Saturday, February 11, 2012

James Aldridge - Outlaw or Avenging Angel?

The Civil War in Eastern Kentucky as well as the western part of Virginia was not about glorious battles fought with large armies. The character of the land, with its mountains and hollers, shaped the nature of warfare and lend itself to guerrilla tactics. It was a bitter and oftentimes bloody struggle and fought with no mercy in which the general population was easily caught in the middle between the two contending sides. Confederate units such as Rebel Bill Smith, as well as guerrilla bands were roaming the boarder between Eastern Kentucky and Virginia, plundering and robbing civilians as well as waylaying or bushwhacking federal soldiers. This gave rise to local home guard units, militia groups and scouts whose objective it was to aid the federal army in keeping Confederate activities at bay and safeguard their neighborhoods from incursions by the enemy. In some instances, men banded together to exact revenge and hunt down the guilty parties without mercy. Driven by their principles, answering more or less to their own laws, these men walked a fine line between outlaw and avenging angel.

One of those men was James Aldridge. He was the son of Samuel Aldridge and was born about 1828 in Logan County, Virginia. By 1850, James was living in John and Sally Chapman’s household in the Elk Creek area in Lawrence County, Kentucky.

It would not be long before James Aldridge became involved with John Chapman’s grand-daughter Mary Muncy. Three children soon followed - Sarah, born in Virginia abt. 1854, Lovinca, born November 13, 1855 and William, born October 2, 1857. The following year, James stole a horse and saddle from his father who promptly had him charged with Grand Larceny and thrown into the Lawrence County jail at Louisa. According to Joseph M. Kirk who had known James Aldridge from the time he was a little boy, his character was anything but respectable and he believed Aldridge could be persuaded by his friends, “to do anything that they might want done no matter how low it was and even to the shedding of blood.” This incident was just a shadow of things to come.

The following year, his widowed father Samuel went to Logan County, Virginia and married Susan Dingess, nee Crum, likewise widowed, on November 9, 1859. The newly-wed couple established housekeeping in Pike County, Kentucky.

A second wedding soon followed, when James Aldridge finally tied the knot with Mary Muncy in Lawrence County, Kentucky, on February 27, 1860. The marriage rites were performed by C. M. Pack and witnessed by Mary’s uncle William Muncy. Census records seem to indicate that, following their wedding, James moved to Sprigg Township in Adams County, Ohio, with Mary, leaving the children behind in Kentucky, perhaps with relatives. It may have been an attempt by James to get a new start on life away from his old troubles at home, establish financial security and provide a stable home for his family. However, James and Mary did remain in Ohio but a few months. By August 16, 1860, the couple was back on Elk Creek in Lawrence County, KY and re-united with their children. A new baby had been added to the family as well, a girl named Lydia.

In 1861, the Civil War began and, according to James Aldridge, he first joined the Confederate side although there are no records to substantiate his claim. His time with the rebels lasted less than a year. He allegedly deserted, later exclaiming that, “he was as good a union man as ever was manufactured from secesh principles or Rebel material.”

In April of 1862, Aldridge went up the Big Sandy River and enlisted under the name James M. Aldridge at Camp Paxton, Guyandotte, Virginia as private in Captain Turner’s Company (later Co. I), 9th VA Infantry (US). His name appears on the Company Roll, dated April 30, 1862. Aldridge was enrolled on May 9, 1862 at Guyan, VA, for three year service. Aldridge soon became fed up with military life in the 9th WV Infantry and deserted on July 11, 1862, Gauley Bridge, VA.

Service Record for James M. Aldridge
Captain Turner's Company, 9th Virginia Vols.(US)

He returned home but soon joined Captain Ira G. Copley Company, attached to the 167th Militia, in Wayne County, Virginia. He enlisted as a private on August 2, 1862. No sooner had Aldridge enlisted, the Confederates began their invasion of Kentucky. Within two weeks, things were beginning to look rather bleak in Eastern Kentucky. By August 18, 1862, CS General John S. Williams’ Brigade was reported in the Big Sandy Valley and General Humphrey Marshall’s division, estimated between 4 and 12,000 strong, was expected to cross the border into Kentucky at Pound Gap at any given time. Additionally, it was feared that Confederate cavalry under Menifee, Witcher and Jenkins would attack and plunder Ceredo, Virginia, Catlettsburg, Kentucky and finally Ironton, Ohio. Since there virtually was no military presence in the area, leaving it without protection whatsoever, this was a realistic fear . The nearest troops, Colonel Cranor’s 40th OVI, were stationed at Louisa, thirty miles south of Catlettsburg. Unfortunately, the soldiers, aside from their commander, seemed to be blissfully unaware of the impending danger. One of the 40th OVI soldier noted, “there was no duty other than picket, daily drill and dress parade. For the first time in our Sandy life, dress-parade became a matter of interest. The town contained a few hundred inhabitants, nearly all of whom came out to see our dress-parades, which gave to our camp a somewhat lively appearance.”

