23 July 2012

In the Shadow of Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest: Private John C. Lilly—Part I

In the Shadow of Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest:
Private John C. Lilly—Part I

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
July 25, 2012

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Central Montana.

John C. Lilly fought like a tiger for the Confederacy. He served in the Kentucky Cavalry with Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest “the Wizard of the Saddle” in a unit known as Forrest’s Old Regiment, and lived to tell about it. Addicted to action, Lilly came to the wild upper Missouri frontier shortly after the war and was never far from danger.

Born John Carl Lillie in January 1844 in Hannover, Niedersachsen, Prussia (now Germany), he immigrated to America in 1858 and settled into farm life in Shelby County, in north central Kentucky. When the Civil War began, Lilly joined with local boys to fight for the South.

John C. Lilly left a hand written account of his service with the Confederacy and portions of his personal experiences are provided in his own words in this article. But Lilly’s account is larger than his own experience—through Private Lilly’s eyes this is also the story of the remarkable exploits of his regimental commander, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a fierce and dynamic Civil War officer, a brilliant cavalry officer who rose from private to lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. He was a superb tactician, a ferocious fighter, and a dynamic leader—he killed thirty opponents by his own hand, had twenty-nine horses shot from under him, and was wounded on four occasions.

Recruited by Col. Forrest to join the Boone Rangers later known as the First Kentucky Cavalry (Confederate)], a part of Forrest’s Old Regiment, Private John C. Lilly rode beside Forrest for most of the war, sharing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the ever-present danger. The stories of Col. Forrest, Private Lilly, and their Forrest’s Old Regiment is testimony to the ferocity of the Civil War in the West that took the lives of many good, brave men from both the North and the South.

John Lilly began his account; “In 1861 I was living in Shelby County Ky. about three miles from the town of Shelbyville on Clear Creek working for Mr. Henry Harris on a Farm. I was then a boy of about 16 years old. It was then when the whole country was making preparation for war. Kentucky was divided. Some were for the South and some for the North. Especially in the neighborhood where I was then [there was] a great . . . sympathy with the South.” [Author’s comments are in brackets. Lilly’s creative spelling and punctuation have been “normalized.”]

Young Lilly’s employer, planter Henry Harris, was staunchly pro-Confederate, owning fourteen slaves, six adults and eight children, in the 1860 U.S. Slave Census. Lilly and Harris’ son, Gamaliel, began drilling with neighborhood boys, preparing to fight for the South. Lilly wrote, “we commenced to drilling as Soldiers and I never shall forget what a good time we had on the Bright moonlight nights especially in old Kentucky where the moon shines bright up on the old Kentucky Shore. We boys were happy and gay. We had then a different idea of the war than what it turned out to be after we got in to it.”

Lilly continues, “We were progressing fine in our drilling until some time the latter part of June [1861] when N. B. Forrest [Nathan Bedford Forrest] came to Louisville and was making preparation and arrangement to organize a Regiment of Kentucky Cavalry . . . He appropriated a lot of saddles pistols and some guns. In the mean time while Col. Forrest recruited in Louisville, [Union] General [Lovell H.] Rousseau was camping and recruiting cross the Ohio River and of course he was posted and informed of every thing that was going on in Kentucky especially in the surrounding county of Louisville. Col. Forrest had no time to organize his Regiment of Kentucky Cavalry but gathered up what few men there were in readiness to go and as he had heard of our little party drilling in Shelby County he sent us word to meet him at the Nolin Bridge in Hardin Co, Ky. where he then had a little over a hundred men in Camp. I forget the date when we left Clear Creek but it was in the night. We moved thru Shelbyville but we had to be very careful as the town or the people in Shelbyville were strong Union men.”

