The Murder of James Bates and the Battle of Cranesnest


By Patty Brashear, Ben Luntz and Roe Wright


Copyright 2010


      The brutal torture and murder of James Bates during the Civil War left an indelible mark on the emotions and memories of his descendants. Like so many other families in Eastern Kentucky, both Union and Rebel, with memories of similar tragic events from the Civil War, the murder of James Bates is still remembered down to the present day. The three authors of this article are all direct descendants of James Bates, and we have combined information from three different lines of descent from James Bates to write this article. One line descends from Nancy Bates, another from Lettie Bates, and the third line is from Martha Bates. Martha, Lettie and Nancy were all daughters of Elizabeth Adams Bates and her husband, James Bates.  Martha Bates is the direct ancestor of the well-known quarterback, Tim Couch, who played at the University of Kentucky and also as a professional football player for the Browns.


     We intend here to give a more accurate account of what happened to James Bates. While we will never know all of the details, we hope to lay out as much of the detail that is known within our various families as we can. Our hope is to add to and to correct several inaccurate statements on some web sites. The content of these sites, in regard to James Bates’ death and the actions taken to avenge it, are all good faith efforts at writing up descriptions of some Letcher County events that happened during the Civil War. Our comments, additions and corrections to some of the content on some of these sites is in no way a criticism of these sites, and we greatly appreciate the fact that these different sites took the time, and cared enough to make the effort to write about these events. Since our information has not been posted or made public to any great extent, there is no reason anyone other than us would have known about the information. These details about the murder of James Bates are oral history passed down through our respective lines. We appreciate very much the openness and generosity that people in Martha Bates’ line have shown in giving us so much of their version of events that were passed down to them.


The Murder of James Bates     


    James Bates, who was a brother to the giant, Martin Van Buren Bates, had the reputation of being a good and honest man. He was well thought of throughout his community and was highly respected.  His father came from a prominent and well-to-do Virginia family that owned considerable property and slaves. The ownership of slaves did not pass to James and most of his brothers. In fact, James and his immediate family believed that slavery was sinful. His support for the Confederacy was due to his support for the Democratic Party. Locally, the fear by many Democrats that Republicans were going to force their way into controlling the local and federal government, and the fear by many the Republicans that the Democrats were going to do the same, were the primary motivations as to which side, Democrat or Republican, to fight for.  The Bates family was known for its knowledge and skill of cattle and horse breeding and it was this area of expertise that eventually led to the death of James Bates.


      James Bates was murdered during the Civil War by Union home guards. Not one of these men was ever identified by James Bates’ survivors because no one recognized any of them. Other than being Union home guards, nothing was known about their specific identities. There is no mention in the various family sources that any of them were local men, although this may well have been the case. From Martha Bates’ line the date of James Bates’ murder was passed down as April 11,1864.  From service records and the lines of Lettie and Nancy Bates we get the following details. James Bates had fulfilled his year of service in the fifth Kentucky Mounted Infantry CSA at the end of 1862 and had left the official army on furlough in order to procure horses for the Confederate Army. It is likely that his brother, Jesse Bates, was involved in this enterprise. Also present at home at the time of James Bates’ murder was his son, Henry Bates. Henry Bates had served in French’s Battalion, Virginia Infantry, Company A, the same unit as his uncles, Robert Bates and Martin Van Buren Bates, and his cousin, Bad John Wright. French’s Battalion was also known as the 7th Battalion. Henry Bates was captured the same time as his Uncle Martin Bates and Uncle Robert Bates in Piketon (now Pikeville) during April of 1863. Henry and the giant were exchanged and freed during May of 1863. At some point after this, Henry Bates was either furloughed or allowed to take a leave of absence because he was at or near his father’s farm when his father was murdered. The Union home guards first approached Jesse Bates’ farm and attempted to capture him. Aware of their approach he successfully escaped. (Jesse Bates’ farm was located about a mile up Millstone Creek from James Bates’ farm.) The Union home guards then headed toward James Bates’ farm. During that approach they encountered James Bates’ son, Henry C. Bates, and attempted to capture him.  Henry Bates managed to escape but was shot in the process. He would be lame from this wound for the rest of his life.  Just after shooting Henry Bates the home guards made their way to James Bates’ farm, which must have been some distance away because James Bates was unaware of their approach until they were upon him. He was shot while he was standing and working on the small piece of bottom land he had on his farm. He was gathering in the wheat harvest that had already been cut. He was tying the remaining wheat in bundles when the home guards appeared. (He had finished just over three score bundles.) He had been working for some time so that it was probably at least noon or just afterwards.  After being shot by the home guards in the field he was then dragged by them over to the front of his home. There, they made the family come out the cabin, and with James forced down on his knees, the home guards began to torture him in front of his family. This brutality was not arbitrary but was inflicted with a purpose, the purpose of which was to make either James Bates or someone in his family talk and tell the home guards the information they were seeking.  From Lettie Bates’ line it was passed down that the information the home guards wanted was the location of the horses James Bates had obtained for the Confederacy. From Martha Bates’ line the information the home guards wanted was the location of the gold James Bates used for buying the horses. While these two accounts differ, they are not really contradictory in that it is likely the home guards were after both the horses and the gold needed to purchase the horses. It was just that one daughter remembered the threats about the horses and another daughter remembered the threats about the gold. From Lettie Bates’ line comes some description of how the family was forced to watch while the Union home guards jabbed at and tortured James Bates with bayonets. While the home guards terrorized and mishandled James Bates’ wife and daughters, they did not rape, physically torture or kill them. The goal in torturing James Bates was to either make him, or one of his family talk. For this very reason family members were often not told were valuables were kept and this was apparently the case in this incident. James Bates never talked and was murdered. The home guards left soon after he died. At this point the story becomes vague. There was mention of the giant, Martin Van Buren Bates, and other Confederates going after the home guards and killing some of them, but where this happened, who these home guards were, and how many were caught and killed, was never mentioned.


