The story of Captain Reuben Patrick's capture of the famous Williams Gun in Eastern Kentucky during the Civil War never fails to stir up interest and curiosity. His exploits were widely publicized and his display of courage and daring became legendary.
Patrick, a native of Magoffin Co. KY, commanded a small company of home guards and scouts who scoured the mountains for rebels and kept a vigilant eye on his foes. His family were strong Union supporters from the beginning of the war. An older brother, Elijah, served as scout and guide for General "Bull" Nelson during his Eastern
Kentucky Campaign in the fall of 1861. His younger brother Wiley C. Patrick was a lieutenant and later captain of Co. I, 14th KY Infantry. Reuben often worked with detachments of the 14th KY Infantry and was able to provide vital information to the commander of the Eastern KY Military District, on the Big Sandy River at Louisa, KY.
In March of 1863, General Humphrey Marshall entered Eastern Kentucky with a mounted force and, after a march of several days, arrived at Ivyton, Magoffin Co. on March 20, 1863, and bivouacked. During the night, Captain Reuben Patrick, whose residence was only a few miles away, crept up to Marshall's camp and waited until the sentinel fell asleep. Roaming through the sleeping camp, Patrick discovered the Williams Rapid Fire Gun. It was on loan to Humphrey Marshall by a private individual, who was having it tried, with the view of selling it to the Confederate government.
Captain Patrick immediately decided to relieve the general of this rare piece of artillery. Being afraid that rolling it out of camp would awaken the enemy, Patrick quietly unscrewed the cannon from its frame, lifted it from its carriage and carried it into the nearby woods and laid it alongside of an old log, carefully camouflaging it with leaves.
The following morning the Confederates were astounded when they found the carriage but not a trace of the cannon barrel. A thorough search was conducted but nothing was found and thus Marshall grudgingly had to move on empty-handed. The incident was a source of embarrassment to Humphrey Marshall and the loss of the gun rankled deep in Marshall's breast for years.
After the Confederates had left the area, Captain Patrick returned and took charge of the carriage that had been left behind by the Confederates. He reassembled the cannon and rolled it to his home on Burning Fork where Patrick kept it hidden for nearly a month.
On April 17th, 1863, McLaughlin's Squadron were ordered out to reinforce a detachment of the 14th KY Infantry who had captured a number of prisoners in Magoffin Co. Kentucky. When the troopers arrived, Captain Reuben Patrick retrieved the Williams gun from its hiding place and soon the group was headed for Louisa, with Patrick astride the cannon. When they arrived in town, Patrick received quite a reception. "Muskets barked,[and]cannon roared their appreciation of their brave deed."
When the 14th KY Infantry left Eastern Kentucky in May of 1864 to join Sherman in the Atlanta Campaign, Colonel George W. Gallup, 14th KY Infantry, had no intentions of leaving the gun behind at Louisa. He ordered Lt. Jacob M. Poage, Co. E, 14th KY Infantry, to take it to the arsenal in Frankfort, which was done immediately.
The Williams Gun was the first machine-gun type weapon ever used in combat. It was built for the Confederate War Dept. in Sept. 1861 by Confederate Captain R.S. Williams from Covington, KY. The rapid fire gun was first used at the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, and it worked so well that the War Dept. ordered 42 more of them.
This gun was crank operated, and was a very light artillery piece, and fired a one pound 1.57 cal projectile. It had a range of 2,000 yards. The gun was operated by a lever, that was attached to a revolving cam shaft, which rotated a cylinder. Each time the cylinder turned, a cartridge was dropped into the breech and a sliding hammer hit the cartridge's percussion cap. It took three men to fire this gun at a rate of 60-65 rounds per minute. One man aimed and fired the gun, the second one put a paper cartridge into the breech, and the third man put on the percussion cap. The biggest problem with this gun was overheating, which made the breech jam because of heat expansion. It was the only one of the rapid-fire arms to utilize the gases from the fired round to help operate the mechanism. It was a curious piece and weighed about one hundred and fifty pounds.
After the war, the Williams Gun was on display at the Old Arsenal in Frankfort, KY until 1890 when Captain Patrick decided to take it home to Salyersville for a Patrick reunion. The gun remained in Magoffin County and was displayed on the lawn of the Patrick home until 1950, when John Arnett, Patrick's great-grandson, moved it to Cleveland Heights in Ohio. In 1977, Arnett presented the gun to Nicky Hughes, curator of the Kentucky Military History Museum and Gen. William R. Buster, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society.
Humphrey Marshall, great-grandson of General Humphrey Marshall.
It has been on display at the Kentucky Military History Museum and is presently part of the Kentucky Historical Society's exhibition, Kentucky's Military Treasures.