John Hunt Morgan was born on June 1, 1825, in Huntsville, Alabama. He was the eldest of ten children of Calvin and Henrietta (Hunt) Morgan. Morgan’s maternal grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, a prominent Kentucky landowner, and businessman, was the first millionaire west of the Allegheny Mountains. In 1831, Calvin Morgan moved his family to Lexington, Kentucky, to manage one of his father-in-law’s farms after his pharmacy in Alabama failed. John spent his youth on the farm where he learned to be an excellent horseman.
Morgan enrolled at Transylvania College in 1842, but he did not graduate. School officials expelled him in 1844 for taking part in a duel with a fellow student.
Early Military Career
When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, Morgan enlisted as a private in the volunteer army. He served with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry in General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation. He took part in the Battle of Buena Vista, the decisive American victory of the Northern Mexico Campaign. By the end of Morgan’s service in Mexico, he had risen to the rank of first lieutenant.
At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Morgan returned to civilian life in Kentucky. Living near Lexington, he became a hemp farmer and manufacturer who also bought and sold slaves.
As sectional differences over the expansion of slavery intensified during the 1850s, Morgan formed and equipped the Kentucky Rifles, an independent militia unit, in 1857. In the spring of 1861, the Lexington Rifles joined the Kentucky State Guard, a militia group authorized by the state legislature to ensure Kentucky’s neutrality during the Civil War. When the election of a pro-Union legislature in August ended any semblance of neutrality, Morgan, and sixty-seven of his followers headed south on September 20, 1861, to join General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Confederate forces near Bowling Green. During the trip, Morgan’s unit harassed federal troops in the area.
Upon arriving at Bowling Green, Morgan’s men joined the Confederate Army. Designated as Morgan’s Squadron, the men elected Morgan as their captain. Army officials attached two more companies to Morgan’s command before the Confederates evacuated Bowling Green and headed for Nashville in February 1862. When the Rebel army subsequently abandoned Nashville later in the month, Morgan’s Squadron served as part of the rearguard for the retreat.
Battle of Shiloh
By April 1862, Morgan’s Squadron had grown to roughly 375 men comprising four companies. Attached to Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge‘s Corps of General Albert Sidney Johnston‘s Army of the Mississippi, Morgan and his men took part in the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862). Shortly before or after that conflict, Confederate officials promoted Morgan to the rank of colonel.
First Kentucky Raid
Following the Confederate retreat to Corinth, Mississippi, after the Battle of Shiloh, Morgan’s command continued to grow. During the summer of 1862, he launched the first of several raids he made into Kentucky during the Civil War. Commanding a force of 876 cavalrymen designated as the Second Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, Morgan’s First Kentucky Raid covered over 1,000 miles and netted a large quantity of supplies for the Confederacy. Morgan also captured over 1,200 Union soldiers whom he paroled. By the time Morgan returned, the recruits he added along the route of his raid swelled the size of his regiment to over 1,200 men. Morgan’s casualties totaled only ninety men (killed, wounded, captured/missing).
Confederate Heartland Campaign
Morgan’s successful raid helped convince General Braxton Bragg that plenty of Bluegrass residents would welcome and support a Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Eager to reverse the Confederacy’s fortunes in the Upper South, Bragg hatched a plan to launch a two-pronged invasion of Kentucky along with General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Army of Kentucky.
During the Confederate Heartland Campaign (August-October 1862), Morgan’s regiment became a brigade and took part in hazardous scouting duty. When Bragg abandoned the campaign after the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862), Morgan’s brigade, attached to Smith’s army, served as part of the rearguard covering the Confederate retreat from Kentucky.
Stones River Campaign
After abandoning Kentucky, Bragg halted his retreat in Middle Tennessee. There, he reorganized his command by merging forces with Smith’s Army of Kentucky to form the Army of Tennessee. Intent on thwarting a Union advance on Chattanooga, Bragg established a defensive position along the west fork of Stones River, near Murfreesboro.
Meanwhile, after Major General Don Carlos Buell‘s Army of the Ohio failed to pursue the retreating Confederates aggressively, President Lincoln relieved Buell of his command and placed Major General William S. Rosecrans in charge of the newly formed 14th Army Corps (informally known as the Army of the Cumberland) on October 24, 1862.
