Producer/Editor: Paul Smith
John Hunt Morgan
He was lauded by the Confederacy as a gallant hero, but condemned by the Union as a lawless fighter. Few Civil War figures have a more polarizing legacy than John Hunt Morgan. Famous for his daring raids across Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio during the Civil War, Morgan came to epitomize the romantic ideal of the Southern cavalryman. Union sympathizers viewed his tactics as nothing less than unchecked campaigns of robbery and murder. Who was the man behind the legend?
Interviewed for this program are James A. Ramage, Ph.D., author of Rebel Raider (1986); James Klotter, Ph.D., state historian of Kentucky; and Steve Munson, director of the Battles of the Western Theater Museum in Bardstown.
War and Marriage
Born in Alabama in 1825, Morgan came of age in his mother's native Lexington. Morgan studied at Transylvania University, but was expelled for dueling. His quest for glory led him to service in the Mexican-American War. After the war, he returned to Lexington, married Rebecca Bruce and settled down to the life of a hemp manufacturer. A slave owner, he organized volunteer militias. In 1853 the Morgans' only child was stillborn, and Rebecca contracted an infection that left her an invalid. When she died in 1861, Morgan took his militia, the Lexington Rifles, to Tennessee and joined the Confederate cause.
After fighting with the cavalry at the Battle of Shiloh, Morgan set off with his men on the guerilla raids that would make him famous. His men rode across Kentucky, capturing soldiers, stealing horses, tearing up railroad tracks, and burning bridges. He made headlines in the North—he was called the "King of Horse Thieves" and his tactics were compared to those of the Revolutionary War's Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.
He was one of the most sought-after and talked-about men in the South. The 37-year-old widower found love with 21-year-old Martha "Mattie" Ready. They were married on Dec. 14, 1862, in Murfreesboro, Tenn., an event attended by everybody who was anybody in the Confederate military. Now a brigadier general, Morgan returned to the war, targeting the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in his successful "Christmas Raid" across Kentucky.
The Great Raid
It was his raid the next summer, however, for which Morgan is best remembered and also most reviled—and for which historians say he overestimated his chances. His unauthorized 1,000-mile "Great Raid" wreaked havoc in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio in July 1863, but ended with his capture and his force decimated.
The raid began on a smaller scale. Given the go-ahead by his superiors for another raid into Kentucky, Morgan's men—more than 2,400 strong—crossed into Kentucky and made several successful raids. After Morgan's brother Tom was killed in battle in Lebanon, Morgan's raiders burned the town.
Ordered not to cross the Ohio River, Morgan did just that on July 8. For weeks his men burned bridges, tied up Union soldiers in skirmishes, and terrified civilians in towns across southern Indiana and Ohio. Pursued by Union forces, he tried to go back across the Ohio River on July 19 at Buffington Island, Ohio, but heavy summer rains made the crossing impossible. Union forces captured over 700 men, but Morgan eluded his pursuers and fled farther north. A week later the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy was captured near West Point, Ohio. He had only 400 men left.
Imprisoned in Columbus, Ohio, he managed to escape on Nov. 27, 1863—only adding to his legend.
Death and Legacy
Back home in Tennessee but with far fewer men, Morgan's raids were less spectacular and he was driven out of Kentucky on his last raid in June 1864. Worse yet, he was suspended from command in August over reports his men had robbed and looted on his last raid. Taking refuge at the Dickson-Williams House in Greeneville, Tenn., he was plotting his next move when Union soldiers ambushed him on Sept. 4, 1864. He tried to escape but he was shot and killed in the home's garden.
Under a flag of truce, he was buried in Richmond, Virginia, after an elaborate state funeral. After the war, his brother Calvin had his body brought back to Lexington and he was buried in Lexington Cemetery in April 1868.
Lexington's Old Courthouse Square features a prominent memorial to Morgan—the only Civil War monument in Kentucky that features a soldier on horseback.
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