Avoiding known Union men, the Shelbyville recruits proceeded on their way, stopping only at homes of Confederate sympathizers where they sought food and fodder for their horses. On the road, the recruits stopped to talk with slaves going to work, and Lilly continues, “there came along some nigros to go to work on the farm. One of our boys spoke up, ‘Say Sam,’ to one of the nigros, ‘is there any Rebels in this country. Well young master,’ he says, ‘I don’t knows [who] you might be.’ At that you must remember where every masters were, the nigros were also generally speaking. So Sam told us that his master was for the South and told us of all the people in the neighborhood which were for the South and which were for the North. So we were well posted in that vicinity.

“Sam’s master was a Mr. Stone, the first house we would come to, and I must say right here that Mr. Stone was Southern from the Crown of his head to the Sole of his feet. Here our horses were fed and a special breakfast gotten for us. I often think about that breakfast how we devoured that meal. We were never better treated in our life as we were by Mr. Stone and his family. They were happy to see a lot of Boys go to the Southern Army. Anything we wanted, there was nothing too good for us. I had a poor saddle, which was hurting my horse’s back. Well, Mr. Stone gave me his saddle almost new and he took mine in place. While we were eating and resting, Mr. Stone gave us all the instruction where to stop on our whole route and told [us where] we would catch up with N. B. Forrest.

“Of course we did the most of our travel in the night. We stayed put one more night at a Farm House on a very good large plantation . . . It was after 10 o’clock when we rode up, all of us close to the house, and said, ‘hello’ when the gentlemen came on the porch. ‘Is there any chance for us to get supper,’ was the question. The gentleman did not know what to make of us for it was hard to tell who we might be . . .. but by a little inquiry and telling him whom it was that told us where to stop for our supper. He said, ‘boys it is alright. Get down.’ In the mean time, he called up a half dozen nigros to take care of our horses . . . In a short time we were called to supper which was as fine a meal as any one wants to set down to. Our intention was to go on right after supper but after supper there was nothing to do but what we must come in the parlor and hear the girls sing and play on the piano and of course that was delightful for us boys. We forgot all about the war . . . we were insured by our Landlord that there was no danger of us being trapped or attacked in the night. He made us stop all night, and I believe that himself and a few of his trustworthy slaves stood guard the balance of the night. Anyway we were not disturbed and had a good night’s rest in a fine room and a fine bed.

“After breakfast and a good one at that we were again invited in the parlor and had more music and songs. Of course they were all Southern songs. When our horses were brought to the porch by the negros, there were ‘Three Cheers for Dixie’ and the young ladies started ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,’ and then we once more started on the road to Moline Bridge for Camp Forrest.

“When we arrived we rode into Camp some time about 10 or 11 o’clock [p.m.]. We were halted for the first time by the pickets but as the pickets were aware that we were coming there was no trouble for us to go right into camp. That was our first night in a Soldiers Camp. There were about one hundred & fifty men in Camp. Some were sleeping, some were eating and some were setting by the fire smoking. N. B. Forrest was there among the boys laughing and talking. He made us acquainted with some of the boys. We fed our horses, and then we tried to broil, putting it on a stick and holding it over the fire. Everything was plenty, ham & bacon and good strong coffee. There was not much sleep that night . . . The next morning we were given a new saddle and a Colt’s Revolver with ammunition, and then, we for the first time since we left Shelby County, were prepared to defend ourselves from our enemies.

The Shelbyville boys boarded trains and passed through Bowling Green, Ky. where General Sidney Johnston was organizing the Confederate Army. They then rode on to Memphis, camping at the Memphis Race Track and commencing drilling in earnest. Lilly continues, “In about two weeks our horses arrived in Memphis [after having been left at Camp Forrest]. We were moved to a nice grove about three or four miles from Memphis and commenced drilling on horseback that suited us to perfection. Then we were sworn in to the Confederated Service for 12 months and our Company was Co A of Forrest Regiment of Cavalry and called ourselves the Boone Rangers. Our officers Capt. Overton 1st Lieut. John Crother 2nd Lieut Wm Wade 3rd. N. B. Forrest was Col. of the Regiment. Our Company was about 120 men strong. The next company was from Tennessee Company B Capt. May. Lieutenants Jess & Wm Forrest, brothers of Col. Forrest. The next was a Texas Company commanded by Captain Geighl.”

