Hon. Ollie B. Steele

by Edmund Starling, 1886


(Sketch by the Hon. John A. Smith, Secretary Louisiana State Senate.)--The subject of this sketch was born at Henderson, Kentucky, on December 2d, 1844, and was educated at the City Academy, taught by Prof. Warner Craig. At the age of twelve he became a member of the "Ionian Debating Society," a literary institution of that time, numbering many of the best and brightest young men of the town.

In 1857 the Sabbath Schools of Henderson held a joint Fourth of July celebration, choosing orators for the occasion from among the members of the debating society. Young Steele appeared for the Christian School. the lamented Governor, L. W. Powell, was present, and honored the boy orators, by introducing each to the vast concourse of people assembled in "Alves Grove," the place of celebration. In 1858 Steele was awarded the first prize for horsemanship at the Henderson Fair. Of the then students of Henderson Academy, those who survive will remember him as being usually honored in its weekly debates, with first place, he being an active participant. From being a frequent observer of the drills and parades of the Kentucky State guards, he conceived a love for military profession, and induced the professor of the Academy to establish a military company composed of the older students. At an election of officers, he was chosen Captain of the company, which post he held until he enlisted in the Confederate Army, being several times re elected. The boy soldiers were known as "The Academy Blue," their uniform consisting of blue jacket and grey pantaloons. Their drill became so excellent, that the boy company soon eclipsed both Home and State Guards. In 1860 they gave a drill on the fair grounds, winning applause from the thousands of people present. In the spring of 1861, the famous "Eleventh Indiana Zouaves," commanded by General, then Colonel Lew Wallace, were encamped at Evansville, and the "Academy Blues" paid them a visit. The company were welcomed by Colonel Wallace in a neat speech, which was responded to by Captain Steele, who then put the "Blues" through their drill in the presence of the Zouaves, winning the admiration of the regiment. In August, 1861, when not yet seventeen years old, he entered the Confederate army, enlisting in Captain James Ingram's company of the Fourth Kentucky Infantry, but did not go into active service until the following October, when Henderson was occupied by a Federal regiment under Colonel Cruft. While Cruft's regiment was on dress parade, Steele, Major Ed Rankin and others, stole out of the city on their way to join General Buckner at Bowling Green. On the following morning, the party breakfasted at Madisonville, forty miles distant. Arriving at Bowling Green, Steele attached himself to the "Issaqueen Artillery," afterwards known as the famous "Graves' Battery," of which Major Rice Graves was the first Captain. Because of his small stature and tender age, Ollie was made bugler of the company. Owing to his knowledge of infantry tactics, he was also employed as drill master, at the same time acting as clerk to Major T. R. Hotchkiss, who had charge of the ordinance stores and of the mounting of the heavy guns in the several forts around Bowling Green. Now the terrible realities of civil strife became vividly impressed upon his mind. His battery participated in the four days' fight at Fort Donelson, where many Henderson boys were engaged on either side.

Friend fought friend, and brother fought brother, the blue and the grey of Henderson immediately confronted each other in the last day's battle. Stretched upon the field, with a mortal wound in his breast, Steele saw his brother Cyrus, who had joined the Union army. Here, Dudley, seeing a Federal officer lying, wrapper in a blanket, at the foot of a large tree, seemingly fatally wounded, and, thinking his end near, remarked: "He ought to be killed." The officer replied: "I am Colonel Logan, of the -----Illinois regiment, and have but a short time to live." The Colonel recovered, was afterwards promoted to Major General, and, subsequent to the war, served as United States Senator from Illinois up to his death.

After the capture of Donelson, many of the Henderson boys, who had espoused the cause of the blue, visited Graves' Battery and talked of by-gone days. This company, among others, were sent prisoners to Camp Morton, Indianapolis, Indiana, where they remained until the following September, when they were sent to Cairo, and from thence, by way of the river, to Vicksburg, where they were exchanged. From Vicksburg, the company were marched to Jackson, and, after halting there a few days, were hurried forward to Knoxville to join General J. C. Breckenridge, who was organizing a command to enter Kentucky and reinforce Bragg. During Breckenridge's advance to Cumberland Gap, and subsequent return to Chattanooga and Murfreesboro, Steele, by his activity and close attention to details, was promoted to Corporal and Sergeant in rapid succession. He was by far the best drilled officer in Graves' Battery, and, for this reason, was most frequently detailed to drill duty. He fought with this battery at Hartsville, where two thousand Federals were captured.