Battle of Hartsville
When Rosecrans began pressing south toward Tennessee in November 1862, Bragg ordered Morgan to move his cavalry north to harass Rosecrans’ army, disrupt his lines of communications, and hamper his attempts to forage for supplies along his route. On the early morning of December 7, 1862, Morgan’s troopers stole their way across the Cumberland River, near Hartsville, Tennessee, under the cover of darkness. When the Rebels approached the Union camp guarding the river crossing, surprised federal pickets sounded the alarm. As the startled Yankees formed battle lines, fighting began at about 6:45. By 8:30 am, the Confederates surrounded the Federals and convinced them to surrender.
Morgan captured 1,844 Union prisoners and a wagon train loaded with much-needed supplies and equipment used to restock Bragg’s army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was visiting Murfreesboro when Morgan returned from his victory at the Battle of Hartsville. Upon seeing the spoils of Morgan’s success, Davis personally promoted him to the rank of brigadier general.
Second Kentucky Raid (aka Morgan’s Christmas Raid)
Unfortunately for Bragg, Morgan’s success at Hartsville did little to stem the advance of Rosecrans’ Union army. As Rosecrans moved toward Murfreesboro, he depended upon a constant flow of supplies from the north along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Desperate to sever Rosecrans’ supply line, Bragg sent Morgan north on another raid into Kentucky in December 1862.
Heading north from Alexandria, Tennessee, on December 22, 1862, Morgan now commanded roughly 4,000 troopers, whom he had divided into two brigades. Colonel Basil Duke — Morgan’s brother-in-law — commanded the first brigade comprising the Second Kentucky Cavalry, and Colonel W. C. P. Breckinridge commanded the second brigade comprising the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry.
The primary objective of Morgan’s raid was to destroy two long railroad trestles near Muldraugh Hill. Sparring with Union patrols as he moved north, Morgan reached Muldraugh Hill on December 28 and forced the Yankees defending the trestles to surrender. Morgan’s men then burned the bridges along with three other bridges in the area. Morgan’s men spent the next nine days fighting their way back to Kentucky, arriving in Alexandria on January 6, 1863.
Morgan’s Christmas Raid was an immense success. Over the course of the sortie, Morgan’s men captured 1,887 federal soldiers, destroyed at least two million dollars worth of Union property, damaged thirty-five miles of railroad track and telegraph line, razed three depots, and burned 2,250 feet of trestle, putting the L&N Railroad out of commission for at least five weeks. At a cost of two men killed, twenty-four wounded (including Duke) and, sixty-four missing, Morgan returned from his mission with more horses and weapons than when he left.
Successful as it was, however, the raid came at a significant cost. Morgan’s absence deprived Bragg of cavalry support he sorely needed when Rosecrans engaged the Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro, during the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). Rosecrans’ victory significantly bolstered Union morale and forced Bragg to abandon Murfreesboro and retreat to Tullahoma, Tennessee, thirty-six miles to the south.
Morgan’s Raid into Indiana and Ohio
Morgan’s most renowned wartime exploit was his raid into Indiana and Ohio during the summer of 1863.
On June 11, 1863, Morgan headed north from Sparta, Tennessee, on what was devised as another raid into Kentucky. Confederate leaders hoped that his foray would divert Union forces from Tullahoma and possibly energize Southern sympathizers in the Bluegrass State. General Braxton Bragg gave the cavalry commander nearly unconditional authority to act as he saw fit in Kentucky, but he explicitly ordered Morgan not to cross the Ohio River.
On July 2, ardent Burkesville residents welcomed Morgan’s troopers as they crossed the Cumberland River into Kentucky. The raiders then headed north toward Louisville, skirmishing with federal troops along the way. During a small engagement near Lebanon, Union soldiers killed Morgan’s nineteen-year-old brother Tom.
Upon arriving at Springfield, Kentucky, Morgan decided to cross the Ohio River, despite Bragg’s orders to the contrary. On July 8, 1863, Morgan led roughly 1,800 troopers to Brandenburg, Kentucky, downstream from Louisville, where he commandeered two steamboats and transported his men across the Ohio River into Indiana, just east of Mauckport.
As a diversion, Morgan sent a small detachment of soldiers upstream from Louisville with orders to cross the Ohio River at Twelve Mile Island. On July 11, 1863, federal soldiers captured most of the detachment during a skirmish near New Pekin, Indiana. Undeterred, Morgan led his primary force east, marauding and skirmishing with federal troops and Indiana militiamen along the way.
As Morgan’s Raiders looted their way across southern Indiana, Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio headquartered in Cincinnati, organized local federal troops and home militia to cut off Morgan’s escape routes to the South. Consequently, Morgan headed toward Ohio, hoping to find a way back across the Ohio River in the Buckeye State before Union forces blocked all avenues of retreat.
