The Murder of John Hunt Morgan

In the course of the War Between the States in Tennessee, probably no single event had a bigger effect on morale in the state or the Confederacy, as did the death of General John Hunt Morgan in Greeneville, Tenn. In fact, Morgan’s story would go on to become a part of American folklore and legend that is still celebrated to this day - a legacy that earned him the name "America’s Robin Hood" on both sides of the border.

He was born on June 1, 1825 in Huntsville, Ala. to Calvin and Henrietta (Hunt) Morgan. Mrs. Morgan was the daughter of wealthy Lexington, Ky. businessman John Wesley Hunt. When John Morgan was five-years-old, America was undergoing its first major economic depression and cotton prices were tumbling– forcing the Morgans to move from Alabama to Lexington, where Calvin Hunt joined his father-in-law in the family business.
A young John Morgan grew up like most boys in the South and learned to ride and shoot at an early age. He was both home-schooled and attended a local neighborhood school until he was old enough to enter Transylvania University. He attended only briefly due to an incident with another student that led to Morgan challenging him to a duel. Morgan was expelled from the school. He was still young and opted to join a local militia bound for the Mexican War instead of turning his efforts to the family business.
Morgan became infatuated with the military and his unit was distinguished in their service during the war. His unit was rewarded by being sent home and Morgan quickly started looking for another one to join.
On Nov. 21, 1848, Morgan settled down somewhat and married Rebecca Bruce, whose father owned several interests including a hemp factory. Five years later John Morgan and his brother Calvin started a business plaiting ropes and making bags from the fiber. Their business quickly grew, but John also grew bored with the routine. He joined a militia as Captain and, when militias were disbanded for three years, bided his time and established the Lexington Rifles in 1857.
As the Battle of Fort Sumter began, Rebecca Morgan was ill and requiring constant attention. His home state was declaring itself neutral and Morgan was staying near his ailing wife. On July 21, 1861, Rebecca Morgan died and Kentucky, now in Union hands, issued an order disbanding the militia and ordering them to turn in their guns. John Morgan went to the armory with a collection of boxes. He collected the guns of the Lexington Rifles and hid them in a hay wagon. Morgan then filled the crates with bricks and shipped them to the Kentucky capitol, while he and his militia rode south to Bowling Green, KY. They were joined by other men in the city and continued their ride south to join the Confederate Army.
While waiting a month to be accepted Morgan began raiding into Union camps and making a name for himself in Union-held Kentucky. Although neutral, the Union’s military rule was raping the land. Food stores and basic supplies were being seized to feed the incoming troops and towns ravaged to support them. John Morgan followed the old southern code of chivalry and his gallant conduct during the raids soon captured the imaginations of the south. In addition, Morgan never assaulted private property and always insisted on paying for his cavalry’s supplies. He would often capture Union storage facilities and then ride through the towns distributing the food to the people of the Kentucky cities that were in need. Morgan possessed all of the textbook traits of a southern gentleman. He was 6’0, 180 pounds, and had an easygoing manner that belied his refined mannerisms.
Morgan, who was given the rank of Captain, was sworn into the Confederate Army on Oct. 27, 1861. Morgan’s brother-in-law was appointed Lieutenant and second in command of what was becoming known as "Morgan’s Raiders". His liberation of towns and raids stopped the Union Army in their tracks and forced them to spend their time securing Kentucky from the Confederates. The charismatic Morgan had gathered an eclectic group of individuals who brought with them skills that were the envy of other commanders.
One was an educated British mercenary named George St. Leger Grenfell. After professing a soldier’s resume of service with some of the best military units in the world, he produced a letter of recommendation from General Robert E. Lee. While few believed him, Morgan liked his attitude and made him an adjutant, where he served admirably training Morgan’s men in precision drill and cavalry tactics. Another similar individual was George "Lighting" Ellsworth. He was an expert telegrapher, wiretap artist, and comedian. With Morgan’s ability to disguise himself and his odd collection of men, the group would become regarded as one of the most effective and best thinking cavalry units in the War. On numerous occasions, their unbelievable raids in enemy territory prevented the Union from pushing further into the south. John Morgan’s exploits were written about in newspapers across America and he quickly became a household word in the country.