At Murfreesboro, owing to the wounding of many officers of the battery, Steele was given command of one section. During the winter of 1863, he was tendered the office of First Lieutenant of the Fourth Kentucky, Ingram's Company, and accepted. With this regiment he served in the Joe Johnston campaign for the relief of Vicksburg, and fought at the battle of Jackson. Major Rice Graves recommended him to General Breckenridge for promotion in the ordinance service, but this was declined on account of his age. At Chickamauga, during the second day's fight, the Fourth Kentucky captured a section of Federal artillery, which, but for the skill and indomitable watchfulness of Steele, would have been recaptured. This valued prize he turned over to General Forrest in person.

While on the field of battle, General Breckenridge rode up to Steele and ordered him to report to Cobb's Battery, Major Graves having been mortally wounded. While the army lay in front of Chattanooga, Steele became Acting Adjutant of Artillery of Breckenridge's Division, and subsequently Acting Adjutant for the corps, which position he filled with signal ability until the battle of Missionary Ridge.

Breckenridge's Division went into winter quarters at Kingston, Georgia, and, during that time, Steele obtained a leave of absence for thirty days, during which time he visited Henderson, his native home.

He made the journey from Princeton to Henderson, a distance of seventy miles, in one day, upon the back of a mule. His leave of absence having expired, he rejoined his command and remained with the Fourth Kentucky until near the close of the Atlanta campaign, when he resigned. He went to Tupelo, and there asked authority of General Forrest to enter Kentucky and recruit a company for artillery service. His application was granted and General Abe Buford issued to him all necessary Papers. In August, 1864, he struck the Tennessee River and proceeded down that stream in a canoe. He then crossed to the Cumberland and made his way to Henderson. Having recruited near eighty men, he started on his return South, via Eddyville, on the Cumberland, arriving there on the night of September 9th. Observing a lot of men standing at a street corner, Steele, supposing them to be citizens, halted his command on the bank and then rode into the town to inquire concerning some boats he had learned were there. Much to his surprise, instead of citizens, he found himself in the hands of a squad of Federal soldiers, to whom he was compelled to surrender. Two of his men were captured, but the others made good their escape. Steele was relieved of his pocket change and papers, but, by strategy, managed to save his watch. A short time after his arms were pinioned behind him and he started on horseback, under guard, for Princeton. Arriving there about midnight, he and his two men were confined in the Court House, where they found a dozen or fifteen of Colonel Adam Johnston's  men prisoners. A few days after, Steele and thirteen men were returned to Eddyville for transportation to Louisville. On the thirteenth day of September, they were marched aboard the steamer Mattie Cabler, in charge of a sergeant and seven guards. Arriving that same evening at Smithland, on the Ohio River, the prisoners were transferred from the Cabler to the steamer Collossus, where a Lieutenant was placed in charge of the guard. Captain Steele was very kindly treated by the Captain of the boat, who claimed to be a Southern man. The Lieutenant was also very polite, but all of his kindly overtures were declined, because Steele had fully made up his mind to capture the boat and liberate himself and men. Steele and the other prisoners were placed on the hurricane roof of the boat, and, after the Lieutenant had retired, two of the prisoners and two of the guards amused themselves by playing cards by moonlight.

