Family Stories

Ephraim Mclean Brank – The Kentucky Long Rifle

Lieutenant Ephraim M. Brank, 1791-1875, ‘The Kentucky Long Rifle’.

Ephraim McLean Brank is the Kentucky hero of the battle of New Orleans in 1815.  Honestly, until visiting Muhlenberg County and the courthouse in Greenville, he was unknown to me.  This is one of the extreme pleasures of genealogy research – what is found by accident.  Ritchey is definitely good at it!  Everything we find is another piece of the puzzle of our Kentucky ancestry and our Kentucky history.

The following is taken from Otto A. Rothert’s A History of Muhlenberg County, 1913.  It is the best source I’ve found for our subject.

Ephraim McLean Brank’s heroic act on the breastworks in the battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, is one of the most thrilling incidents recorded of any Muhlenberg man, as it is a fine one in national history.  To his family and friends, he seldom described the part he played in this battle.  However, his friends and comrades, John Shelton, Mike Severs and others, frequently told the story, and although their version was never written, it was in nearly every detail the same as the one here re-quoted from McElroy’s Kentucky in the Nation’s History.

McElroy, by way of introduction, says: ‘The effect produced upon the British army by the daring coolness of a single Kentucky rifleman is thus graphically described by one of the British officers who took part in the historic engagement.’  He then quotes:

We marched in solid column in a direct line, upon the American defenses.  I belonged to the staff; and as we advanced, we watched through our glasses the position of the enemy, with that intensity an office only feels when marching into the jaws of death.  It was a strange sight, that breastwork, with a crowd of beings behind, their heads only visible above the line of defense.  We could distinctly see their long rifles lying on the works, and the batteries in our front, with their great mouths gaping toward us.  We could also see the position of General Jackson, with his staff around him.  But what attracted our attention most, was the figure of a tall man standing on the breastworks, dressed in linsey-woolsey, with buckskin leggings, and a broad-brimmed felt hat that fell round the face, almost concealing the features.  He was standing in one of those picturesque, graceful attitudes peculiar to those natural men dwelling in forests.  The body rested on the left leg and swayed with a curved line upward.  The right arm was extended, the hand grasping the rifle near the muzzle, the butt of which rested near the toe of his right foot.  With the left hand he raised the rim of the hat from his eyes and seemed gazing intently on our advancing column.  The cannon of the enemy had opened on us and tore through our works with dreadful slaughter; but we continued to advance, unwavering and cool, as if nothing threatened our progress.

The roar of cannon had no effect upon the figure before us; he seemed fixed and motionless as a statue.  At last he moved, threw back his hat rim over the crown with his left hand, raised the rifle to the shoulder, and took aim at our group.

Our eyes were riveted upon him; at whom had he leveled his piece?  But the distance was so great, that we looked at each other and smiled.  We saw the rifle flash and very rightly conjectured that his aim was in the direction of our party.  My right-hand companion, as noble a fellow as ever rode at the head of a regiment, fell from his saddle.

The hunter paused a few moments without removing his gun from his shoulder.  Then he reloaded and assumed his former attitude.  Throwing the hat rim over his eyes and again holding it up with the left hand, he fixed his piercing gaze upon us as if hunting out another victim.  Once more the hat rim was thrown back, and the gun raised to his shoulder.  This time we did not smile, but cast glances at each other, to see which of us must die.

When again the rifle flashed, another one of our party dropped to the earth.  There was something most awful in this marching on to certain death.  The cannon and thousands of musket balls playing upon our ranks, we cared not for, for there was a chance of escaping them.  Most of us had walked as coolly upon batteries more destructive without quailing, but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us, and its bullet sprang from the barrel, one of us must surely fall; to see it rest motionless as if poised on a rack, and know, when the hammer came down, that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this, and still march on, was awful.  I could see nothing but the tall figure standing on the breastworks; he seemed to grow, phantom-like, higher and higher, assuming, through the smoke, the supernatural appearance of some great spirit of death.  Again died he reload and discharge, and reload and discharge his rifle, with the same unfailing aim and the same unfailing result; and it was indescribable pleasure that I beheld, as we neared the American lines, the sulphurous cloud gathering around, and shutting that spectral hunter from our gaze.

