Confederate Captain Frank Gurley

Confederate Captain Frank Gurley

Courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions

Frank Ballou Gurley was born in 1834 in northern Alabama, where his father and grandfather had moved in 1818. He grew up in a rapidly growing settlement that would eventually be called “Gurley,” just east of Huntsville in the fertile soils of the Tennessee River. When war broke out, Gurley enlisted in July 1861 in Rev. David Kelly’s (Kelley) cavalry. Meanwhile, Nathan Bedford Forrest was recruiting 500 men to become a unit of mounted rangers from Tennessee, Northern Alabama and even Kentucky. Forrest attracted Kelley’s unit, and the lives of Forrest, Kelley and Gurley were entwined for the next few years (actually for the remainder of their lives).

At the outset, many local commanders realized the vulnerability of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, navigable to Nashville and Huntsville (respectively). In May 1861 work was begun on Fort Donelson by Tennessee State engineers, but only proceeded sporadically. Fort Henry, sited in the same month to protect the Tennessee River, was problematic. All suitable sites were in Kentucky, a neutral state. The first Confederate units to arrive noticed the high-water marks on surrounding trees and knew that the first spring rise of the river would inundate the fort. Thus both rivers were vulnerable and the Union, of course, took advantage of the weakness the following spring. In February, Grant had taken both forts and was moving on the major population centers. By April northern Alabama was in Union hands, “ruled” by General Ormsby Mitchel, along with the railroad lines and most of the rolling stock in the region. Although northern Alabama was less enthusiastic about secession than other parts of the state, subsequent treatment at the hands of these forces turned many local Unionists into Confederates.

For the most part Forrest’s units were engaged “harassing” Union troops in the Western parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and surrounding regions. Forrest began to acquire a reputation rivaling Morgan’s. Periodically Gurley returned to his home territory to recruit, or gather up men who had been on furlough. In the summer of 1862, the various partisan units started moving toward East Tennessee to meet up with General Braxton Bragg’s troops moving in that direction, and harassing Federal troops headed that direction. Local “informants” alerted Gurley to Federal units moving on the old Limestone near Gum Spring Road and rode off to “delay” them. What he encountered was the wagon carrying General Robert Latimer McCook, part of the “Fighting McCooks” of Ohio, seven brothers plus father and several cousins who all fought in the war. Later court papers suggest that part of McCooks 9th Ohio got separated from the General, and he sent a messenger to get them back on the right road. He and a small force of cavalry lagged behind the main unit, most sources indicate because McCook was suffering from dysentery and could not ride.

Gurley came upon McCook’s small band after first spotting the dust cloud kicked up by the wagon. Gurley supposedly ordered them to stop. Survivors of McCook’s command all testified that they did not hear any such order in the panic to escape. Shots were fired. McCook was hit in the back, the bullet exiting near his navel, a fatal wound in those times. He was taken to a local farmhouse, the home of widow Jane Word, where the General was made as comfortable as possible, before dying around noon the next day. In his diary Gurley noted that he saw three men in the wagon, only one of whom was in Uniform. This was Captain Hunter Brooke, McCook having taken his jacket off to be more comfortable. Gurley wrote in his diary that he fired at the officer -Brooke -but the pistol was not very accurate. He is generally taken as the one whose bullet hit McCook, but he always maintained that he did not AIM at McCook, but merely shot to get the wagon to stop.

The North was outraged! With each telling, the story got more outrageous and inflammatory. By the time it was published in Harper’s and Leslie’s, woodcuts illustrating the event show McCook in uniform, on his knees begging for his life, with Gurley shooting him in the back -wrong in every detail. The North and the powerful McCook family screamed for Gurley’s head. He became the most wanted man in the Confederacy! The northern troops exacted revenge on the immediate countryside, also. They burned many surrounding farms, including that of the widow who had cared for McCook, turning the widow and her daughter out without even allowing them to take their clothes, then setting fire to their house and buildings.