At the suggestion of Steele, the prisoners all slept close together, spoon fashion, so that opportunity could be given to explain his plan for escape, which he had not, until then, imparted to them. At early dawn, the sleepless prisoners being chilled cold from the night dews, gathered about the smokestacks, nervous with excitement as to the result of the forthcoming struggle. Steele had notified them that his signal for action would be the buttoning up of his coat. Placing himself at a point between the Federal watch and the smokestacks, he, seeing a suitable opportunity, commence to button up, when several of his men moved to the opposite side of the boat and concealed themselves under the eaves of the skylights. Thinking the opportunity lost, he began to upbraid them for their cowardice, when Elliott and Johnson walked up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, and said: "Captain, we will die by you." At the same moment, seeing McClure, Dr. Arnett and the Crider brothers also ready for action, Steele again commenced hastily to button his coat, and, as the last button slipped through its hole, he, in the twinkling of an eye, disarmed the guard nearest to him, and Elliot and Johnson, at the same time, disarmed the guards nearest to them. Steele and Johnson then turned upon the Sergeant of the Guard, who lay asleep upon the deck, and, not wishing to kill him, pricked him up with a bayonet, demanding his surrender. He arose, drawing a pistol as he did so, and fired, saying: "Surrender, hell!" The shot passed over their heads. He was then thrust through the body with a bayonet, shot and instantly killed. As he fell he threw his pistol into the river. Steele next turned upon the guard at the bell, who, throwing up his hands, surrendered his gun and pistol. In a moment he was pursuing another, when the man he had first disarmed, having recovered from his surprise, struck him behind the ear with his fist, almost knocking him down, at the same time seizing his gun by the muzzle. Recovering himself, Steele tried to wrench the muzzle round to the other's breast to shoot him, but the man held it firmly under his left arm, and, in that position, struck Steele blow after blow with his right fist. At this instant a pistol ball from Elliott felled him, but he rose and came again, when Steele knocked him down with his gun. Still unconquered, he returned to the attack a third time, when he was shot through the heart and killed on the spot. By this time two of the guards had been killed, two others wounded and taken prisoners, and the others disarmed, while Steele and his men had not suffered a scratch, except the pounding the Captain himself received.

A ridiculous incident now occurred that created merriment, despite the gravity of the situation. A green Irishman, a raw recruit, evidently a recent importation, being summoned to surrender, and, not knowing how to do so, started on a run around the pilot house, making the circuit of it twice and receiving several prods from bayonets, before he could be made to understand what was required of him. Pat being captured, the remainder of the guards, who had fled to the pilot house, descended and gave themselves up, All were ordered aft, and, in their turn, placed under guard.

The roof was now in Steele's possession, but not a moment too soon, for, at this juncture, the Lieutenant was discovered attempting to climb upon it from the cabin railing. Captain Steele charged him, when he hastily fell back. Turning to the hatchway to descend in pursuit of the Lieutenant, Steele met the entire board crew, fifteen or twenty in number, at the head of the stairway, coming up. He charged them with his bayonet, when the foremost man fell backward upon his companions, who, in their hurry to retreat, rolled pellmell over each other to the bottom and fled to the hold of the boat for refuge. Captain Steele now instructed the pilot to head the boat for refuge. Captain Steele now instructed the pilot to head the boat for Weston, Kentucky, the nearest good landing place, and then, arming himself with a pistol and taking with him one of his men, went below to secure the Lieutenant and the boat's crew, none of whom had arms. Reaching the cabin, he directed the boat's officers to produce the Lieutenant, who, however, could not be found. Captain Steele himself then started in search, and discovered the gallant Lieutenant in the chambermaid's quarters, hidden away under her bed.

Steele ordering him out, the Lieutenant presented himself with hands uplifted, begging for quarter. Being assured no harm would be done him, he was marched to the front. The crew were next ordered to form in line across the forecastle, which they did, hats off and trembling with fear, in which position they remained until released. The pilot, engineer and fireman, all remained at their posts until the boat was landed. Owing to the kindness of the boat's Captain Steele abandoned the idea of burning her, and scuttling her barges which he had at first contemplated. Nor did he confiscate the funds in her safe, but left the good Captain in full posession[sic] of his property. Arriving at the landing, all, by invitation of the boat's Captain, took a drink together, and shook hands on parting. The Lieutenant accompanied Captain Steele to the foot of the stairs, assured him he had no complaints to make, that the capture of the boat was a brave and daring act, well conceived and brilliantly executed, and the subsequent treatment of himself and men had been kind and considerate. As Steele stepped ashore, the Captain of the boat said "Good by, God bless you, I wish you all success in the world." In a few days the little band were all mounted, and Captain Steele began again to collect the recruits who had scattered after his capture. On September 25th, he with twenty-five men intercepted a body of sixty colored Federal troops near the Lisle place on the Madisonville Road, six miles out from Henderson, intending to capture them, but the negroes took to the woods and effected their escape. In October, he captured the steamboat R. B. Speed on Green River, and placed a guard on her with the intention of running through the locks at Spottsville, and capturing the small gunboat, which was guarding them, while the rest of the command proceeded by land. This plan he abandoned, because he learned that the Federals had become aware of his presence in the neighborhood. Hearing that in Hardin County there were some one hundred recruits desiring to make their way south, and wishing to join them with his men, for greater safety, Steele, taking two of his command, set out to find them, intending to arrange with them a place of rendezvous and then return for his own men. In passing through Hardensburg with Captain Carroll and twenty men, they were fired upon by Home Guards and Carroll killed, and several men wounded. This determined Captain Steele to return to Green River for safer quarters. A short time after this, Steele, with what men he had with him, joined Colonel Chenoworth with his company enroute South. They arrived on the Tennessee River in time to take part with General Forest in his attack on Johnsonville, where four gunboats, ten steamboats and twenty-seven barges were captured and destroyed. Steele retired to Paris, Tenn., and was here given a battery as a reward for gallantry. He was then sent to McLemoresville, and placed in command of the post and department ordinance stores. Early in December, he was placed in charge of surplus stores, cannon, etc., for transportation to Jackson, Tenn. He then joined General H. B. Lyon, and again crossed the Tennessee River. The command then marched to Cumberland City, where the steamers Thomas Tutt, Echo and Ben South, laden with army supplies for the Federals, were captured. They used these boats in crossing the Cumberland, and then burned them.

