Tom Eblen: Henry Clay Estate commemorates Battle of Ashland

The mansion at Ashland was rebuilt according to the original floorplan in 1857, five years after Henry Clay's death. The house is now owned by a non-profit foundation.
The mansion at Ashland was rebuilt according to the original floorplan in 1857, five years after Henry Clay's death. The house is now owned by a non-profit foundation. Photo courtesy of Ashland

Lexington played a central role in the lives of leaders on both sides of the Civil War. Union and Confederate troops each occupied the city. Yet, there was only one significant military engagement in Fayette County, and some aspects of it were almost comical.

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate will mark the 150th anniversary of that battle with four events during the next month.

The first is a Civil War "living history" day Saturday at the 17-acre estate, where most of the fighting occurred. A dozen re-enactors will drill, fire cannons and play period music, cook and quilt.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman will perform in concert with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra on Sunday. The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation will award Perlman the Henry Clay Medallion.

The other events are a Civil War Ball on Oct. 13 at Christ Church Cathedral, where Clay worshiped, and a speakers panel Oct. 21 with historians James Klotter, Lindsey Apple, Kent Masterson Brown and UK textile professor Kim Spillman.

Ashland isn't trying to compete with larger Civil War re-enactments at Perryville and Richmond, the sites of more significant battles, said curator Eric Brooks.

"Our goal is to provide something that will help people understand what was going on in this community," he said. "That was living life under occupation, living life in which you and your siblings might be on opposite sides."

Before his death in 1852, Clay spent much of his career in Congress forging compromises over slavery to try to prevent the Civil War. But war came anyway, and it literally reached his family's doorstep at dawn Oct. 18, 1862.

After the battle of Perryville, on Oct. 8, most Confederate forces began withdrawing to Tennessee. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry leader from Lexington, sought to protect their retreat by attacking Union troops camped behind Ashland.

Morgan had three units of troops as he crossed from Madison County into Fayette. They separated at Clay's Ferry, with the two largest units and two pieces of artillery heading to Lexington via Richmond Road. Morgan and a smaller group went along the Kentucky River to Tates Creek Road.

Not sure of the way into town, Morgan and his brother-in-law Basil Duke knocked on a farmer's door. Duke later wrote that, knowing that many people along the river were union sympathizers, he introduced Morgan to the farmer as Frank Wolford, a well-known Union officer. It was cold and dark, and Morgan and many of his men probably were wearing blue overcoats taken from captured Union troops, said Brown, the historian.

"All the way to Lexington, this man is bad-mouthing Morgan — he ought to be shot, he's nothing but a horse thief, on and on," Brown said. As they get to about where Chevy Chase is now, Morgan realizes he is near Ashland and orders his men to prepare to attack.

"This guy suddenly realizes this is not a Union outfit," Brown said. "The fellow asks, 'Who are you?' and Morgan says, 'I'm John Hunt Morgan.' The guy falls out of his saddle and starts pleading on his knees for Morgan not to kill him. The whole command breaks into laughter."

Morgan freed the farmer, who rode home as fast as he could. The three Confederate units — about 1,800 men — surrounded and attacked the camp of 300 mostly sleeping Union soldiers behind Ashland near the corner of what is now Fincastle and Woodspoint roads.

"The battle's over in five minutes," Brown said.

The Union soldiers were taken prisoner, as were more downtown at the Phoenix Hotel. A third group of Union troops barricaded themselves in the Fayette County Courthouse. When the Confederates brought in their artillery, "the mayor comes running, pleading with them not to blow up his courthouse," Brown said. "He helped plead with the Union cavalry to surrender."

Four Union solders were killed and about 20 were wounded that day. The extent of Confederate casualties is unknown, with one prominent exception: Maj. George Washington Morgan, a second cousin to John Hunt Morgan, was severely wounded. Susan Clay offered her wagon to take him to his family's home, the Hunt Morgan House on Mill Street.

After lingering several days, Morgan asked to be propped up in a chair and given a glass of bourbon and a cigar, Brooks said, "and he would then show them how a Morgan man dies, which he did."

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