Shryock's Ferry

      Today travelers in the northern Kentucky counties of Woodford and Anderson making the trip from Versailles or Lexington to Lawrenceburg or back can cross the Kentucky River over a great bridge anytime the need arises.  In the days of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the large vast bridges that span large waterways were, for the most part unheard of.  Until the early 1940's most of the residents of this region of Kentucky crossed the Kentucky River via a ferry boat.  This ferry was located at the mouth of Grier's Creek on the east bank.  The ferry was established by Lewis Sublett in the last half of the 1700's.  It was known as Sublett's Ferry until it passed into the possession of the Shryock family.

      The ferry played a part in the Civil War.  Though certainly not a major part in the overall war, it was nonetheless a significant role in the local war.  The following recalls these episodes: s.

      On the morning of September 18, 1861, two men drove leisurely through Versailles in a buggy.  They were headed for Shryock's Ferry, but if anyone on the streets of the Woodford county seat noticed them, it was to observe that Captain John Hunt Morgan, commanding officer of the Lexington Rifles Company of the State Guard, was going to start his fall fishing a little early.  Fishing poles stuck out of the back of the buggy, and Captain Morgan and his companion lolled comfortably on the seat as the horse jogged along at an easy gait.  Many times before John Hunt Morgan had ridden through Versailles.  On several occasions he had ridden through at the head of his proud militia company made up of veterans who had distinguished themselves in the Mexican War.  In his command in the Lexington Rifles were some of the gayest youngbloods in the Bluegrass.  But this September morning things were different.  People on the streets of Versailles were too vitally concerned with bitter issues involved in the War Between the States to speculate on John Morgan and his bobbing fishing poles.

      Everywhere in Kentucky it was the same confused story.  Some people were rampant in their Southern partisanship, while others were equally ardent in the support of the Union.  Kentucky's governing authorities were torn between personal prejudices and the seriousness of committing the state actively to either side of the question.  Many of her influential sons, such as Robert J. Breckinridge, Governor Beriah Magoffin, and George D. Prentice, were able to overcome strong personal prejudices and to convince the state's government that it should remain neutral in the war being waged between the sections.  Through the Bluegrass, however, families were being torn asunder.  Brother was being set against brother, and father against son.  Robert J.  Breckinridge, who had pleaded for neutrality but personally wished to see the Union maintained, saw his four sons divide on the issue.  Two of them went to the southern army, and two enlisted in the northern army.  Courtlandt and Clarence Prentice went off to the Confederate Army to the embarrassment of the neutral father.  Already that September morning, General Leonidas Polk was in Kentucky with a Confederate command.  Up the Kentucky River at Camp Dick Robinson, "Lincoln guns" were being distributed to Kentuckians on the pretense that they could use them to protect their homes.

      Just before Captain Morgan left Lexington, a regiment of Union troops had moved into the town and were encamped on the county fairground.  Morgan knew the time had arrived for him to move, and move quickly if he was to take the State Guard away to the Confederacy.  Behind him on the night of September 19th when he went to join the Confederacy, he had left twelve or fifteen of his men to tramp heavily over the armory floor to give the impression that the Lexington Rifles were at drill.  His wagons were on the Versailles road headed for Shryock's Ferry and the South.  State Guardsmen were instructed to leave for the Confederate Army on such short notice that few of them had an opportunity either to say good-bye or to secure their personal belongings.  John Morgan with his fishing poles sticking out the back of his buggy rode on ahead of his command to make arrangements for it to cross the Kentucky River.

      Morgan went to the river two days before he was to leave the state, on the pretense of fishing, but actually he wished to secure the services of his old Lexington friend, the architect Cincinnatus Shryock.  Times had become so hard back in Lexington just before the outbreak of the war that it became impossible for an architect to make a living.  He had broken off his relationship with John McMurtry, and he could not make a new start in such troublous times.  He had married his second cousin, Olive Shryock, one of John Shryock's eleven daughters.  Since times were so hard, Cincinnatus moved down to the Kentucky River to operate the old Shryock's Ferry.  Likewise he got the job of teaching the Grier Creek School.  His pupils were much interested when strangers from Lexington drove up in their buggy and stopped.  They called the teacher out for a long conversation, but little did they know that as they played merrily at blindman's bluff or stealing dry goods that plans were being made to ferry the runaway Kentucky State Guardsmen and their equipment over the Kentucky River.

