd Kentucky could look across to the high ground on the left and see the belligerents maneuvering among the chaparral and the Spanish bayonet. The American cavalry was pushed back a bit, but the attack had begun too late on this short winter's day, and darkness soon brought an end to it.
Satisfied that there would be no more trouble until morning, Taylor took the Mississippi Rifles and some dragoons and returned to Saltillo. It would be a disaster for the Americans if the Mexicans seized their base and surrounded them in this barren desert.
While the Americans slept in their fireless camps at La Angostura that night, the Mexicans were busy. A small force ascended the heights on the American right. About dawn, they launched a weak and unsuccessful attack. At eight o'clock, Santa Anna threw a column of infantry straight up the road. It was doomed from the start. From directly in their front, Washington's artillery opened fire, and Bragg began pumping artillery salvos into their flank from his position west of the road. The enemy formation broke apart and the survivors scattered.
Both of these attacks seem to have been intended to divert attention from the Mexicans massing in a ravine just below the edge of the plateau on the American left. Two Mexican divisions attacked with a fury, concentrating on Captain O'Brien's three-gun battery. The 2nd Indiana and the unengaged companies of the 2nd Illinois added their musket fire to O'Brien's big rounds. The Mexicans responded with a deadly flanking fire from one twenty-four-pounder fieldpiece and two eighteen-pounders. After thirty minutes, or perhaps it was longer (time took on a flexible quality in battle, and later no one seemed to remember exactly how long it was), Colonel W. A. Bowles of the 2nd Indiana had had all he could take; he led his men to the rear. Its flank uncovered, the 2nd Illinois had no choice but to follow. The retreat became a rout and swept up Captain Sherman's artillery battery, as well as the Arkansas and Kentucky dismounted cavalry. As the cavalrymen tried to get to their horses, they were chased down and slaughtered by Mexican lancers. In the midst of his thunderous work, Captain O'Brien had not noticed that he had been deserted by the infantry, and now he suddenly realized that he was fighting without support. He limbered up and pulled two of his guns to safety; the members of the third gun crew were all lying dead, along with their horses.
Excerpted from Wolford's Cavalry by Dan Lee. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Born to Be a Soldier
2. A Peaceful Interlude
3. Camp Dick Robinson and Wildcat Mountain
5. Mill Springs
6. Soldiering in Tennessee
7. The Perryville Campaign
8. Clouds of Blue and Gray
9. Crossed Sabers
10. Return to Tennessee
11. Fighting Longstreet
12. What No Man Could Predict
13. Wolford and Lincoln
14. The Atlanta Campaign
15. Stoneman’s Macon Raid
17. A Soldier Goes to His Reward