Sunday, February 6, 2011

William "Bill" W. Wright, Confederate Renegade

During the Civil War, the Big Sandy Valley saw its share of partisan rangers, guerrillas and irregular bands who roamed the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and fought on more unconventional terms than regular troops.

William “Bill” W. Wright was a member of several of these groups and made quite a name for himself during the Civil War. William was born abt. 1827 in Southwest Virginia, the youngest of six children of James Wright and Rebecca Herrell. William never knew his father since he died before or soon after his birth. On July 1, 1827, his mother Rebecca married Revolutionary War soldier James Pratt in Floyd Co. KY. Based on records, it appears that William, along with his older sister Louanna, did not spent his early childhood years with his mother and her new husband, but was raised, perhaps, by extended family.

On June 19, 1853, William Wright married Sarah J. Rose in Lawrence County, KY and set up housekeeping on Irish Creek. Soon their first child, Sintha, was born on April 13, 1854, followed by two more children in 1855 and 1857. Within the next two years, the family moved to Catts Fork where their last child, Lavinia, was born on October 9, 1859.

Meanwhile, a national crisis was brewing in the United States. Talk of disunion was sparked into action with the election of Lincoln as president on November 6, 1860 and secessionists made it clear that they intended to leave the Union, by force, if necessary. William Wright was an ardent supporter of the Southern cause. During the election, Wright assaulted an election officer in Lawrence County and was promptly indicted for the deed. This was just the beginning of William Wright’s long and violent career during the Civil War.

William soon began settling his affairs and sold his small property on Catts Fork. On April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially began. In June 1861, he joined Wm. A. Roberts, a son of St. Clair Roberts, who was making up a company in the Catts Fork neighborhood to go to the Confederate army. In September, 1861, some twenty-five or thirty had enlisted and Roberts took the recruits to the army, including William Wright. Since the army was not quite organized yet, William Wright soon managed to obtain a pass to come home. According to Wright, “A. J. Marcum was then recruiting in Lawrence and I got in with him. He had a hundred men at one time. He however left us and Jerry Riffe took command of us.”

Scene on Catts Fork, Lawrence County, KY

At the end of November 1861, Wright experienced his first fight with Union forces. Riffe’s men were at A. J. Auxier’s house near Brammer Gap when they were attacked by a Union scout from Louisa. “They fired into us and we returned the fire and brought one man from his saddle,” noted Wright. “The Yankees then fled and left us the field.” When it was discovered that the man wasn’t dead, two or three fired into him and killed him. Wright insisted that he had nothing to do with the shooting. When the Union patrol returned the following day to renew the fight, Wright made his escape from Emmanuel Brammer’s house where he was staying at the time, possibly hiding out at his brother Calvin’s place on Dry Fork, together with some, “twenty five or thirty Confederate soldiers” who were on their way to the Confederate Army in Prestonsburg.

Site of Emanuel Brammer's Farm, Brammer Gap

William Wright did not spend his time being idle. He and some of his comrades, namely William Sawyers, Johnson Griffith, Frank Young, James Rose, William Brown and William Large, fell upon Andrew Cooksey’s house twice, and robbed him of one rifle and two muskets, “by putting him in fear of some immediate injury to his person.”
The relative safety at Calvin Wright’s place was soon shattered when yet another Union patrol, under command of Captain O. D. Botner, 14th KY Infantry, raided the farm, arrested Calvin, confiscated his stock of brandy and took him to Louisa.

William Wright decided it was time to leave Lawrence County and put out for the regular army at Prestonsburg. He enlisted on December 11, 1861, in Captain Hawkins’s Co. C of the 5th KY Mounted Infantry, for the duration of 12 months. His brother Bayless also enlisted in the 5th KY but served in Captain Blevins’ Co. K. William Wright participated in the Battle of Middle Creek on Jan. 10, 1862 and continued with the 5th KY Mounted Infantry until June 11, 1862, when he was discharged at Camp Calfee due to a hernia.