In September 1861, Lilly’s Company A was transferred by a steamboat called the Hill to Columbus Ky. Lilly wrote, “We had a very nice trip with the exception that the boat run in to a snag somewhere near Island No. 10, which made quite an excitement among the boys thinking that the boat would sink. It happened in the night, and the boat struck so hard that it rolled some of the boys out of their beds. But it was found that there was no danger of Sinking and we landed at Columbus.

“The next day we were then about three miles from Columbus on the Mobile & Ohio Rail Road. Columbus was well fortified. We thought no boat could ever pass them big guns. I have here forgotten the date when the battle across the Mississippi in Missouri was fought. We were ordered to report to Head Quarters at Columbus to be ready for action. Then we got the first smell of powder from the Big Guns but we were not brought in to action. At night we were ordered back to our Camp and then we made our first Scout towards Paducah, Ky. where we for the first saw a live Yankee. Two Yankee soldiers that were captured by Jeff Thompson’s . . . Rangers . . . Thompson’ Rangers had already accomplished what we were sent for, and we returned to Camp. Soon after that we were ordered to Fort Donaldson on the Cumberland River where we were doing nothing but drilling every day.

“All this time we have not seen our Col. and the balance of our Regiment. Sometime in November we were ordered to Hopkinsville Ky. where we went into Camp for the winter, and Colonel Forrest organized the Regiment which were two Kentucky companies, one Tennessee, one Texas, Three Alabama companies, with Major Kelly of Huntsville Alabama as our Major of the Regiment. We having a good time had good living, fast horses, little camp duty, little scouting thru the surrounding country, and drilling on horseback. That was the best time I have had thru my four years of soldering and every one of the boys will agree with me that was camping at Hopkinsville. The People of Kentucky, at that time, would do anything for a Confederate soldier, especially the Ladies there was nothing too good for a Confederate soldier.”
After this lull in the action, Private Lilly resumes his narrative, “But now the tug of war commences. The news was received by Col.. Forrest that there were some Union men on the Ohio River making trouble for the Southern men. You must remember that the people of Kentucky were very near evenly divided in their sentiment and also that Kentuckyans were hard fighters. So Col. Forrest concluded to a make a raid in to that part of the country. He took a detail with himself as leader, marched on thru Princeton, Ky. to the Ohio River in to Maghlenburg.

“Coming at the head of our column was Col. Forrest and Dr. Cowen our Surgeon, a young man of Charleston, S. C.  A better man could not be found, I don’t think, than Dr. Cowen. Our command was halted in a lane when Col. Forrest and Doctor Cowen rode up to the house and called “hello.” When the answer was given from within, it was with a Kentucky Rifle, and it struck the doctor right between the eyes. He fell dead from his horse and before we could surround the house the man came thru the back window and disappeared in the thick timber of the bottom of the Ohio River and never was caught up with. I have forgotten the man’s name. The Doctor was the first dead man of Forrest Old Regiment.”

“We camped on that place that night and of course anything that was portable we took. Some of the boys was ready to set fire to the place, but the Col. would not have it. The next morning we took a wagon and the Dr. was put in to it, and we marched back towards Hopkinsville. Before we had gone three or four miles on a different road going thru a lane Col. Forrest at the head of the column.

“Coming to a double log house three shots from old Kentucky Rifles rung out from the log house right into the head of our column. One bullet went thru one [of] the horses neck and one thru the arm of one of the boys. The other missed and went close to Col. Forrest’s head, but the three fool hearty men that made such a foolish attack on a column of a hundred men and not stayed in the house and kept up the fire. I should not call [them] brave they were foolish for as soon as they had fired they broke and ran thru timber pasture.

