Kentucky’s Hidden Heritage: Exploring War of 1812 Veterans’ Documents

During the years following the Civil War, the Kentucky Adjutant General faced a growing space problem where the Commonwealth’s early military records were concerned. Following the publication of the roster of War of 1812 volunteers in 1891, that official ordered the destruction of the original state level military records. Therefore, the Adjutant General’s Report of Kentucky Soldiers in the War of 1812 remains the primary state level source for those seeking information about an ancestor who fought in that conflict.

Finding War of 1812 Documents for Kentucky Veterans

Fortunately, military, pension and bounty land files maintained by the federal government are available for research at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It should also be pointed out that additional sources at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives (KDLA) in Frankfort may yield further information. 

The official papers of Governor Isaac Shelby include his Executive Journals which record the appointments of company and field officers for Kentucky volunteer regiments as well as county militia units that were never called into active service.

Caption Adjutant General Letter Book (1824-1851) Source: [KDLA Digital Archive]

More importantly these volumes are supplemented by the original correspondence and applications for commissions which are arranged in chronological order. These textual records contain information regarding staff, commissary and medical officers, as well as company and field officers for various units. Some documents might only consist of brief listings of company militia officers elected to office. 

However other records might consist of personal letters from individuals seeking a military appointment. In a letter dated March 5, 1813, one T. Hall sought the position of adjutant on the Governor’s staff:

“I have been unsuccessful in raising a company of Volunteers to take the field and repell by force of armes the hostile agressions of grate Breton and her Savage allies. The government of the United States has drawn the Sword of vengeance in Support of its national rights and I never shall be Satisfied till an opportunity is given to me to wield the sword in its Defense.”

Documents Contain Some Office Drama

Other documents reveal the political and personal conflicts behind the organization of many commands. On March 2, 1813, James Robison advised the Governor that many Bourbon and Harrison County volunteers would not serve under Col. W. E. Boswell. He was, Robison alleged, a “dissipated Character, and when in that Situation a riotous one – being the means or cause of his wife absconding for some time…” 

Despite these charges, Boswell would lead his regiment in the fighting near Ft. Meigs later that spring.

Not All Kentucky Military Units Served

There are also references to some units that apparently never took the field. A search of the Adjutant General’s Report reveals that the following officers saw active service in 1812 as members of Col. James Simrall’s Kentucky Light Dragoons. However following their discharge in early 1813, they organized a new company of “home cavalry” in Lexington, which apparently never saw active duty:

Capt. John M. Fischell
1st Lt. James G. Trotter
2d Lt. John Dishman
Cornett Wm. Montgomery

Virtually every state and local record created between 1812 and 1815 may reflect the various aspects of the conflict. Indeed some military records may appear in unexpected places. The Franklin County Marriage Returns Book for 1811-1831 also contains the Oaths of Office for officers in the 1st and 2d Kentucky Rifles. 

Other Sources for Finding War of 1812 Service

Researchers should check the Court Orders and Tax Lists of individual counties for additional clues of militia service. Furthermore, the Acts of the Kentucky General Assembly contain numerous personal laws that might shed light on an ancestor’s service. An Act for the Relief of Nicholas Mason and a similar act for Jeremiah Munsey, both passed in 1815, granted these Kentuckians credit for tours of duty. It should be noted that neither name appears in the Adjutant General’s roster.

Check Surrounding States for War of 1812 Veterans

Finally, if an ancestor’s name fails to appear in the Adjutant General’s Report, explore the possibility that he enlisted in another state or in the US regulars. James Prichard of Greenup County crossed the Big Sandy River to enlist in the 4th Regiment of Virginia Militia and served a tour of duty at Norfolk. 

Young John L. Elliott of Floyd (now Morgan) County, ran away from home, assumed an alias and also enlisted in a Virginia unit. Although not listed in the Adjutant General’s roster, Elzaphan “Elsey” Rucker of Greenup County, like many Kentuckians, enlisted in the 17th US Infantry. He survived the desperate fighting at Ft. Stephenson, Ohio and ended his service as a sergeant in the US Rifles.

The destruction of Kentucky’s original state level records was a great loss for future historians and genealogists. However, the little known sources outlined above may verify an ancestor’s service as well as flesh out the details of the sacrifices he made during the War of 1812.



Editor’s Note

The Daughters of 1812 has a searchable database that you can access for free.

About the Author

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