     The date of James Bates’ death, April 11, 1964, given by Martha Bates’ family, would seem to be too early for the harvesting of wheat. (There is winter wheat and spring wheat, so it could be around either one of these harvest times.) The actual date may have been more like August of 1863 or August of 1864. Another reason for considering the month of August is that the Battle of Cranesnest occurred during November of 1863 or 1864.


Below are several short statements about the murder of James Bates from a variety of sources.


Source: Martha Bates’ line

     James Bates died April 11, 1864.

Source: Essie Quillen

    James Bates killed by carpetbaggers while down on his knees.  He was buried in Kona.

Source: Nick Wright

     James Bates killed by Union soldiers while down on his knees and was then taken from Millstone to Camp Branch.

Source: possibly Curly Johnson

      James Bates was home cribbing corn when he was killed by Union home guards.

Source: From discussion between Herman Bates and Aunt Etta Wright. (Both Herman and Etta were descendants of James Bates

     Herman told Etta that the family didn’t care enough to go get James’ body after his killers had thrown his body into a hog pen.


Comment on this last account. 


    It isn’t clear who Herman Bates was referring to here when he spoke of James’ family who didn’t care enough to get James’ body out of the hog pen. He may have been saying this just to upset Etta for some reason. James Bates’ wife was probably too devastated to do anything about retrieving the body, and his daughters were still young girls at this point. Since all of them were in the middle of a war at the time they could hardly have dealt with retrieving James’ body immediately. Henry Bates, James Bates’ son, was on the run, and having been shot by the home guards in an attempt to kill him, was hardly in any shape to retrieve his father’s body.


     At this point there is no particular reason to consider a connection between the murder of James Bates and the Battle of Cranesnest other than the fact that Union home guards were involved in both incidents. Yet, there is something that has long intrigued some of us, and this is the fact that in and near Letcher County, ranging from areas in Southwest Virginia and into Pike and Letcher Counties, there was a known and notorious band of Union home guards. This band, led by Captain Alfred Killen, committed many brutal acts and its presence in and around Letcher County during the Civil War has led several of us to seriously consider that it was Captain Killen’s band that raided James Bates’ farm and killed him. Later, some evidence for this will be mentioned.


    Closely connected to the murder of James Bates is a rather detailed and elaborate story about the vengeance his giant brother, Martin Van Buren Bates, inflicted upon those who had tortured and killed James Bates. This detailed and elaborate story first appeared at the beginning of the 1980s and, at the time,  took many of us who were familiar with the murder of James Bates by surprise because we had never heard anything of substance about any specific action Martin Van Buren Bates took to avenge his brother’s murder. The particular part of the story connected to Martin Van Buren Bates’ vengeful actions intrigued the authors for several other reasons as well. We have always had serious doubts about what we felt was, at the very least, a greatly embellished account of the actions taken by Martin Van Buren Bates to avenge his brother’s death. Not only this, but as more details have been uncovered over the last ten or fifteen years about the Battle of Cranesnest, we have become increasingly convinced that this battle was not only connected to the death of James Bates, but that it may have been a direct result of, or cause of  this brutal attack and murder by Union home guards who came over into Kentucky from Virginia. In short, the Battle of Cranesnest may have been one of the actions or counter-actions that occurred between Captain Alfred Killen’s home guards and elements of the 13th Kenucky Cavalry and French’s 7th Battalion.


