Civil War: Orphan finds brother in camp near St. Thomas

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When thousands of Union troops arrived in Nelson County in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, the population swelled.

At the time, the U.S. Census showed Bardstown’s population around 800 but it could have been closer to 1,200. When troops arrived the population would swell by as many as 7,000-8,000 more at any given time. Union camps of instruction were located throughout the state. These camps had a two-fold purpose — first to prepare the new soldiers for military life and battle and second to occupy the state with troops. With Kentucky being a border state and its access to roads and waterways being so important to both causes, the use of the camps was a method of intimidation.

With many Union troops coming from the more Northern states, the camps were also a way to get soldiers used to the food, weather and humidity that Kentucky and states farther south had to offer. Nelson County was important because of its access to and from Louisville. It was connected by a turnpike — what we refer to today as U.S. 31E — and a railroad that was only a year old. As Union and Confederate troops tried to get supplies back and forth, the roadways and railroads became even more important.

During the four years of the war, more than 85 military regiments would pass through the county, bringing thousands of troops at a time. These troops set up camps near the turnpike. Traveling out the turnpike toward New Haven and near St. Thomas Church, many troops would set up their encampments.

It’s believed that a letter in possession of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth from a boy living at St. Thomas Orphan Asylum may have revealed a chance meeting between a boy and his brother, a soldier in one of the encampments.


St. Thomas Orphan Asylum Jry 22/62 (1862)


Dear Sister,

You may imagine how glad I was on last Sundy on meeting unexpectedly my brother James who came to see me. Nearly for two weeks we had been in sight of each other without knowing it. His regiment is encamped in one of the fields of the Asylum ten minutes from the house. We can see the men drilling every day from our play ground. He looks well and is well contented and satisfied, he showed me the letter he had lately received from you in which were contained great many news from the family from whom I had not heard from in a long time. I am happy to know that you are well. I am enjoying myself now a good health. Last fall I had the chills for a long time and could not get rid of them, they reduced me so much that I am hardly now in the state I was before though I feel well. We have regular school, working some now and then. Last spring I made my first Communion. I felt a great pleasure in being admitted for the first time. I can read and write. I am sorry to see in the letter you wrote to my brother that you intend to go to the mines; if you were to follow my advice you would remain where you are. Great many have found a grave where they expected to get riches. Be kind enough on the reception of these few words to let me know how you are. I long to hear from you. Pray for me and I will pray for you.

Yor affectionate brother

Batty Chapman


Direct your letter to Pat Chapman car of Bro. David, Director of the Orphan Asylum near Bardstown (KY)


The Nelson County Library has two books regarding those registered at the orphanage — Register of St. Thomas Orphan Asylum Vol. 1 and Register of St. Thomas Orphan Asylum Vol. 2. A search by local historian Dixie Hibbs showed the orphan registers had a Barth Chapman listed who was taken to the orphanage in 1855. In 1855 he was 9 years old. At the time the letter was written, Chapman would have been 15 or 16. The letter mentions the writer having recently received his first communion. Though children in the Catholic faith today usually receive their first communion around age 8, it wasn’t unusual for children to be much older in the 1860s. The records at the library show Barth Chapman left in 1862 with his brother, a voluntary soldier. The records don’t reveal the name of his brother, where the two once lived or why Chapman was at the orphanage.

The St. Thomas Orphan Asylum was run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. It was founded in 1858 and housed orphans and destitute children.


Historical information from this book came from “Nelson County — A Portrait of the Civil War” by Dixie Hibbs, Bardstown.