      One night later at eleven o'clock Morgan's wagons rattled down the long hill to the ferry accompanied by a dozen men.  The drivers were hot and thirsty, the trip from Lexington was a long one, and the road was dusty.  Before they went aboard the ferry, Cincinnatus Shryock filled a jug with liquor from the supply in his grocery.  Across the river was Anderson County, and truly Southern soil.  As yet no Union troops had crossed the Kentucky.  Beneath the shade of a spreading sycamore tree over the river on that moonlight night, the State Guardsmen drank heavily from their jug and bade farewell to their friends the ferrymen.  They were on their way over the steep river hill south to Tennessee and the big Confederate fight.

      A few nights after Morgan's men had crossed over the river, and their escape from Kentucky had been discovered, a hackload of Union troops pulled up before Cincinnatus Shryock's door.  They informed the ferrykeeper that they were on their way to Lawrenceburg to make several "military arrests", but before they went on they wanted supper.  Independent and straight-talking Olive Shryock refused to prepare a meal for them, but she did allow the soldiers to use her kitchen to cook a meal if they wished.  While they fried ham and boiled coffee on the Shryock stove, Cincinnatus sent his son John hurrying across the river to tell their neighbors, the Cobbs, to warn the people in Lawrenceburg that the Yankees were coming to raid the town.  Mrs. Cobb hated the Union cause, and in a moment she had her slave Cale riding off to Lawrenceburg at breakneck speed to tell the Confederates to hide out.  The Cobb family in a short time was to become the Confederate lookout on the south side of the Kentucky River.  If a Yankee soldier crossed the river, they knew it, and before he could begin the climb of the river hill, Cale was on his mule scurrying away to Lawrenceburg to tell the Confederates to be on their guard.

      While Ole Man Cobb's Cale whipped his foaming mount headlong into Lawrenceburg to carry the disturbing news that the Yankees were coming, Cincinnatus engaged the commanding officer in an argument.  The river was running at flood stage, and a heavy drift of logs and other debris tumbled downstream to make a crossing in a ferryboat a ticklish job.  Shryock was trying to get the officer to give up his idea of going on to Lawrenceburg that night and to wait until the next morning to go across the river, but the officer was stubborn and insisted that his orders be carried out.  This was the beginning of a fine bit of comic bluff that was to wear the Yankees down before they could reach the other side of the river.  The troops were traveling in horse-drawn omnibuses, and a third of the command went aboard the boat in one of the buses.  Under the most favorable conditions and with even the most sympathetic and diligent boatmen at the oars, the crossing would have been difficult.  but with a bunch of boatmen sympathetic to the southern cause setting out with a boatload of Yankees, anything was liable to happen other than reaching the opposite bank at the right place.  There was more than one way to win such an argument.  The current piled up against the sides of the clumsy boat and forced it off its course.  Nevertheless, the boat was pulled upstream and then turned toward the other bank.  Cincinnatus Shryock was at the steering oar, but before he could ram the snub nose of his boat in the soft mud of the south landing, he ran afoul of a log, and the boat was completely out of hand.  Debris drifted against them, and the boat started downstream at a hazardous rate.  If the Yankees could not be delayed on the bank, they could be drifted downstream and frightened out of their wits.  It all had the earmarks of being purely accidental.  Cincinnatus Shryock's boat had accidentally run afoul a drift of logs, and now it was going downstream out of control.  A glance upward at the cliffs revealed the troops' predicament; the palisades were gliding by at a disastrous rate.  In a short time the beleaguered boat was abreast of Tyrone, more than a mile and half downstream.  Then it was brought under control, but it was impossible to land the bus and the troops on the sheer rock bank.  It was necessary to maneuver the boat all the way upstream to the regular ferry landing before the company could be set ashore.  As a part of his devilish scheme, the Confederate ferrymen had loaded on a coil of rope just before he cast out into the stream.

