Taking a Stand in Dixie
James Rufus Kelly was born up in Gordon, Georgia in the western part of Wilkinson County in 1845. When he was just a young boy, Rufus, as he was known to his friends, lost his daddy, who was also named Rufus. Young Rufus and his baby sister Elizabeth were raised by their momma, Mrs. Rebecca Kelly. Just as Rufus was about to become a man, the menfolk in his county held an election to decide whether or not they and the rest of the counties in Georgia would leave the Union. They voted to decide if the people in the South could have slaves and if they wanted to fight a war over it or not. The Kellys weren't really rich, though they had more than most folks in Wilkinson County. Rebecca sewed clothes to keep food on their table and to keep Rufus in school. To help her out around the place, Rebecca depended on her twenty-year-old female slave and her three young children.
When the War Between the States started, Rufus was still a young boy. On July 9, 1861, he joined up with his friend and fellow fifteen year old William Bush in the Ramah Guards. William Bush would die more than 91 years later as the oldest Confederate veteran from Georgia. Rufus made it through the baths of blood at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. During General Lee's retrograde move toward Richmond in the spring of 1864, Cadmus Wilcox's rebels ran headlong into Warren's Union Corps at a place they called Jericho Ford on the 23rd day of May 1864.
Rufus' regiment was right in the middle of a hot fight. The regimental commander ordered the men of the 14th to fall back. But, Rufus would have no part of any retreat. He saw his friends running. Instead of running with them, Rufus rushed forward to the front. With his rifle in his left hand and his hat in his right, Kelly tried to rally his boys. But they kept on running like scalded dogs. He saw some other rebels firing at the Yankees and rushed to their side. Just as the fight began to heat up, a stray bullet struck the eighteen-year-old in the leg. He made it back to the field hospital alive, but lost his leg. After he spent some four months in the hospital and a stint as one of the body guards of Belle Boyd, a famous Confederate spy, Rufus was sent home to sit out the rest of the war.
Rufus was never one to quit a fight. Back home in Gordon, he knew the fight was coming his way once again. General William Tecumseh Sherman's Army had taken Atlanta. They were coming south along the railroads with their sights set on Savannah.
By the 21st of November, the Yankees were knocking on the doors of Macon residences with their cannon balls. Instead of taking the city, Sherman's right wing kept on moving down the Central of Georgia Railroad straight for Gordon. Just outside of Macon was the tiny industrial hamlet of Griswoldville, where the Macon defenders were slaughtered in the newly fallen snow.
The next defenders were under the command of General Henry C. Wayne. Wayne's men were composed of some regular militia, boys from Georgia Military Institute and prison guards from the penitentiary in Milledgeville. Ahead of them were thirty thousand Union soldiers.
Kelly learned of the Yankee advance and dashed off toward Griswoldville. Along the way, he met a young Negro girl who was crying. She told him that two Yankees were at Dr. Gibson's house threatening the doctor's wife in his absence. Just then, John Bragg rode up and agreed to accompany Rufus to aid Mrs. Gibson. Upon arriving at the Gibsons, Kelly, alone by then, was attacked by the two Union soldiers inside the home. Kelly was able to seriously wound one of them. Despite his best efforts to save him, the soldier died in a tavern in Gordon.
General Wayne, Major Capers and T.D. Tinsley were sitting on the porch of the general's headquarters at the Old Solomon Hotel when Kelly road up on his horse the next morning. He had his trusty Winchester in hanging from one side of his saddle and a pair of crutches on the other. Kelly offered his services as a scout since he knew the countryside as good as anyone around. The general accepted the offer. The vidette spurred his mare and dashed off in the direction of Griswoldville.
Kelly returned just after noon and reported to Wayne that the Yankees were moving toward Gordon and Miledgeville. Once again he sped off looking for more Yankees. He returned shortly as the Union army was in sight. He found the General and his troops boarding a train headed east for the Oconee River. Kelly asked Wayne, "General what does this mean? Don't we make a stand?" Wayne said, "No, Mr. Kelly, to stay here would be ridiculous to check Sherman's army of one hundred thousand men with a force of seven hundred."
That's when ol' Rufus went crazy. "General, you are a white-livered cur without a drop of red blood in your veins!" he exclaimed. He screamed at the departing soldiers, "You damned band of tuck tails! If you have no manhood left in you, I will defend the women and children of Gordon!" Rufus grabbed his rifle and emptied his rifle at the blue cavalrymen swiftly coming at him. But was he was quickly captured, thrown in a wagon, and court martialed. They said he was guilty of murder. A band paraded around Rufus playing his funeral dirge. Kelly was told that he would be shot at sunrise.
Kelly wasn't shot. In point of supposed fact, he was summoned to appear before "Uncle Billy" Sherman. Kelly told his biographers that the general wanted to know something of the topography and the crops and game available on his path toward Savannah. When Sherman asked Rufus if he knew he was going to be shot, the rebel acknowledged that he did know. He defended his actions not as murder but as self defense. "General, any way, a man can die but once," Rufus said. The "murderer of Georgia" told the guard to take Rufus and see that his sentence was carried out. Rufus was slightly relieved when he saw the General smile as he spoke to the guard. The death march was played again that night and again the next night.
Kelly had enough. He wasn't ready to die, not just yet. When his blue captors weren't looking, Rufus calmed his shattered nerves, slipped out the back of the wagon and crawled into a nearby swamp. He lingered in the swamp for two days. Able to fashion a make shift crutch, the one-legged teenage veteran was able to make his way back from the Ogeechee River swamp to his father's farm near Gordon four days later.
Rufus resumed a long and happy life. He once taught at Turner School, which was three miles south of Gordon.
Of the 99 men who enlisted in Gordon on July 9, 1861, Kelly was the next to last to die. The highly heralded hero died on September 19, 1928 in his home near Danville. The undertaker dressed him in a $13.75 and buried his body in a $25 casket in Liberty Hill Cemetery near Gordon, which he so nobly defended 145 years ago today.