Friday, 14 January 2011

David Campbell Kelley - Confederate soldier and Methodist minister

Dr David Campbell Kelley was one of the most widely known ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  He was born in a log cabin in Leeville, Wilson County, Tennessee, of Ulster-Scots ancestry on 25 December 1833.

His father, Rev John Kelley (1801-1864) was a son of Dennis Kelley, a soldier in the American Revolution, and his paternal grandmother was Elizabeth Thompson.  Dr Kelley's great-grandfather had emigrated from Ireland to America.

 Kelley family log cabin in Leeville
His mother was Margaret Lavinia Campbell (1805-1877), daughter of Colonel David Campbell (1753-1832) of Knox County, Tennessee, and Jane Montgomery, daughter of Colonel Hugh Montgomery of Salisbury, North Carolina.  Colonel David Campbell was the son of 'Black David' Campbell, who was born in county Londonderry in 1710 and emigrated from Ulster to America, where he died in Augusta County, Virginia, in November 1753.

John Kelley and Margaret Campbell were married on 27 January 1833 and David Campbell Kelley was their first child.  He graduated from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1851 and then joined the Tennessee Methodist Conference as an itinerant preacher in 1852.  Later that year he was sent to China as a missionary and worked there for four years.  Kelley retained a lifelong interest in missions and he was secretary and treasurer of the board of missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

In the summer of 1861, with the start of the Civil War, he organised a cavalry company as Kelley's Troopers or Kelley's Rangers, to serve in the Confederate States Army.  This was the first cavalry company from Madison County and it was made up of men from the New Market and Maysville area.  The company travelled by rail to join Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest's battalion at Memphis and Kelley was soon promoted to major.

Battle of Shiloh
Kelley so distinguished himself by his coolness in action and bravery in the face of danger that he was rapidly promoted and made major of battalion.  Kelley was elected lieutenant colonel of Forrest's regiment the day before the Battle of Shiloh and he also fought at the Battle of Murfreesboro.  Afterwards he commanded a regiment and then a brigade, winning a brilliant reputation as 'Forrest's fighting preacher'.  In late 1862 the company was transferred to Colonel A A Russell's 4th Alabama Cavalry, serving with that regiment for the remainder of the war.  It surrendered with Forrest at Gainesville, Alabama, in May 1865.

After the war Kelley served as a pastor of several of the largest Methodist churches in Tennessee - Gallatin (1888-1890), Springfield (1891-1892), Elm Street, Nashville (1892-1894), Bellbuckle (1894-1896) and Columbia (1896-1898).  From 1898 to 1901 he was presiding elder of Nashville District.

He was instrumental in the formation of Vanderbilt University in 1873 and subsequently served as a trustee.  Kelley also secured the funds for the building of the Nashville College for Young Ladies, a Methodist institution which opened in 1880, and he served as its president.

Dr Kelley was strongly opposed to the drink trade and in 1890 he stood as a candidate for governor of Tennessee on the prohibition ticket.  His canvass of the state doubled the prohibitionist vote but he was unsuccessful.

On 30 May 1901 he presided at the dedication ceremony for the General N B Forrest memorial statue in Forrest Park in Memphis.  Kelley had been both a friend and chaplain to General Forrest and he was one of the surviving members of the general's staff.  The ceremony took place during a Confederate Veterans reunion and Kelley was associated with the Confederate Veteranx movement.  He was also elected president of the Tennessee Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in 1888.

Dr Kelley died in Nashville on 19 May 1909 after nearly sixty years as a Methodist minister.  His last words were, 'My work is done,' and what a work!  He had been a Methodist missionary, a Methodist minister, an educationalist and a Confederate colonel, a truly remarkable man.

Dr Kelley was very interested in his Ulster-Scots roots and he was a member of the Scotch-Irish Society of America.  At the First Scotch-Irish Congress in 1889 he gave an addresss on The Scotch-Irish in Tennessee, at the second he spoke about General Sam Houston and at the third he gave an address on Andrew Jackson.

The name of Dr Kelley is still associated with the site in west Nashville known as Kelley's Point Battlefield.  According to Bob Henderson, president of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, 'Kelley's Point illustrates that Nashville had the most extensive line of battle during the Civil War.  From Kelley's Point the Confederate line arched over 14 miles across the county from west to east Nashville.  The actions at Kelley's Point were also the largest sustained battle between the Confederate cavalry and the Union navy.  For two weeks prior to the battle four artillery pieces under the command of Kelley's Confederate cavalry effectively blockaded the Cumberland River against seven heavily armed Union gunboats.  Confederate cavalry and Federal gunboats clashed in six separate engagements.  Part of the site has been preserved from developers and is now Brookmeade Park at Kelley's Point Battlefield, with interpretive signage to explain its historical significance.

Dr Kelley's wife, Mary Owen Campbell Kelley (1836-1890) was an author of children's books.
  • Nashville Christian Advocate 21 May 1909
  • Confederate Veteran August 1909
  • Nashville Christian Advocate 11 February 1910
  • Proceedings of the Second Scotch-Irish Congress p 288


  1. Hello sir, I am an employee of Metro Nashville Parks Department, specifically I work at Bells Bend Park, the site of the Battle of Bells Mill, in which Colonel Kelley commanded artillery against the Union Navy from December 2, 1864 to December 15, 1864. I have been developing a program dedicated to this largely unknown piece of the history of the Battle of Nashville. I am wondering if you might share some of your information with me to further my efforts to design a factual presentation. I have researched extensively the Union records that pertain to the battle, I have spoken with the BONPS, the Nashville Historical Commission, as well as other Civil War scholars and enthusiasts. While I have found anecdotal evidence that Kelley was in the area during the two week siege of the Cumberland River, I have not ever seen any proof-positive evidence of his command. Best I can tell General Chalmers was in command of the area. While it does state in some Union reports that other members of General Forrest's staff were observed in Nashville during the battle, Kelley's name is not used specifically. Forrest was of course in Murfreesboro during the battle. glaring issue for me is that the interpretive signage on the south side of the river along the greenway states that water mines (torpedos) were sued to blockade the river. Not one single Union correspondence over the two week period from any of the seven gunboats says anything about encountering torpedos. I would think they might mention something like that as to warn other vessels. Can you shed any light on why the signage states this? I am also interested in any of the geneology you have regarding Colonel Kelley and his family. A remarkable man to be sure. Thank you so much for any help you might provide. Please dontact me directly or 615-500-6783 in Nashville, TN USA

  2. I actually wrote and designed that sign. Ed Bearse reviewed it before it went to print. I will be detailing my research soon at the site My sources come from the U.S. Naval & Army O.R., Confederate Veteran Magazine as well as documents from the TN and National Archives. The torpedeo's came from the Navy O.R. as I recall. By email is

    1. Additionally, Bell's Mill is referenced in the Navy O.R. with 6 Naval engagements, 2 Medal of Honor recipients, as well as a lithograph in Harpers Weekly Magazine. I don't no my the so called “experts” have a hard time grasping this fact, or the overwhelming evidence I have that 12+ soldiers are buried in an unmarked grave not too far from there. - Bob Henderson