Post 1906 view of Cassville (Ft. Gay), in the foreground,
and Louisa, Kentucky, across the river.
Image collection of the author

It may have been during this time, that Aldridge was overheard making threats against Colonel Cranor at Cassville, Wayne County, Virginia (modern-day Ft. Gay), which is situated directly across the Big Sandy River from Louisa, KY. He devised a plan to assassinate Colonel Cranor but Aldridge’s motives are unclear. Together with James Smith, Aldridge bought a gun for that very purpose, and hung about the hillsides, watching for Cranor, with the intention of shooting him the first time he came out with his regiment on dress parade.

Colonel Jonathan Cranor, 40th OVI

However, nothing became of the assassination plot and soon thereafter, Aldridge made the acquaintance of a recruiting officer from the 27th OVI. On Aug. 25, 1862, Aldridge signed up with the regiment and enlisted as a private in Company K. It was a déjà-vu experience for Aldridge because within less than two months, he once again deserted and made his way back home to Kentucky.

Upon his return, Aldridge found that a new regiment was being formed in the Big Sandy Valley, the 39th KY Infantry, under the command of John Dils, Jr. Captain Joseph M. Kirk, from Lawrence County, KY, was raising a company for the regiment and set up camp in Wayne County, Virginia to recruit. Aldridge appeared at Camp Radcliff and reported to Kirk, stating that he was a deserter from the Rebel army. Aldridge was later released. Kirk stated that, “since that time the said Aldridge has been acting with the home Guards of the state of Virginia.”

Apparently, Aldridge had returned to the ranks of Captain Copley’s Company and was doing service with them. However, when the 39th KY began moving up the Big Sandy River from Catlettsburg towards Piketon at the end of October 1862, and stopped in the Louisa area, Aldridge once again made an appearance in the camp of the 39th Kentucky. Colonel John Dils, Jr. noted, that, “shortly after the said Aldridge came to my camp I received an order to arrest the man Aldridge as a deserter from the ranks of the 27th OH Inft.” Orders were to convey Aldridge to Portsmouth, Ohio. Aldridge was promptly arrested but remarked to Dils, “that he would not stay at Portsmouth and that he would desert and go to the secesh.” He pointed out that, “has been always treated better there than any where else and that he would go back again.”
Nevertheless, Aldridge did not make good on his threat to join the Rebels. “It was not long after he was taken to Portsmouth,” noted Dils, “untill (sic) he was again back with my Regiment and laboured about and eventually followed us towards Piketon.”

Aldridge did not remain with the 39th Kentucky very long. Before he left, he helped himself to one of the horses of the regiment and an Enfield rifle. Thus armed and equipped he made his way back toward Louisa.

Upon his return, Aldridge set out to terrorize the suspected Southern sympathizers and others in Wayne County, Virginia. Aldridge, in company of Holbert Walker, a former member of Captain Thomas Damron’s Company, 167th Militia, appeared one day at the house of Lewis L. Howard, a Pennsylvania native who had moved with his family into the Round Bottom P.O. area from Ohio within the last four years. Both men demanded Howard’s mule and threatened to burn down his house if he didn’t produce the animal. Howard gave up the mule and Aldridge pointed out to him, “if he ever made any fuss about the mule he would waylay him and shoot him.”

In a short time, Aldridge had made quite a reputation for himself. According to John Stone, Aldridge, “bears a bad name in the county and he believes him to be a bad and dangerous man.” Lewis L. Howard was of the opinion that, “the character of the said Aldridge is very bad and that he was not to be trusted and no one would be willing to have him sit upon a Jury or ever swear against him or them.”

Aldridge’s next victim was 54 year old John Grizzle, who lived on a farm in Wayne County in the Fort Gay area with his wife Mary and six children. Grizzle was considered a harmless and in-offensive man and a good citizen. Aldridge thought differently. Undoubtedly, he was aware that in September of 1862, Grizzle’s son Hiram had enlisted in Captain Hurston Spurlock’s Company E, in Milton J. Ferguson’s Battalion which, in January 1863, became part of the16th Virginia Cavalry under Colonel Ferguson’s command. Hiram Grizzle served with the rank of sergeant.
Aldridge went to Grizzle’s house, accused him of harboring rebels about his house, shot him and left him for dead. He soon discovered that Grizzle had survived the attack. He let it be known that if Grizzle got well of his wounds he would return to his home and shoot him the 2nd time or bayonet him to death.

It was obvious, that Aldridge’s deeds were beginning to escalate. William Vinson noted, that, “whatever place the said Aldridge staid long enough to be known that the citizens were all afraid of him and that they do not and never did feel safe while encountered with his presens (sic).” The citizens had every right to feel unsafe around Aldridge who claimed that, “he had often killed men by calling men up to him and then when they were not on their Guard he would shoot them.” It was noted that Aldridge cold be bribed with a pint of whiskey or, “ten dollars to take the life of any man, or even the life of his best Friend.”