The FBN Chronicle articles about Martin Van Buren Bates.

The following excerpts are taken from the FBN website.


   During the Winter of 1996 the FBN Chronicles of Scott County, Tennessee published reprints of several old newspaper accounts in an excellent article about the Civil War giant, CSA soldier, Martin Van Buren Bates. As a follow up to this article, another article was printed in that publication during the Spring of 1998. (FBN Chronicles, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring 1998.)  This 1998 publication contained a detailed account of the vengeance that the giant, Martin Van Buren Bates took against the killers of his brother. This article is shown below.


The rest of the story.......about the Civil War Giant.

Compiled by Louise Carson


   In the Winter of 1995 (The FBN listings indicate it was 1996.) Issue of the FBN Chronicles we relayed a story about the Civil War era giant, Martin Van Buren Bates, who was the great great uncle of Bruce Bates of Helenwood. Bruce Bates has since uncovered the rest of the story concerning his great great uncle.


     Martin (Van Buren Bates) made quite a name for himself during the war. He used two colossal 71 caliber horse pistols that had been made especially for him at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. He wore them strapped across his chest in black leather holsters. He had a saber that was 18 inches longer than the standard weapon. He rode a huge Perchman horse that he took from a German farmer in Pennsylvania. He was severely wounded in a battle around the Cumberland Gap area and was also captured, although he later escaped.


    Now for the  “rest of the story.” According to information Bruce Bates uncovered as told years ago by John Lucas, who was a distant relative of the giant and had seen him on many occasions, Martin Van Buren Bates returned to his Kentucky home after the war and found the local Unionists had captured one of his brothers and had tormented him with bayonets to a slow and painful death. This enraged the giant and he gathered his men and searched out the murderers. One by one they were captured. Some were roused out of their beds at night. Others were found hiding in hilltop caverns, some were ambushed on Rock House and locked in it under guard. Then their wives, parents, grandparents and children were rounded up and driven to the mouth of Big Hollow and kept there around camp fires all night. The children ranged from about 12 years old down to babes in their mothers’ arms. Some of the wives were pregnant.


    Two slender black oaks grew a dozen feet apart. A pole was lashed to the trees about 10 feet up. A round beech log was cut, stripped of its branches and placed on the ground beneath. Eight nooses hung down from the pole.


      At dawn, the Rebels roused the sleepers, who threw fresh wood on the fires. At the sight of the dangling ropes the women began to wail. The giant appeared on his giant horse, his giant sword and pistols gleaming, his black eyes shining with contempt and hatred. His men appeared out of the gloomy mists herding the prisoners before them, each man’s hands bound behind his back.


       The prisoners were placed on the log, and a noose was dropped around each shrinking neck, the men pleading for their lives. The relatives begged the giant to be merciful. The giant sat on his giant horse for several minutes while dawn slowly brightened the sky. The fire crackled, adding its gleams to the soft light of the new day. The killers began to hope a little; then the giant raised his hand in a signal. Two men gave the log a shove and it rolled down the hill. The eight bound figures dropped a few inches and choked slowly to death. With swords and cocked pistols the women and children were kept at bay. None could render aid.


     The “Yankees” were a quarter of an hour dying. The giant told the people not to touch the dead or take them down from the gallows. They were to hang there and rot by the road, their corruption to warn all passers-by of the consequences of killing a BATES. If anyone violated his order, he would die the same way. Absolutely no mercy would be shown. In addition, his family would be destroyed, his house burned, his stock killed.  “Take warning,” the giant said, “because no other warning will be given!” Then he and his men rode away, leaving the dead to swing in the wind and their kin to mourn them through a monstrous nightmare. 


     The bodies turned to skeletons before the giant came back, only rattling bones were left for burial.


      John Lucas said the giant could not stay in Letcher County after that. “When those children got old enough they would have killed him without a doubt.” He moved away when the war was over and didn’t tell people were he went, either. You know what his vengeance was like. We can’t even guess what those children would have done to even the score when they got ro be grown men.


