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Civil War History
The Battle of Big Hill Reenactment
The Battle of Big Hill Association, sponsored by Jackson County Tourism hosts the annual reenactment of the Battle of Big Hill. While the Tourism Board maintains the Cox-Simpson house, which became a Civil War hospital after the Battle of Big Hill, that area is now residential and not suitable for the reenactment. Visitors are encouraged to visit the Cox-Simpson House, which is now the Big Hill Welcome Center, open April-October, Saturday & Sunday 1-6 p.m.
The reenactment takes place this year the third weekend of August (Saturday and Sunday, August 16th and 17th) at the Jackson Energy Farm on HWY 290, about 6 miles south of McKee. A family-friendly outdoor event, reenactments generally take place over two days, and consist of games, historical speakers, a ladies and gentlemen's tea, food, and music before the actual battle. After dark, couples can follow the cues of the square dancing caller at the Civil War Ball, featuring local musicians playing songs from the era.
All in good fun, folks from far and wide come to join the excitement as reenactors share their enthusiasm for history, while witnessing the crack of black-powder rifles, the thunder of the cavalry, the clash of the sabers, the battle cries of the infantry, and the boom of the cannons. Jackson County Tourism brings history, heritage, and great fun together for generations to learn and enjoy.
The Battle of Big Hill
The Battle of Big Hill, Kentucky, took place on August 23, 1862, at the top of Big Hill, near the indeterminate boundaries of Madison, Jackson, and Rockcastle Counties. More of a skirmish between dismounted cavalry units, it was the first sizable engagement of the August 1862 Confederate Kentucky invasion. It pitted untrained Kentucky Union Cavalrymen against somewhat experienced Louisiana Confederate Cavalrymen with attached artillery. This was a full six days before the Battle of Richmond began. Although these battles sometimes are grouped for study purposes, they were distinctly separate encounters. Both sides used their cavalry in the six-day interim to reconnoiter their respective fronts. By the time the Battle of Richmond began on August 29, each side had adequate intelligence regarding the terrain and roads between Big Hill and Richmond. That information was valuable to the Confederates and greatly contributed to their victory.
The prelude to the Battle of Big Hill began in Chattanooga on July 31, 1862. There, Confederate General E. Kirby Smith and General Braxton Bragg conferred with other commanders and developed a plan to invade neutral Kentucky. That simple plan called for leaving one of his four infantry divisions at Cumberland Gap to isolate the Federals there, keeping one division in reserve and having the other two divisions conduct a tactical march through the eastern Kentucky mountains and on to the Bluegrass. Spearheading those two divisions was Col. John S. Scott’s 850-man First Louisiana Cavalry Brigade. Smith used Scott’s brigade as his reconnaissance force.
Scott’s Cavalry consisted of Lt. Col. Thomas O. Nixon’s First Louisiana Cavalry Regiment, Col. James Jefferson Morrison’s First Georgia Cavalry Regiment, and a Kentucky Buckner Guard Company commanded by a Captain Garriott. Kirby Smith ordered Scott to make the Old State Road safe for the balance of his army to proceed to Richmond. In so doing, Scott patrolled a wide swath, participated in skirmishes at Crab Orchard and Mt. Vernon, and captured Union wagon trains on their way to Cumberland Gap. He captured 148 Union wagons with their teamsters, about 600 horses and mules, and a quantity of much-needed military supplies. These spoils actually constituted a burden to the advancing cavalry, and because of that, many of the wagons were destroyed and the men paroled. Out of necessity, the retained horses, mules, and supplies were quickly put to good use.
Scott’s reconnaissance-in-force occupied London on August 17, and entered Mt. Vernon on August 19. Mt. Vernon was occupied by his entire brigade on August 22. Scott’s orders were to proceed on the Old State Road to Richmond via Big Hill. From north of Mt. Vernon, Old State Road is now state highway 1912 to nearly where 1912 ends on top of Big Hill at U.S. 421. An abandoned portion of Old State Road veers from 1912 prior to its junction with 421. Old State Road then virtually crosses U.S. 421, continues along a rolling hilltop and drops precipitously to the foot of Big Hill. Scott complied with his marching orders by arriving on the rolling hilltop on August 23 at about 1 p.m. with his entire brigade on site by 3 p.m.