      Not only had the Confederate partisans planned craftily to delay the Yankees, but likewise to work them half to death doing so.  The officer commanded his men to attach the rope to one corner of the prow of the boat and to get ashore and "cordelle" it back to the landing.  It must have been with a great deal of self-satisfaction that Cincinnatus Shryock and his helpers listened to the frantic heaving and grunting of Yankee troops as they towed the boat upstream.  The south bank of the Kentucky came down abruptly to the water's edge, and it was extremely difficult for a man to find stable footing.  It was daylight when the tired, muddy, and bedraggled troops dragged the boat to a safe mooring back at the regular landing.  A third of the company, including the commanding officer, was in no condition to go ahead with their raid on Anderson County when they drove up the hill from the ferry at nine o'clock that morning.

      Old Lady Cobb, watchdog of the Confederacy on the south bank of the Kentucky, became a comic actor in the hot intersectional drama enacted in Kentucky.  She was outspoken in her southern sympathies, and Union officers were soon to learn of her spying activities upon their troops as they crossed over the river.  Several of their failures on the south side of the river were partly due to the old lady's southern leanings.  All their raids upon the Confederate stronghold, Lawrenceburg, were failures owing to the warning of Mrs. Cobb and her mule-riding messenger Cale.  At last this diligent Confederate partisan was fetched into Lexington and locked up in the federal prison.

      In jail, as well as out, Old Lady Cobb maintained her determined attitude to help the South.  As a youthful sentry, clad in the repulsive blue Yankee uniform, tramped up and down the corridor outside her cell and clicked his heels at the turns, Mrs. Cobb sat patiently by, knitting long gray woolen socks for the Confederacy.  She was bringing the gentlest of domestic endeavors into sharp conflict with the stern military discipline.  Her persistent activities in the behalf of the Confederate Army while confined in a Yankee prison were disconcerting.  The officials would release the old rebel only to imprison her again for some other outrageous act against the Union Army.  She and her rabid Confederate daughter Kate were finally sent to a military prison in Louisville.  There they kept up their knitting of long gray socks, and the clicking of their knitting needles added to the monotonous sounds of the tramping and heel clicking of the handsome sentry.  He was a courtly sentry indeed, and even the two rampant southern women, his prisoners, could see that.  Soon the rugged wall of bitter intersectional hatred was pierced.  the prisoners were in love with their guard.  Kate became confused in her own mind as to whether her love for the bonny starred and barred flag of the Confederacy or for the Yankee sentry was greater.  Each clicking step of the sentry was a tormenting sound in her ear, and a glance at his face was a vigorous tug at her heartstrings.  He was so handsome and fine.  He was real, and the Confederacy began to seem so intangible.  Kate married the guard, and by the end of the war she and her mother were idolizing Unionists.

      There was one serious hitch in the Cobb-Yankee romance.  Back at Shryock's Ferry, Old Man Cobb, his son Joe, and their slave Cale, the dusky messenger of the Confederacy, had not fallen under the congenial and softening influence of the attractive minois volunteer.  They remained loyal until the bitter end to the southern cause.  When Ma and Kate went to live in Illinois, the Cobb family was torn apart.  The steadfast Confederate menfolk swore they would be damned if they went to live among the Yankees, even if one of them had become a son-in-law.  It took three years to iron out the social kinks and persuade Father Cobb to sell his farm and move off to Illinois to live.

      John Hunt Morgan was once again to calion his old friend Cincinnatus Shryock for aid.  Early in July, 1862, Morgan and his hard-riding men galloped across the Kentucky border from Tennessee near Tompkinsville.  They were headed toward the Bluegrass.  As they advanced up the line, "Lightning George" Ellsworth, the clever telegraph operator, tapped the Louisville and Nashville line at Bear Wallow.  Morgan informed the command at Louisville that Murfreesboro, Tennessee, had fallen into the hands of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a thing that actually happened.  Then he threw the federal troops at Louisville into a state of confusion by reporting Morgan's menacing raid into Kentucky.  Morgan's mounted command rushed northward to Harrodsburg, and then feinted toward Frankfort on the Kentucky River.  On the morning of July 4, 1862, the main body of the command was on the Anderson County side of the river at Shryock's Ferry waiting to be passed over.  For the second time John Hunt Morgan was seeking the assistance of his old Lexington neighbor.