Gurley managed to elude capture for a year, in part because of the nature of the ranger skirmishing, and he was operating on “home turf.” For much of that time Gurley was not even aware that he was wanted! -most of the reporting was in the North and hardly accessible to rangers on the move. In October 1863 a partisan ranger unit captured the “tail” of an unescorted Union artillery battery moving from Huntsville to Decherd, TN. Among the captured was Captain Lawson Kilbourn of Co. E, 72nd Indiana Mounted Lightning Brigade. Kilbourn was sent under guard a few days later to Andersonville, already notorious among Union troops. However, his “guard” consisted of two boys, 17 and 14. Kilbourn was able bribe them not only for his freedom, but also a coat. Using information gained while a captive, and his Confederate “disguise,” he set off to capture the “notorious” Gurley, and, locating him at his brother’s house, Gurley’s father having been burned out in the earlier retaliation. Gurley nearly escaped while his brother set up a diversion, but Kilbourn’s squad was able to anticipate his escape route and captured him. He was sent to Nashville to stand trial for the murder of McCook.

Gurley was brought before a military commission about a month later. The charge of murder was predicated primarily on the assertion that Gurley did not hold a commission in the Confederate forces, and was thus acting as a private citizen at the time of the shooting of McCook. Union forces were not able to locate a commission, although Gurley maintained that he had one. Some concluded that if it indeed existed, it was probably burned in his father’s house when it was torched the previous year. Evidence was presented by Union Maj. Genl. Lovell Rousseau, who had replaced Mitchel in Huntsville, that he had arrested several of Gurley’s men and was going to try them as guerillas, but the daughter of one of them brought him Gurley’s commission, demonstrating that they were indeed legitimate soldiers in the Confederate Army, not “freelance” terrorists. Nathan Bedford Forrest wrote to the commission to state that Gurley was a commissioned officer, as well as others supporting him. The powerful McCooks wanted Gurley dead, however, and all such testimony, including evidence of the fire at Gurley’s home, was not permitted as evidence. Gurley was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Appeals were made to Washington, DC, and, under pressure from the “McCook camp” Lincoln upheld the sentence, but never set a date for the execution. There seems to have also been some fear of retaliation if Gurley was executed (Forrest sent a message saying as much), and additional fear of creating a martyr. Then, by some as-yet-undetermined snafu, in March 1865 Frank Gurley walked out of prison a free man, included as an officer in a prisoner exchange. Realizing the error, jailers sent messages to Washington, but were told to release all rebel officers, and Captain Goodwin did just that.

The war, of course, ended a few weeks later, and Gurley returned home. His imprisonment left him weak and “soft.” They were released, and taken to confederate territory by boat, but found no way to get home, most railroads having been destroyed. They had to rely on their own two feet. Gurley immediately developed blisters which started bleeding. Gurley ran into his friend General Roddey who gave him a horse to continue his journey. When he reached familiar territory, he hid for a while in the surrounding hills, until May 25, he returned to Huntsville and took the oath of allegiance to the United States.

But the dogs were still hunting. The McCooks and their “representative,” Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt realized that Gurley had slipped through their fingers. They began trying to locate him, not that he was especially hiding. In the fall, quite unsought, Gurley was elected sheriff of Madison County. Apparently someone at the War Department read the paper and immediately sent General Benjamin Grierson to arrest him. He was taken to Nashville for a quick hearing, then returned to Huntsville to be executed Dec. 1, 1865. Many lawyers and military colleagues started petitioning for Gurley’s release. They even got the support of General Grant, and eventually, President Andrew Johnson. Johnson consulted Grant, who was in favor of the case being dropped, since much of the testimony was questionable, and many more points had been omitted in the original (see above). Finally, in a flurry of paperwork dated 28 April 1866, Gurley was to be released, provided he sign an Oath of Allegiance (again), his parole of honor and written promise not to serve in any elected office. He was finally free!

After this, he was a successful real estate agent and farmer. Eventually he built a tidy home on enough land to adequately host reunions, which he did annually for his company. Occasionally larger gatherings were held, many including Union as well as Confederate ex-soldiers -Gurley apparently harbored no resentment over wartime activities. He was active in his church, the Democratic Party and the Masons, and, some would say, along with his mentor, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s original purpose was to rid the country of “carpetbaggers” (Northerners seeking to profit from the “reconstruction” of the South) and “scalawags,” (Southerners supporting the carpetbaggers) and restore order so people could get on with real reconstruction. Forrest’s Klan officially disbanded in 1869, and he died in 1877 (a funeral attended by thousands in Memphis). (Later “incarnations” of the clan took on the more familiar racist overtones.)

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