“The rear of our column never thought of laying down the fence for we had good old Kentucky horses, and they were able to jump any fence. Before the Father and his two sons . . . were a hundred yards from the house, they were riddled with bullets and dead men and left where they fell. Such was the case and times of Old Kentucky in the beginning of the war. After that work which lasted only five minutes, it was forward march. We camped at Princeton that night and got back to our winter quarters with a record of killing three Unionists and our dead surgeon, one man wounded and a horse shot thru [the] neck.

“All the men in camp felt very sorry for Doctor Cowen our young surgeon He was liked by everyone, officers and privates.  So Doctor Cowen was the first man killed of Forrest’s Old Regiment. The reader must remember that there was a different feeling in the men over dead men shot in the beginning of the war than there was later on in the war.”

To be continued.
Photo: (1) John C. Lilly 

06 July 2012

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.: A Warrior For His Union and Lord Part II

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Sergeant Jacob Mills, Jr.:
A Warrior For His Union and Lord
Part II

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
July 11, 2012

This continues with the second part of the story of Civil War veteran Jacob Mills, Jr. Part I covered Mills’ early years and his service with the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Part II continues his story with the post-war years and his service in Montana Territory as a Methodist minister.

A veteran of the Civil War, Jacob Mills, Jr. bore his wounds for life. At age nineteen, Jacob Mills, Jr. had joined the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment in December 1861. He served in two important theatres, the campaign to secure New Orleans and the Mississippi River and with the Army of the Shenandoah in Virginia, and rose through the ranks to 1st Sergeant. During the Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1964, Mills suffered a shattering wound and went through a near death experience during surgery to remove his left arm. Mills remained in the hospital in New Orleans for more than a year.

He was always grateful to the surgeon who recommended retaining an additional “pound of flesh” on his shoulder, for without it wearing a coat would have been difficult. He became very adept in the use of his one arm and was able to do most things that were possible for those who had two good arms. In later years there were only two things Mills admitted to being unable to do with only one arm – to drive four horses and fasten his own shirt cuff.

After his discharge from the army on October 12, 1865, Mills returned to Topsham, Vermont. There he entered business in partnership with Duncan Stewart for three years and was elected to several political offices, county clerk, county treasurer, Justice of the Peace. Mills was a good businessman, and his early training had made him frugal. His savings were invested and increased in value. Likely as a result of his Civil War service Mills was appointed to the federal customs service on the border between Vermont and Canada, living part of the time in Island Pond, Vermont and six years in Sherbrooke, Canada. He remained with the customs service for eleven years.
During those years Jacob Mills concluded that his life had been spared, when so close to death, for some purpose other than advancement of his own personal interests and fortune. He decided that the ministry offered the best opportunity to satisfy his desire to serve. But Mills had no desire to serve a settled parish in a settled community in the settled East. He wanted the challenge of the frontier west. At this time the Methodist Episcopal Church was the only Protestant denomination offering frontier mission work so the Reverend Mills went out under its auspices.

In 1870 Jacob Mills married Jeannie Forest, who became in immensely important part of his life and his work for the next 55 years. She was in every way an assistant pastor. She often took church group meetings into her own home. She helped organize children’s work and various women’s organizations. She was largely instrumental in organizing the Conference Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, and was a leader in its work after it was formed. Many young preachers and their wives found in her a true friend.

Mills had been raised a Christian in the Advent Christian Church and early had learned lessons of devotion. This strict regiment had trained his young mind in the fundamentals of ethics and religion. He was taught to be diligent and thrifty and that to waste anything was wrong. These principles remained with him throughout his life.

While still in Vermont, Mills read a New York newspaper article written by Col. Wilbur F. Sanders, extolling the opportunities for investments in Montana Territory. After careful thought Mills placed his money in a horse ranch in Montana. He then saw another advertisement in the Christian Advocate in which Methodist Rev. F. A. Riggin stressed the need for ministers to care for the expanding work of the church in Montana. These two items impressed Mills. If his money was invested in frontier Montana, then his life should be at work there too, serving the Lord and his new Church.

