Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Wilcox County's John Herbert Kelly was known as 'Boy General of the Confederacy'

John Herbert Kelly
John Herbert Kelly was known as the “Boy General of the Confederacy,” but don’t let the nickname fool you. He was one of the toughest soldiers to ever come out of Wilcox County.

This coming Friday – March 31 – marks 177 years since Kelly’s birth, which took place on March 31, 1840 in Carrollton, the Pickens County town that’s arguably best known for its mysterious “Face in the Courthouse Window.” Kelly’s parents, Isham and Elizabeth Kelly, both died when Kelly was a boy, leaving Kelly and his brother, Rollin, a pair of young orphans.

At that time, the two young brothers moved to Wilcox County to live with their grandparents, Col. Joseph Richard Hawthorne and Harriet Herbert Hawthorne, in the antebellum plantation home that’s now known as the Hawthorne House at Pine Apple. John Herbert Kelly spent the next decade of his life in Pine Apple and, under the tutelage of his grandfather, he became an expert horseman and marksman, two skills that would serve him well later in life as a soldier.

Kelly later secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and at the age of just 17 and 1,100 miles from home, he found himself in the same class with such famous soldiers as George Armstrong Custer, Alonzo Cushing and Peter C. Haines.

Like many young West Point cadets from the South, Kelly became swept up in the tide of history, and, as the clouds of war loomed, he withdrew from West Point on Dec. 29, 1860, a short time before the state of Alabama seceded from the Union. In those days, the Confederate capital was located in Montgomery and, with trained military officers being in short supply, it was there that Kelly offered his services to the Confederacy. He was just 20 years old.

He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Confederate Army and was later promoted to captain for a short time before being promoted to major on Sept. 23, 1861. After serving for a time at Fort Morgan, he led an infantry regiment at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and was recognized for his bravery with a promotion to colonel on May 5, 1862. From there, he went on to fight at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky and the Battle of Murfreesboro in Tennessee, where he was wounded.

Perhaps his finest hour was at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 where he “displayed great courage and skills” after having a horse shot out from under him. Kelly’s brigade lost 300 men within one hour of fierce, savage fighting, but the battle ended in a Confederate victory as Kelly’s brigade withstood three Union counterattacks at Snodgrass Hill. (Also on the field that day was a young, 19-year-old Alabama private named Lewis Lavon Peacock, who thankfully survived the war, because if he hadn’t, someone other than his third-great-grandson would have written this column.)

Grave of John Herbert Kelly.
Not long thereafter, on Nov. 16, 1863, Kelly was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. At the time of his promotion, at the age of 23, Kelly was the youngest brigadier general in the entire Confederate Army, which is why we know him today as the “Boy General of the Confederacy.”

Less than a year later, on Sept. 2, 1864, Kelly, then in charge of cavalry troops, was mortally wounded while leading a charge during a skirmish near the town of Franklin, Tenn. Sources say that a Yankee sharpshooter shot Kelly through the chest, knocking him off his horse. Fellow soldiers carried Kelly off the field in a blanket to the Harrison House, a plantation home just south of Franklin, where sources say he died in his bed two days later as a Union prisoner. He was just 24 years old.

Kelly was originally buried at the Harrison House, but his remains were exhumed in 1866 and transported back to Alabama. Today, among the thousands of graves within the historic confines of the Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile, you’ll find the grave of General John Herbert Kelly. Atop his grave sits a large stone marker that was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on April 25, 1951. For decades, it has let visitors know that they are standing at the final resting place of Confederate hero John Herbert Kelly, the “Boy General of the Confederacy.”

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