(FNB Chronicle, Vol. 9, no 3 1998 http://


End of excerpts.



     We will not go into the original source of this account, and it should be made clear that even though Bruce Bates did not name the source, he was true to this source. This original source did name John Lucas as the main source for this account, but John Lucas was not the source for most of the detail given. In fact, this elaborate account was never meant to be a factual history, and most of this account of Martin Van Buren Bates’ vengeance upon the murderers of his brother is nothing more than historical fiction and has no foundation in fact. It was skillfully written to entertain and spark interest, using contrived and exaggerated incidents taken from various sources and embellished so as to draw in the reader. This account is mostly fiction. Unfortunately, it has been picked up by various publications and several web sites where it is represented as a bonafide historical account. The mistaken assumption that this historical fantasy is factual history has obscured some important connections that the murder of James Bates may have had with other regional events during the Civil War.

       While this colorful account is mostly fiction, there are bits and pieces of valid information in it and all of this is most likely related to what John Lucas actually said. John Lucas might have met the giant, Martin Van Buren Bates, at least once, but it is highly unlikely that he met him several times, or that he engaged in long and detailed conversations in which these supposed revelations in the FBN article were made.  John Lucas did not write the account given in the FBN article.  Most of what John Lucas wrote about happened from the 1880s on through to the end of his life, and, for the most part, his writings are fairly accurate and plain-spoken. There is every reason to believe that he faithfully reproduced what had been told to him. If there are any of his writings that touch upon the details of the actions taken by the giant during the Civil War to exact revenge upon the murders of his brother, we would very much like to see them, and are confident that if they exist they will not have much of the content of the FBN article. Whatever content they have will be true to what he had been told.

    What bits of truth there are in this story most likely originated from John Lucas’s actual account. The first bit of truth is the following passage from the FBN article:  “Martin Van Buren Bates returned to his Kentucky home after the war and found the local Unionists had captured one of his brothers and had tormented him with bayonets to a slow and painful death.”  It was true that one of Martin’s brothers, James Bates, was  murdered by union home guards during the Civil War. What is odd here is that the name of this brother is not mentioned in this elaborate and detailed account. It is almost as if it has been intentionally left out. If John Lucas, who was closely related to the Bates family, knew all of these other details, then why wouldn’t he have known the name of Martin’s murdered brother and why didn’t he mention it? For all the detail given to the vengeance taken by the giant for the murder of his brother, there is very little detail given of the actual murder.

     Another piece of information in the article of interest is the passage: “The eight bound figures dropped a few inches and choked slowly to death.” The fact that there were eight victims of the giant’s hanging is of interest in regard to the Battle of Cranesnest. As it turns out, there were eight men killed at the Battle of Cranesnest, one on the Confederate side and seven on the Union side.  These men were all shot during the battle, not hanged.

     There are a number of things about the 1998 FBN article that clearly show it is fictional.  The most compelling is in the following passage: ‘John Lucas said the giant could not stay in Letcher County after that. “When those children got old enough they would have killed him without a doubt.” He moved away when the war was over and didn’t tell people were he went, either. You know what his vengeance was like. We can’t even guess what those children would have done to even the score when they got to be grown men.’

     Martin Van Buren Bates had indicated that he felt there would be great conflict in the mountains after the Civil War because of all that had happened during the war and that he did not intend to return there for this reason, but in none of his known statements did he state anything as specific as the statement attributed to John Lucas in the FBN article. What is most striking here is that if all this did happen in Letcher County none of the children of the hanged men ever told any of their descendants about the brutal way in which their grandfathers had been hung and left to rot by the Bates giant. How do we know this? We know this because we do not know of any incident in Letcher County where eight men were hung at the same time by the giant or anyone else during the Civil War. Unlike every other known incident of murder and brutality during the Civil War in Letcher County, in which one or more of the descendants of the victim’s family has repeated and passed on some version of the details of what happened, our group of researchers and others, most of whom have been involved in collecting every story we could find for the last 4 and 5 decades, none of us have ever heard or found any account of the giant’s act of vengeance from any of the victim’s descendants. If eight local men had been hung in Letcher County in the way described in the FBN article during the Civil War there would be multiple accounts of it passed down in all or most of these families. Anyone who understands the mind-set of mountain people knows this, and the fact that there have never been any such accounts known up to this time clearly shows that this hanging of eight men at one time never happened in Letcher County. 



