Sketch of the life of Brig. Gen. B. F. Kelley, 1862
-By Major John B. Frothingham, L. Prang & Company, 1862, 16 pages.
Sketch of the life of Brig. Gen. B. F. Kelley, 1862
-GEN. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN KELLEY was born on the 10th day of April, 1807, in the town of New Hampton, in the_ State of New Hampshire, and is descended from two of the most worthy and distinguished families of that State ; his father having been the late Col. William B. Kelley, of New Hampton, and his mother a daughter of Judge Ebenezer Smith, of the town of Meredith — his mother’s family having been particularly prominent in the early history of the State.
Though a Virginian, by adoption, New Hump shire can, therefore, claim him as her son; and, while this State with honest pride, includes in the long list of illustrious names which she has contributed to history that of the Great Expounder of the Constitution, she can now with equal pride add to her distinguished roll the name of Benjamin Franklin Kelley as one of the ablest and most valiant defenders of‘ that Constitution on the battle-field, when its very existence was imperilled by an armed rebellion, seeking its overthrow.
In early life, the subject of this sketch evinced great fondness for military pursuits, and while yet a boy he raised an artillery company in his native town, composed of boys between the ages of twelve and fifteen years, of which company he was elected Captain. So strong were his tastes for military life, and so marked his talents in that direction, that he was when quite young sent to a military school, with a view to preparing him for a more extended course of military education at West Point; but his father dying in the year 1823, the plans for his further military education were frustrated, and it was determined that he should engage in mercantile pursuits.
Agreeably to this decision he soon after went to Boston, where he obtained a situation in the count ing~house of the late John K. Simpson, of that city, in whose employ he remained for the period of two years.
In the summer of 1826 he emigrated to Virginia, where he had a brother residing, and in company with whom he was engaged in merchandising, in the city of Wheeling, for about two years. This connection being then dissolved by the death of his brother, he made an engagement with Mr. John Goshorn, an old and wealthy merchant of Wheeling, with whom he lived in the capacity of a clerk for a period of two years ; at the expiration of which time, his industry, urbanity, and integrity had so won the respect and esteem of his employer, that he was taken into partnership, and continued in this relation for many years afterward.
In 1832 Mr. Kelley was married to Miss Mary King, a daughter of William B. King, Esq., of Berkley County, Virginia. He was, however, destined soon to experience a severe domestic affliction in the loss of his youthful wife, who fell a victim to the cholera in the following year, leaving one child, which survived its mother only about two years.
In 1835 he was married a second time, to Miss Goshorn, the daughter of his partner in business, by whom he has six children —four sons and two daughters—now living, out of which family he has contributed three sons to the service of his country; his eldest son, J. G. Kelley, being now the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 7th Virginia Regiment of Volunteers; his second son, W. B. Kelley, being a. Lien tenant in the 1st Virginia. Regiment of Volunteers, and now occupying a position as Aide-de-camp upon the General’s staff; while his third son is engaged in the Quartermaster’s department of the army.
In the year 1846, in consequence of a severe attack of erysipelas in the head, his wife gave evidence of approaching insanity; and it was in consideration of her condition at this time, and the increased family cares which it imposed upon him, that Col. Kelley was induced to abandon his cherished purpose of raising a regiment, and going to Mexico. This he had designed doing, at the breaking out of hostilities between our government and' Mexico; and the people of Western Virginia, confiding in his talents and patriotism, had with great unanimity recommended him to the State ExecKing, a daughter of William B. King, Esq., of Berkley County, Virginia. He was, however, destined soon to experience a severe domestic affliction in the loss of his youthful wife, who fell a victim to the cholera in the following year, leaving one child, which survived‘its mother only about two years. In 1835 he was married a. second time, to Miss Goshorn, the daughter of his partner in business, by whom he has six children -—four sons and two daughters— now living, out of which family he has contributed three sons to the service of his country; his eldest son, J. G. Kelley, being now the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 7th Virginia Regiment of Volunteers; his second son, W. B. Kelley, being a. Lien tenant in the 1st Virginia. Regiment of Volunteers, and now occupying a position as Aide-de-camp upon the General’s staff; while his third son is engaged in the Quartermaster’s department of the army. In the year 1846, in consequence of a severe attack of erysipelas in the head, his wife gave evidence of approaching insanity; and it was in consideration of her condition at this time, and the increased family cares which it imposed upon him, that Col. Kelley was induced to abandon his cherished purpose of raising a regiment, and going to Mexico. This he had designed doing, at the breaking out of hostilities between our government and' Mexico; and the people of Western Virginia, confiding in his talents and patriotism, had with great unanimity recommended him to the State Executive for appointment to the Colonelcy of the regiment which was to be sent to the war.
