Jacquelyn Procter Reeves
Using dull knives smuggled out of the mess hall, six prisoners housed in the Ohio state penitentiary began to dig under their bunks. Among those men were John Hunt Morgan, known by the Yankees as “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” Thomas Hines, and Dick Morgan. It was difficult to dig through the concrete floor, but they were persistent. On a cold November night in 1863, the prisoners-of-war were finally ready to make their escape. But while the story could have ended there, General John Morgan would not leave well enough alone.
John Hunt Morgan was born in Huntsville, Alabama on June 1, 1825. Several days after his birth, the Morgan family moved into their home at 558 Franklin Street, located in the heart of present-day Twickenham Historic District. He was the oldest of ten children born to Calvin Morgan and Henrietta Hunt Morgan. But their time in Huntsville would not last long. The family lost their home in 1831 when Calvin Morgan’s business fell on hard times.
At that time, the Morgans left the Tennessee Valley and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, home to Henrietta Hunt Morgan’s family. Young John Morgan’s propensity for fighting made itself known early, for in 1844 he was suspended from Transylvania College for dueling with another student.
Like many of the men who would later serve in the Civil War, Morgan enlisted in the Army to fight in the Mexican-American War. He participated in the Battle of Buena Vista, also known as the Battle of Angostura. In that February 23, 1847 battle, 5,000 Americans serving under Major General Zachary Taylor fought, and sent running, 12,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of the Mexican self-proclaimed president Santa Anna. Taylor’s men were supported by the Mississippi Rifles, led by Colonel Jefferson Davis, a man that would play a major part in an upcoming war that would change the course of America’s history. Major Braxton Bragg, another name that would become synonymous with the future American Civil War was ordered by General Taylor to “double shot your guns and give them hell!” The famous quote would be re-written slightly and serve as Taylor’s campaign slogan that would propel him to the White House as President of the United States in 1848.
Although the Americans stubbornly held their position and gave the Mexicans the hell Taylor had prescribed, Santa Anna boasted that the battle was a Mexican victory and took his army with him in retreat to Agua Nueva.
At the conclusion of the war, John Hunt Morgan returned to Kentucky and in 1848 married Rebecca Bruce. Tragedy struck five years after their marriage, as 23-year-old Rebecca Morgan gave birth to a stillborn son and an infection in her leg necessitated its amputation. Becky did not die, but her health problems would eventually take their toll. She died on July 21, 1861.
There was apparently no closeness between Morgan and his wife’s family. Becky’s health problems had put a strain on relations and perhaps his in-laws also disapproved of his continued interest in military matters. He raised a company of infantry, the Lexington Rifles, and spent much of his time in drill. In 1861 the Civil War was already in progress and with Becky’s death, Morgan had no more ties to his wife and her need for constant care. As colonel of the newly established 2nd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, Morgan began to implement the guerilla tactics he knew best.
On December 7, 1862, Morgan led his men at the Battle of Hartsville, Tennessee. Snow covered the ground as his force of 1,400 men marched toward the camp of Union Colonel Absolom B. Moore, 104th Regiment Illinois Infantry, located near the Cumberland River. Greatly outnumbered and miserably cold, Morgan’s shivering men and their horses crossed the icy Cumberland River at 3 a.m. along with the men under the leadership of Basil Duke. Some Confederates did not cross, waiting to capture any Union soldiers who might try to escape to Lebanon, while others waited near Hartsville on the Gallatin Road for the same reason.
The battle began at about 6:45 a.m. “The Rebels are coming!” a servant shouted to the Union soldiers eating breakfast. An order was issued to sound the long drumroll – the prelude to battle. Four hundred yards from the camp, the Confederate cavalry was forming a line as the bugle sounded double-quick and then full speed. The Union soldiers waited as the Confederates advanced another 300 yards. With the screech of the dreaded Rebel Yell, the Confederate attack began.
The Battle of Hartsville lasted 1 hour, 15 minutes. At the conclusion, a Confederate soldier said, “Never in my life have I looked upon anything so beautiful, so charming and so soul-satisfying as that white rag given to the breeze by the hand of a surrendered Yankee.”
Morgan and his men captured 1800 men along with their arms and ammunition. Morgan’s men had suffered because of their inadequate clothing, now frozen after the river crossing. His order to the Union prisoners of war was succinct. “Come out of those overcoats!”
