“This is the 4th of July and our National Anniversary. We are firing a Salute from our 22 guns. We have fired two salutes, one this morning, one at noon and we will fire the other at sundown this evening. It is very pretty to see the bright curling smoke as it ascends up from the guns on the heights of the Cumberland Mountain from down here in this beautiful valley.”
Maj. Elisha B. Treadway
One hundred fifty years ago this Fourth of July, my great great great grandfather, Captain (later Major) Elisha B. Treadway, wrote those words in a letter addressed to “My Dear Wife and Children,” from a location he identified only as the Cumberland Gap. He served as commander of the fighting unit he had organized as Company A, of the 7th Kentucky Volunteer Union Infantry from among his friends and family in Owsley County. The unit had been grouped, along with the other three companies that comprised the 7th Kentucky Volunteers, under the command of Colonel, later Brigadier General, Theophilus T. Garrard. One of Capt. Treadway’s sons later described them as a group of “six footers,” all seasoned outdoorsmen. Having grown up in Owsley County in the mid-1800s, they were no doubt a tough bunch. Capt. Treadway was no stranger to military service, having served 20 years earlier as a young lieutenant in the Mexican War.
I would imagine that in those days, troops of volunteer infantry elected their officers. Certainly Capt. Treadway had experience with elections; he had been elected sheriff of Owsley County just before the war broke out and would hold local elected offices most of his life, including a couple of hitches in the General Assembly. In those days, political affiliation usually signaled one’s affiliation during the Civil War. Capt. Treadway was, as I often say today, a charter member of the Republican Party, at a time when it really was the party of Lincoln. Owsley County was rather a hotbed of Unionist activity in Kentucky, a state whose more economically prosperous regions, such as the Bluegrass, tended to favor the Lost Cause. I often remind my liberal Central Kentucky friends, who poo poo the mountains, that Lexington’s great Civil War hero, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, attacked my home county, in a guerrilla raid on what were thought to be Union stores at Proctor, a town laid out on the side of a hill in Lee County, across the river from Beattyville.
Capt. Treadway knew that their Fourth of July celebration might well not last:
“We would enjoy the Salute much more but we had a Telegraphic Dispatch today announcing that Gen. McClellan had retreated thirty five miles and had [lost] one gun and burned 75 wagons of his Train to keep the Rebels from getting them. But that he had checked the Enemy and had them retreating. The report is that the Enemy lost considerably more than we did but I have fears that it is bad enough at the best.”
As the Fourth of July, 1862, dawned, Capt. Treadway had already figured out that the War, then almost a year old, was going to be a long, hard one, and he advised his wife not to expect him home any time soon:
“I do want to see you all very bad and if any chance comes that I can get off I will come and pay you all a flying visit. If you can sell any or all of your stock off for money or good cash notes well secured it would be well for you to do it, for I do not know when this war will end. Even if it does end in a few months I can again buy more stock for the farm and it will greatly relieve you. I want you to do what you think best about all that you wish to, for my return is very uncertain. I may return in a month and I may not return in six months for there is no knowing when this War will end. But I hope it will be honorably ended soon.”
The War was not “honorably ended soon.” Capt. Treadway’s unit was sent west, to serve under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, as he rolled up one Confederate garrison after another. Capt. Treadway is listed as one of the Union commanders in the Siege of Vicksburg, a town he described in another letter as being laid out on worse ground than Proctor. Capt. Treadway saw his share of action in the West; another of his sons, writing for a family history published in 1930, claimed that Capt. Treadway had been “wounded seven times, but only knocked down twice.” I have read letters from him with blood stains still on them a hundred years later.
By late 1864, after victory against the Confederacy seemed assured, Capt. Treadway was promoted to Major and transferred to the Kentucky Militia, where he commanded the Three Forks Battalion, one of the home guard battalions established by act of the Kentucky General Assembly. His unit’s duty was to defend southeastern Kentucky from the so-called bushwhackers, guerrilla units with little allegiance to either Union or Confederacy, who raided farms and businesses in Kentucky, from bases in Virginia.