We lost the battle; and to  my mind, the Kentucky rifleman contributed more to our defeat than anything else; for while he remained in our sight our attention was drawn from our duties; and when, at last, he became enshrouded in the smoke, the work was complete; we were in utter confusion, and unable, in the extremity, to restore order sufficient to make any successful attack – the battle was lost.

McElroy’s footnote, page 365, following this quotation, reads:  This manuscript is marked ‘Kentucky Rifleman in battle of New Orleans, Durrett Collection.  The hero here described was E. M. Brank, of Greenville, Kentucky.’  The manuscript referred to is not signed but gives the name of E. M. Brank as the hero of the sketch.  The late Z. F. Smith informed me that this description was first printed about the year 1820 in one of George Robert Gleig’s books on the campaigns of the British at Washington and New Orleans.  I have not had access to any of these works by Gleig and am unable, therefore, to refer the reader to the quotation in the original.  At any rate, this interesting description was quoted as early as 1832 by Walter Walcott in The Republican of Boston, and later republished, but slightly changed, by various Kentucky papers, clippings of which are still preserved by Rockwell S. Brank and other descendants of E. M. Brank.

The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Thursday, January 1, 1942

Ephraim McLean Brank was born in North Carolina, August 1, 1791, and died in Greenville August 5, 1875.  He was a son of Robert Brank and Margaret (McLean) Brank, who was a sister of Judge Alvey McLean and Doctor Robert D. McLean, Sr.  His first wife, the mother of his children, was Mary (Campbell) Brank, daughter of Colonel William Campbell.  She was born March 27, 1791 and died in Greenville December 4, 1850.  His second wife was Ruth B. Weir, the third wife and widow of pioneer James Weir.

E. M. Brank came to Muhlenberg about 1808. He was a lawyer by profession but devoted most of his time to surveying. He lived in Greenville on Main Street, half a mile north of the courthouse.  Although his later years were spent in farming, he nevertheless continued to take a great interest in the progress of the town.  Captain Brank was a man of stately proportions and wonderful physical constitution.  He was a ‘crack shot’ and an enthusiastic hunter; a well-read and a resolute and systematic man, very kind to all those with whom he came in contact.

The Messenger Enquirer, Owensboro, Daviess County, Kentucky

Sunday, January 9, 1966

Mr. and Mrs. E. M. Brank were the parents of five children:  (1) Louisa, who married James M. Taylor (no children); (2) Tabitha A., who became the second wife of Doctor William H. Yost (no children); (3) Samuel C., who died in childhood; (4) Reverend Robert G. Brank, who married Ruth A. Smith.  He was born November 3, 1824, and died in St. Louis, August 21,1895.  Among their four children is Reverend Rockwell Smith Brank.  (5) Mary Jane, who became the first wife of Doctor William H. Yost.  Through his skill, liberality and long service ‘Old Doctor Yost,’ as he was called, became one of the best-known physicians in Muhlenberg and adjoining counties.  Doctor Yost was born July 5, 1820, and died in Greenville, November 1, 1894.  Doctor and Mrs. Yost were the parents of three children: (1) Mary W. Yost, the first wife of Doctor T. J. Slaton.  Their two children are Doctors Henry Y. and Brank Slaton.  (2) Judge William H. Yost, who married Lizzie Reno.  Their two children, who reached maturity, are Doctor E. R. Yost and Mrs. Mary B. (Reverend W. H.) Fulton.  (3) Doctor E. B. Yost, who married Bertha Grimes (no children).

McLean County News, Calhoun, Kentucky

Thursday, August 16, 2012

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