The Battle of Cranesnest


     The Battle of Cranesnest, which occurred in the Clintwood area of what was then Dickenson County, Virginia, is not even considered a true battle by some historians, who consider it just a skirmish. Whatever the accurate description may actually be, this was by all accounts a substantial and intense armed encounter between two opposing groups of soldiers. The Confederate side was made up of some soldiers from Colonel Prentice’s 7th Confederate Cavalry Battalion and some soldiers from Major Thomas Chenowith’s 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles.  The Union side was made up of Captain Alfred Killen’s Company K, 39th Kentucky Infantry U. S.  This section of the 39th was known as Alfred Killen’s home guards.


      Both sides had bad elements in them. Colonel Prentice was known to be corrupt, while Captain Killen’s was known to be ruthless and brutal. Both Prentice and Killen had committed senseless murders. Both men had many complaints against them. Prentice’s behavior was criticized by some Confederate officers and Killen’s actions were criticized by some Union officers. Both men had bad reputations in their own armies.


    From the book, Between Brothers, by Lillian Gobble and Rhonda Robertson, we find the following:


     “(Colonel Alfred) Killen’s chief adversary, the Kentuckian, Colonel Prentice, operated in the neighboring southwestern part of Virginia. Prentice became very annoyed with Killen as the war gradually turned in favor of the Union and Killen felt he could add Prentices’s territory to his own. Prentice and his men, who operated at Castlewood, were not very popular with the population there, yet Killen was regarded by the Southern sympathizing majority as worse.


       “Killed Ben Wright....Killen survived the Battle of Cranesnest but met his death more than likely on Big Mud Creek in Floyd County, Kentucky.


        “In the year 1863 home guards headed by Alf Killen and Joel Long raided the farm of Tandy Branham and stole a saddle horse. When Branham found out he followed the men and was shot and killed. Branham was liked by both Union and Confederate soldiers; it is said that both armies co-operated in seeking his (Tandy Branham’s) revenge. In any case, Killen’s squad of home guards was met at Big Mud Creek by a group of Confederates and during the battle Killen was killed and Branham’s death revenged.”


     Colonel Menifee wrote in a letter to the Virginia State Adjutant General on 22 February 1865, that Alf Killen had killed Ben Wright “ruthlessly and without mercy.”


     It isn’t really clear from the various sources why Major Chenowith and Colonel Prentice were over in the region of Cranesnest. Whatever the reason, it must have been a compelling one because the encounter turned out to be intense, leaving eight soldiers dead and at least one wounded. There are also indications that when Chenowith’s soldiers entered Southwestern Virginia from Kentucky, they were agitated and angry about something. At least two sources mention something about their initial actions. From an October 10, 1932 interview of one of these sources, Isaac Mullins, we find the following information stated by Mr. Mullins.  “Chenowith was in command of the Confederates. They came to the Reuben Powers mill on Cranesnest and camped there. They were killing and destroying all the people’s property around there.”


       The region around Cranesnest was the base region for Alfred Killen’s home guards, and it was this region in which Chenowith’s men were spreading discord. From another source, Nancy Clark Brown Hays, formerly one of the editors for the Appalachian Quarterly, we actually have an account about a specific act of intimidation committed by some of Chenowith’s men during their raid into the Cranesnest region. In part and in summary her account relates how some of  Chenowith’s men, one of which was Ben Wright, entered the home of a family of Union supporters in the Cranesnest area, and while there, mistreated them. While the family was not seriously harmed they were intimidated and threatened.  During this incident some of Chenowith’s men went through the family’s belongings and took several things. Ben Wright took two sashes that belonged to one of the women in the family and put them into his pocket.


     From various pension records and old interviews some of the events before, during and after  the Cranesnest Battle can be found. In these different accounts there are variations in the date of the Cranesnest Battle. We find the follow dates: November 1862, November 1863, and November 1864.


The only one of these dates that can be eliminated is the November 1862 date. The Confederate soldier, Ben Wright, who is known to have been the first casualty at the Battle of Cranesnest, was, according to his muster rolls, still alive until January 1862. Some Civil War historians believe November 1863 was the date of the battle, while others believe  November 1864 was the date of the battle.