In the year 1850 the malady of his wife having increased to such an extent as to require the treatment and discipline of a hospital, she was taken to Philadelphia, and placed in the Pennsylvania Insane Asylum, of which she remained ‘an inmate till her decease, which occurred in the year 1860. In order to be near his wife during her unhappy illness, and that he might by his own presence and that of his children administer to her comfort and soothe her affliction, be removed with his family to Philadelphia in the year 1851.
Shortly after his removal thither, he was appointed Freight Agent of the Baltimore Ohio, and Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad Companies, for this great emporium, which position he held till the breaking out of the present rebellion, when he resigned this office to enter the service of his country.
During the period of his residence in Philadelphia, Col. Kelley won to a remarkable extent the respect and esteem of that community, his integrity, courtesy, and superior business qualifications commending and endearing him to all with whom he came in contact.
For many years prior to leaving Wheeling, Col. Kelley had been in command of a regiment of volunteers raised in that section of the State, and had devoted much time and attention to military matters. In tactics and military science he displayed great genius, and was generally considered a highly accomplished and skilful officer.
Of incompatible patriotism, and possessed of a foresight which revealed to him the inevitable consequences of Secession, he, upon the first outbreak of rebellion, urged upon Western Virginia the duty of immediately arming, and of taking her position openly and unequivocally in favor of the Union, advocating these views in numerous letters addressed by him at the time to citizens of various counties bordering on the Ohio River; and it is in no small measure to his influence over a people confiding implicitly in his judgment and integrity, that the early loyalty of Western Virginia is attributable.
When the first regiment was raised in Western Virginia for the defence of the National Government, and it became necessary to determine who should be its commander, it was soon ascertained to be the unanimous wish of both the officers and privates of the regiment, as well as of the loyal citizens of Wheeling, that Col. Kelley should be appointed to the command. Thus designated by the united voice of both soldiers and citizens, a telegram was despatched to Col. Kelley, then in Philadelphia, requesting him to return to his former home, and take command of the regiment. This telegram was received by Col. Kelley, on the night of the 22d day of May; and, shrinking from no personal consequences, but anxious only for his country’s welfare, and trembling only for her safety in this her hour of peril, he at once telegraphed an acceptance of the honorable but dangerous trust; and, on the morning of the following day he left Philadelphia for his adopted State, there to cast his lot with that little band of patriots who, resisting both the seductive influences and terrorism of the secession movement, still adhered to that Union established by the wisdom and cemented with the blood of their fathers.
Arriving at Wheeling on the 24th day of May, he at once assumed command of the regiment; and being perfectly familiar with the country, and aware of the distracted and defenceless condition of its population, he though poorly prepared for offensive operations, determined to make an immediate movement on the rebel troops then concentrated and recruiting in that section of the State.
At this time his regiment had neither tents, camp equipage, baggage-wagons, haversacks, cartridge boxes, canteens, nor any other articles of outfit essential to the comfort and efficiency of troops, with the exception of their arms, and ammunition carried in their pockets. It was also virtually without stores and subsistence.
In this condition Col. Kelley with his gallant regiment left Camp Carlisle, at Wheeling, on the morning of the 27th day of May, and arrived on the evening of the same day at Buffalo Creek, in Marion County, where he found that two large bridges had been destroyed by the rebels for the purpose of impeding his march. With untiring energy he immediately entered upon the work of reconstructing these bridges; and, aided by a large number of mechanics and railroad employees who were enlisted in his regiment, he in less than three days had accomplished the task of rebuilding the bridges and relaying the railroad track so as to cross the stream with the trains conveying his troops. And on the 30th day of May, having overcome all the obstacles in the way of his progress, he entered the town of Grafton, one hundred miles distant from Wheeling, which had been for some time previous in the possession of the rebel troops,— but which place, fleeing before his irresistible advance, they had evacuated the night before.
After their flight from Grafton, the rebels again concentrated a force of about two thousand strong at Phillippi, a small town situated about sixteen miles south-westerly from Grafton, against which force an expedition was immediately planned and organized by Col. Kelley, who had perfected his arrangements for an advance movement on the 1st day of June, but in consequence of the arrival of Gen. Morris on that day, and his assumption of the command of the forces concentrated at Grafton and in that vicinity, the departure of the expedition was delayed till the following day.
