23 July 2012
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  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