William W. Wright Service Record
5th KY Mounted Infantry (CS)

After leaving the service, William Wright made his way back to Floyd Co. KY. “I hurt some men in that county, noted Wright. “I killed one man through mistake. I thought he was a Home Guard. They were after me to kill me. I was some distance from him when I shot. I had some acquaintance with him but could not recognize him from the distance I was from him. His name was Wesley Barnett.”

In the summer of 1862, William Wright associated himself with Co. D, 2nd Batt. KY Mtd. Rifles, commanded by Captain “Rebel Bill” Smith. He enlisted as a private on Aug. 26, 1862 in Logan County, Virginia (now WV) and was elected 2nd Sgt. on Nov. 20, 1862. In October, 1862, Smith’s company went to Lawrence County and remained there for nearly a month until ordered out. During this time, Wright and a number of others were indicted by the Grand Jury of Lawrence County for the crime of invading the State of Kentucky, “as a part of an armed force of the so-called Confederate States… to make war upon her, against the peace & dignity of the Com"' of Kentucky.”

William W. Wright's Service Record
2nd Battlion KY Mounted Rifles

While in Lawrence County, William Wright, together with Harvey Derifield, William Brown and John Sansom, also raided the home of Oliver D. Botner, and robbed him of one pistol, one hat, saddle-pockets, one vest, some money & numerous other articles. This may have been an act of personal revenge for Wright since it was Botner who arrested his brother Calvin in late 1861.

In November, Smith’s company left Eastern Kentucky and crossed the Big Sandy at the mouth of Whites Creek. “The day after we crossed we had a fight with Bob McCall, noted Wright. “Bob fought very well but we made him trot and captured ten head of horses and accoutrements. We then went to Russell County, Virginia.” The 2nd Battalion also spent some time in Eastern Tennessee and in March of 1863, was ordered back into Eastern Kentucky. Along the way, William Wright fell sick and was left in Morgan County. As soon as he got well he rejoined his command and then was sent into Kentucky to gather up the stragglers of his company. William Wright started out in August, 1863 and made an appearance at Charles Barrett’s house on August 18, 1863, together with Harvey Derifield, John Sansum, William Brown & John Kitchen (son of Jack), and robbed the man of a silver watch, clothing, money & divers other things.

William Wright soon fell in with Sid Cook’s Company who were briefly associated with Prentice’s 7th Confederate Cavalry. Between April and October in 1863, Cook’s company raided Star Furnace (Carter County), Poplar Plains, Flemingsburg, Pennsylvania Furnace (Greenup County), Olive Hill and Morehead, Kentucky. During a raid on Buffalo Furnace in Greenup County, KY, on Oct. 11, 1863, Wright was captured, along with John M. Auxier, Bunyon Oney & John H. Smith from Cook’s company.

Ruins of Buffalo Furnace
Greenup County, KY

Wright was sent to prison in Louisville and tried by a military commission for the murder of a Union prisoner in October 1862 and sentenced to death. He tried to break guard and as a consequence had his arm shot off. The Union authorities commuted his death sentence to imprisonment with hard labor at Camp Nelson, where he remained until after the war had ended. He was finally released in July 1865 and returned home to Lawrence County. Soon he learned about the indictments against him for his war-related crimes and went into hiding to dodge the officers who were after him. Before long, he joined forces with James Lyon, a Union deserter from the 5th WV and former member of Cook’s company, and his brother John Lyon, a lad of 18 years. According to Wright, the trio “formed a great many plots.” In 1866, the three men were still prowling the hills of Lawrence Co. where they made quite a reputation for themselves. On April 19, 1866, the Lawrence County Court indicted the Wright and the Lyon men for "shooting with intent to kill", a probable reference to the wounding of Hiram F. Adams who was shot down while working in the fields with his son.

