The Skirmish at Bull Mountain, Floyd County, Kentucky
By Robert M. Baker
Samuel Bird's Grave
on Bull Mountain
On December 4th, 1862, a large force of Virginia State Line cavalry under Col. John N. Clarkson attacked and routed a Union detachment of the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry at Wireman's Shoals, just north of Prestonsburg. At least two Unionists were killed, including Adjutant Levi Hampton, and perhaps as many as seventy-five soldiers were captured.  After driving the loyalist soldiers off, the Confederates discovered that they had captured 500 Enfield rifles, 7,000 rounds of ammunition, and enough clothing to outfit the majority of Clarkson's soldiers.  Because the captured Union goods were being moved upriver on flatboats, this small battle has since been called "The Johnson County Boat Fight" (even though it occurred in Floyd County).
Following the Virginia State Line's victory over the 39th Kentucky at Wireman's Shoals, the two regiments met again late that evening or early the next day near the top of Bull Mountain just outside of Prestonsburg.
Clarkson's Confederate cavalry had moved south from Wireman's Shoals after the battle, camped that night near Prestonsburg, and crossed the river the next morning.  They continued down Town Branch, crossed Bull Creek, and began to ascend the Bull Mountain Road when they encountered another detachment of the 39th Kentucky (different from the one they'd met the day before at Wireman's Shoals) coming down from the top of the mountain.  This second group included the yet-to-be-mustered Companies B and K, and a "miscellaneous group of Unionists."  Stephen Ferguson, a resident of the Mud Creek area, and John Dils, Jr., of Pikeville, were part of this group. Company B was comprised of mostly eastern Floyd County and western Pike County men, while Company K's recruits came primarily from Pike County, and Wise County, Virginia (though a large number of them were former Confederates from Letcher and Perry Counties, Kentucky).
John Frew Stewart, adjutant of the 39th, wrote in his memoirs that Colonel Dils was coming up from Pikeville, leaving on the morning of the 4th.  Dils had heard that the Confederates were in the valley, so he chose to join the rest of his regiment near Prestonsburg, albeit a little too late. Apparently, he hadn't received news of the disaster at Wireman's Shoals.
John Frew Stewart
Colonel John Dils, Jr.
Around 9 p.m., about four miles above (southeast of) Prestonsburg, Colonel Dils' and Colonel Clarkson's forces encountered each other near Bull Gap. Neither side had their scouts out, so the encounter was a complete surprise to both.  A severe fight ensued, lasting about an hour, after which the Union forces, being inexperienced, outnumbered, and armed only with "squirrel rifles" (some of the stolen Enfields were in the hands of Clarkson's men),  withdrew.
According to Stewart: "Colonel Dills [sic] was mounted on a fine gray horse, utterly unused to fire-arms, and at the first fire, his horse wheeled, ran over the steep hillside below the road on the up-river side of the Gap, and dragged him for quite a distance, greatly injuring him.  The men, three hundred or four hundred, mostly unarmed, got to the hills." It was reported at the time, allegedly by his own officers, that Col. Dils had been killed in the fighting, but that was not the case.  Clarkson was skeptical and shrewdly discounted the report.  In fact, Dils had been dragged downhill, severely injuring his left side and somehow impairing his hearing, but he was not killed.  However, Stewart states that it was reported by a runner shortly after the battle that the Colonel had been killed after his horse had jumped over a bank and that he did not know otherwise until he saw Dils alive and somewhat well at Paintsville shortly afterwards.
The total number of casualties from the skirmish at Bull Mountain, especially the number of wounded, is unknown.  Scalf states that Stephen Ferguson, newly recruited as the 39th's regimental surgeon, was thrown from his horse and had his leg broken when he was trampled.  We know that Colonel Dils was also severely injured in this action.  Corporal Samuel Bird of the 7th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry (Confederate), Company C, was killed in the fighting and is buried near the site of the battle.  Henry Scalf also mentions that a local Methodist minister, William Keith, was responsible for the burial of this soldier.  No other casualties are mentioned in any of the available sources.
After the Bull Mountain skirmish, Col. Clarkson proceeded with his command toward Pikeville where they dispersed the Union forces that were gathered at Camp Finnel, taking about 25 prisoners, destroyed the stores, and occupied the town.  At least two companies were then organizing at Pikeville, one under the command of Joseph M. Kirk of Wayne County, West Virginia, when news arrived that Colonel Dils had been killed in the fighting at Bull Mountain. Other than those men recruited by Kirk, most of the rest of the recruits dispersed and went home.
On December 7, Clarkson's detachment was encamped at the mouth of Pond Creek on the Tug River, near the site of modern-day Williamson, West Virginia.  It is possible that Clarkson's men engaged another detachment of the 39th (Company H), on Pond Creek on December 16th, where at least two Union soldiers were captured. From Pond Creek, the regiment moved on to Logan Court House, West Virginia, to meet up with Gen. Floyd and the rest of the Virginia State Line. A week later, Floyd's command withdrew to Tazewell County, Virginia.
While some men believed that the battles at Wireman's Shoals and Bull Mountain had put an end to Colonel Dils' efforts to raise his regiment, this was not to be.  Around the tenth of December, the recruits of the 39th began reforming at a heavily-timbered grove below the mouth of George's Creek, north of Paintsville.  They constructed a camp and hunkered down as best they could to survive the winter without their uniforms, rifles, and supplies.  Despite these conditions and the recent defeats near Prestonsburg, recruits kept arriving and by the first of the year Colonel Dils had enough men to muster in his regiment.
Sources: Kentucky's Last Frontier, Henry Scalf; The Civil War in the Big Sandy Valley of Kentucky, John David Preston; "The Last Statement of Judge John Frew Stewart," edited by William Elsey Connelley; The Virginia State Rangers and State Line, Randall Osborne and Jeffrey Weaver; "Pioneer Valley Industrialist Was Physician, Union Leader," Henry Scalf, in the Floyd County Times, Jan. 18, 1962; Pension Record of John Dils, Jr.; Sgt. Brian E. Hall, USAF; Nancy Forsyth of Pikeville; Edward Hazelett of Paintsville; Connie Maddox of Pikeville College.
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Jack May's War
John Graham Cemetery
Big Sandy Steamboats
Oldest House in the Valley
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