Next, Aldridge had his sights set on James Coburn, a 30 year old Wayne County farmer, who was living with his wife Fanny and four small children in the Palmetto P.O. area of the county. John Bromley, who had been acquainted with Coburn for eight or ten years, stated that he, “was a harmless quiet hard laboring & harmless citizen” and “very poor.” He noted that, “at the Commencement of the present rebellion Coburn was said to be a rebel sympathizer but the said Coburn did come to the camp of the portion of troops of the 5th Regt. Va Vol US & commanded by Lt. Col. Colvin and that he Coburn did take an oath to support the constitution of the State of Va as it were before the ordnance of secession & the constitution of the US And was released by the said officer .” Bromley noted that as far as he knew, Coburn, “acted in obedience to the aforesaid oath.” It may also be noted that James Coburn’s brother, Gordon C. Coburn, served in the 22nd KY Infantry (US).

Regardless of the facts, Aldridge was convinced that Coburn was a Rebel and decided that a visit was in order. When Aldridge showed up at Coburn’s house, he was accompanied by a group of men, including D. H. Walker. The men took Coburn and tortured him by placing, “him upon a peach kiln and did this to punish the man,” according to Aldridge’s own admission. He was then struck with a gun by D. H. Walker and shot by Aldridge who later stated when he did shoot Coburn, “he never heard a man hollow” as he did. According to witnesses, Aldridge shot Coburn twice, with an Enfield rifle. For reasons unknown, perhaps to ascertain that he, indeed, had killed his man, Aldridge returned the following day and helped bury Coburn’s body. Aldridge remarked that Coburn was the fattest man that he had ever killed “of the grass” and that “he had killed several.”

Aldridge’s activities did not go unnoticed by the military authorities in Louisa for very long. In March of 1863, he was arrested and brought before the Provost Marshal in Louisa. On March 16 and 18, 1863, a series of interviews were conducted and affidavits taken from witnesses.

Testimony by James H. O'Brien

The charges brought against Aldridge were as follows:

Charge First
= for Maliciously murdering James Coburn, a citizen of Wayne County Virginia, the deed done in the State aforesaid and the county of Wayne

Charge Second
= For shooting and wounding the body of John Grizzle with intent to kill.

Unfortunately, at this point, the records do not tell us if James Aldridge was ever punished for his crimes. It is also unclear whether he acted as part of Captain Copley’s Militia Company or if the deeds committed were self-motivated and more or less a private war Aldridge conducted on who he perceived as enemies, Rebel or otherwise. Circumstantial evidence seems to point to the latter, given the fact that his known associates were not part of Copley’s unit. Whatever the circumstances may be, it appears his case was handled with leniency, despite the damning testimony by witnesses, including two Union officers, and he was given a short sentence, if at all. Surely, this must have made the witnesses who testified against Aldridge uneasy to a certain degree, including William Vinson who stated that, “he would shoot Aldridge upon first sight if he thought Aldridge had any malice against him … for his own personal safety.”

We encounter Aldridge again the following year, in Lawrence County, Kentucky. On May 21, 1864, he enlisted as private in Company H of the 68th Kentucky Enrolled Militia, and was mustered in the same day. Aldridge was 36 years old, had a light complexion, light hair, light eyes, and stood 5' 6" tall. His profession was farmer. He was still present with the 68th KY Enrolled Militia when the unit was mustered out at Louisa on July 23, 1864. This is the last time James Aldridge appears in any Civil War related records.

Service Record for James H. Aldridge
Co. H, 68th Kentucky Enrolled Militia

John Grizzle survived Aldridge’s attack and managed to escape a possible second attempt on his life. He is found living with his family in the Butler District of Wayne County, WV in 1880.

The widow of James Coburn, Fanny, remained in Wayne County as well, but moved with her children into the Ceredo area. By 1880, however, she was living near Patrick Gap, Lawrence County, Kentucky.

After the Civil War, James Aldridge and his family lived in Lawrence County, Kentucky. They are subsequently found in Martin County census records after the formation of the county. James Aldridge applied for a pension on Nov. 4, 1889, based on his service in the 68th Militia but was denied. In 1890, he was enumerated in the Federal Veterans and Widows Census, Martin County, KY, Precincts 1 & 6 (Warfield & Emily), claiming service as a private in the militia in 1864. His post office was Warfield.

Aldridge died between 1900 and 1910. During this time, either James Aldridge or his heirs filed a claim for his militia service Wayne County with the West Virginia State Service Commission. Established in 1901, it was to help provide payment to claimants for services rendered in the state militia and home guards. The papers are now part of the West Virginia Adjutant General’s Papers and can be found at the State Archives in Charleston, West Virginia.

The article is in part based on facts and testimonies contained in the James Aldridge case file which is located in the Union Provost Marshal Records. Supporting evidence, such as service records, census listings as well as biographical data was researched and provided by the author, Marlitta H. Perkins. Copyright © 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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