This year’s Veterans Day observance will be one for the history books, since it marks the 100th anniversary of the day World War I ended: Nov. 11, 1918. But in Breathitt County, it also will mark the centennial of the “Breathitt Volunteers.”
That name refers to the many Breathitt Countians who volunteered for service in “The Great War” — so many that no draft had to be held in Breathitt County.
“Many people in the county have heard stories about it, or had family members who were among the volunteers,” says Stephen Bowling, executive director of the Breathitt County Public Library. “It’s something people are still proud of.”
Bowling, who has researched the county’s experience in the war, will give a lecture about the volunteers and other historical details at the Jackson Armory on Friday as a part of the local Veterans Day observance. A parade through downtown Jackson will kick things off at 10 a.m., followed by the program at the armory at 11 a.m. Breathitt County is observing Veterans Day on Friday rather Sunday.
Breathitt PVA and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col Ervine Allen Jr., who helped plan the program, says organizers hope for a big turnout.
“We think it’s important to pause and reflect on the volunteers and all the sacrifices that were made,” Allen said.
World War I engulfed Europe in August 1914, as France, England and Russia battled Germany and its allies. Some hopefully called it “the war to end all wars.”
But fearsome new weapons — machine guns, submarines, poison gas, warplanes, tanks — produced carnage never before imagined.
America tried to stay out of it, but was drawn into the bloodbath in 1917. Congress quickly approved the nation’s first military draft since the Civil War.
According to historical accounts, more than 400 Breathitt men volunteered, far exceeding the county’s quota and making a draft unnecessary. Bowling says there were several reasons.
He notes that the area had a long history of war-time service dating back to the nation’s founding. Bowling’s parents live on land granted to an ancestor for service in the Revolutionary War.
“There also was a culture of people having guns and knowing how to use guns, coming out of the era of heavy feuding in the 1800s,” Bowling said.
In 1917, the county was still trying forget the title “Bloody Breathitt,” with which it had been saddled because of the feuds.
An historical marker in Jackson says Breathitt was the only U.S. county that didn’t need a draft in World War I.
According to Bowling, some other counties did make no-draft claims. But he says his research indicates Breathitt’s claim was the only one certified by the Army and the state of Kentucky.
In his 2013 book, “Bloody Breathitt,” historian T.R.C. Hutton says Breathitt wasn’t the only county with the distinction of going without a draft. But he wrote that it was Breathitt County which received coverage in newspapers around the country. Stories hailed the “patriotic ex-feudalists.”
For example, an Oct. 16, 1917 story in the Lexington Herald said Breathitt County … “did not have to answer with one man for the draft, it’s full quota having already volunteered.”
Bowling says the wave of favorable press coverage polished Breathitt County’s image — at least until an election-day shootout at Breathitt’s Clayhole precinct killed four people in 1921.
“That pretty much overshadowed the patriotic picture that all the stories had painted,” he said.
In 1930, Kentucky legislators approved plans for a memorial in Jackson honoring the Breathitt Volunteers. But no money was allocated and the memorial wasn’t built.
Nevertheless, the Breathitt Volunteers’ war service was not forgotten.
Breathitt’s Willie Sandlin, who destroyed multiple machine gun nests and dispatched several German troops, was the only native Kentuckian to receive the Medal of Honor in World War I.
Another Breathitt Countian, Linden Wyatt, posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second-highest medal.
Breathitt County lost 28 men in the war. More than 116,500 Americans died, including just over 2,400 Kentuckians.
Worldwide, up to 40 million people died.
It was a high price for a war that was supposed to end all wars, but didn’t.