      When Morgan's men arrived at the ferry, however, they found things in a state of turmoil.  The Bluegrass was alive with excitement.  Ellsworth's telegraphic antics had every central Kentucky town in an uproar.  People were afraid that Morgan would raid their communities in a surprise attack.  A company of Union troops had rushed down to Shryock's Ferry where they forced Cincinnatus Shryock to knock planks out of the end of the boats and to sink them near the Woodford bank.  This he did skillfully, however, for with his knowledge of construction he was able to knock off the planks in such a way as to do the least harm.  Within a short time Confederate sympathizers gathered around the mouth of Grier's Creek, and with the aid of the soldiers the boats were put back into operation.  The Confederate troops were ferried over the river for their famous raid upon Midway and Cynthiana.

      Among the men who crossed over the Kentucky that morning were two characters who stood out above the rest in interest.  One of these was solemn-faced George A. Ellsworth, a comic technician who possessed only one talent, that of sending messages on a telegraph instrument which could cause consternation among the receivers.  He carried a portable instrument in his saddlebags which he used to keep up with the activities of the Union troops, and to mislead them as to the whereabouts of his commander.  It was on this portable instrument that he had tapped out a jocular message to George Prentice that Morgan was on his way to Louisville with four hundred Indian to scalp him.  Likewise he chided the Union officers in Louisville, especially the pontifical commander Jeremiah Boyle.  He wired Boyle many frivolous messages, greeting him with "Good morning, Jerry," and sending respects to Mrs. Boyle.  When at last Morgan's men were leaving the state, Ellsworth greeted the officious Jerry with his "General Order No.1":

           "When an operator is positively informed that the enemy is marching on his station, he will immediately proceed to destroy the telegraphic instruments and all material in his charge.  Such instances of carelessness, as were exhibited on the part of the operators at Lebanon, Midway, and Georgetown, will be severely dealt with.  By order of G. A. Ellsworth, General Military Supt. C. S. Telegraphic Dept."           

      Young John Shryock, walking among the men that morning at his father's ferry, spotted the second famous character in Morgan's command.  He was the British officer of fortune, St. Leger Greenfel.  Greenfel had served with both the British and French armies in Mrica, and had come to America in search of excitement and adventure.  He brought to Morgan's band of galloping Confederate a semblance of military order.  It was he who supplied the knowledge of strategy used by the famous cavalry units to strike terror into the hearts of central Kentuckians.  Colonel Greenfel impressed the young boy with his military bearing and his odd uniform.  "He was about fifty years old," wrote young Shryock, "over six feet tall, as straight as a shingle.  He had a large scar on one cheek.  As a uniform he wore a grey-colored cape, a red cap without a brim with a red tassel on top.  He was very strict with the men, sending them to the guard house, or making them carry a rail for the most trivial offense."

      When the command had crossed over the river, Morgan galloped up the hill astride Black Bess at the head of his rowdy men.  They were on their way through Midway to Georgetown and on to Cynthiana and the Central Kentucky Railroad.  Morgan wished to cut off Lexington's supply line from Cincinnati and to starve out the Union troops.  At Midway, Morgan and Ellsworth perpetrated one of the most amusing hoaxes of the war on the officers at Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville.  He and his men became so fascinated with their grand telegraphic comedy that they almost forgot to move on.  At Louisville, Jerry Boyle aroused every mayor within a radius of a hundred and fifty miles with his idiotic message of Morgan's advance.  His report of the number of men in the Confederate command grew with the sending of each dispatch.  Jerry even invaded the sanctity of the White House on Sunday morning with one of his frantic telegrams.  He asked that Lincoln order General Don Carlos Buell to his rescue.  At last the President wired General Halleck, then at Corinth, that "they are having a stampede in Kentucky.  Please look to it."

Shryock's Ferry, circa 1940
( looking west )

This page was last updated: June 17, 2020
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