By David W. Locke, Monmouth Regional High School, Tinton Falls, NJ
By the spring and summer of 1863, the year commonly known as the turning point of the Civil War, John Hunt Morgan, against orders, determined to strike north, bringing fear and dread of his hand-picked, horse mounted raiders to the other side of the Ohio River. Timing mirrored that of Robert E. Lee’s bold invasion above the Mason-Dixon Line, which witnessed the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” The Battle of Gettysburg, the biggest of the war, July 1, 2 and 3, 1863, culminated with the Union repulse of the famed Pickett’s Charge on day three. Virginians briefly broke through the line at Cemetery Ridge but were soon overwhelmed by superior numbers. Lee’s battered, but not beaten, Army of Northern Virginia withdrew across the Potomac to safety in the Old Dominion. There the brutal struggle continued nearly two more bloody years. Later in July, Morgan and most of his men were captured in what became known as “The Great Raid,” but not before wreaking havoc, attacking the furthest north of any Confederate force and, most significantly, contributing to a standard employed effectively in later wars, guerilla style tactics; stealth, speed & deception. (Bailey)
Grant’s siege of Vicksburg ended with Confederate surrender on Independence Day, 1863. The victory secured the mighty Mississippi for the Union and split the South in two. The “Anaconda Plan” squeezed the Confederacy, but there was still considerable fight left in the Rebel elite—those remaining lean and mean battle hardened veterans. While national attention was focused on Gettysburg and Vicksburg, General Morgan was about to make some headlines himself.
John Hun Morgan was born in the heart of Dixie, in Huntsville, Alabama, on June 1, 1825. The Morgan’s moved to Lexington, Kentucky while John was still young. In 1846, the Manifest Destiny President, James K. Polk, provoked the Mexican War, and Morgan enthusiastically enlisted in a cavalry unit. His service earned him a promotion to 1st Lieutenant. Morgan’s contribution to victory at the Battle of Buena Vista ignited a military mindset that continued after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the conflict. He then entered and established a thriving hemp manufacturing business, but martial matters excited him more, motivating him to form a volunteer militia company, the “Lexington Rifles.” These were Kentucky men who, like Morgan, saw growing division between North and South in the turbulent 1850s. The increasing influence of abolitionism, evidenced in the wildly popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a virtual civil war in “Bleeding Kansas,” and the emerging Republican Party were like darkening clouds to the southern way of life.
Kentucky was a conflicted state positioned literally in the middle of the country. As one of four border slave states, Kentucky’s commercial connections were seemingly everywhere. The state had critical links to both the agricultural South and industrial North. Both regions desired the commonwealth’s horses, tobacco, cattle, corn and wheat. The Bluegrass state was also a thoroughfare for the slave trade between the upper and lower South. Young Abraham Lincoln likely saw the many manacled suffering souls, heading south and west, shuffling in front of his boyhood Hodgenville log cabin, destined for large plantations down river. Most likely it was here he first witnessed the “peculiar institution.” (7/17/2013 personal notes)
Lincoln’s “beau ideal,” fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, Sr., labored intensively for decades to keep the diverse interests and drifting regions together with a federal program known as the “American System,” consisting of internal improvements, a strong national bank, and protective tariffs for the nation’s industries. He also sponsored critical compromise legislation in 1820, 1833, and 1850, each averting possible conflict, hence his moniker, “The Great Pacificator.” After Clay’s death in 1852, as well as that of fellow nationalist, epic orator and fellow Whig, Daniel Webster, there was a dearth of those placing the interest of the nation as a whole first, and the slide toward civil war accelerated.
Regarding context of the recruiting document, like most Kentuckians, John Hunt Morgan initially hoped war could be avoided. After his wife died in 1861—perhaps restraining himself till then (her family being Union supporters)— Morgan raised a Confederate flag over his hemp factory in Lexington. Kentucky officially remained neutral, but he galloped south to the Volunteer State and joined the Confederates at Camp Boone. Colonel Morgan of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry soon was respected as a daring and fierce fighter. After action at Shiloh, Morgan’s cavalry led raids like lightning against Union forces in Kentucky and Tennessee, earning the nickname, “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” He and his men captured supplies and prisoners. When he captured 1200 Union soldiers in a July 1862 raid, he quickly became a nemesis of the North. The “Thunderbolt” struck and disappeared before much could be done, leaving a bewildered foe and devastation in his wake. Applause and praise rose throughout the South.