Among the captives was Union Colonel Absolom Moore who was sent to a prison where he remained until his exchange early the following year. Moore made his belated report on February 25, 1863, and explained his defeat by writing that he was badly outnumbered. He reported that he was attacked by a Confederate army of 5,000 to 6,000 strong, a far cry from the actual 1,400. President Lincoln allowed him the opportunity to resign.
The Rebel victory was a much-needed boost to the sagging morale of the Southland. For this, Confederate President Jefferson Davis would personally reward John Hunt Morgan with the rank of brigadier general.
In the same month, Morgan married Tennessean Martha “Mattie” Ready, the daughter of U.S. Representative Charles Ready. The wedding ceremony was a true celebration. Confederate General Leonidas Polk, known as “The Fighting Bishop,” performed the ceremony. In attendance were President Jefferson Davis, General Braxton Bragg, General John Breckinridge, General William Hardee, and General Benjamin “Frank” Cheatham.
Morgan and his men had already made a name for themselves. They were hand-picked and carefully trained by their leader. George “Lighting” Ellsworth, a member of Morgan’s Raiders, was an accomplished telegrapher who intercepted important information and in turn, sent out misinformation to the Union Army. The raiders blew up the Big South Tunnel near Gallatin, Tennessee and otherwise wreaked havoc upon the Union-held railroad lines. According to some sources, like Robin Hood before them, Morgan and his men even stole supplies from the Union Army and distributed them to the struggling citizens in the towns they passed through.
Most of his notoriety would be gained by his actions in the summer of 1863, known as the Great Raid of 1863. Morgan and his raiders crossed the Ohio River, rode through southern Indiana and Ohio, making him the first and only Confederate to penetrate so far into the Union territory. In that three weeks, the raiders took approximately 1,200 prisoners of war and raided 17 towns. About 700 of his men were captured on July 19, but Morgan held out until July 26 when he and several others of his men surrendered near Salineville, Ohio. It was at this time that they became guests of the State of Ohio.
On November 27th, Morgan and his men were ready to make their escape from their cells in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. After several days of digging through concrete, lime mortar and brick, they reached the foundation of the building. This had to dug through before they could begin their horizontal tunnel and final upward tunnel to the surface. After several weeks, the tunnel was finished. John Morgan, who was housed on the second floor, switched places with his brother Dick when it was time to be confined to their cells for the night. Dick would not be part of the escape party. Some time after midnight, John Morgan arranged his bunk to appear that he was sleeping soundly. He slipped into the tunnel under Dick’s bunk and made his way down until he met the other five men in the tunnel. From the surface, they still had to cross a high wall, but on the other side, an unexpected surprise waited for them. Union guards warmed themselves next to a bonfire.
Their very lives depended on their sure-footed silence. They scattered, making their way as far as they could from their prison home. Thomas Hines and John Morgan, on the other hand, bought train tickets to Cincinnati and sat down beside a Union soldier. As they passed the Ohio State Penitentiary, the officer, who had no idea who his new friend was, glibly pointed out that the Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan was a prisoner there. Morgan’s quick-witted reply was essentially, “May they guard him always as they do right now.”
On September 4, 1864, his luck ran out. Morgan and his men were in Greeneville, Tennessee for a brief rest. Morgan was staying with a friend when the Union Army surrounded the house sometime in the night. Perhaps they had been tipped off by a Union sympathizer. According to some sources, he was executed while in the act of surrendering. Although the official Union report stated John Morgan was killed while trying to escape, the fact that he was the only one of his men shot, even as others were fleeing, tends to support the first theory.
Morgan’s body was thrown onto the back of a horse and paraded up and down the streets as the Union detachment celebrated their kill. He was stripped and thrown into a ditch. Confederate Major Withers, one of the only staff officers taken prisoner, asked that he be allowed to return his commander’s body to Morgan’s widow, now in Abingdon, Virginia.
A memorial service was held in Abingdon for the slain general before he was transported to Richmond for a military funeral. Finally, in 1868, Morgan’s brother brought him back to Lexington, Kentucky for his final interment. Morgan was admired by the South, considered reckless by his superiors, and dreaded by his enemies. But everyone knew who he was. At his third and final funeral, four years after he was killed, over 2,000 people turned out to say good-bye to Huntsville’s own Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.