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Adair Co., KY History: When the Civil War turned, right here

A CM Must Read Post: Derek Coomer uncovers a letter which recounts a pivotal time in the Civil War, when, he writes, 'As many as 15,000 Union troops camped in and around Adair County during the weeks leading up to the battle, which would prove to be a crucial blow to Confederate forces in Kentucky and which would provide the North with its first major victory of the war.' The account includes an account of a visit to Todd's Cave, near Russell Creek north of Columbia, KY, more descriptive than even Thomas Wolfe could have penned. Each paragraph of the letter contains some new to most (it is to us) information about Adair County, including the delicious tidbit that Mrs. Todd was related to President Lincoln's wife.
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By Derek Coomer

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Mill Springs (which took place January 19, 1862) I thought I would pass along this fascinating letter I stumbled upon, written by a Union officer stationed in Adair County to his hometown newspaper, the Ripley Bee of Ripley, OH. The letter recounts a visit by a party of Union officers to Todd's Cave, led by Nathan Gaither Jr., an Adair County native who was then Kentucky Secretary of State and son-in-law of Governor Magoffin.

As many as 15,000 Union troops camped in and around Adair County during the weeks leading up to the battle, which would prove to be a crucial blow to Confederate forces in Kentucky and which would provide the North with its first major victory of the war.

The eyes of the nation were focused on this region of Kentucky, and Adair County and Columbia are frequently mentioned in contemporary newspapers. While this letter doesn't touch on the battle itself - histories of the battle are easy to find - it does offer a rare glimpse into the lives of soldiers and civilians at a time when Adair and its surrounding counties were at the center of the country's attention:
Messrs. Eds. Bee - Being one of a party of officers of the 59th Reg., O.V., invited by Mr. Nat. Gaither, Secretary of State of Kentucky, to visit the cave of MacPelah, or as it is more generally known in this neighborhood, "Todd's cave". I left camp with the rest of the party, this morning early, armed with candles, matches, hammers, and other necessary articles used in excursions of this nature.

Arriving at the entrance of the cave, we found it to be a low kind of bank on a creek called Pettis-fork. The entrance was through an oval shaped aperture, probably ten feet long and four feet high, in the centre of the arch. A small stream of sparkling, pure water, about eight inches in depth, pours out of the entrance of the cave, and falling down the sides of a perpendicular rock, forms a most beautiful miniature of the Montmorenci falls. Indeed the surrounding scenery is not altogether dissimilar from that around Montmorenci. Tying our horses to the tree near the entrance, we lighted our candles, and bidding a short adieu to daylight, began our explanation.

After wading through the little stream for some 200 yards, in a crouching position, we suddenly came into a large vault, where we found ourselves hemmed in on both sides by a wall of rock, with a narrow cleft between some large boulders, through which we must make an ascent of some ten or fifteen feet, which we found difficult, we eventually introduced us into the large "auditorium" as it is called, the walls and ceilings of which presented one of the grandest pictures imagination can conceive of.

Beautiful stalactites, pendant as icicles, hang in clusters overhead, reflecting the light from our candles, and rendering the otherwise dark vault radiant with all the beauties of day. The floor was covered with large, fine stalagmites, which made a most beautiful picture, as the pearly drops of water for a moment lingered on their bright surfaces and then fled, to make room for a glittering diamond of water. A little further on, we meet the "leaning tower of Pisa," a small, round obelisk, about 8 feet high, standing at almost an inclination of 45 degrees, and proving, by the formation of its base, one of the peculiar exceptions of the law of gravitation.

A little further on we encounter "fat man's misery," a long, low, narrow passage, probably thirty inches high, though about one hundred feet in length, where we must resort to the most primitive mode of propelling power, getting down on our hands and knees and rehearsing our first feeble attempts at walking. Reaching the end of this corridor, we again descend through a narrow cleft in the rock, and after a great deal of squeezing, are amply repaid for our trouble, by a view of a "fav-yard". Here we meet one of the most wonderful feats of nature it is possible to imagine.

Overhead hang a very near resemblance of six pieces of leather. Their shape is most perfect, and even the part taken off from the fore-leg, the head, etc., are shown to perfection. As if to make the illusion more perfect, there is a hole in one of the hides, resembling a hole made accidenta lly with the knife while removing the skin from an animal. These rocks on being struck by the hand, emit the different sounds produced by an excellently tuned piano-forte - and a skillful performer could no doubt play many airs upon them.

All along each side of our path, lay white flinty rocks, pure as parian marble, and precisely resembling drifted snow. Beautiful! Wonderful! were the exclamations from every one of the party. We then clambered up through another ledge of rocks to the "bloody spring". This was a basin in the rocks, containing some of the purest and coolest red sulphur-water I ever tasted. The water runs into the basement over one of these white embankments I just spoke of, and being of a deep red color, leaves deposits on the flinty rock precisely resembling clotted blood and brains - Our next visit was to the "smokestack". Here we found rocks hanging on the top of the of vault precisely resembling hams of bacon.

Other curiosities might have been seen, but our time being almost spent, we hastened towards the mouth of the cave, having explored its depths to the extent of a mile or more. The atmosphere of the cave is of the purest quality, and we were told the temperature never varies a degree from the warmth in which we found it.

Nearing the entrance we met our friend Dr. W---- our assistant surgeon, who had promised to make one of our party, but was delayed. We made arrangements to wait for him however, at Mr. Todd's house, and bidding him good speed, hastened on towards sunshine. We then went under guidance of Mr. G---- to Mr. Todd's house, and then spent a pleasant hour in the company of Mrs. T. and her daughters. Mr. Todd, it may be well to state parenthetically, is related to Mrs. Lincoln, and is a strong Union man, having a son in our army.

The doctor rejoining, we mounted our horses and were soon galloping away to camp. It was the universal remark of the party, that it would be a long while before we should forget the beauties of the cave of MacPelah, or the kind attentions of Kentucky's young statesman. Wishing Mr. Gaither may prove as successful as guiding the ship of state through her rough voyage, as he did us in our subterranean explorations, we bid him and the kind reader "a fair and good night. And pleasant dreams and slumber bright."

- H.F. Liggett
- Derek Coomer

This story was posted on 2012-01-20 06:49:43
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