Below: Osceola, Kentucky circa 1900. Gooch Mill is located in the center. The lost town of Osceola was located on the east side of the Little Barren River, between Greensburg and Horse Cave. Thanks to a high number of saloons, the town became known as "that wicked little river town" by residents of neighboring communities. No trace, other than a few remains of the mill, of Osceola exists today. From Postcard History Series by Carl Howell and Dixie Hibbs.
By Stewart Cruickshank
On November 19th, 2005, my colleague Nancy Hitt placed a small memorial marker near the bridge over KY Hwy 88, on the Little Barren River. The marker recalled the November 19th, 1864, reprisal execution of six men, Confederate prisoners of war, shot by order of Union General S. G. Burbridge. Burbridge’s long list of atrocities is covered in the Summer 2004 issue of the Lost Cause. Sadly, like the long gone town of Osceola, Kentucky, where the execution took place, the marker placed by Nancy soon disappeared. The unmarked grave site for five of these Confederate martyrs is nearby, where the old Dishman Road meets an abandoned crossing to the old ferry. Today this is on private property.
The town of Osceola was founded in the early 1860’s, on the east side of the Little Barren River, along the Green County/Hart County line. Gooch’s Mill provided employment, and later Joseph Cunningham built the first store, located across from the mill. At one point in its history Osceola boasted four saloons. Eventually flooding forced the abandonment of the town in the 1890’s.
The Crime Committed
1864—A young boy staying with his uncle in Osceola recalled that on a sunny Sunday morning, a few weeks previous, he’d been robbed of a coveted 10-cent scrip that he had earned. Five rebel soldiers rode into town and took it at gunpoint. After robbing the Cunningham Store, they shot two men and rode away.
Judge Roy A. Cann’s papers held by the Hart County Historical Society, record that some Confederate soldiers came to Osceola; they were looking for Billie Lile and Jeff Ralston. When they interrogated Billie Lile, he lied and claimed to be his brother James. Billie then hid out in the garden of Henry Bale’s house. The soldiers then detained and killed Billie’s brother James and Jeff Ralston. After both men had been shot, the bodies were dragged together and placed with one man’s head upon the other, a final shot being fired into their heads.
“It was said that Ralston and Lile had given some information, that would have been best not to have (been) revealed, and they were shot to seal their mouthes (sic) as well as put fear in the citizens”
Interestingly, several of the newspapers recorded the victim’s names as James F. Tyle and G. W. Roylston. The identities of the killers is unknown; in all accounts these men were not seen before or after the incident. While they may have been partisans or guerillas, they may have simply been renegades whose agenda was self-serving. It is clear, though, they were looking for Billie Lile.
The Union Men
Further investigation reveals why Billie Lile would have been a subject of interest to the Confederates. Ben W. “Billie” Lile was a member of company B, 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment (US). On October 6, 1862 he was reported as A.W.O.L. Billie failed to return until December 23, 1863. There is no record of his activities during that period in the file. He was allowed to re-enlist as a veteran at age 26. Billie was detailed as a teamster in 1865.
James F. Lile had formerly served as a private in the same company as his brother. At age 28, he was discharged at Nashville, Tennessee with rheumatism on June 10, 1862.
George J. Ralston had previously served in the County Militia. He enlisted September 25, 1861. At Age 32 he was discharged with a hernia, October 27, 1862 at Louisville, KY.
The Confederate Martyrs
Under Burbridge’s policy (Order #59) , innocent prisoners were killed in retaliation for the deaths of Lile and Ralston. The Nashville Daily Times and Union newspaper dated November 18, 1864 reported that eight guerrillas were executed on the 17th of November, by order of General Burbridge. It was further recorded that, “Burbridge will soon be as great a ‘monster’, ‘inhumane wretch’, etc. as General Butler or General Paine.”
