Volume XXV Issue #6 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of Richmond, Kentucky

By B. Kevin Bennett

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

This 1930s view is courtesy of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Ky. It shows the Merritt Jones Tavern (which no longer stands, see Pg. 56) including the area of Scott’s pursuit of Metcalfe’s Union horsemen after the fight at Big Hill on August 23. (1) The Pinnacle. (2) Pilot Knob. (3) The Old State Road heading north toward the town of Big Hill; along this road Chiles’ Unionist Tennessee infantry ambushed the van of Scott’s cavalry, temporarily slowing the pursuit. (4) Merritt Jones Tavern. (5) The Boone Trail angling toward the tavern from the east.

Engagement at Big Hill

Continuing his mission of screening Kirby Smith’s main movements and obtaining intelligence, Colonel Scott received word on August 22 that a strong Union force was posted on Big Hill, and that another Union supply train was in that vicinity. Realizing that even a small force on Big Hill could stall Kirby Smith’s advance, the intrepid Scott directed his brigade eastward along a little used mountain track to a junction with the Old State Road (also known as the Richmond Road, now US 421).

Big Hill is a high, difficult T-shaped mountain which marks a clear divide between the rolling Bluegrass region and the rugged, mountainous, barren region through which Kirby Smith’s army was advancing. The Union force located in the area was the newly formed 7th Kentucky Cavalry, commanded by Col. Leonidas Metcalfe (left).7 This unit had mustered in the previous week and was more of a mob than a military unit. A Union officer who visited the camp observed that he “had never seen a camp that equaled it for lack of discipline and soldierly order.”8 This insight was to prove prophetic in the days to come.

Contrary to Scott’s belief, the Union forces did not occupy Big Hill; rather, the morning of August 23 found them located at the northern base of Big Hill at the crossroads hamlet with the same name (see Pg. 52). With them were five companies of the 3rd Tennessee (Union) Infantry under Lt. Col. John Chiles. They were serving as an escort for a supply train of about 30 wagons loaded with critical supplies destined for the Union force at Cumberland Gap. Around mid-day on the 23rd Metcalfe began to receive word back from his scouting parties that Rebel cavalry was fast approaching Big Hill. Shortly thereafter the Union pickets posted on Big Hill were driven back into the camp by advance elements of Scott’s force. Quickly saddling his 400-man regiment, Metcalfe personally led his force up the steep mountain road to achieve the summit.

As this was developing, the remainder of Scott’s force arrived along with a mule-drawn 2-gun mountain howitzer battery that was placed in the center of the hastily formed line near the top of Big Hill. As Union forces neared the top of the mountain they dismounted, formed a line of battle, and approached on foot, masked in part by the trees and undergrowth. After Scott’s pickets were driven back, a random firefight developed that lasted about 20 minutes with little damage to either side. At that time Metcalfe ordered a general advance. As the raw Union troopers came out into the open, Scott’s mountain howitzers opened up on the now exposed enemy. Terrified at the experience of coming under artillery fire for the first time, most of the green and ill-disciplined Union force quickly panicked, broke for their mounts, and fled pell-mell down the mountain. Metcalfe, who had been slightly wounded in the hand by shrapnel, attempted to stem the rout but to no avail. Although he and about 100 of his troopers gamely continued the fight for a short period, they were greatly outmatched and they too retreated abruptly once Scott’s Confederates initiated a charge.9

Encouraged by their easy success, several hundred of Scott’s men pursued the retreating Kentuckians in a wild horse race down the mountain. Fortunately for the Union, Lt. Col. John Chiles had witnessed the original group of panicked troopers galloping back through the camp and wagons. Having no luck in halting and reforming the “cowardly hounds,” he then alertly placed his infantry in a covered ambush position along the Old State Road (see photo, Pg. 19). Once Metcalfe and the remnants of his force passed, Chiles’ men rose and delivered a stunning series of volleys into the startled Confederate pursuers, toppling a number of them out of their saddles before retreating. This small victory provided only a temporary respite for the Union forces.10

At the Union wagon train and camp, disorder and panic were taking hold as teamsters frantically attempted to turn their teams around and head north for the relative safety of Richmond. Momentarily checking the Confederate pursuit, Chiles and his infantry returned to their camp and prepared to make a stand. Metcalfe was desperately trying to organize those troopers of the 7th Kentucky who still remained, the greater part of which had continued in their panicked flight north. The Union forces were deployed in an L-shaped position along the main road and Red Lick Branch.

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