Maj. Treadway had eight companies under his command as Battalion commander, and led a lively campaign against the bushwhackers. The unit was mustered out of existence on July 17, 1865, after the end of the War, despite Maj. Treadway’s letter to Kentucky Gov. Bramlett suggesting that three companies of his unit remain functional because, “We have not yet established civil courts or even yet put down all the guerrillas in the counties of Harlan, Perry, Breathitt, Letcher, etc. There are reported to be three bands of guerrillas in those counties under the command of `Smith’, `Osbern’ and Dan ‘Jones.’”
Maj. Treadway’s letters to his wife have become a valuable historical source for Civil War historians. For nearly a hundred years, they lay in an old paper bag in a bureau in the dining room of my family’s home in Lee County. Twenty five years ago, my family and I arranged for them to be copied and archived by the Kentucky Historical Society, where copies are available for use by researchers. I have been told by historians that they are among the largest continuous collections of letters from a junior officer – someone not famous – in the War. The letters have been quoted in recent Civil War works, including “When the Ripe Pears Fell: The Battle of Richmond, Kentucky,” by Dean W. Lambert.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, some of the Civil War re-enactors used to portray Capt. Treadway and his company in recreations of the Battles of Richmond and Perryville, and for other special events. I attended several of these, and seeing someone portray an ancestor of yours is a bit like seeing a ghost. The transcription of the letter I quote above is from a web site maintained by my Facebook friend Walter Wayne Fielder, an amateur Civil War historian with an academic interest in the 7th Kentucky Infantry.
As an amateur historian myself, I am always fascinated by the question why. Why did Maj. Treadway not only enlist in the Union Army, but serve as a leader, an officer, and a founder of his own company of troops? We tend to see the Civil War as a war to end slavery, but he – and I suspect most Unionists from Kentucky – didn’t place their focus on that idea. In his messages to his children, Cap. Treadway revealed his humanity, and the reason that he had enlisted:
“Tell Morgan that I want him to learn to write so that he can write his Papa a letter. Tell Laura that I would like to be at home and help her to eat the honey that you took and wrote me about and tell Dick that I would like to be in the yard and have a play with him in the Shady Grass for I know that he is wild. As for Philos you only kiss him for me, and if I should never return to see his strange little face, when he gets large enough and learns to read show him this letter and tell him his Father died in the defense of his Country and the Constitution.”
To Capt. Treadway, he was defending his country and the Constitution. And that’s all that was necessary. He survived the War, wounds and all, to become the Republican political leader of Owsley County, serving in a succession of public offices. He outlived his “Dear Wife,” Sarah “Sally” Eager Treadway, with whom he had six children, and remarried in 1873, to a woman 20 years younger than himself, Sophia Clark, who bore him five more. Maj. Treadway died in 1885, at the age of 61, only four years after the birth of his eleventh child.
The children he mentioned in the letter didn’t do badly, either. Maj. Treadway’s son Morgan Joseph Treadway, who served as a Captain himself in the Spanish American War, learned to write well enough to become a lawyer and served many years as County Attorney in Owsley County and a few years as Superintendant of Public Schools. He was universally known as “Captain Joe.” Maj. Treadway’s son, Dick, with whom his father missed playing “in the Shady Grass,” Decatur B. Treadway, went on to serve as County Judge in Garrard County.
The baby, Philos Stratton Treadway, whose “strange little face” Capt. Treadway feared he may never see again, was my great great grandfather. He also served in the Spanish American War, held numerous elected county posts, and ultimately entered the oil and gas business. By the time he died during World War II, his oil royalty statements were being printed on punch cards, used by the first generation of mechanical computers, and the oil that was pumped from his land was used to power machines unknown to his Civil War veteran father.
As we approach this Fourth of July, we should pause for a moment and thank those who have not only served in the military during wartime, but those who stayed behind, too. Every letter from a soldier not only had a writer, but it had a recipient as well. And one more thing. To me, that collection of Civil War letters in a bag in our bureau was a treasure trove, and its preservation for all those years probably owed more to luck than anything else. If your family has such a collection of letters, or any other historic material, you owe it to the rest of us to make it available to scholars and researchers, as my family has done. History is not just about famous people: It’s about the rest of us as well.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.