Sunday, August 18, 2013

Damrons of the 39th - Wright Fights for Both Sides

Family history is yet another interest of mine. My family has been here, in Eastern Kentucky, since the very early 1800s. As I'm also a fan of history, I particularly like it when I can connect my family to a bigger picture. In this case, that bigger picture is the American Civil War, and in particular, that War in Eastern Kentucky.

We didn't really have much in the way of large battles here. Kentucky made the somewhat questionable decision to remain neutral during that conflict, which meant little support was received from either side. Eastern Kentucky became something of a no man's land without law enforcement or even schools. One of the larger battles in the area was fought on November 8, 1861 at Ivy Mountain near Ivel, about half way between Prestonsburg and Pikeville (or Piketon). At 5 o'clock on the morning of November 8, 1861, U.S. Navy Lieutenant William O. Nelson, who had been charged with clearing Eastern Kentucky of the Confederate Army, marched out of Prestonsburg toward Piketon (Pikeville), Kentucky. With him were about 1500 men. Fifteen miles outside of Piketon they met a Confederate picket of approximately 40 cavalry. After a brief exchange of gunfire the Confederates withdrew to Piketon. There, Colonel John S. Williams commanded Captain Andrew Jackson May to go back with two companies of soldiers and twenty mounted men.

May stationed 116 soldiers behind breastworks along a flat area on Ivy Mountain overlooking the Big Sandy River. Additional troops were stationed on the other side of the river to fire on the approaching Union soldiers from a different angle. It was a good plan, but after an hour and fifteen minutes of battle, the badly outnumbered Confederates were out of ammo and so retreated.

The Confederates retreated first to Piketon, then on to Pound Gap at the Virginia line. At some point while they were crossing Pike County, young Wright Damron, son of Virginia-bred James S. Damron, would join that army. He was sworn on November 9 and, presumably when time allowed, officially enlisted on November 11, 1861 at the camp near Pound Gap. Wright, or "Rite" as he was listed in the records, enlisted in Company G of the Kentucky Fifth Mounted Infantry, CSA for a term of one year. [1]

The service record of Wright Damron while in the Confederate Army is unremarkable. Apparently he did the time he agreed to, which would have seen him discharged from service in November of 1862.  He then enrolled at Peach Orchard (a mining town near Louisa and Ulyssus) in Lawrence County, Kentucky on November 14, 1862, only days after his one year term as a Confederate ended. [2] That was, it should be noted, five days after his older brother, Moses D. Damron (my second-great grandfather), enrolled there.

What would motivate a young man to essentially change sides in a war?  A mystery on which one can only speculate.  During the War, Eastern Kentucky was typically not the focus of great battles. Both sides wanted it, but not enough to dedicate a great deal of manpower or resources to it. But the Union had more manpower and resources to dedicate, and the Confederate soldiers there were mostly poorly clothed, poorly supplied, and poorly fed. While the Union maintained a supply line from the mouth of the Big Sandy at the Ohio River in Catlettsburg, the Confederate Army had no such handy line of supply coming in from the south. As a result, those fighting for The South had to "forage" when in Eastern Kentucky - a polite word for taking food and animals, and often more, from the residents. As a result of many depredations during that time, committed by Confederate soldiers and "irregulars" who merely claimed to be soldiers to cloak their crimes, the sentiment in most counties turned decidedly in favor of the Union cause. In a land of subsistence farmers, not much could be sacrificed. And so, in part because they hoped to protect their families and property, and no doubt in part because even the modest pay of a volunteer soldier was more than they had, more and more young men (and not so young men) joined the Union Army.  By the end of the war, nine Damrons from Pike County had joined the Kentucky Thirty-Ninth Mounted Infantry.  Wright was the only one who had fought for the Confederacy.  So the question really isn't so much why he changed sides as why he joined the Confederate Army in the first place.  One can only imagine that as a young man descended from Virginia stock, he was caught up in a rallying cry from the retreating soldiers after the defeat at Ivy Mountain and made an impulsive decision to join the cause.  After a year of hard living he decided to join his neighbors and family in their fight for the North.  As will be seen in a later installment, the Thirty-Ninth was formed primarily to protect the area from depredations than to fight for any bigger cause.

Wright, by the way, went on to live a full, long life.  He didn't marry until he was 35 years old when he wed Aurela "Realie" Hopkins, who was 17 years his junior.  They had seven children.  The last one, "Bird," was born in 1889.   Wright applied for a pension based on his military service in 1890, but lived another 20 years.  He died in 1910 of "pneumonia fever."  "Realie"  applied for a widow's pension in March of that year.

[1] "Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers", digital image, The National Archives (, page 2 of Confederate Service Record of Rite Damron
[2] "Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Kentucky", digital image, The National Archives (, Accessed on in Nov 2012. page 2 of Service Record of Wright Damron.

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