Poor Judgment or With Bad Intent, Brigadier General Speed S. Fry
by Gordon Thorsby
When one is studying people and places in the Civil War, it happens that people who earned ignominious distinction is evident. In the case of Colonel Speed Fry, the distinction applies.
Speed Smith Fry was born in Danville, KY on September 9, 1817. A small town at the time, it is between the Civil War towns of Perryville to the west and Richmond to the east. With a law degree from Wabash College in Indiana, a young law practice, raising a company of Kentucky Volunteers and fighting in the Mexican War, he was officer material from the start and Fry was made Colonel in the new Army of the Ohio.
At Mill Springs on January 19, 1862, under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, Fry led the Kentucky Fourth Infantry into battle. Fry happened to be in a most opportune spot.
During the fighting, one Confederate commander, General Felix Zollicoffer alarmed at a gap in the Confederate line went to investigate. He saw an infantry line advancing toward him. Zollicoffer approached the mounted officer leading it (Fry) to inquire the officer's plans. As it often happened early in the war, uniform colors were all too often deceiving. Zollicoffer wore a blue cap, blue pants, and a white gum overcoat that covered most of his uniform. The Foiurth Kentucky was blue as well. Naturally, to Fry, Zollicoffer had to be a fellow Union officer.
“His near approach to my regiment, his calm manner, my close proximity to him, indeed everything I saw led me to believe he was a Federal officer belonging to some of the regiments just arriving,” Fry reported.
“Zollicoffer pointed to the mystery regiment, which was Fry’s 4th Kentucky. “We must not shoot our own men,” Zollicoffer told Fry. “Of course not,” Fry responded. “I would not shoot our own men intentionally.” Shortly thereafter, one of Zollicoffer’s staff officers appeared from behind a tree and fired at Fry. Because Zollicoffer had approached from the same direction as the staff officer, Fry concluded that Zollicoffer was a Southern officer. Fry drew his revolver and fired. At the same time, members of the 4th Kentucky Infantry let loose a volley. Zollicoffer fell dead, struck by three bullets.”
With the victory at Mill Springs, Fry was promoted Brigadier on March 21, 1862 in Buell’s Army of the Ohio but was unimpressive and Buell noted it so in reports. Buell began arriving at Shiloh late on the first night but Fry did not bring his brigade across until late on the second day and too late for action. Buell later noted Fry’s performance as “inefficient and the report was not well received by Fry. At Perryville, Fry commanded the 2nd Brigade in Gilberts III Corps of Kentucky and Indiana Infantry. Fry also commanded the brigade at Corinth but it was at Perryville where Fry made an impression on his military career.
There arose after Perryville the “Buell Petition,” that was addressed to President Lincoln. Its purpose was to remove the commander of the Army of the Ohio, General Don Carlos Buell. The officers involved were from General Gilbert’s III Corps and Fry was one of the officers and he presided over the meetin. The petition was signed by a large number of officers, but it was never sent and so the petition does not receive much “daylight" today. There were twenty-one officers involved and it was presided by none other than Speed Fry. At Buell’s Commission hearing, Speed confirmed in testimony that there was a petition to remove General Buell, that eight to ten regimental colonels signed the petition, that Fry thought the petition a good idea, and that officers included Steedman, J.M. Harlan, J.M. Connell, John Croxten, Moses Walker, and several others. Fry would not admit signing it. The approximate date of the meeting for the agreement was Oct. 23rd and others corroborated the meeting and plan. After Perryville, Fry’s career reached the plateau and he moved no further in rank.
Fry commanded a division at Stones River in December again under Thomas' Corps but the division saw little action. With army reorganization in early 1863, Fry was re-assigned to command of the North Central Kentucky Military District, more an administrative posting, and that would be where he would stay for the rest of the conflict.
Camp Nelson is where Speed Fry would place a black mark forever on his record in history. Camp Nelson was the location for many soldiers coming to the theater were deployed to the front. With Emancipation in January, 1863, it also became the training camp for “colored” soldiers in the Civil War.
Unfortunately, Kentucky was not a free state. The Emancipation Proclamation excluded border states. The proclamation had holes. It was a tragedy in the making and Fry stepped in it with both feet.
Lincoln offered all “colored” men that signed up would earn immediate freedom from slavery but the women and children were not included. Fry carried out the order precisely and he included each loophole, returning a number of escaped slaves to their owners who wanted them. Not done, Fry then requested an order be directed to rid the camp of women and children. Heavily disputed as fact, an order arrived (authorities state any order was “bogus.”) The women and children were sill legally owned slaves because the two orders left off women and children. On 26 November,1864, Fry made an even worse decision. He implemented the directiive and ordered expulsion of almost 400 women and children on a cold and snowy day, from the grounds and any nearby areas. “Some of them went to a mission house on the route, some went to barns, some went to mule sheds, some languished along the way, and some wandered aimlessly through the woods. All were destitute, with nowhere to go.“
Fry’s order was quickly overturned by General Stephan Burbridge, an officer who had a reputation of his own; “Butcher Burbridge” by Southerners. To Burbridge, Fry’s act was horrendous. Captain Theron Hall, a quartermaster, had soldiers construct new quarters at once to house the victims of the disaster.
Of more than four hundred, one hundred women and children died of cold and starvation. Only 250 returned to Camp Nelson. The New York Tribune called Fry’s orders the works of “deliberate depravity and cool malignity” (Hall had written an anonymous letter to the Tribune.) The story quickly gained traction. Camp Nelson became a national embarrassment and the Administration went into repair mode to fix the very large loophole.
Fry’s military career came to its official end with his muster out 24 August,1865, still at Brigadier General. The brevet promotion that generals earn at the end of careers did not occur for Fry. He went back to law in the Danville area. He ran for U.S. Congress in 1866 and lost. He did serve as Supervisor in the Internal Revenue Collection Agency for three years for Kentucky and served as a judge in the Danville area. Fry passed away August 1,1892 and he is buried in his hometown of Danville, KY where he lived his life.
This article is not meant to pass judgment on the Speed Fry as it is not this writer’s place. However, Fry created and made some dreadful errors. The ghastly mistakes cost the lives of hundreds at an extremely fragile point in the Civil War and history will judge him for it.
The Civil War at Perryville, Kolakowski, Christopher L., The History Press, 2009.
“Tragedy at Camp Nelson”, by Marshall Myers, PhD., Kentucky Monthly, December 2, 2021.
“Behind Enemy Lines in Kentucky”, Emerging Civil War Guest Post, December 22, 2020. https://emergingcivilwar.com/2020/12/22/behind-enemy-lines-in-kentucky/
“!0 Facts to Mill Springs”, American Battlefield Trust, date of publishing not indicated.