This act was followed by the murder of George P. Archer, a merchant who lived at the mouth of Bear Creek in Lawrence County, on April 27, 1866, which would eventually bring on the demise of William Wright and James and John Lyons. The robbery had been planned well in advance by Wright and Lyon men. On the day before the night of the robbery and murder they went to Louisa to Joe Botts’ barber shop. “Uncle Joe” cut the hair of Jim and John Lyons and shaved off the long beard of Bill Wright. In requesting “Uncle Joe” to shave off the beard, Wright said “it was spring now” and he didn’t want to wear it during the summer. It was later brought out in court that this was just a part of a disguise that he hoped would keep Archer and Mrs. Hatton from recognizing him. On the evening of the tragic murder, Bill Wright and Jim and John Lyons stopped at the house of an old woman on Catts Fork, believed to be an aunt of William Wright, and told her they were on their way to the mouth of Bear Creek to rob a store.

The trio arrived at Archer’s store on Bear Creek late at night. They knocked on the door, pretending to be rafts men, and asked for tobacco. Archer came down the stairs in his night-clothes and handed them what they had asked for. The men then concluded to buy of every thing freely, and soon three large sacks were filled and tied up, when one of the robbers demanded money. Archer, on reaching under the counter for his pistol, was riddled by bullets fired by the men. Leaving George Archer to die where he had fallen, two of the men carried their stolen bags of merchandise to the outside where their horses were waiting. The other went upstairs in search of the money they thought was hidden somewhere. Upon hearing a noise (he thought someone had heard the shots and was coming to investigate) he very quickly grabbed Archer’s clothes, including a jeans coat that were on the foot of the homemade bed and fled.

The murder created intense excitement in Lawrence County. Meanwhile, the trio had returned to the house of the old woman on Catts Fork, and after she made them breakfast, divided much of the property with her. Soon Archer's wife remembered the jeans coat, and that it could nowhere be found. Hope revived that the tell-tale garment would lead to the apprehension of the murderers. Men went everywhere to spy out the coat. At this juncture the old woman living on Cat's Fork sent word to the county seat that Wright and James and John Lyon had been at her house before and after the robbery, and leaving part of their loot with her in payment for breakfast. Almost simultaneously with the old woman's story the coat was seen on Jim Lyon’s back. He was arrested with the fatal coat, and taken to Louisa. John Lyons was soon found in Greenup County, and brought to Louisa.

William Wright was still at large on June 25, 1866, when Judge Clayton informed Governor Bramlette, "There has been a monstrous murder committed in this county..." He urged the governor to "offer a liberal reward” for the apprehension of Wright, who was believed to be skulking about in the Little Sandy country. William Wright was described as, “as being "about 5 feet 7 inches high, slightly pockmarked, with his left arm off, tolerably close off & stutters very much when excited." He was finally captured in Magoffin County, after he had entered the store of a Mr. Allen who, recognizing him from the published description quickly covered him with a pistol. With the help of two other men, Allen brought him to Louisa on horseback and William Wright was placed in jail. The three were put in irons, and the jail was guarded to prevent escape as it was feared that they would be liberated by other desperados still at large in the area.

At the preliminary trial the stolen goods that had been given the Catts Fork lady was brought in, the evidence of “Uncle Joe” the barber was taken and the “jeans coat” was identified by Archer’s wife. The guilt of the parties was proven beyond a doubt. Archer's friends concluded that there was danger in delaying the execution of justice, and a group of about 150 to 200 men, of the lower part of Lawrence County, Ky., and Wayne County, West Va., without any disguise, rode into Louisa, ordered a gallows erected, dispersed the guard at the jail, forced the jailer to surrender the keys, and brought out the prisoners, telling them to prepare for death, for that within a few hours they must die. The prisoners were escorted to the blacksmith shop, where they were relieved of their manacles.

Appeals by Frederick Moore, Rev. Mr. Medley, and Mr. Hall, at the Court House, in behalf of law and order, proved to be fruitless. The mob listened, but went on with the preparations. The condemned men proceeded to the place of the execution at the Salt Water Branch, now known as Sammon’s Bottom, just off Pike Street, in Louisa. It was now three o’clock in the afternoon.

Jim Lyons made a confession while on the way to the gallows, which was pronounced false by the other two. John Lyons and Bill Wright also made voluntary confessions as soon as they reached the make-shift scaffold. They all ascended and took their positions on the same. Col. Milton J. Ferguson pleaded with the crowd to let the law take its course but his words fell on deaf ears. Reverent Medley stepped forward and asked to be allowed to pray again. He asked God to forgive the mob for what they were about to do, and to so burden the hearts of the murderers that they would cry out as the thief on the cross did, and ask forgiveness. As his prayer ended the three were asked if they had a final word to say.

