Lt. Col. George Martin Jessee

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By Brad Bowman

Lt. Col George Martin Jessee has just as much local lore and legend as any Civil War figure.

A historical marker near the entrance into New Castle from Campbellsburg sums up only a part of Jesse’s military career, but not some of his more daring achievements.

Jessee eloped at 19 with his future wife Betty Foree,  who was 14-years old. Every historical reference to Betty Foree mentions her living with her sister, Lydia Foree Bullard.

The Jessees started a family and farmed in Henry County near Mt. Gilead Church on land that Betty Jessee had inherited from her father. In an article written by Betty Layton Warren, Warren said that three of the 10 children Betty Jessee gave birth to were alive before the war. Warren recounted this from her grandmother, Mary Jessee McGowan, one of Jessee’s daughters.

Military beginnings

Records do not indicate what talents or training Jessee had as a commander or soldier, but in spring 1862 Jessee managed to gather enough men from Trimble, Carroll and Henry Counties for a company. No records indicate where Jessee drilled his new recruits nor under what means he was able to arm them. During this time, Jessee needed to take his company and make it unscathed to Confederate lines in Tennessee.

Jessee’s company joined up with another company from Boone County making its way toward Confederate lines in Scott County. In the book “Kentucky Cavaliers in Dixie,” written by an acquaintance of Jessee’s George Musgrove, the company was under the command of a Capt. Boyd, Lt. L.C. Norman and Second Lt. Marion Corbin. The companies stayed in Scott County and started a march toward Virginia. When Jessee and the two companies reached Mt. Sterling, Federals, as they were often called, and a local force overtook them. The local force referred to as the home guards fought Jessee and the companies in town while the Federal Cavalry attacked them from the rear. Jessee escaped and according to all accounts returned to Henry County.

Jessee would raise another company that successfully made it to Knoxville, Tennessee.

Military battles

Jessee fought at Big Creek Gap. The gap has been called the Keystone of the Confederacy since it was a natural pass and route through the Cumberland Mountains. According to accounts from the Big Creek Gap, Union forces blocked off the road, which provided the only retreat for the Confederate forces encamped near there. Jessee, unlike his soldiers, eluded Union forces again. Jessee took part in the battle at Perryville and held the rear as forces retreated during the second Battle of Cynthiana which garnered Jessee attention from Adjutant-Gen. Edward O. Guerrant. Jessee was put in charge of trying to assemble the scattered forces in Cynthiana and the region. After Cynthiana, Jessee’s battle maneuvers were akin to guerilla warfare like John Hunt Morgan and not open battle.

Guerilla activity

In Aug. 27, 1867, the Louisville Journal wrote that Jessee, “…no more assembles his command with flourish of drums and trumpets.” The Louisville Journal reported that on a Thursday night, Jessee and his troops raided the Frankfort Railroad between Bagdad and Pleasureville stealing horses and fled to the safety of Owen County. A week later, the Louisville Journal said Jessee’s men raided a landing near Ghent and Carroll County and captured a regiment of black soldiers. The article states that Jessee took the soldiers prisoner and then executed them. The publication would contradict itself a week later saying that Jessee held the men at his encampment at Charlie Sanford’s farm near New Castle. The article mentions that the citizens of New Castle at this time feared Jessee would make a raid on the town.

Jessee’s men would also race into Pleasureville after an execution which took place there as part of Burbridge’s order to publicly kill prisoners of war in retaliation of any guerilla activity by Confederate forces. Jessee’s men are credited with carrying their bodies to the Eminence Cemetery where they rest under the Martyr Monument.

Post war

Jessee would return to farming after the Civil War and served in the state senate. Three of Jessee’s sons became doctors and his daughter Rose Jessee served as Henry County’s first female superintendent.