    The following summary of the Cranesnest Battle is taken from information in several sources. One excellent account can be found in the book, Appalachian Rebels by Richard G. Brown and David Chaltas. This is a very thorough and well-researched account. Another excellent account, which is online, was written up by Jim Pritchard and Jeffery Weaver in the late 1990s. This is also a very well researched account. Still another excellent source is the book, Between Brothers, Civil War Soldiers of Wise & Dickenson County by Lillian Gobble and Rhonda Robertson.  This is the most thorough and deeply researched record of pension applications, old newspaper interviews and accounts from a variety of old sources that has ever been written in regard to the Civil War in Wise and Dickenson County, Virginia. For any research into the Civil War in this area of Virginia it is an indispensable source. The Battle of Cranesnest and details about it are found in several first and second hand accounts throughout this book. Another source was Nancy Clark Hays, (Formerly Special Focus Editor for the Appalachian Quarterly, who was kind and generous enough to allow us to use information she had regarding the death of Ben Wright during the Battle of Cranenest and the sashes  he took that were later retrieve.


Summary of the Cranesnest Battle


    Major Chenowith’s men headed into the area of Cranesnest for some reason, and having arrived there, somehow found out that their presence was known by the local Union home guards, and that shortly they were going to be attacked by these home guards. Major Chenowith and his men planned to allow Killen’s home guards to do just that, hoping to draw them into a trap. An encampment was laid out by the Confederates to make it appear that all the rebels were there. A large fire was built and a few men were picked by straws to sit around the fire. This was done to help convince Captain Killen and his men that all the rebels were in the camp. These men would actually be the only men in the camp and would be dangerously vulnerable when the home guards attacked.


      With the men sitting about the fire the rest of Major Chenowith’s men lay in wait in the surrounding forest on the hill sides on either side of the camp. Captain Killen’s men did approach the camp and rushed forward into the camp when Killen fired the first shot. This first shot and those that immediately followed it were directed at the rebels who had been placed by the fire. One rebel sitting by the fire fell dead from this first volley. This rebel was Ben Wright, who apparent fell into the fire just after being shot. As the home guards rode into the camp the rebels opened fire on them from both sides, killing and wounding several of the home guards and scattering them in disarray. Captain Killen, realizing he had led his men into a trap, had no choice but to retreat immediately, leaving his dead and wounded behind.


     On the Confederate side one man, Ben Wright, already mentioned, was killed. On the Union side seven men were killed. These men were: Henry Buchanan, Parker Wheatley, Wesley Mullins, Ike Bartley, Bob Killen, Charles Hibbits and Henry Yates. At least one man was wounded. His name was Levi Vanover.


     Shortly after the battle and the retreat of Killen’s home guards back into the forest, the woman who Ben Wright had taken the sashes from, pulled his body out of the fire and retrieved her sashes. The sashes, shot through with bullet holes and splotched with blood, were proudly worn by this woman throughout the rest of the war to show her support for the Union. In one song written about the Cranesnest Battle from the Confederate perspective, the lyrics have some woman pulling the dead soldier (Ben Wright) out of the camp fire as an act of kindness. It turns out that this was not done in kindness but was done in order for the woman to retrieve her sashes.


End of summary of Cranesnest Battle.

      Earlier it was pointed out that there are no known stories passed down about eight men being killed at one time during the Civil War in Letcher County.  We do, however, know of an incident where eight men were killed at one time in another location close by, and we know that the stories of these killings have been passed down through these men’s families to the present day. This was the Battle of Cranesnest, and these killings took place in Virginia, just across the border from Letcher County. 


      While these killings over in Virginia are suggestive, they do not necessarily mean that there was  a connection between James Bates’ murder and the Battle of Cranesnest. Do we know of any account given by anyone from the past which gives us a direct and clear connection between the actions of Union home guards in Letcher County and the Battle of Cranesnest?  It is remarkable that we do have such an account and that it was published in 1941 by Burdine Webb in the Letcher County Mountain Eagle. This account, which was published long before the 1980 FBN account, and which was later reprinted in 2005 in the Kentucky Explorer, is given below.



Excerpt of an article from the January 2, 1941 Mountain Eagle.

Interesting Stories Cluster around Kona and Boone Fork.


