Discussion General Stephen Burbridge and the execution of Confederate prisoners in Kentucky

Paul Yancey

Jan 13, 2019
There was probably not a more hated Union General in Kentucky than General Stephen Burbridge. General Burbridge was born in Scott County, Kentucky in 1831 and was educated at Georgetown College in Kentucky. The following quote regarding Burbridge comes from the book Generals In Blue by Ezra J. Warner : "His administration of Kentucky earned him the enmity of the duly constituted civil authorities as well as the populace. After the Civil War he and his family were socially and financially ostracized. In 1867 he confessed that he was not "able to live in safety or do business in Kentucky" and complained that "my services to my country have caused me to be exiled from my home."

While doing research on the Civil War in Kentucky I came across the following incident which is described in the book Reflections On Frankfort 1751-1900 by Frank W. Sower. I quote from the book:

"On November 2, 1864, four innocent Confederate prisoners were executed in Frankfort by order of General Burbridge in reprisal for the murder of Union supporter Robert Graham of Peaks Mill - all for the gratification of Burbridge, who decided on that form of brutal revenge. Three of the four Confederates were Kentuckians: Elijah Horton (Carter County), Thomas Hunt (Mason County), and Thornton Lafferty (Pendleton County); the fourth was a Captain Jones of a Texas regiment."

"Manacled and guarded, the men were transported from the Federal prison at Lexington and stationed near the depot in Frankfort. From early morning until late afternoon they stood there in the pouring rain. The delay was caused by the refusal of the citizens to allow any of their property to be used as a slaughter pen for Southern sympathizers. About four o'clock in the afternoon, the men were taken to a vacant lot near a stone wall on the northwest corner of Shelby and Todd Streets. The men were placed against the stone fence facing the firing squad. The first volley completely missed Thornton Lafferty. Although ordered to reload and fire again, the Union squad refused on account of Lafferty's age; they wanted to spare his life. So a Michigan squad replaced that one, and as they exchanged places, the women of Miss Sallie Jackson's home pleaded for the life of the gray-haired Lafferty and yelled for him to run to their house for protection. He started toward them but the soldiers threatened to kill the women if they tried to shield him. Lafferty heard the threat and exclaimed, "Don't shoot any women on my account." He then deliberately and stoically walked back to his place against the fence and was shot."

"The burial of the four men took place under the shroud of night - uncoffined, unwept, unhonored, and unsung, with manacles still attached to their limbs. A few months afterwards, Hunt came for the body of his son. After removing the manacles from his hands and ankles, he placed the body in a handsome casket and then took his son home with him to Maysville, Kentucky. The three bodies left in the grave were removed to the Confederate lot in the Frankfort Cemetery following the close of the Civil War, and a cross marking each man's grave was erected."


Forum Host
Nov 27, 2018
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Interesting story, did these guys at least get a half way fair trial or was this just a arbitrary random pick for retaliation sake?
All retaliation. There is a monument honoring them, I think in Midway. Burbridge is called 'The Butcher of Kentucky'. He was the Military commander there until 1865, and supposedly helped politically in Lincoln's reelection. Many thought the vote was fixed. Lincoln quietly replaced him with General Palmer sometime in Feb. of 1865.
Sep 15, 2018
South Texas
I wasn't familiar with Gen. Burbridge so I did a little reading up on him. It looks like he was about as hated as the equally hated Jeremiah T. Boyle that he replaced as Commander of the District of Kentucky. He was known as "Butcher" Burbridge. The incident was following his Order No. 59, which stated "Whenever an unarmed Union Citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrage".And I can't see where he made it past the rank of Brigadier, you'd think a district commander and divisional commander should at least be a major general.
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Sounds like these four were not Confederate soldiers but some of the local guerillas that were commonly operating in Burbridge's district. The following letter of Sherman to Stanton is in regard to the removal of bands of "partisans" that are not under the control of the Confederate government that in addition to being a threat to his command, are responsible for crimes against the civilian population of the South. Sherman wants them removed from the area because they are using the pretext of war to commit murder, [email protected], arson, and other crimes. Along with the letter to Stanton, Sherman sends a copy of a letter sent to Gen Burbridge pertaining to the removal of these groups of criminals.

HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, In the Field, Big Shanty, Ga., June 21, 1864.
Secretary of War, Washington, D. C.:

SIR: I inclose you herewith copy of a letter this day addressed to General Burbridge, who commands the District of Kentucky, an I have furnished a copy to all department commanders subject to my orders. I doubt whether the President will sustain me, but if he don't interfere is all I ask. I can get the malcontents on board ships at sea without traveling outside of my authority, but then the jurisdiction becomes doubtful. We will never have peace as long as we tolerate in our midst the class of men that we all know to be conspiring against the peace of the State, and yet who if tried by jury could not be convicted. Our civil powers at the South are ridiculously impotent, and it is as a ship sailing through sea - our armies traverse the land, and the waves, of disaffection, sedition, and crime close in behind, and our track disappears. We must make a beginning, and I am willing to try it, but to be effectual it should be universal. The great difficulty will be in selecting a place for the malcontents. Honduras, British or French Guiana, or San Domingo would be the best countries, but these might object to receive such a mass of restless democrats. Madagascar or Lower California would do. But one thing is certain, there is a class of people, men, women, and children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and order, even as far south as Tennessee. I would like to have your assent and to name the land to which I may send a few cargoes, but if you will not venture, but leave me to order, I will find some island where they will be safe as against the district of my command. It has now been raining nineteen days constantly, and taking the Flood as the only example in history, the rain squall is nearly half over. Fortunately we are at the apex of Georgia, which may prove the Ararat of our ark of safety against the flood.
I am, with respect, your obedient servant,
Major-General, Commanding.
O.R. Series I. Volume XXXIX, Pt. II, pp. 131-132

The letter to Burbridge:

Commanding District of Kentucky:

GENERAL: The recent raid of Morgan and the concurrent acts of men styling themselves Confederate partisans or guerrillas call for determined action on you part. Even on the southern "States Rights" theory Kentucky has not seceded. Her people by their vote and by their actions have adhered to their allegiance to the National Government, and the South would now coerce her out of our Union and into theirs, the very dogma of coercion upon which so much stress was laid at the outset of the war and which carried into rebellion the people of the middle or border slave States. But politics aside, these acts of the so-called partisans or guerrillas are nothing but simple murder, horse-stealing, arson, and other well defined crimes, which do not sound as well under their true names as the more agreeable ones of warlike meaning. Now, before starting on this campaign, I foresaw, as you remember, that this very case would arise, and I asked Governor Bramlette to at once organize in each county a small trustworthy band, under the sheriff, if possible, and at on dash arrest every man in the community who was dangerous to it, and also every fellow hanging about the towns, villages, and cross-roads, who had not honest calling, the material out of which guerrillas are made up, but this sweeping exhibition of power doubtless seemed to the Governor rather arbitrary.

The fact is in our country personal liberty has been so well secured that public safety is lost sight of in our laws and constitutions, and the fact is we are thrown back a hundred years in civilization, law, and everything else, and will go right straight to anarchy and the devil if somebody don't arrest our downward progress. We, the military, must do it, and we have right and law on our side. All Governments and communities have a right to guard against real or even supposed danger. The whole people of Kentucky must not be kept in a state of suspense and real danger lest a few men should be wrongfully accused. First. You may order all your post and district commanders that guerrillas are not soldiers but wild beasts unknown to the usages of war. To be recognized, as soldiers they must be enlisted, enrolled, officered, uniformed, armed, and equipped by some recognized belligerent power, and must, if detached from a main army, be of sufficient strength, with written orders from some army commander, to do some military thing. Of course we have recognized the Confederate Government as a belligerent power, but deny their right to our lands, territories, rivers, coasts, and nationality, admitting the right to rebel and move to some other country where laws and customs are more in accordance with their own ideas and prejudices. Second. The civil power being insufficient to protect life and property 'ex necessitate rei', to prevent anarchy, "which nature abhors," the military steps in, and is rightful, constitutional, and lawful. Under this law everybody can be made to "stay at home and mind his and her own business," and, if they won't do that, can be sent away where they won't keep their honest neighbors in fear of danger, robbery, and insult. Third. Your military commanders, provost-marshal, and other agents may arrest all males and females who have encouraged or harbored guerrillas and robbers, and you may cause them to be collected in Louisville, and when you have enough, say 300 or 400, I will cause them to be sent down the Mississippi through their guerrilla gauntlet, and by a sailing ship send them to a land where they may take their negroes and make a colony with laws and a future of their own. If they won't live in peace in such a garden as Kentucky, then we will kindly send them to another, if not a better land, and surely this would be a kindness and a God's blessing to Kentucky.

I wish you to be careful that no personalities are mixed up in this, nor does a full and generous love of country, "of the South," of their State or county form a cause of banishment, but that devilish spirit which will not be satisfied and that makes war the pretext for murder, arson, theft in all its grades, perjury, and all the crimes of human nature. My own preference was and is that the civil authorities of Kentucky would and could do this in that State, but if they will not, or cannot, then we must; for it must be done. There must be an "end to strife," and the honest, industrious people of Kentucky, and the whole world, will be benefitted and rejoiced at the conclusion, however arrived at. I use no concealment in saying that I do not object to men or women having what they call "Southern feelings," if confined to love of country, and of peace, honor, and security, and even of little family pride, but these become "crime" when enlarged to mean love of murder, of war, desolation, famine, and all the horrid attendants of anarchy.
I am, with respect, your friend,
Major-General, Commanding.
O.R. Series I, Volume XXXIX, Part II, pp. 135-136


Oct 20, 2016
Burbridge wasn't much of a general. He got whipped badly at Saltville by a rag tag group of Confederates who were greatly outnumbered and sent him packing back to Kentucky.