Benjamin Helm Bristow

Besides its contributions to the file of either army, Todd County claims the nativity of two of the leaders in this contest, who according to the ” eternal fitness of things ” were arrayed on either side. On the side of the Union was Benjamin Helm Bristow. He is second in a family of four children, and was born at Elkton, Ky., in July, 1832. After gaining the rudiments of an education here, he was placed at an early age in Jefferson College, at Cannonsburg, Penn. After completing the course of study prescribed by this institution he returned to Elkton, and entering the office of his father, Hon. F. M. Bristow, began the study of law. In 1857 he removed to Hopkinsville, where he formed a partnership with Judge R. T. Petrie, and practiced his profession with some success until the breaking out of the civil war. During the unsettled state of things incident to the effort to maintain a neutral position on the part of Kentucky, his efforts were united with others in sustaining the Union sentiment against the eloquence of the secession orators, and when the question passed from the forum of debate, he promptly enlisted in the National army. He was mustered into the service of the United States as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Twenty-fifth Kentucky Infantry, Col. Shackelford commanding, and distinguished himself as an efficient officer and soldier in the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Pittsburg Landing. Returning home in 1862 he became active in raising the Eighth Kentucky Cavalry, with which he again entered the service as Lieutenant-Colonel. This regiment found active service and made an honorable record on many a field, taking part in the pursuit and capture of John Morgan, under the command of Bristow as Colonel. In 1863 he was transferred from the army to the Legislature of his native State, being elected to the Senate from the Hopkinsville District. He served on the Committee on Military Affairs, and did loyal service for the Union during those eventful years of 1863-65. He then resigned his seat in the Legislature and located in Louisville, taking up the practice of his profession. In 1866 Col. Bristow was appointed Assistant United States District Attorney for Kentucky, and about a year later succeeded to the office of District Attorney. The office at that time required the courage of conviction to sustain the incumbent, and Col. Bristow discharged his duty with unflinching honesty and acceptance to both the partisans of State and National interests. In 1870 he resigned this position and formed a law partnership with Gen. John M. Harlin, which lasted less than a year, when he was called to the office of Solicitor-General of the United States. He was the first incumbent of this office, which he filled with approved ability for some two years, when he again resigned office and retired to private life and the practice of his profession in Louisville.

Col. Bristow’s ability in his profession and success in his official career gave him a prominent place among his professional brethren in the State, and a foremost place in the bar of Louisville. When Attorney-General Williams was nominated for Chief Justice, Bristow was nominated to succeed him, but the failure of Williams to receive the confirmation of the Senate left no vacancy. On the resignation of Richardson as Secretary of the Treasury, President Grant called Col. Bristow to fill this position. Here he made his individuality appear by beginning a vigorous war upon the frauds which were being perpetrated under cover of the system of internal revenue. He carried forward his work against the most vigorous opposition of not only the victims of his prosecution, but by the unconvicted officials or accomplices in his department. He succeeded, however, in demonstrating the enormous character of the frauds, and in enlisting the enthusiastic support of the Nation. Coming on the eve of a Presidential election, it gave Mr. Bristow a prestige which promised to bring him to the White House; but these fond anticipations failed, and recognizing that his work was accomplished, he again retired to private life and the practice of law at Louisville. He subsequently removed to New York City, where he is still practicing his profession, appearing occasionally as orator before political conferences, though not actively engaged in politics.


Battle, J. H., W. H. Perrin, Counties of Todd and Christian, Kentucky : historical and biographical, Chicago : F. A. Battey Publishing Co., 1884.

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