Remembering a historic figure from Elizabethtown

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From a speech by Kent Masterson Brown

Saturday will mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Ben Hardin Helm, a Confederate general from Elizabethtown, who was remembered in a local ceremony last weekend. This is an excerpt from the speech given by Kentucky author and historian Kent Masterson Brown at the event.


Benjamin Hardin Helm was born at his grandfather and namesake Ben Hardin’s home in Bardstown on June 2, 1831. Hardin was a leading member of the bar in his day — a criminal defense lawyer without peer — and an ardent state’s rights advocate as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Helm was raised right here at the home of his father and mother, also known as Helm Place, that still stands. His father, John LaRue Helm, was twice governor of Kentucky and president of L&N Railroad. He was a staunch Whig.

Ben Hardin Helm became an equally staunch Democrat. Both were ardent advocates of the rights of respective states. Gov. Helm is buried here beneath a lovely stone erected by the Commonwealth.

Graduating from West Point in 1851 at age 20, Helm served with the famed Second Cavalry in Texas before leaving the army in 1852 due to health reasons. He returned her, studied law and was admitted to the bar.

Helm’s marriage to the beautiful 20-year-old Emilie Peret Todd on March 20, 1856, was notable. They met in Frankfort while he was a member of the state legislature from Hardin County. Emilie was the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband, Abraham Lincoln, then was a rising figure in the new Republican Party in Illinois and, as we all know, a native of what was then Hardin County.

A brother-in-law, Helm became a favorite of Abraham Lincoln after he visited the Lincolns while practicing a case in Springfield, Ill., in 1857.

The two men liked one another from the start, although their political philosophies were vastly different. The political turmoil in 1857 was profound; their discussions were likely extensive on those issues. There, two Hardin Countians advocated opposite positions of the looming conflict, although they were united by their marriages, their profession and their genuine like for one another.

They soon would be on opposite sides of a bloody Civil War.

Helm’s brother-in-law, President Lincoln, offered him a commission as a major in the Union army, but Helm declined.

Instead, he raised and commanded the First Kentucky Confederate Cavalry through the Shiloh Campaign. At Shiloh, Samuel Todd, Emilie’s 22-year-old brother, was killed in action on April 7, 1862, the first member of the family to die in the war.

Helm then commanded a brigade of Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri infantry regiments at Vicksburg during the naval siege of that city by Admiral David Farragut in the summer of 1862.

There he was placed in command of a brigade of Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi troops that included the Fourth, Sixth and Ninth Kentucky Infantry regiments and Capt. Robert L. Cobb’s Kentucky battery that formed the nucleus of what would become known as the famed Orphan Brigade.

Helm led those troops into battle at Baton Rouge on Aug. 5, 1862. He was severely injured and his brother-in-law and aide-de-camp, the beloved 23-year-old Lt. Alexander H. Todd, was killed by friendly fire — the second brother of Emilie to die in the Confederate service in four months.

Gen. Robert W. Hanson took over command of Helm’s brigade until he was mortally wounded at Murfreesboro on Jan. 2, 1863. Helm then returned to command his Kentucky regiments.

At Chickamauga, Helm led his Kentuckians through the thickets past Glass’ Mill on Sept. 19, 1863. Then, just past mid-morning on Sept. 20, Helm’s brigade was ordered into line on the left flank of the division commanded by Gen. John C. Breckinridge.

Ahead of Helm’s men were elements of the Union Fourteenth Corps behind heavy log breastworks. Those Union troops were commanded by a Kentuckian, Gen. Hubbard K. Milward.

The left tow regiments of Helm’s brigade struck the Union breastworks which were angled so that Helm’s men were enfiladed from the left as well as fired upon from the front.

The musketry was ferocious. Much of it came from fellow Kentuckians wearing blue.

Helm’s Kentuckians fell by the hundreds, “giving their lives,” it was written, “in reckless fashion” as they pressed ahead through a veritable crossfire. The attack, though, stalled at those breastworks.

Helm, mounted on his horse, rode ahead toward the Union breastworks to encourage forward his two Kentucky regiments that formed the left of his brigade. Col. Joseph P. Nuckols led his Fourth Kentucky Infantry to reinforce the left.

It was nearly 10 a.m. Suddenly, a bullet hit Helm in the right side and he tumbled from his horse. That bullet likely was fired from the ranks of the Union Fifteenth Kentucky Infantry. It was Kentucky against Kentucky.

Helm faded in and out of consciousness at the chaotic hospital of Breckinridge’s Division near Chickamauga Creek behind the lines. The wounded and dying were being brought there by the hundreds; they lay all around, some screaming, others groaning in agony.

On a bloody, makeshift cot, Helm asked the surgeon if there was any hope. He was slowly bleeding to death. A wound such as Helm received was inoperable then. The surgeon replied: “There is no hope.”

Helm heard one of the men at the hospital yell “Victory!” He had just learned that the Confederate army defeated its enemy that day.

Helm’s eyes lighted. A gleam of satisfaction washed over his face. Then he whispered, “Victory.” It was his last word.

He died in the wee morning hours of Sept. 21, 1863, 150 years ago.