Burdine Webb


     Bates (Martin Van Buren Bates the giant) volunteered his services to the Confederacy, serving under the command of Captain Enoch A. Webb (‘Dutch’ an uncle of the writer.) And he made a splendid soldier. So tense was the division among the people that brother was oft opposed to brother, or father against son. The antagonistic spirit pervaded the country. But criticized by all where the guerrilla bands that pillaged, murdered and robbed. There were those in this country. They were driven, however, into Virginia. The band, of course, opposed both the “Blue and Gray.” Early in the conflict Bates was chosen to drive back these marauders, tho’ some of them were his neighbors. Bates at length became a Captain in his division, as he was brave and relentless. He and Captain Webb succeeded in driving them ever further into Virginia. But in the Crane’s Nest section the band became so rampant that Bates, with Captain Webb and Colonel Ben Caudill, Letcher County, took an army over there to suppress them. Locating the enemy in the dead of night a fire was hurriedly built. The flames spread upward, lighting  a considerable distance and the soldiers put themselves in readiness. The guerrillas swooped down to see about the conflagration when hundreds of shots rang out. Twelve of the band fell, rolling down the mountain side. Twelve or fifteen more were captured. The ruse worked well.

End of excerpt.


     This article was reproduced in one of the FBN online articles about the Bates giant but there was no indication that those who placed this account in that article were aware of the article’s implication. In fact, a key phrase in the Burdine Webb article was misprinted; the phrase, a fire was hurriedly built,” was written as, “a first was hurriedly built.”  Also, Burdine Webb was mistakenly written as “Enoch’s niece,’ rather than Enoch Webb’s nephew. These were just inadvertent, typo-errors that are easy to make, but the first mistake slightly obscured the detail about the fire that had been set in order to deceive the Union home guards, and this made the comparison of the events in Burdine Webb’s article and those that happened during the Battle of Cranesnest less obvious.


     If the military action described in this article was not the actual Battle of Cranesnest, then there had to be two such almost identical engagements that occurred in that location during the Civil War. Since there is no record or oral history of any kind stating that there were two or more such battles in the vicinity of Cranesnest, we are forced to conclude that Burdine Webb was referring directly to the actual Battle of Cranesnest and not some other action. In at least one interview it is stated that this was the only battle in that area during the entire Civil War.


    This account clearly links certain military actions taken by Martin Van Buren Bates and others,  to the Battle of Cranesnest. Unlike the historical fiction given in the FBN article about the giant’s vengeance, we have an actual account from someone who lived in Letcher County in the late 1800s, who was a nephew of a captain in the 13th Cavalry, CSA. Like John Lucas, Burdine Webb heard stories about the giant and the Civil War from local people, some relatives and some friends. What we have here is not someone’s claimed version of events as told by Burdine Webb, but Burdine Webb’s actual written account.


     On reading Mr. Webb’s article Captain Killen comes to our attention for several reasons. Given that he served first in the Confederate Army and then later in the Union Army, and that he engaged in criminal behavior that was condemned by both sides, he could certainly be characterized as being opposed by both the Blue and Gray.


    The description in Mr. Webb’s article of the action taken by the Letcher County rebels is clearly the Battle of Cranesnest, and this directly connects the Battle of Cranesnest with actions taken by the Bates giant and other rebels in reaction to depredations committed in Letcher County by the home guards from the area of Cranesnest. There was only one known group of home guards in the area of Cranesnest, and this group was Captain Alfred Killen’s unit.  Burdine Webb’s article clearly connects the Battle of Cranesnest to the actions of Alfred Killen in Letcher County.  Since one of the most brutal, Union home guard actions to occur in Letcher County was the murder of James Bates and the shooting of Henry Bates, there can be little doubt that the murder of James Bates was not at least part of the reason the Letcher County rebels traveled over into Virginia and sought out the perpetrators.


     There were other things Captain Killen had done. One of these was the murder of Tandy Branham, who was the pay master for the 7th CSA Battalion. From several old interviews we find that Captain Killen had gone to Tandy Branham’s farm over in Virginia and, while Tandy Branham was absent from home, taken Mr. Branham’s favorite horse. When Mr. Branham returned home and found that his horse had been taken, he headed out in pursuit of Captain Killen. Apparently Captain Killen was expecting this and shot Tandy Branham to death from ambush. We see here an interest on Killen’s part in horses and the paymaster of the 7th Battalion, much like his interest in regard to James Bates.  Tandy Branham had considerable gold because he was paymaster and one of his family members later searched and found this gold and returned it to the Confederate Army. Like James Bates he had not told anyone in his family where he had hidden the gold.