As soon as quiet was restored, Bill Wright made a speech, and in his remarks he requested that his confession should not be read, as he preferred to have it published to the whole world after he was dead. This, however, was not granted. The truthfulness of Wright's confession was pronounced false by the Lyons brothers, and the controversy between the prisoners finally ended in a quarrel.
John Lyons was only eighteen, but he told the crowd, "The world will lose nothing by my death. I was old enough to take part in the crime, and I’m old enough to die with my partners.”

A correspondent of the Catlettsburg Herald described the hanging, “The prisoners manifested very little fear, and otherwise showed themselves to be bold ... John Lyons sent word to his brother that he hoped to meet him in a better place than that dirty hole, at the same time sending an old pocket handkerchief for a keepsake. The time had now arrived for the termination of the lives of these miserable men and, on receiving the notification, the Lyons brothers joined hands and kissed each other. The caps were then drawn over their heads, and they shouted good bye to the throng, and they, in connection with Wright, were launched into eternity. After hanging about fifteen minutes life was pronounced extinct.” They were pronounced dead by Dr. Kincaid of Catlettsburg and Dr. Yates of Louisa. When the bodies were cut down it was discovered that the men were still alive. They were taken to the Lawrence County court house and laid out on the floor to die. Dr. H.S. Swetnam and Dr. G. W. Wroten were called in and soon it was apparent that at last they had gone to meet their Maker.

Article of the hanging, Catlettsburg Herald, July 28, 1866,
re-printed in the New York Herald, August 6, 1866

During the night coffins were made ready for burial. Colonel Jay H. Northup offered space on a part of his land at the mouth of Lick Creek for a final resting place. In the 1930’s, according to local lore, the skull and leg bones of two of the culprits were found where they had washed up on the banks of the mouth of Lick Creek, near where the Creek enters into the Levisa River. The skull was displayed in the window of one of the local hardware stores for a number of years but has disappeared since without a trace.
However, the correspondent of the Catlettsburg Herald noted that the bodies were taken to Blaine for burial. The world may never know their true burial site, but it seems befitting that William Wright, James and John Lyon remain controversial in death as they were in life, up to their violent and ghastly demise in 1866. It also has remained a mystery what happened to William Wright's wife Sarah and their four children - all of them vanished without a trace.

Article written and researched by Marlitta H. Perkins, Feb. 2011.
Photographs are property of the author and copyrighted.


  1. Hello: Last week I visited Cole Branch off of Middle Creek in Floyd County, Kentucky to research a plot of land handed down within my family. Was amazed upon hearing, from my newly discovered "kin", about "The Black Legs" [vigilante group] but have yet to yield any information about [them]. Are you familiar with the Black Legs and their vigilante ways? Any direction you can provide will be very appreciated!

    Stan Poe

    1. I am curious where you got this information from. I have not seen this information. Thanks

    2. Cheryl, the information was gathered from a variety of sources. I've researched William "Bill" W. Wright for years. He was my uncle. Please get in touch with me at

  2. I am very interested in the details of the life and death of Emmanuel Brammer mentioned here. Local legend says he died at the hands of confederate raiders. Some say that was the fate of his entire family. There is a persistent local story about lost gold buried by Brammer, not found by the raiders. I am collecting these stories and their variations. I would welcome any additional information.

  3. Emmanuel and his family were said to have been murdered by confederate soldiers over his money (gold) that he had hidden. A female slave's life was sparred in return for showing the men where the money was. I read this story from a very old newspaper article that had been written years after the event. To the best of my memory, that was how the story was written.

  4. Hello, My great great great grandfather was the "William Large" mentioned in your article. My sister Teri and I hunt for cat fork Whenever weather permits and would love to find it. It was the home of our great great great grandparents
    William Large and his son Robert Large and Tarsha Large our great great grandparents. Any information or help will be so very very appreciated!!