The Louisville Daily Democrat, on November 19, reported that the men sent to Munfordville, Kentucky, to be shot were “W. C. martin, A. B. Tudor, John Tomlinson, Sanford Turley, W. B. Dunn, John Edmonson, J. M. Jones, and W. L. Robinson”. The November 20th edition corrected the originally published list to read “W. T. Thornton, W. B. Dunn, Jacob Baker, Lycurgus Morgan, John Henn, A. B. Tudor, and two others named Tomlinson and Martin”.
The Louisville Journal on the 21st reported the same revision. The newspaper stated that publications of the earlier list had caused the execution to be delayed. So then four of the men sentenced were actually replacement victims! Here is clear proof of the arbitrary selection of innocent victims from the military prison pool of prisoners of war held by Union authorities.
The eight men were placed in irons at the Exchange Barracks. Twenty men from the Union army escorted them to Osceola. Along the way, a telegraph was received ordering Martin and Tomlinson returned to the prison in Louisville.
James L. Bale, a citizen of Osceola, recalled encountering six Confederate prisoners under Union escort at the Little Barren River near town. He was ordered by the Union soldiers to go into town and bring back citizens to witness the reprisal execution. When he returned the prisoners were seated on their coffins. He recalled that one of the Confederate soldiers was permitted to speak. The prisoner requested that he be buried separately from the others, as he was sure his relatives would be coming to claim the body. Bale recalled that they did come and remove the remains. The five others remained on a westward hill, east of the old Good Home, in an unmarked grave.
“A Desperate Man”
November 25, 1864, the Nashville Daily Press republished the account of the execution from the Louisville newspapers:
On Saturday six Confederates were executed at or near Osceola Kentucky by order of Major General Burbridge, in retaliation for the murder of two Union men. One of the number was a most desperate man. His name was Lycurgus Morgan, and whilst being conveyed to the spot where he was soon to be ushered out of this world into the great sea of eternity, he cursed the guards and himself, one black oath after another coming from his lips until the moment he died. Upon arriving on the grounds he coolly (sic) walked to his coffin, cursing all the time, and heavily dropped himself astraddle (sic) of it, looking boldly and defiantly at the soldiers before him. The others were moved to tears. They seemed to feel the awful and sad situation in which they were placed, and of the God in whose presence they must soon appear; but Morgan was careless as to his fate. He seemed to defy God and man. Four men were to fire upon each of the prisoners; and three white soldiers and one black were to fire upon Morgan. When the word was given to “fire” all took deliberate aim and fired. While all the others fell pierced with bullets, and without a murmur, strange to say, the caps snapped on the guns pointed at Morgan, with the exception of the negro’s and he missed his aim. At the report of the guns, Morgan fell backwards on his coffin, and lay as if he had been killed, without murmur, and none suspected until the Lieutenant in charge approached him and examined his body closely, and finding that he escaped being shot, he drew his piston and shot him in the breast, the ball passing up his ribs and lodging in the back of his neck. When the ball struck Morgan his whole person sprung three feet above the coffin upon which he was lying upon his back. This closed the scene, and thus ended the life of a bold, desperate person, who seemed to be unacquainted with fear.”
The Kentucky historian, Richard H. Collins, also recorded this execution and noted Lycurgus Morgan was purportedly “one of the boldest, most desperate and perfectly fearless men in the world”.
Newspapers from this period often contain misspellings, and in the style of the times often romanticized and exaggerated their reports. However, this tragic story of military injustice is worthy of remembrance.
Perhaps this account of it shall result in an authorized historical marker from the Kentucky Historical Society, and the preservation of an unmarked cemetery, where five Confederate men lie after being shot without trial or representation, near the ghostly remains of Osceola.
Correspondence with Nancy Hitt, Newspapers listed
Green County Review, April 1987, Vol. 10 #3
Kentucky Union Army Consolidated Records of the Civil War
Hart County Cemeteries, R. Cann
The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 69 #2, Louis De Falaise
If you have information about the victims of the Osceola executions, please contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org