Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Confederate Images: Major Rice Evans Graves

By Joey Oller

One of Daviess County's sons who distinguished himself in the war for Southern Independence was Rice Evans Graves who gave his life in that struggle that claimed the lives of many Orphan Brigade men, including General Ben Hardin Helm.

Graves was born in Rockbridge, Virginia but grew up near Yelvington, Kentucky, after a near tragedy in 1844 interrupted his family's planned move to St. Louis. His parents, Rice Sr. and Amelia Rucker Gregory Graves had booked passage on the "Star of the West" and with their young family and all their worldly possessions on board, they began the journey to Missouri and a new life. Just below Breckinridge County, KY. their boat collided with another vessel and was sunk. It was all the frantic parents could do to save themselves and their eight children one whom was a baby. All of their household goods sank into the Ohio River as the parents guided their family to shore in their nightclothes.

Missouri was forgotten. With a large family and no property, they decided to remain in Cloverport, where Graves Sr. rented a farm on which to raise his children. His example of hard work, honesty and devotion to duty over the next three years must have had a tremendous impact on his sons. Ambition, perseverance, and purity of character was passed to all of them, especially the subject of this account.

When they felt themselves beginning to regain their financial standing, the Graves family moved to Daviess County where eventually they were able to purchase land of their own and gradually improve it until it became one of the finest estates in the neighborhood. By that time, the number of children in the household had increased to eleven and with so large a family, education opportunities were limited. All of the children were expected to help out with the farm work, so their schooling was done locally.

Rice Jr. was not content with the neighborhood school and spent all his free time poring over books in an effort to improve his mind. He spent three semesters at the Owensboro Academy, then after a year of working on his father's farm to secure tuition, he applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point through a scholarship presented by Congressman S. O. Peyton. The two years he spent in that place set the standard for his later military career. He was diligent, studious, respectful to superiors, with strict attention to detail and adherence to regulations which would become his trademark in the Confederate Army.

Leaving West Point to return to his beloved Kentucky, he set about preparing for defense in the State Guard, then enlisted in the 2nd Kentucky Infantry Regiment., serving as Adjutant until November 1861. Soon after, he was promoted to Captain of the artillery and served as such at Ft. Donelson, attracting the attention and commendation of Union General U. S. Grant, who, after the surrender, made a special inquiry as to the identity of the officer whose guns had troubled him so. Months of confinement in a Federal prison camp did nothing to break the spirit of this gifted young man. Upon his release, he was appointed Chief of Artillery with the rank of Major, and returned to duty with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

He was twice wounded during the battle of Murfreesboro and such was the esteem in which he was held by Gen. John C. Breckinridge that the General arranged for his own wife to nurse the noble artillerist. Graves attributed his recovery to Mary Breckinridge's skill and tender care and she in turn loved him devotedly.

Less than a year later, Rice Graves would be wounded again, this time at the battle of Chickamauga which proved so devastating to the Kentucky Brigade. When Gen. Breckinridge realized that his young friend was down, he rode immediately to his aid. Witnesses to that pathetic scene were struck by the tenderness between the two men, almost as if father were bending over the fallen form of his son. Later, as Graves lay dying in a local farmhouse, Gen. Breckinridge would come once more. Graves, whose suffering from the bullet to his bowels was intense, attempted to ease the commander's worry by telling him that if Mrs. Breckinridge were here to nurse him, he would certainly recover. In spite of his brave words, both men knew that they were saying goodbye for the last time in this life.

Another wounded soldier lay dying next to Major Graves. The man writhed and cried out in his agony, and it was proposed that he should be moved to another room so that Major Graves could rest. Graves was appalled that they could consider causing the poor fellow any more pain on his account and he spoke sharply to the nurses, forbidding such action. The man lived only a few more hours, his last moments eased as much as possible by his fellow Kentuckian who would not survive long himself.

Little was recorded of Maj. Graves after the first night at the field hospital, but it is thought that he lived longer than hours after his wounding. Apparently he was still alive when Breckinridge's troops left the area or else his body would have been transported along with Gen. Helm to Atlanta for burial. There were several hospitals set up in the nearby town, Ringgold, and he most likely perished in one of them a day or two later. He was buried in the Citizen's Cemetery in Ringgold. Sadly, the exact burial location of Maj. Graves was lost through the years. On the anniversary of his death in 1996, members of the General Ben Hardin Helm Camp erected a military grave marker in the center of the Ringgold cemetery.

Gen. Breckinridge wrote in his report of the battle of Chickamauga: "One member of my staff I cannot thank; Major Rice Graves received a mortal wound on the 20th. Although a very young man he gave promise of the highest distinction. A truer friend, a purer patriot, a better soldier, never lived".

One who knew him from his childhood said, after his death, " I feel that I can say, without exaggeration, that, take him altogether, I have never known his equal. He was remarkable for his virtue, honesty, and integrity. To his parents he was always dutiful, loving, and obedient; to his brothers and sisters affectionate and kind. For age and superiority he entertained the greatest reverence. He was upright and correct. I never knew of his contracting a bad habit, or being guilty of a dishonorable action. I stood by his side as he took leave of the family, when about to repair to the seat of war. One by one he bade adieu. Last of all he turned to the fond mother, who, with her overburdened heart, had reserved the privilege of the last embrace; and while his bosom heaved with deep emotion and his manly cheeks were wet with tears, he exclaimed, though scarcely able to articulate. 'Mother, I will return for your sake' ".

That heartbroken mother would live on for 11 years after the death of her noble son. The darkness of those years would have been unbearable if not for the religious conviction they both shared, the certainly of being reunited in heaven.

After the war, several former comrades of the Major came to offer their respects to the Graves family in Yelvington. These soldiers assured the sad parents of the courage and gallantry of their son. It was these soldiers who had borne his body from the battlefield to the hospital. Mrs. Graves would later send bed linens to the home where her son had been cared for.
On September 21, 1900, the Breckinridge Chapter of the Owensboro UDC unveiled the first Confederate monument by the organization in Kentucky. The dedication date chosen was in honor of Daviess County hero Maj. Rice E. Graves, whose memory highlighted the ceremonies. C.H. Todd, Commander of the Rice E. Graves UCV Camp #1121 said that he could recall no other solider that he met during the war who so impressed him and so rapidly won his confidence and friendship.

Owensboro, although once known as "The Southern Gateway" today has no UDC or SCV organizations, having disbanded years ago. The Mollie Morehead Chapter UDC and the Forrest-Orphans Camp SCV which are both chartered in the nearby town of Calhoun have kept the Confederate history alive in Owensboro, especially the memory of Rice Graves—A Kentucky Hero.

Note: A Confederate Monument is located on the Daviess County Courthouse Lawn in Owensboro. Dedicated in 1900 by the UDC to a crowd of 5,000 spectators, it has undergone several restorations through the years. The Mollie Morehead Chapter of te UDC held a rededication service for the monument in 2000. At one time several cannons were also positioned on the Daviess County Courthouse lawn. The U.S. Government needed iron during WWII to produces weapons. The ladies of the Owensboro UDC are said to have donated these cannons for the war effort. Some believe these cannons were those belonging to Grave's artillery. Also there was a beautiful portrait of Maj. Graves displayed inside the courthouse at Owensboro,but when a new building was erected in the 1960's the portrait mysteriously disappeared after being stored for safekeeping.

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