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Kentucky trip passes site of first death in battle

By Ned Jilton II • Jun 5, 2019 at 6:00 PM

I just got back from the American Battlefield Trust’s annual convention, held this year in Lexington, Kentucky. I spent a few days there walking the state’s Civil War battlefields, camps and cemeteries as well as a little time following in the footsteps of Daniel Boone.

In case you are wondering, the American Battlefield Trust is one of the leading historical preservation organizations in the country. Formerly known as the Civil War Trust, the group has expanded its mission to include the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and has saved more than 50,000 acres of historic land in our country, most of which is now part of our national parks.

According to Google Maps, as well as my step-sister Angie, the quickest way from Johnson City to Lexington is through Southwest Virginia and the Cumberland Gap rather than taking I-81 to Knoxville and catching I-75 to Lexington.

Not long after passing through the tunnel on the other side of the Cumberland Gap, I came to the city of Barbourville. The name struck a chord in my memory because it was here that the 19th Tennessee suffer its first death in battle.

On Sept. 18, 1861, Gen. Felix Zollicoffer sent toward Barbourville a detachment of about 800 men made up of two companies from each regiment in his brigade and a detachment of cavalry from Branner’s Battalion with Col. Joel Battle of the 20th Tennessee in overall command. Representing the 19th Tennessee were Company K, from Hawkins County, and Company B from Washington County.

First Lt. Robert Powel from Company K of the 19th Tennessee volunteered to ride ahead with the cavalry and act as an observer. Upon receiving permission, the 36-year-old attorney and former editor of the Rogersville newspaper borrowed a horse and rode out. Company K of the 19th Tennessee and Company B of the 20th Tennessee with Col. Battle moved out next with the rest of the detachment following.

Early the next morning near a bridge just outside of Barbourville the detachment ran into gun fire, not from Union soldiers but 300 Kentucky Home Guard under the command of Capt. Isaac J. Black. The guardsmen were in the process of removing the planking from the bridge in an effort to stop the approaching Confederate troops.

Company K of the 19th quickly deployed as skirmishers in a cornfield on one side of the road while Company B of the 20th deployed as skirmishers on the other side. The cavalry from Branner’s Battalion, with Lt. Powel, moved up the road toward the bridge to stop its destruction.

J.P. Coffin, who was a member of the cavalry detachment that day, later wrote of the attack at the bridge in a letter to Confederate Veteran Magazine.

“The approach to the bridge was through a lane with a high fence on either side, terminating at this bridge, which spanned a deep ravine, in which the enemy was posted under and on both sides of the bridge. When the front rank of the advance guard had gotten within about thirty steps of the bridge and saw in the early dawn that the floor had been taken up, they hesitated for a moment and just then the enemy gave us their first volley. Lt. Powel, who was riding at my right, fell forward and to his left, striking the neck of my horse and falling to the ground.”

Coffin and his fellow troopers spread out across the road and, along with the infantry skirmishers from the two companies, exchanged a brisk fire with the home guard. It was then that Col. Battle came up with a unique idea.

“Move out of the way boys,” Col. Battle yelled, “move out of the way and make way for the artillery.” Hearing the call for artillery, the remaining guardsmen fled from the bridge. The trick was that the detachment had brought no artillery. All of the cannons were back at the camp near the Cumberland Gap.

With the fighting ended, Coffin went back to check on the condition of Lt. Powel.

“When I returned to where Lt. Powel had fallen his body had been lifted to the side of the road, and the men who were with it said that he was dead when they first reached him. The body was taken back to Cumberland Gap, and I think removed to Rogersville, Tennessee, his home, for burial.”

“It was a mere skirmish,” the Rev. David Sullins from Blountville said later, “but made memorable by the fact that here we lost the first man out of the regiment, Robert Powel, 1st lieutenant of his company. He was our first soldier killed in battle. We sent his remains home — a sad business.”

Gen. Zollicoffer, in his daily report to Gen. Albert S. Johnston, noted, “An advanced force sent out last night, about 800 strong, entered Barbourville, 18 miles from here, about daylight, where they found about 300 of the enemy and a fight ensued, in which we killed 12 and took 2 prisoners. We lost one killed, Lt. Powel, of Colonel Cummings’ regiment, one fatally wounded and three slightly wounded. The enemy fled precipitately. Col. J.A. Battle commanded the detachment, making a march of 34 miles and dispersing this detachment of the enemy within a period of twenty hours.”

The Confederate Army had its first victory on Kentucky soil. Sadly, Lt. Powel was the first Confederate killed on Kentucky soil and the first killed outside of Virginia in the Western Theater of the war. He was transported home and buried in the family plot at the Old Cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church of Rogersville.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]