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The Death of a Confederate Guerrilla

By Gerry Fischer

 During the Civil War, there were a number of Confederate bands operating in Meade County. The most notable of these were Captain Dupoyster, John Bryant, Clay Hayes, Horsley, Ben and Tom Wiggenton, and Captain Bill Marrion. In March of 1865 Marrion, Hayes, Horsley and the Wiggentons led a five- hour attack on the Brandenburg Courthouse.

 The, guerrillas were farm boys, patriotic to the southern cause, or maddened by the harsh treatment of Kentucky. One of these men, a boy, really, was James J. Straney, known as J.J. He had two older family members, Ignatius and Nathaniel, riding with Clay Hayes and Old Ben Wiggenton. James Straney was captured, January 20th, 1865, by Union State-Guard forces, near West Point, in a raid, and was wounded. After capture, he was jailed in Louisville, and tried before a military commission March 29th, 1865, just fourteen days after Sue Mundy was hanged, and he likewise was sentenced to hang. The Louisville Daily Journal, reported, April 18th, “James J. Straney was found guilty of being a guerrilla and was sentenced to hang, the execution to be carried out in the prison yard April 27th, 1865.”

 James was 15 years old when he joined the guerrillas, and at age 18, sentenced to die. He was a short beardless youth, with a full face and small eyes, of slight to medium build. Anecdotal family history states he was a “horse holder,” for the guerrilla band. Guerrillas were cavalry, and when they dismounted to fight, men, usually the younger members would go to the rear and hold four horses each. This duty was consistent for his age. Some in the family said he was intellectually challenged. Whatever he was, intellectually, he was brave and manifested the utmost coolness and unconcern. This may have been due to the religious instructions given him by Fr. Brady, five weeks before his execution. Brady, was the same Priest who six weeks later, was pastor to William Clarke Quantrill, and in October, to Henry Clay Magruder.

 A few minutes before 4:00 p.m., on Thursday April 27th, three companies of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry, the same group that captured Sue Mundy, Henry Magruder and Henry Medkiff in a Meade County Tobacco barn, formed a hollow square around the gallows which was erected in the prison yard. The prisoner marched to the gallows accompanied by Fr. Brady. There were very few witnesses in the prison yard, however the houses that bordered the yard attracted a great many people looking out upstairs windows to see Straney hang.

 James was dressed in in a gray coat with brass buttons, and brown homespun pants. He wore a light felt hat, and at the foot of the gallows, his arms were pinioned behind him. Whether his demeanor was prompted by courage or his religious training, no one can say, but when he ascended the scaffold and asked if he had anything to say, he answered almost impudently, “No, Sir! The signal was given, and the prop was knocked out from under the platform and J.J. Starney was suspended between Heaven and earth. The noose was placed by custom beneath his left ear, but by some means it slipped to the back of his neck which threw his neck forwarded, his chin resting on his chest. He died almost instantly for his struggles were few and slight. After 23 minutes he was cut down.

 The reporter covering the story noticed a man eyeing Straney with a peculiar expression of satisfaction. He asked, “What did you think of the hanging?” The man answered, “When he was 15, I saw him kill a man, and I said he would hang.” His last request was his body be sent to his mother, Emeline Straney, in Mt. Washington, Kentucky.

 Note: Eliza Emeline Brown Straney, married Peter Straney. And Emeline’s daughters, Mary and Catherine married into the Bullitt County Archibald Magruder line. The guerrilla chieftain, Henry Clay Magruder, was related through his mother Amy Magruder Masden, to Ezekeal Magruder a different line of the same family, living in the same area. I see a cemetery field trip in the near future.