This expedition, as planned by Col. Kelley, and as finally organized by Gen. McClellan, consisted of two divisions of troops, one of which was placed under the command of Col. Kelley, and the other under the command of Col. (now Brig-Gen.) Dumont. Col. Kelley’s division was composed of his own (the 1st Virginia) regiment, a part of the 16th Ohio Regiment, commanded by Col. Irwin, and a part of the 9th Indiana Regiment, commanded by Col. (now Brig-Gen.) Milroy; while Col. Dumont’s division was composed of his own (the 7th Indiana) regiment, a part of the 14th Ohio Regiment, commanded by Col. Steadman, a part of the 6th Indiana regiment, commanded by Col. Crittenden, and a detachment of Ohio Artillery, commanded by Lieut.-Col. Sturgis, this division being accompanied and directed by the brave and lamented Col. (afterwards Brig-Gen.) F. W. Lander, then acting as a volunteer aide upon Gen. McClellan’s staff.
These divisions, which were to approach Phillippi by converging routes, left Grafton in the early part of the afternoon of the 2d day of June, Col. Kelley’s division moving easterly by railroad to Thornton Station, whence by a march of twenty-two miles, he designed to reach the Beverly Turnpike, and to enter the town upon its southerly side; while Col. Dumont’s division concentrated at Webster Station, four miles westerly from Grafton, whence, .by a march of twelve miles, it was to approach the town upon its northerly side.
By this arrangement, the important duty of intercepting the retreat of the rebel army, and, therefore, of overcoming its most determined resistance, was entrusted to Col. Kelley,—who had already displayed great gallantry and energy, by his unexampled advance upon Grafton, — while nearly double the length of march was imposed upon his troops.
The day on which the expedition left Grafton, was exceedingly hot, and was succeeded by a night of excessive darkness and storm, making the march one of great hardship and fatigue. Inspired, however with the resolution and energy of their brave and determined commander, Col. Kelley’s troops, though exposed to a pitiless storm, and compelled to grope their way through the thick darkness, toiled on all night over their rough and slippery road, and the gray dawn of the following morning found them in the neighborhood of the enemy’s camp. Before Col. Kelley’s column could, however, reach its designated position, for intercepting the retreat of the rebel army, Col. Dumont’s division, which had a march of much less distance to perform, reached the heights upon the westerly side of the river, overlooking the rebel camp, and commenced the attack with their artillery.
Finding the battle thus prematurely begun, Col. Kelley, seizing upon the only opportunity now presented to bring his division into action, ordered his troops to advance over the ridge intervening between him and the enemy’s camp, and opened a musketry fire upon the rebel troops then forming in line of battle. Surprised and panic-stricken by this sudden and impetuous attack upon their flank, the rebels immediately broke from their half-formed ranks, and fled precipitately from their camp, scattering in the wildest confusion in every direction, and seeking safety in rapidity of flight.
The circumstances of the attack were now such, however, that it was impossible to accomplish the full objects of the expedition,—the capture of the entire rebel force,—though by the Colonel’s hot pursuit, fifteen of the scattered fugitives were killed, and a large number taken prisoners. In their wild flight for their lives, and to escape capture, the rebels were, however, compelled to abandon to the victors all of their camp property and stores, —even to a large portion of their arms and private clothing—and thus a great quantity of provisions, ammunition, and camp equipage, together with many horses and over four hundred stand of arms, fell into the hands of the Federal troops.
The victory was brilliant and complete, though dearly purchased; for Col. Kelley, while urging his wearied troops on to the pursuit, and while bravely riding at the head of his column, was shot through the right breast, and severely wounded. Regardless of his wound, however, this heroic officer continued to lead his advancing column until, fainting from loss of blood, he fell into the arms of his devoted soldiers, and was carried off the field. This wound was supposed at the time to be mortal, - and the melancholy event elicited the most touching and unfeigned expressions of sorrow from all about him, as also from the loyal population of Western Virginia, and the entire North. The battle which he had won was the first battle of the war, and he l had fallen—one of the earliest victims of the strife —a noble sacrifice to his patriotic devotion to his country.
Although a comparatively small affair in itself, the effect of this action upon the country at the time was most wonderful. The news of the battle, and of the fall of the commander, electrified the people of the loyal States; and everywhere, with one accord, the patriotic citizen soldiers rushed to the standard of their imperilled country. As soon as the intelligence of the battle, and of the fall of Col. Kelley reached Gen. McClellan, then at Cincinnati, and Gen. Morris, then commanding at Grafton, the following despatches were forwarded from each of these officers to the wounded hero:—
“Cincinnati, June 3, 1861.