December 12th, Hopkinsville was occupied and Steele appointed Provost Marshal. On the sixteenth day of December, Chenoworth's command was engaged near Hopkinsville, by General McCook, of the Federal army, and lost his entire artillery. Steele then rejoined Lyon at Charleston, Kentucky. The disastrous defeat of Hood at Nashville, placed Lyon in a critical shape, compelling him to retreat on Alabama. Passing through Madisonville December 18th, Lyon burned the Court House and passed on to Green River, hotly pursued by the Federals. December 10th, 1864, a special order was issued by General Lyon to Captain Steele, directing him to recruit and organize a company for light artillery service, and to this end he was directed to enforce the conscript law, collect all stragglers, and to impress horses for artillery purposes. Steele came into Henderson County, and, when posting orders in the Town of Corydon, was fired upon by a company of colored troops. On the following morning, when the negroes were crossing into Union County, Steele, accompanied by three men dashed on their flank, fired into them with pistols, wounding several and then disappeared in the timber before the negroes could recover from their panic. On February 8th, learning that Captain Sam Allen, with a force of Federals, was on the Madisonville Road, he marched hurriedly to meet him, but was disappointed. He then crossed from the Madisonville to the Corydon Road, striking at the Alves ford below the fair grounds. Here they built a fence across the road, in a hollow opposite the ford, making a string pen, leaving the side towards Henderson open. Dismounting his men, Steele placed them in fence corners with orders not to fire until the word of command was given, or the Federals had passed into the trap prepared for them. Lieutenant Spalding, with ten mounted men, was posted in ambush some distance to the front and immediately opposite a gap in the fence which had been left down for him to pass through and take the expected enemy in the rear. Two men were then ordered to ride into the city, fire on any Federal who came in sight, and then retreat, with a view of inducing the Federal who came in sight, and then retreat, with a view of inducing the Federals to pursue them into the trap. In this they were successful, being hotly pursue by Captain Sam. Allen and twelve men, who would all have been captured but for George Gibson, one of the Cenfederates[sic], who, in the excitement of the moment, forgot the order not to fire until the word was given, and blazed away as soon as the Federals came opposite to him. This shot brought Allen to a halt as he had lost sight of the two men he was pursuing, they having passed through the gap and joined Spalding. A few more of the company now opened fire contrary to orders, on which Allen wheeled, and, under whip and spur, beat a rapid retreat, closely pursued by Spalding and his guard. Allen and part of his men passed the gap before Spalding could reach it, but was pursued into the precincts of the town. Six prisoners and a lot of arms were the fruit of this little victory. The prisoners were taken to Union County, and released on parole. On February 10th, Captain Wright occupied Morganfield with about one hundred colored Federal troops, and on the following day, leaving Lieutenant Wirt, with forty men to hold the town, started with sixty on a raid into the county. Steele, Spalding and about thirty men started in pursuit of Wright, who was followed for several hours. Steele then changed his plan, and taking Spalding and fourteen men marched on Morganfield with the intention of cutting Wright off and capturing the town. The remainder were ordered to continue in pursuit. Arriving at the suburbs of the town, Steele posted his men so as to watch both roads leading south. In this position he waited until near night, when, hearing nothing of Wright, he determined to try and capture the town, and Wirt's force by a ruse. He ordered his men to march about continually so as to attract the attention of the Federals and lead them to believe they were threatened by a large force. Then Spalding was sent under a flag of truce, with a communication from Captain Steele to Wirt, announcing that Wright's detachment had been made prisoners and demanding his surrender. To this Wirt agreed, and Steele was about to send Spalding back into town, with ten men, to receive his capitulation, when at this moment, a courier rode up and announced that Wright was approaching. Dispatching ten men to hold Wright in check, Steele and Spalding accompanied by two men, rode into town to receive the prisoners who were marched into the street, where they stacked arms. At this juncture the rattle of musketry was heard over behind the hill, and Wirt realizing that he had been duped, ordered his men to resume their arms. As they rushed for them, Steele and his companions beat a hurried retreat, followed by a shower of bullets. In five minutes more, Wirt's command would have been prisoners, and on his return, Wright would have found the town in the hands of Steele and his men, waiting to give him a warm reception.