“I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game,” lamented Lincoln, so, in 1862, to keep the state in the Union fold, like Maryland, the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. Besides holding suspected Rebels in prison, others were exiled to the South, even women and children (Harris, 114). One “tyrant” Kentuckians needed “liberation” from, was “despot” (Morgan Handbill) Union general Jeremiah T. Boyle, determined by the Union state military board to have made “indiscriminate arrests” and produced “a dangerous state of things.” (Harris, 115-116)
In this atmosphere of July 1862 the handbill was printed and posted in Georgetown and Scott counties. Morgan had become a rising Confederate star, and thus magnet for recruits. Through the summer and fall of 1862 Morgan’s troops swelled to 4,000, as the promoted “General” Morgan was commissioned for the “Christmas Raid;” his most successful. Thwarting among others, Union General William Rosecrans and fellow Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan, in this dramatic, daring and deadly raid, the “Thunderbolt” and his men “captured and paroled over 1,800 prisoners, inflicted 150 casualties, burned a total of 2,290 feet of railroad bridgework, destroyed 35 miles of track and telegraph line, and trashed three depots, three water stations, several culverts and cattle guards, and large quantities of Federal stores. In doing this, Morgan suffered 26 casualties: 2 dead and 24 wounded. The railroad was closed for five weeks from December 26, when Morgan burned the bridge over Bacon Creek to February 1, when the damage was repaired and the tracks were reopened.” (Asher)
With Morgan’s stellar success, Confederate general Braxton Bragg authorized another raid into Kentucky in the summer of 1863. The goal was to draw Union troops away from their upcoming campaign for Tennessee and continued siege of Vicksburg. However, knowing Morgan’s daring and aggressive nature, Bragg forbade crossing the Ohio. Flying high with victory in several small Kentucky battles, Morgan defied orders and began raiding throughout Indiana and Ohio, covering about 1,000 miles before being surrounded and surrendering at Salineville, Ohio. One thousandalso represents the heavy toll of those who answered the call of his handbill to ride and raid, but were captured. The Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus could not keep him though. Morgan and six officers tunneled to freedom. Upon his return to the South, not trusted by Bragg for disobeying orders, Morgan was given command of the Trans-Allegheny. He did some raiding, but was killed in a skirmish less than a year later in Greeneville, Tennessee. (Hickman & Warren)
Sadly today, as the increasing size, scope, and abuse of federal power is happening regularly, the spirit of John Hunt Morgan’s resistance to tyranny resonates with many in the North as well as in the South. 21st Century “Handbills” in the form of constant online and television news, websites, emails, and smartphones inform aggrieved citizens they can rally, organize and take action, to counter threats to liberty. But perhaps through Biblical, Christ centered prayer and example (II Chronicles 7:14), “the land will be healed,” true positive change can occur, and Constitutional government reestablished.
Asher, Tim, “John Hunt Morgan’s Christmas Raid.” www.hardinkyhistory.org.
Bailey, J. Lee, May 2013 Civil War News Book Review, David L. Mowery, Morgan’s Great Raid: The Remarkable Expedition from Kentucky to Ohio, 2013, History Press. www.civilwarnews.com.
Harris, William C., Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union, University Press of Kansas, 2011.
Hickman, Kennedy, American Civil War – John Hunt Morgan. militaryhistory.about.com.
July 17, 2013 personal notes taken at Lincoln Boyhood Historic Site, Hodgenville, KY.
Kentucky Historical Society Digital Collections, John Hunt Morgan Handbill. www.history.ky.gov.
Timeline of the Civil War in Kentucky. - www.ket.org.
Warren, Rich, “Ohio’s New John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail.” www.cleveland.com.