Union Major General Stephen G. Burbridge was given command over the state of Kentucky in June or July of 1864 and, soon after taking command, issued a standing order (Order No. 59) which called for the execution of four Confederate prisoners for every unarmed Union civilian killed.
On July 11, 1864, a gang of approximately four outlaws (belonging to neither army) rode in to Henderson, Kentucky, and while in the process of robbing him, shot and wounded a prominent citizen, Mr. James E. Rankin. Mr. Rankin died from his wound a few days later and, in retaliation, two recently captured Confederate soldiers were selected for execution by General Burbridge, himself.
One of the prisoners selected by Burbridge for execution was eighteen year old Charles W. Thompson and the other was twenty five year old Peirman Powell. Both men, fully sworn Confederate soldiers under the command of Captain Dick Yates, had been recently cut off from the main body of their command and captured following a battle on July 12th about five miles from Owensboro.
After their selection for execution and being held in various locations, they were taken by Federal troops to Henderson to be shot. While on the steamer transporting him to Henderson, young Thompson had time to write a letter home to his parents.
Steamer Palestine, July 20, 1864
Dear Father and Mother:
I am on my road to be shot. Bear it patiently. Take care of yourself, dear father, and do not work too hard. Bear everything patiently. Take care of mother as long as you can and do not let her overpower her constitution. Ever since the officers told me I was to be shot I have been praying and fasting, that I might see you all once more in this world.
Good-by and farewell. We part forever.
An attempt was made on July 21 by the 16th Kentucky Cavalry, under Colonel Lee A. Sypert, to rescue the two captured Confederate soldiers using a bluff to draw away Union forces. The defenders held on until Union gunboats arrived, forcing Sypert to withdraw and abandon his effort.
The next day, the murder of two Confederate soldiers, as ordered by Union General Burbridge who had selected them, took place. The events were recorded and later published by Henderson resident, Edmund L. Starling, in a written record of the city’s history.
“In a short time an officer conveyed some work from the main force on the bank, when the sergeant in charge of the prisoners immediately formed six of his men into a hollow square, and Powell and Thompson, their hands still bound, were again marched up the bank to where the balance of the force stood. It was now obvious that a speedy death awaited the two young prisoners.
“Two platoons of detailed men stood apart in the street, with fixed bayonets and loaded muskets, facing a fence which skirted the payment, not over fifteen paces distant. Two chairs about a yard apart stood against the fence, and the prisoners being conducted to these seats, their arms were securely pinioned to the boards of the fence.
“Powell still was firm and undismayed, but Thompson bewailed his hard fate.
“Their eyes were bandaged with handkerchiefs. The word was given for one platoon to fire on Powell – twelve men discharged a rattling volley full upon him, ten balls striking – one in the right eye, one near the heart, three nearly together in the right shoulder, another in his right breast, and four balls entered his pelvis. Groans of anguish echoed to the report of the muskets.
“The other squad were then ordered to aim for Thompson, and again the deadly bullets went whistling on their work of slaughter. Four balls riddled Thompson – one striking the right eye, the rest entering his body.
“There hung, suspended to the fence by ropes, the lifeless bodies of two young men who, but a few moments previous, were in the full vigor of manhood and health.”
Starling added to his narrative …
“Our citizens universally, so far as we have been able to learn, strenuously opposed this execution in our midst of men who had not participated in any outrage in our city.”
Fifty years later on November 14, 1914, at the dedication of the monument commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, pictured at the top of this page, Mr. W. T. Ellis spoke to the crowd that had gathered to pay tribute to these fallen soldiers. He spoke at length of their misery and fate in such a way that … even after the passage of fifty years … time could not soften his words or cool his burning anger.
“But now, after the lapse of fifty years, we come together here in this silent place solemnly to affirm that the lives of these two young men were not only ruthlessly and illegally taken, but that they were murdered in cold blood, heartlessly and cruelly.
“This doubtless sounds almost incredible to those who are not familiar with the facts.
“I fancy that those of our fellow citizens here who have arrived at the years of responsibility since these young men sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed to be just are asking themselves how such wanton brutality could ever have occurred in a country which our forefathers by their blood had made free.”
After these many years we still ask ourselves the same question posed by Mr. Ellis.