Mills had already been licensed as a local preacher and had done some preaching in his hometown. At once he wrote to Rev. Riggin, Superintendent of the Mission in Montana, and after some correspondence during the following year, Mills, age 40, set out for Dillon, Montana Territory on March 23, 1882.

Mrs. Mills and their two boys remained behind in Vermont, until Mills was satisfied that his family’s future belonged on the frontier. Dillon at that time was the terminal of the new Utah and Northern Railroad that made connection with the transcontinental Union Pacific at Corinne, Utah. Arriving at Dillon, Mills hired a livery rig and proceeded to Fish Creek where he was to meet Riggin. There he found not only Rev. Riggin, but also Rev. William Van Orsdel, a traveling missionary gaining fame as Brother Van.

Jacob Mills was homesick, missed his wife and family, and was not impressed with the country. He wondered whether he should return to Vermont, “but after prayer and fasting” he decided to remain. In April 1882, Superintendent Riggin took him to the rough and tumble riverboat town of Fort Benton. By November he had broken through Fort Benton’s tough outside crust enough to prepare for the organization of the church. Among his other problems, the town was over-churched, with three other Protestant denominations trying to get a foothold—Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal Churches.

Few men could have kept the work going in those first trying years in Fort Benton. Only a man with an independent income and a strong fortitude could have held on to organize a church. The first members of the Fort Benton Methodist Church were: H. T. Hepler, Hannah Hepler, J. F. Keilhauser, Lizzie Smith, Zinia Wamer, Marcella D. Rosencrans, Hannah Evans, S. A. Kanouse, Jennie F. Mills, Libbie W. Evans, W. C. Evans, Edward L. Mills, Lurina Keilhuaser, Gibson Finn, May Evans. The last five were probationers. Finn, an African American, became a founding member of the church.

Church services were held in the wood-frame Court House until it burned down January 5, 1883. In June of that year, Mills organized a Sunday school with about 25 members for the growing congregation. After the loss of the old Court House, church services were held in various buildings around town. At one time he and the Congregationalists rented a downtown room jointly. On one side was a saloon and on the other a tailor shop, occupied by the tailor and his family. The partitions were thin and “spirituous fumes not spiritual” came in from one side, and through the other side the angry tailor could be heard berating his family. During the spring of 1884, services were held in the basement of the Record Building.

Mills lived in a rented shack until his family arrived. It was cold, and often he wore an overcoat and overshoes while studying during cold weather. Living expenses were high, with poor quality wood $16 a cord. Coal was $23 a ton, eggs $1.50 a dozen, and rent of his two room shack, $18.50 a month. He received $110 for his first year’s services. He paid out of his own pocket $5.00 a month for the rent of the room in which he preached and for the fuel to warm it as well. All told, his fuel bill for the year was $150, much more than he received from the church, and there were other expenses as well. His financial independence kept him going.

Anticipating the arrival of his family Mills secured lots and built a parsonage and intending later to build a church. The total cost of the parsonage was $1490.93. Of this sum $1076 came “out of the Lord’s money,” in other words out of Mills’ own pocket. This sturdy parsonage stands today at 1512 Franklin Street.

Jacob Mills was ordained a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Butte on August 18, 1883. Rev. Mills intended to build a church in 1884, but the steamboat trade was fading rapidly with the arrival of railroads in Montana Territory. Within a few years, most business has been diverted from Fort Benton devastating the local economy. A new school building was being built, so the Methodists rented the old “L-shaped” schoolhouse. They continued to use this building for church services until their church was completed at last in 1898.

Because of Rev. Mills’ out-spoken ways, some members left his congregation. One Sunday morning Mills saw a young black man sitting at the back of the church. He called out, “Come on up here, Brother; I want to shake your hand. I gave my arm for you.” When he gave the young man a seat near the front, some members of the congregation got up and walked out and never came back again. But in spite of such setbacks Rev. Mills never compromised the principles he believed to be right.