“ To GEN. T. A. Morris,—
“ Say to Col. Kelley that I cannot believe it possible that one who has opened his career so brilliantly can be mortally wounded. In the name of the country I thank him for his conduct, which has been the most brilliant episode of the war thus far. if it can cheer him in his last moments, tell him I cannot repair his loss, and that I only regret that I cannot be by his side to thank him in person. God bless him.
G. B. McCLELLAN.”
“Grafton, June 3, 1861.
To COL. KELLEY,—
“I am extremely pleased, and greatly gratified: your gallant and soldierly conduct in the expedition which owes its success to your gallant conduct. I feel that your country owes you a deep debt of gratitude for your services on the occasion, and a grateful people cannot but render you that honor which you so richly deserve.
“T. A. Morris.
When these despatches were read to the wounded hero, it is said that a faint modest smile of grateful recognition passed over his pale wasted face, and his eyes filled with tears, but he was too weak to utter a word in reply.
Nor was this high appreciation of Col. Kelley, as a man and a soldier, confined to his superior officers, or to those who, from intimate association with him, were best qualified to understand his noble character and real worth. The officers and privates of his entire command thronged the sentry outposts of the house in which he lay, anxious to hear the latest reports of his condition. Their solicitude exceeded that of mere friendship; it was that of love and devotion.
Purer patriotism or higher qualities of manhood were never evinced, than were exhibited by Col. Kelley after he was wounded—and mortally wounded, as he and those around him supposed. He had but one thought and one conversation, and that was of his regret that he could not have lived to serve the glorious cause in which he had enlisted. Addressing a friend who stood beside his couch on the day he was wounded, and when his death was anticipated at any moment, he said, “ I expect that I shall have to die. I should be glad to live, if it might be, that I might do something for my country; but if it cannot be, I shall have at least the consolation of knowing that I fall in a just cause.”
It is in vain that we search either the truthful records of history, or the glowing page of romance, for an expression of more heroic virtue, or deeper devotion to country, than this. It breathes the spirit which animated those immortal heroes of the past, who, while offering up their lives upon the battle-field and quarter-deck, devoted their latest thought and utterance to their country and the cause for which they had fought and died.
But the strong constitution, supported by the indomitable will of Col. Kelley, and aided by high medical skill and the constant attentions of a devoted daughter, withstood even the terrible sufferings of a wound supposed to be mortal, and in the early part of August he had so far recovered as to be able to take command of the troops stationed along the lines of the Baltimore & Ohio and the North-Western Virginia Railroads, having in the mean time been appointed a Brigadier-General of Volunteers for the war. His promotion to this rank, which was made in consideration of his dis tinguished services at Phillippi, and upon the ear nest recommendation of Gen. McClellan,--then commanding the department in which he was placed,—and that of the State Legislature then in session at Wheeling, was one of the first appointments of the kind made in the army—his commission bearing the early date of May 17th, 1861.
This appointment was received with universal approbation by the loyal people of his own State, and by the entire North, whose attention had been attracted by the brilliancy of his opening career, and was regarded as but a just and proper tribute to his bravery, patriotism, and fine soldierly qualities. Of the estimation in which he was held by Gen. McClellan, his chief, we can give no better description than by quoting a few passages from an autograph letter addressed to him by Gen. McClellan in the latter part of June, at the time he (Gen. McClel lan) was organizing his expedition against the rebel General Garnett, which was crowned with such brilliant success in the victory over that General at Rich Mountain. He says:
* * * “I have been much delayed by the steps necessary to secure supplies. You can appreciate the difficulty. My wish has been not to move until prepared, and then to move as you did on Phillippi. I do not know how to express more fully my idea of energy. I have given orders to provide for your gallant regiment.
“Sir, you must get well. General, I need you as soon as possible.”
After disclosing to General Kelley his plan for future operations,—which was to continue his advance through South-Western Virginia into East Tennessee, and take possession of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, thereby driving a dividing wedge into the very heart of the rebellious territory, —Gen. McClellan adds, * * * “There is ample room for work down there, — ample ground on which to increase the glory of the unequalled march from Wheeling to Phillippi. I want Kelley with me there.”
