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September 12, 2013

Traces of Laurel: The Battle of London

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The Battle of London took place on August 17, 1862, a Sunday, according to Ernest Andes’ account in Dyche’s “Laurel County History.”  Col. Leonidas C. Houk and 200 men from the 3rd Tennessee Infantry were camped on the grounds of Laurel Seminary.  They were expecting the arrival of a wagon train sent from Gen. Morgan who was stationed at Cumberland Gap.  The train was bringing 98 convalescent soldiers who were considered well enough to rejoin the ranks.  Early that morning, Houk made his rounds and pronounced the perimeters secure.  Scouts had returned from reconnoitering the roads south toward Barbourville and Williamsburg and west toward Somerset to say that all was well.  The fact that two other scouts who were checking the western route had not returned seems to have been ignored by Houk.  Suddenly, there was simultaneous firing at several picket posts and the battle was on.  It seems the last two scouts had been captured by rebels with no opportunity to warn Houk of impending danger, giving the enemy an advantage. 

However, the rebel commander, Col. John S. Scott of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry, seemed to think Houk and his men were ready and waiting for him.  Clark, in “A History of Laurel County,” quotes Scott as writing the following in his report to his general, Kirby Smith:  “I reached London at 8 o’clock this morning, after a ride of 160 miles in 70 hours.  I failed to surprise the telegraph office at Somerset and found the force at this place in position to fight when I arrived.  We soon cleared the town, took 75 prisoners, killed and wounded 50, captured 40 or 50 wagons, 175 mules, camp and garrison equipage, some ammunition, about 50 guns, very small commissary stores.  My men have been skirmishing today between this (London) and Barbourville.”  

In his report, the Union general George W. Morgan does not mention the taking of prisoners or stores.  He wrote: “On the 17th instant Colonel Houk’s Third Tennessee, with a part of five companies, amounting to 180 men, was attacked at London (Ky.) by a large force of cavalry.  After a gallant resistance of an hour’s duration, in which the enemy lost one lieutenant-colonel and a number of soldiers, Colonel Houk retreated to the mountain ridges, and after five days of privations and dangers reached this stronghold (Cumberland Gap).”

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