Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson had begun raising a Federal force in September “to end treason” in eastern Kentucky. By this time, the force numbered about 5,500 troops. These troops occupied Prestonburg on their way to confront Colonel John S. Williams, who had recruited about 1,010 Confederate volunteers around Piketon, 28 miles southeast of Prestonburg.
Nelson’s goal was to stop Williams from recruiting men and cut off his line of retreat into Virginia. He detached a regiment, a small battalion, and a cannon under Colonel Joshua W. Sill from Louisa on a circuitous route behind Williams’s troops near the state line. Meanwhile, Nelson led three regiments and two batteries down the state road directly toward Williams at Piketon.
Nelson moved out at 5 a.m. on the 8th. The Confederates, most of whom had only shotguns or flintlock muskets, quickly fell back toward Ivy Mountain as Williams tried to buy enough time to escape into Virginia. Confederate cavalry skirmished briefly with the advancing Federals before falling back. Williams had not finished evacuating when the Federals approached, so he positioned his men at a gorge between Ivy Creek and Ivy Mountain, which overlooked a sharp bend in the state road northeast of Piketon.
As the Federals blindly rounded the bend, the Confederates opened fire. An 80-minute engagement ensued in which both sides mostly used small arms. Nelson could not use his numerical superiority or his artillery because of the road’s narrowness. And Sill’s Federals never arrived in Williams’s rear as planned.
The Confederates managed to break away and continue their retreat, felling trees along the way to slow their pursuers. The Federals advanced four miles before halting for the night in heavy rain. Williams reached Abingdon, Virginia, the next day. Sill remained at Louisa, unable to stop him. Nelson reported that his men sustained 30 casualties (six killed and 24 wounded). The Confederates lost 75 (10 killed, 15 wounded, and 50 captured or missing). Nelson won a minor victory, but he failed to destroy the enemy as hoped. Williams’s force remained intact.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.