In addition to his church, Rev. Mills had a circuit of unbelievable distances, with the only means of conveyance being by teams or horseback. He held regular services each month at Highwood and Sun River—the latter requiring four days each time he went there. At Sun River he built the first Methodist church in northern Montana. Outside points included Shonkin, Belt Creek, Sand Coulee, Stanford (then Wolf Creek), Chestnut Valley, Augusta (then South Fork), Choteau (then Teton), Philbrook, Utica, and Otter Creek. He tried to go wherever he though he was needed.

The last of March 1883, he was called to Rock Creek, about 100 miles distant on the Helena-Benton Road, to perform a marriage ceremony. Quoting Mills: “A heavy storm was raging, the driver got lost between Fort Shaw and Browns’ and traveled nearly half the night without knowing whither he went. It was an exceedingly hard journey and notwithstanding the fact that a fee of one hundred dollars was received, I would not again venture in such weather for that or any other sum . . .”

When Rev. Mills first went to Fort Benton there was no sign of a settlement at Great Falls. A ford served to cross the Missouri River at about the place where the present railroad bridge crosses the stream. Rev. Mills preached the first Methodist sermon in the store of W. D. Beachley on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Fourth St. This sermon was preached in 1884 and thereafter Great Falls and Sand Coulee were added to his circuit, and Sun River was dropped.

After three years in Fort Benton, Rev. Mills was assigned a pastorate at White Sulphur Springs, but before going he donated to the Fort Benton parsonage the stoves, lamps, furniture, dishes, bedding, carpets, tools, and nineteen good chairs, with the stipulation that they were to be used only at the parsonage

Moving on from White Sulphur Springs after he’d served there two years and built a fine brick church, Mills occupied several other pastorates: Butte, Bozeman for two terms, and Billings. His principal contribution to Methodist growth, however, was as presiding elder. In 1887 he was appointed presiding elder of the Bozeman District that included all of Montana Territory east of Helena to the Dakota line, with all the communities on the Northern Pacific and Great Northern lines. The railroads had opened up parts of Eastern and Northern Montana and development was progressing rapidly in these sections.

In 1914 at the Methodist conference meeting at Forsyth, Rev. Jacob Mills retired. After he giving his retirement speech, the floor was open for others to make remarks. Rev. Robert M. Craven came forward and grasped his hand. Jacob Mills was a veteran of the Union Army, and Robert Craven a Confederate. Once they had met in mortal conflict but for years they had worked as good friends in the army of the lord. In fact it had been Mills, as presiding elder, who had given Craven his first appointment in the Conference. Craven said, “Hello Yank,” and Mills replied “Hello Reb.” With hands clasped they faced each other with smiles. It was a heart-warming scene to see these two men, once enemies, now with old memories of war forgotten, brothers in Christ and veterans in the army of the Lord.

Civil War veteran Rev. Jacob Mills passed away October 28, 1925. The old soldier rests in the family plot in Forestvale Cemetery in Helena.

[Sources: “Diamond From The Rough” A History of The Fort Benton Methodist Church; GFLD 14 Jun 1915; Great Falls Yesterday; Progressive Men of Montana; Sanders’ A History Of Montana; Plains, Peaks and Pioneers Eighty Years of Methodism in Montana by Edward Laird Mills; Religion in Montana Pathways to the Present edited by Lawrence F. Small; The Jacob Mills Family Pioneers of Montana 1882-1928; When Wagon Trails Were Dim . . . portraits of pioneer Methodist Minister who rode them by Paul M. Adams.]

Note: If you have Civil War veterans in your family who settled in this area, we would be pleased to hear from you with copies of stories and photographs that we can share with our readers. Send your Civil War stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442.


1.     Reverend Jacob Mills, Civil War veteran.
2.     Methodist Church Parsonage built in 1884 by Mills at 1512 Franklin Street.