Bardstown is located in the center of Nelson County, Kentucky. Today, it is most famous for its bourbon and is often referred to as the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” However, in July 1863, the town was in the direct path of Morgan’s Raiders.
Union Lieutenant Thomas W. Sullivan of the 4th U.S. Cavalry had just 25 men in his company when they spotted the small group from Morgan’s Advance Guard, just six miles outside of Bardstown. Unknown to Sullivan at the time, Morgan’s main force ranged in the area, spanning over the countryside of three Kentucky Counties: Marion, Washington, and Nelson.
Sullivan and his men routed the small group of Confederates, only halting once they arrived in Bardstown. There, on July 5, he received information that the town had been surrounded by 300-400 of Morgan’s cavalry. The small Union force hastily began preparing for an inevitable battle, taking possession of a large livery stable and erecting small breastworks using planks and horse manure. The Federals also purchased provisions that they hoped would last as long as their ammunition.
By 11:30am several hundred Confederates of Company C, 2nd Kentucky had trapped Sullivan and his Yankees in Bardstown from three different directions. After the first attack failed, the Confederate leader, Captain Ralph Sheldon, sent a flag of truce, demanding the full surrender of the Union forces. Sullivan politely declined, and the fighting quickly resumed. The battle raged on well into the evening and the following morning.
Captain Sheldon again sent a flag of truce around 4:00am on July 6, 1863, requesting the surrender of the makeshift Federal garrison, though this time he quickly used the threat of another attack stating: “If you refuse, we will blow you to hell, with our artillery.” Sullivan remained undeterred replying, that it is “our duty to trouble him [General Morgan] a little longer.” Almost immediately, the fight commenced once again. Sullivan remained steadfast that he would hold out as long as possible.
Unfortunately, his resolve was short lived as he received word that the Confederates had arrived with four pieces of artillery and positioned only about 100 yards from the stable he and his men occupied. Compounding the situation came the reports that the few hundred Confederates who he had encountered the day before had grown expeditiously. The Rebel enemy now filled the streets in all directions.
Realizing that there were no options left, Sullivan left the stables under a flag of truce and approached Confederate Colonel Richard Morgan (General John Morgan’s brother) intent on surrendering his force. Richard, having none of it and seemingly insulted by Sullivan’s action, yelled to the Yankee he had been offered a truce for surrender twice and refused. Richard Morgan ordered his men to force Sullivan back to the stable, wanting to retain control of the situation.
Only minutes later, a Confederate rode into the stable under yet another flag of truce demanding an unconditional surrender. Sullivan agreed immediately and informed the Rebel that he had already laid down his arms and would accept whatever fate had in store. Perhaps merely annoyed with the situation Sullivan caused by his refusal to accept the surrender terms earlier, Colonel Morgan, assured Sullivan that he would be treated as a prisoner of war though he “did not deserve it on account of [his] foolish and stubborn resistance.”
General John Morgan would later compliment, albeit unenthusiastically, saying: “You twenty- five damned Yankees have cost me twenty-four hours.” General Morgan and his men, though delayed, continued north.
Confederate Colonel Alston, however, trailed further behind the rest of the raiders during the night of July 5. He had stayed behind near Springfield, Kentucky to help in paroling the union prisoners. As he arrived in Bardstown, he expected to find the bulk of Morgan’s forces. Instead, he discovered the 9th Michigan cavalry under command of Lt. Ladd. Alston and his men found themselves taken prisoners and in custody of Ladd’s Michigan troopers.
Shortly after, Ladd released him, under the pretense that Alston and his men surrendered themselves at the nearest Federal military post. Alston, a man of honor, contacted Morgan, explaining the previous day’s events. Though Morgan ordered him to return to his ranks, Alston did not. After releasing his men, he rode to Lexington and promptly surrendered himself to General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside confirmed that under the laws of war, Alston’s parole was invalid, and there had been no reason to turn himself in, other than to keep his word to Ladd. Unfortunately, now that the Union had “captured” the lieutenant, Burnside could not release him and instead placed him under arrest and sent him to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio.
While the events in Bardstown occurred, the majority of the Confederate raiders were further south, in Lebanon, Kentucky. There, Morgan would suffer perhaps the most devastating loss of the raid.
To be continued…