     Sometime during the two years, 1863 and 1864, the murders of Tandy Branham and James Bates took place along with the Battle of Cranesnest. Because of the contradictory dates of the same events given by different sources it isn’t possible at this time to determine whether the murder of James Bates was the cause of the Battle of Cranesnest or the result of that battle. It is also possible that the murder of Tandy Branham contributed to the Cranesnest Battle as well. The February 1864 murder of Joseph Mullins by order of Colonel Prentice, may well have been a part of a back and forth vendetta between Captain Killen’s home guards and elements of French’s Battalion and the 13th Kentucky Cavalry CSA. Until we are able to more accurately date these various events we will not be able to form an accurate and informative time line as to what took place. Even though this may be the case we can now consider with some confidence that the Battle of Cranesnest and the murder of James Bates were directly connected.



    Marlitta Perkins, a Civil War researcher,  read our article on James Bates and the Cranesnest battle and contacted us with the following important and enlightening information.


     From pension records of some of Alfred Killen’s former comrades that she has located,  she has established, for the first time, that Alfred Killen was killed during February of 1864. Since Alf Killen led his men into the Cranesnest battle, that battle could not have occurred during November of 1864. This is the first clearly documented evidence that the Battle of Cranesnest could not have occurred in 1864 that our group has ever seen. Previously, some excellent researchers like Faron Sparkman, after making a thorough examination of  the movements of Confederate soldiers in the  7th Cavalry, 13th Cavalry and associated units, came to the conclusion that the Battle of Cranesnest most likely occurred in November of 1863, but there was no direct confirmation found at that time.

    She also discovered something else just as remarkable. She found that Major Robert Bates, of the 7th Battalion Cavalry, CSA and brother to James and Martin Van Buren Bates, for the period of November 8-10, 1863, signed a “Requisition for forage for 100 horses and 300 rations for three days.” The requisition was received at Abingdon, Virginia. This is astonishing, and it shows for the first time that there is some direct evidence that the Battle of Cranesnest was a planned excursion with an expected goal.


    Ben Wright’s wife stated in her pension application as Ben Wright’s widow the following: “He (Ben Wright) was killed November 17, 1862. He was sent with other Confederate soldiers out on a scout and was shot by U. S, soldiers.” While she doesn’t mention the Battle of Cranesnest as the time and location of his killing, several other sources do.  Since we now have muster rolls from vary early 1863 that indicate Ben Wright was still alive at that time, this clearly indicates that the year of Ben Wright’s death was, at the earliest, 1863. (The muster rolls clearly show that Ben Wright was transferred from Company B of the 13th Cavalry to Company D of the 13 Cavalry on Jan 1, 1863.) The November 17, 1862 date could indicate several things. The date of the year was 1863 and Ben Wright’s widow simply misremembered the year as 1862, or that Ben Wright did die on November 17th , having languished for several days wounded before dying. It could also be that it was not Ben Wright who was shot by the fire during the Cranesnest Battle, and that he was killed during another incident.  This last possibility seems the most unlikely as there are several sources that state Ben Wright was the Confederate soldier killed by the fire just at the start of the Battle of Cranesnest.

       Since several sources in pension records and interviews consistently give November as the month of the Cranesnest battle, and since we now know, thanks to Marlitta Perkins, that Major Robert Bates made a requisition for supplies for the days,  November 8-10, 1863, it is with some degree of certainty for the first time, that it can now be stated that the Cranesnest battle occurred on November 9, 1863.

      Marlitta Perkins also was kind enough to take the time to correct the following: In the James Bates’ article we stated that the 7th Confederate Battalion was also known as French’s battalion.  This turns out to be inaccurate. Marlitta Perkins informs us that the 7th Confederate Battalion was never referred to as French’s Battalion.  The 7th Battalion Confederate Cavalry did, however, have soldiers from French’s Battalion.  Colonel Prentice had recruited these soldiers for the 7th Battalion while he was imprisoned with them at Camp Chase, Ohio. French’s soldiers were exchanged on May 13, 1863 and ten days later, when Colonel Prentice was exchanged,  Prentice’s 7th Battalion was born.  The 7th Battalion Cavalry also had recruits from the Virginia State Line. As it turned out, French’s Battalion never got off the ground and pretty much ceased to exist with the unit’s April 13, 1863 capture in Pike County, Kentucky

      Many thanks to Marlitta Perkins for this amazing information, We appreciate her taking the time to send it to us and hope that anyone else with any additional information will send it to us as well.


The material on this website is copyrighted (C) 2010 Patty May Brashear  & Ben Luntz and Roe Wright 


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