In April 1862, Morgan was commissioned as a colonel and ordered to Shiloh. He and his men made one saber-drawn raid in the battle and got lost in the confusion of the noise. Morgan was able to regroup his men, but never again participated in a major battle of the war. Instead he turned his efforts to raids and covert tactics aimed at helping General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.
In July 1862, Col. Morgan and his men made their first extensive raid into Kentucky. They covered 1,000 miles in 24 days burning railroad trestles, destroying Union supplies, and disrupting communications. Ellsworth’s ability to tap out false commands on the telegraph wires kept the Confederate cavalry one step ahead of the federal soldiers and allowed Morgan and his men to retire to Tennessee virtually unharmed.
Morgan reported to Bragg’s Headquarters in Murfreesboro and there met Mattie Ready. The two fell in love and were married. The December 1862 event was one of the biggest in the South. The day was spent in celebration with dances, receptions, and parties. Two regimental bands performed and even Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended. Tennessee General Leonidas Polk, who was also an Episcopalian Minister, married the couple with Generals Bragg, Hardee, Cheatham, and Breckinridge as witnesses. Before President Davis left Murfreesboro, he handed Morgan an appointment to Brigadier General.
Following the wedding, General John Morgan and his men began a series of raids designed to keep Buell in place in Nashville. After blowing up the Big South Tunnel above Gallatin. Tenn. and wrecking the train, Morgan put the Union trains out of business for three months. Morgan and his men slipped out of the territory, but, furious over losing the railroad, Union Command ordered all boys and men above the age of 12 arrested and brought to Nashville. One of the boys slipped away and informed Morgan of what was happening. He and his men immediately took off after the Union prisoners. As they came upon the marching men, Morgan saw a Union soldier prod an elderly man in the back with his bayonet to keep him moving. The General lost his temper and shot the Union soldier. His men then rode down the remaining Union soldiers and freed the prisoners.
Morgan continued to make large raids into Union-held territory and angering Union officers. He even forced then-President Lincoln to send a dispatch ordering his generals to "deal with the problem".
In June 1863, Morgan was ordered by Bragg to raid into Kentucky and destroy the railroad lines so needed by Union General Rosecrans in Nashville. Morgan and 2,000 handpicked men rode into Kentucky and laid waste to the lines. Morgan noticed something wrong and decided to keep pushing northward into Union territory and the "protected states" of Indiana and Ohio. State officials began calling out the militias to deal with Morgan, but the Confederate General was elusive and kept raiding north avoiding the federal soldiers. Morgan’s Raiders crossed into the bottom of Indian and drove his cavalry east towards Cincinnati, OH. After raiding the areas, he headed towards the Pennsylvania state line where he and his men were finally captured. Morgan and his men were taken to the Ohio State Penitentiary. Although captured, Morgan and his men in three weeks had ridden over 1,000 miles, taken 1,200 prisoners, captured 17 towns, and turned over a fortune in Union supplies to the citizens of the towns they raided.
Union command was jubilant over Morgan’s capture and the Ohio Prison Warden delighted in tormenting the celebrity inmate and his men– even throwing Morgan in solitary confinement and starving him to the point of death.
On Nov. 27, 1863 after four months in captivity, Morgan, who many believe revived his rope-making career in prison, escaped with six of his officers and made their way south. When the bruised and battered General arrived in Richmond, large crowds were on hand to greet him and celebrate his escape. He was given a parade on Jan. 9, 1864 and two days later honored with a reception by the Virginia legislature. In addition, Morgan put himself back in action and called his former men to assemble near Decatur, Ga. to start raiding into East Tennessee. The new recruits, however, were not like his former men nor possessed the fierce loyalty to which Morgan was accustomed, but the General adjusted and managed to continue his successful raids into East Tennessee.
In September 1864, Morgan and his men came to rest around Greeneville, Tenn. The General posted his men to guard the town and retired to the Williams residence– a local home where he was a friend of the family. During the night, a unit of Union cavalry charged down a road in Greeneville unguarded by Morgan’s men. They swarmed the town and headed straight towards the William’s residence, which they immediately surrounded.
While the Union soldiers shot at retreating guards, Morgan and his officers fled into the nearby vineyards and gardens. Morgan and Withers met up in the field outside the house and, according to Withers testimony, Morgan refused to run for the safety of the house. Instead, he shook hands with his major and said:
"You will never see me again."
