2 Kentucky Women Risked Everything to Help Union During Civil War: Opinion

Garrard Countian Margaret G. Vaughn was proud of her two sons who had gone to the Civil War in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, United States Army.

So naturally, she resented having to lodge rebel officers in her home. To prevent their soldiers from stealing her horses, Vaughn stayed on her porch all night, holding the bridles and chasing away would-be horse thieves.

Vaughn went even crazier when she heard her unwanted guests laughing at how they had misled the Yankees into thinking their little force was much bigger than it was. “The Federals were by far the strongest,” according to “The Wild Riders of the First Kentucky Cavalry,” the regiment’s official history published in 1894.

By inflating the size of their force, the rebel commanders hoped to scare the Yankees into burning the Hickman Bridge over the Kentucky River, thus ensuring “they could have it all their way for a few days”.

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Vaughn decided to sneak out and tell the American troops the truth. “The journey contemplated was perilous in the extreme,” wrote Eastham Tarrant, a former Wild Rider sergeant and author of the history book.

Early Kentucky soldiers and their comrades in arms crossed the rain-swollen Kentucky River at Fortified Camp Nelson near Nicholasville, Ky., the seat of Jessamine County. To reach them, Vaughn would have to evade the Rebel patrols, descend the steep high cliffs that line the river, and cross the waterway.

Vaugh thought she needed a partner. So she recruited a friend, Louise West Jackman, who lived in Lancaster, the county seat of Garrard. Riding on horses provided by Vaughn, the pair set out at 10 a.m. on March 26, 1863. They did not arrive at Camp Nelson until 8 a.m. the next evening.

Meanwhile, senior army officers had believed the enemy’s fake news. Soldiers in blue uniforms had ripped out the plank flooring from the bridge, which was near Camp Nelson. The guards had orders to burn the bay if the Confederates approached.

To simulate the enemy, Vaughn and Jackman crossed farmland and took “crossroads and muddy roads, which were almost impassable,” Tarrant wrote. “By the zigzag route they were forced to follow to avoid public roads and the enemy, it is not known how far they traveled the two days they spent in reaching our lines.”

The river transit was “perhaps the most formidable object”, the author suggested. Kentucky was rising, the result of recent heavy downpours.

The “steep cliffs” were “in places 300 feet high and perpendicular, with only here and there a place of descent from bench to bench, along narrow passages, with overhanging rock masses of one side and gaping precipices on the other,” according to Tarrant.

An enslaved child fleeing the rebels offered to help Vaughn and Jackman find a place to cross near the Hickman Bridge, but enemy pickets caused the trio to back down. Tarrant did not say what happened to their young guide. But Vaughn and Jackman decided to spend the night in Bryantsville with Unionist friends. Other Union men and women instructed the couple on how to avoid enemy pickets and reach a good crossing point at Polly’s Bend.

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A Confederate Colonel on horseback forces Vaughn and Jackman to retreat, even escorting them for a time. After he left, they headed back towards the river, evaded enemy pickets and finally arrived at the bend, which was 18 miles from Lancaster “by direct route”, Tarrant wrote.

Strengthened by a supper provided by a Unionist family, they abandoned their horses and headed on foot towards the tops of the cliffs. Two Union men helped them down; another Union man paddled a small, rickety raft – “not three feet wide”, according to Tarrant – to the other side. “The current was strong, the raft sank so low that the water ran over their feet,” he wrote. “Those on the shore held their breath, expecting to see the precious load fall; but they landed safely and were happily greeted by Union pickets.

Aided by soldiers, Vaughn and Jackman commandeered a “topless buggy” and drove to First Kentucky headquarters. Night fell long before their arrival in driving rain.

They rushed to see the commander of First Kentucky, Colonel Frank Wolford of Liberty. He relayed Vaughn and Jackman’s message to General Quincy A. Gillmore, who ordered the soldiers to replace the planks of the bridge and prepare to attack.

On March 28, the Wild Riders, along with mounted infantry and artillery units, charged across the bridge and drove the rebels away.

Berry Craig is professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and author of seven books and co-author of two others, all on Kentucky history.

Berry Craig is professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and author of seven books and co-author of two others, all on Kentucky history.

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