At this time on the hilltop, some distance south of the northern edge of Big Hill, Scott’s force engaged two Federal units, the 7th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment of Col. Leonidas K. Metcalfe and Lt. Col. John C. Chile’s Third Tennessee Infantry Battalion. Scott had with him a battery of mountain howitzers that had been transported on muleback and quickly assembled them for firing. Realizing he had terrain advantage, Scott initiated a charge using the small howitzers for shock action. Metcalfe, assisted by Lt. Col. W. M. Odin, responded by charging Scott’s line. Metcalfe’s dismounted Cavalry failed to follow him, remounted, and fled back to Richmond and even on to Paris, where they had mustered in on August 16. Metcalfe and Odin subsequently were rescued by the Tennessee infantry, and Metcalfe refused to continue leading his unit, calling them “disgraceful.” He later relented and regrouped them, but their poor performance was repeated.
The Battle of Big Hill lasted for no longer than an “hour and twenty minutes.” It was essentially a cavalry battle with troopers dismounted. Some of the supporting Federal infantry behaved like seasoned soldiers facing Scott’s cavalry, but the battle ended in an overwhelming Confederate victory. Scott had four men killed and 12 wounded, and he lost 21 horses. The records of Metcalfe’s losses are confusing as so many of his soldiers fled; he reported 50 soldiers killed and wounded, Subsequently, the Federals retreated north up Old State Road to Richmond with Scott in pursuit.
Following the battle, Scott captured another Federal train of 27 wagons and their teams. These somewhat made up for his earlier animal losses. He also captured Metcalfe’s horse and uniform coat containing vital information concerning Richmond. Based on that, Scott sent Morrison’s Georgia troopers around Richmond. Upon their return, they confirmed Richmond was occupied by a Union force of the strength stated in the papers taken from Metcalfe’s jacket. Scott’s confidence was high, so he sent the Union commander in Richmond, Col. William H. Link, a surrender demand, which was promptly rejected. That document is now part of the holdings of the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.
Realizing that his cavalry without infantry was insufficient to take Richmond, Scott withdrew south of the Old State Road to a point between the top of Big Hill and the Rockcastle River. He then notified General Smith that he was awaiting further orders. That strategic withdrawal concluded the military action in Madison County on August 23 and effectively ended the separate and distinct Battle of Big Hill.
For more information about the Battle of Big Hill see:
General Edmund Kirby Smith C.S.A. by Joseph H. Parks;
Scott’s, Wallace’s, and Kendrick’s Reports in War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 16, Part 1; by United States. War Dept, Calvin Duvall, et. al.
When the Ripe Pears Fell by D. Warren Lambert; and
They Died by Twos and Tens by Kenneth A. Hafendorfer.
Related: The Battle of Richmond
Battle of Big Hill Reenactment
Text and map by Robert C. Moody, Friends of the Richmond Battlefield. Copyright 2008.
Battle of Big Hill Reenactment
For more information about the Battle of Big Hill
Civil War Reenactment, please call the Judge Executive's office at (606) 287-8562.
Confederate Commander at Battle of Big Hill
Col. John S. Scott was a native of Louisiana, where he raised a regiment of cavalry from the parishes north of New Orleans. His prior military service consisted of scout duty in Virginia. Scouts often donned enemy uniforms and reconnoitered behind lines. If caught, they were hung as spies. Often they were shot by their own pickets as they tried to return to their units. Scott was a fearless and daunting cavalry leader. This persona was evident at the Battle of Big Hill. His later encirclement of the Union Army at Richmond on August 30, 1862, resulted in its capture. Scott was continually embroiled with colleagues over assignments and commands. Once he was arrested by Gen. Braxton Bragg for insubordination. Scott’s unit performed well in later Civil War encounters.
Union Commander at Battle of Big Hill
Col. Leonidas K. Metcalfe of Nicholas County participated in the Mexican War in 1847 as a captain of Kentucky Volunteers. Based on that honorable service, he was asked in 1862 by his friend, Gen. “Bull” Nelson, to raise a regiment from his area to defend the Confederate invasion of Kentucky. His regiment became the Seventh Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry – to serve three years from August 16, 1862. Metcalfe was made the colonel and first commander of the regiment. After the regiment’s disastrous inaugural performance at the Battle of Big Hill on August 23, continuing at Richmond on August 30, Metcalfe left the U.S. Service. Some records show he resigned, while others show his commission was revoked or cancelled on August 30. Whatever the case, his two weeks of U.S. volunteer service with untrained cavalry were certainly uneventful.