Gen. Kelley, whose feeble health confined him to his room during a considerable portion of the time, remained at Grafton in command of the forces distributed upon the railroad lines till the latter part of October, when he led a successful expedition against the rebel troops concentrated at the town of Romney, the county-seat of Hampshire County, and a strategic point of great importance to the rebels, in conducting their guerilla warfare in Northern Virginia. During the period of his command at Grafton, he had, however, driven the rebel guerillas from that entire portion of the State, and had restored peaceful order and quiet to the population.
In his brilliant victory over the rebels at Rom ney, Gen. Kelley again displayed in a most striking manner his remarkable qualities as a military commander. Advancing to this attack as upon Phillippi, in two divisions, and by converging routes, he, on the night of the 25th of October, left New Creek Station at the head of a column of about two thousand men—composed of the 4th Ohio Regiment, commanded by Col. Mason; the 8th Ohio Regiment, commanded by Col. De Pay; the 7th Virginia Regiment, commanded by Lieut.-Col. Kelley; two companies of the 3d Virginia Regiment, under Major Swearingen; two companies of cavalry — the Ringgold Cavalry, Capt. Keys, and the Kelley Lancers, Capt. McGee, and a section of artillery, under command of Lieut. Jenks.
With this force it was Gen. Kelley’s design to attack the main position of the rebel troops upon the west side of the town, while the other column, consisting of about eight hundred men, from the 2d Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, under command of Col. Johns, advancing from Patterson’s Creek Station, and approaching the town upon its northern side, was to make a simultaneous attack upon the flank of the rebel position.
This skilfully devised plan was, however, deranged by the failure of the column moving' from Patterson’s Creek Station, to reach its destination; and the entire battle was, therefore, fought and won by the column commanded by Gen. Kelley in person.
Upon reaching the south branch of the Potomac River, which flows upon the westerly side of the town of Romney, Gen. Kelley found the rebel troops posted in a very strong position upon the east bank of the river, and prepared with artillery and intrenchments to dispute his passage of the stream.
A severe artillery battle was immediately commenced between the hostile forces, which lasted nearly an hour, when Gen. Kelley forcing a passage of the river and making an impetuous charge upon their position, the rebel troops unable longer to resist so determined an attack, commenced a precipitate retreat, rushing in disordered mass through the town, and scattering in every direction over the adjacent hills and mountain sides.
The victory was complete, and brilliantly won; and although a large portion of the routed rebels succeeded in effecting their escape,— being lighter footed than Gen. Kelley’s wearied troops, who were already exhausted by the fatigues of battle and of a previous forced march of twenty-five miles,— all of their artillery, ammunition, camp equipage, and stores of every kind fell into our hands ; while by the defeat and dispersion of this force, a vast extent of territory was rescued from rebel dominion.
It was Gen. Kelley’s design and expectation, to have followed up this brilliant success at Romney by an advance upon Winchester, thereby opening the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and delivering Northern Virginia from rebel control; but the War Department failing to reinforce him sufficiently for further offensive operations, he was obliged to confine himself to the task of opening and defending the railroad line as far easterly as Hancock, Maryland, and to the warfare necessary to the maintenance of his advanced position, which, though constantly exposed to attack, and several times seriously menaced, he continued to hold as long as he retained command of the division.
Being at this time, however, in very feeble health, and the cares and anxieties of his command being regarded by his medical advisers as a serious if not insurmountable obstacle to his recovery, he was finally compelled to ask to be relieved of his com- . mand, and was consequently succeeded by Gen. Lander in the early part of the following January. Before leaving his command, however, he made a very brilliant and successful movement against a force of two thousand rebels concentrated at Blue’s Gap, sixteen miles east of Romney, completely routing them from their position, and capturing their camp and artillery.
By this skilful manœuvre, he induced the rebel Gen. Jackson,— who, with a force of sixteen thousand men was besieging the town of Hancock, then heroically defended by Gen. Lander,— to abandon the siege of that place, and fall back from his position, thereby saving that place from capture, and averting other disasters which would have resulted from Gen. Jackson’s further advance at that time.
After being relieved of his command, Gen. Kelley remained inactive and under medical treatment for about two months, at the expiration of which period his efforts for the restoration of his health had been so far successful that he was enabled to again take the field; and, on the 1st day of April, 1862, he was appointed to the command of the Railroad District, in the Mountain Department, which command he still retains.
In person Gen. Kelley is tall and of commanding presence, with a countenance expressive of kindness and benevolence, as well as of firmness and decision of character. He is a warm friend and an affectionate parent, and unites most happily in his remarkable organization the stern qualities of a brave and accomplished soldier with the refined tastes, delicate perceptions, and high sense of honor which attach to a natural and accomplished gentleman.