According to remaining Union reports, General John Hunt Morgan was shot when he resisted capture. He was oddly the only one of the Raiders shot in the Greeneville incident. With the Raiders scattered, the Union detachment ghoulishly celebrated the General’s death. They refused requests from citizens and the Williams family to carry his body into the Williams’ home and simply threw Morgan on the back of a horse like a hunter’s prized kill. His body was drug up and down the street to Union cheers and then taken to Union General Alvin C. Gillem’s headquarters, where it was also abused to the cheers of the soldiers.
Major Withers, one of the only staff officers taken prisoner during the raid, was ordered by the soldiers to dismount from his horse and view the naked corpse lying in a ditch on the side of the road. Withers protested Morgan’s treatment and convinced the Union soldiers to allow him to take the body to the Williams’ home, where it was washed and dressed.
On Sept. 5, 1864, Morgan’s body was transported to his wife in Abingdon, Va. where a funeral was held and then he was shipped to Richmond for a Confederate States funeral. Thousands turned out to mourn for Morgan in Richmond and he was laid to rest in a vault in Hollywood Cemetery.
In 1868, defiantly amid Reconstruction, Morgan’s brother, Calvin, finally brought his brother’s body back to their hometown of Lexington, KY. The third and final funeral for Gen. John Hunt Morgan was held in the Kentucky city and saw over 2,000 people in attendance. There America’s most legendary figure of the War Between the States was finally laid to rest.

Officials on both sides of the war have questioned the Union detachment that attacked Morgan and his men in Greeneville. Regardless of what side he fought on, General Morgan was a mythical figure to people on both sides and revered as such. Ensuing investigations found nothing that disputed the Greeneville incident. With no other fatalities reported in the capture, many have claimed that the Union planned to murder Morgan from the start and never gave him a chance to surrender.
Morgan’s raids are still a subject of study among students of military history. There are numerous books written about the dashing cavalry raider. Most can be found at the local library. One of the best is a reprint of General Basil Duke’s History of Morgan’s Cavalry. A good book on the politics surrounding Morgan’s rise to fame entitled " Southern by the Grace of God" written by Michael Grissom. Morgan’s actions in the field were often documented by the newspaper accounts of his exploits.
It is also of interest to note that numerous midwestern journals and diaries of the day recorded his legendary raids into Ohio and Indiana. Many writers reported being "shocked and disturbed" to see Black Confederates fighting and riding with the General "like any other soldier ". While they described the raids as the most fearful incidents of the war, they also wrote of their respect for a man who could command such allegiance from others.
Others have disputed that Morgan was killed in the Greeneville incident and escaped to the west where he remarried and lived under the assumed name of Dr. Jack Hunt Cole. It was true that the coffin carrying Morgan’s body was never opened and his body chiefly identified by Major Withers. In addition, a guard stayed with the casket throughout its entire journey.
It wasn’t uncommon for Morgan to change identities with his men in order to evade capture from Union soldiers. In McMinnville, Tenn. during the war, Morgan and his men were surprised by a Union detachment. Major Dick McCann quickly identified himself to the Union officer as Morgan in order to allow the general and his men to escape. The doctor, who practiced medicine in the once Confederate strongholds of Oklahoma’s Indian territory, did bear a striking resemblance to Morgan. Although it was whispered about, no real claim was made to the identity until the doctor was on his deathbed in Nov. 1899. After a call was put out to his family to assemble, Dr. Cole feared he wouldn’t live long enough to tell his family something he had hidden for years. He borrowed a piece of paper and scribbled something on it. With only his wife and eldest son at his side, he handed her the piece of paper and said: "This is who I really am." The name on the paper was John Hunt Morgan. While the deathbed confession was disputed by Morgan’s brother and family, enough circumstantial evidence has been produced that leads some historical officials to give the doctor’s claims a second look.
In today’s terms, it is hard to describe the national celebrity status of Morgan. Through the years, he continued to remain a fixture of American folklore. A song about "The Murder of John Hunt Morgan" became a popular tune in America following the War Between the States.
In later years, when Kentucky began its program of marking historic sites and events in the state, the overwhelming majority of people wanted sites connected to John Hunt Mo