The following night Wright evaded Spalding, who was watching the road, and retreated to Uniontown. Steele's command was engaged in several skirmishes after this. At one time he entered Henderson at one o'clock at night, intending to assault and capture the colored troops who occupied some breastworks on the river front above the wharf landing. Becoming aware of his movement, they fled aboard a gunboat or to some other point of safety. The Confederates had now evacuated Richmond, and Sherman had cut the Confederacy to two by his march to the sea, while Confederate troops were surrendering at all points. Nothing, therefore, was left Steele, but to disband his command and seek concealment, or to surrender. He chose the latter course, laying down his arms at his old home, where he had four years before first taken them up, after having passed through many dangers and participated in many battles, without having during these years of service received a scratch, except the pounding administered to him by the fist of the Federal soldier, whom he had disarmed in capturing the steamboat Colossus In January, 1866, Captain Steele removed to Morehouse Parish, in the northern part of the State of Louisiana, entering into mercantile life with Major T. R. Hotchkiss. He went, in 1869, to New Orleans, taking a situation in the wholesale dry goods establishment of John Sauche, where he had charge of the office. Returning to North Louisiana in December of the same years, he took up his residence in Ouachita City, Union Parish, his present home. Captain Steele married in May, 1871, Miss Juliet M. Parks, daughter of Mr. William Parks, the fruit of which union has been two sons and two daughters. Since that period he has engaged in extensive farming and mercantile enterprise in the parishes of Union, Morehouse and Ouachita, where he at present owns several large and valuable cotton plantations. In 1876, he first entered politics, being chosen as a delegate from Union Parish to the Democratic State nominating convention, held at Baton Rouge. Steele took an active part in the memorable election campaign of that year, contributing not a little to the overthrow and destruction of Republican rule in Louisiana. At this election he was chosen to represent his parish in the General Assembly of the State, and, susequently, 1878, was reelected. The latter, immediately upon assembling, passed an act ordering an election for delegates to a convention to frame a new State constitution.

In 1879, at an election for the ratification of this constitution, Steele was chosen to represent the Twenty-Second Senatorial District in the State Senate. Governor Wiltz dying in 1881, Lieutenant Governor McEnery succeeded him, leaving the president pro tem. of the Senate to preside over that body, and placing him next in succession to the Governorship. The party now divided into two wings, one faction under the leadership of Senator Walton made war on Senator Robertson, the then President pro tem. acceptable to all. Had this arrangement been consummated, the choice would have fallen on Senator Steele, but, through some hitch, the plan was abandoned. From his first entry into political life Captain Steele has ranked among the ablest members of the General Assembly. Quite courteous and unobtrusive in manner, he posesses[sic] a clear intellect, and his opinions are listened to by his colleagues with marked attention and respect. A consistent Democrat, his views on public affairs are broad and liberal. Already thoughtful conservative men through the State are beginning to turn their eyes upon him as a suitable man to place at the head of Louisiana affairs. Young, vigorous, a thorough man of business, he is fully acquainted with the people's need, and it is highly probably he may soon be elevated to the highest place in their gift.

NOTE.--Since the foregoing was written, Captain Steele has been elected Auditor of Louisiana, and yet holds that most important and responsible office.--Ed.

The History of Henderson County, Kentucky by Starling 1887 page 703-13;

Return to the Henderson County KyGenWeb Home Page