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, Morgans 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 "Americas Robin Hood" on both sides of
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 Unions 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 cavalrys 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 60, 180
pounds, and had an easygoing manner that belied his refined
Morgan, who was given the rank of Captain, was sworn into the
Confederate Army on Oct. 27, 1861. Morgans brother-in-law
was appointed Lieutenant and second in command of what was becoming
known as "Morgans 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 soldiers 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 Morgans men
in precision drill and cavalry tactics. Another similar individual
was George "Lighting" Ellsworth. He was an expert
telegrapher, wiretap artist, and comedian. With Morgans
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 Morgans 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 Braggs
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. Ellsworths 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 Braggs 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
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. Morgans 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 Morgans 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 Morgans
men. They swarmed the town and headed straight towards the Williams
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 Generals
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 hunters prized
kill. His body was drug up and down the street to Union cheers
and then taken to Union General Alvin C. Gillems 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 Morgans 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, Morgans 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, Morgans brother,
Calvin, finally brought his brothers 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 Americas 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.
Morgans 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 Dukes History
of Morgans Cavalry. A good book on the politics surrounding
Morgans rise to fame entitled " Southern by the Grace
of God" written by Michael Grissom. Morgans 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
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 Morgans 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 wasnt 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 Oklahomas 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 wouldnt 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 Morgans brother and family,
enough circumstantial evidence has been produced that leads
some historical officials to give the doctors claims a
In todays 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