On July 12, in anticipation of Morgan’s Raiders invading Ohio, Governor David Tod issued a proclamation, calling out the Ohio Militia to protect the state’s southern counties. Communication problems hampered the militia’s mobilization, however, and Morgan met little opposition when he crossed into Ohio north of Cincinnati on July 13, 1863.
After threatening to invade the Queen City on July 15, Morgan divided his force. A small detachment of men looted Warren, Clinton, Fayette, Ross, and Jackson Counties, while Morgan’s primary force marauded through Clermont, Brown, Highland, Pike, and Jackson Counties. When the two groups reunited in Jackson County, Morgan continued east toward Gallia County, where he hoped to ford the river at Buffington Island, near Ravenswood, West Virginia. Correctly presuming Morgan’s intentions, Burnside ordered federal forces commanded by Edward H. Hobson and Henry M. Judah to proceed to Buffington Island and secure the river crossing.
As the Confederates approached Portland, Ohio, on July 18, they engaged a small contingent of Ohio militiamen. Although the Ohioans eventually retreated, the skirmish delayed Morgan’s progress long enough for Burnside’s Federals to arrive at Buffington Island before the Rebels. As evening approached, Morgan postponed his river crossing until the next day. His decision proved costly.
The Battle of Buffington Island
Morgan’s decision to delay the river crossing enabled Burnside’s forces to prepare for a fight. By the time Morgan’s 1,700 men tried to make their escape into West Virginia, they faced a federal force of over 3,000 soldiers and a flotilla of Union gunboats that had made its way downriver overnight. Details of what transpired as the raiders attempted to ford the river are uncertain because Morgan never filed a battle report and Union officers involved left out many details in their summaries. What is known is that the escape largely failed. While several hundred Confederates safely crossed the river, somewhere between fifty-two and 120 of them perished while trying. More strikingly, the Yankees captured roughly 800 to 1,200 of Morgan’s men. Union losses totaled only twenty-five soldiers at the Battle of Buffington Island.
Morgan was among those who escaped. Moving westerly through Meigs and Gallia counties, he and 400 raiders turned in a northeasterly direction through Vinton, Hocking, Athens, Perry, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Carroll, and Columbiana counties for seven days. Hounded by federal forces, Morgan still hoped to find a place to ford the Ohio River.
Finally, on July 26, about 3,000 Union soldiers commanded by Major W .B. Way and Major G. W. Rue caught up with Morgan and surrounded the raiders at Salineville, in Columbiana County. During a skirmish that lasted about one-and-one-half hours, Morgan suffered 364 more casualties (twenty-three killed, several wounded, and 300 captured). Amazingly, Morgan and a few of his men escaped. However, Rue’s cavalrymen rounded them up at 2 p.m. near West Point, Ohio, roughly eight miles northeast of Salineville. The Confederate general’s surrender ended Morgan’s Raid into Indiana and Ohio.
Imprisonment and Escape
Following Morgan’s surrender, federal authorities imprisoned him in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, along with sixty-eight of his men, on October 1, 1863. Morgan did not remain incarcerated for long, however. By November 13, he and six of his men used spoons and knives to tunnel out of their cells into an air shaft. Two weeks later, they accessed the prison yard via the air shaft. They then scaled the penitentiary’s outer wall using a rope fashioned from their prison uniforms.
Aided by money that his sister had smuggled into the prison inside a Bible, Morgan purchased a train ticket to Cincinnati. From there, he crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky on a skiff.
Return to Action
After his daring escape, Morgan returned to the Confederate military, leading a cavalry brigade in the Department of East Tennessee until May 1864. On May 2, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon ordered Morgan’s brigade to report to Major General John C. Breckinridge, commanding the Department of Southwestern Virginia (Special Orders, No. 102, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office).
Morgan’s Last Raid (aka Morgan’s June Raid)
In late May, Morgan began his Last Raid (also known as his June Raid). He hoped to discourage federal officials from invading southwestern Virginia by “strik(ing) a blow at the enemy in Kentucky.” Leading roughly 2,600 troopers, divided into three brigades, Morgan crossed into Kentucky from Virginia following a skirmish with federal soldiers at Pound Gap on June 2, 1864. By June 10, his men entered Lexington, in central Kentucky, and burned the government depot and stables, capturing enough horses to refit his men.
Battle of Cynthiana
At dawn, on June 11, 1864, Morgan and 1,200 of his men approached the town of Cynthiana, Kentucky. After driving off 300 Federals and militiamen, the raiders set fire to the town. Morgan’s men then trapped and captured most of a second Union force of about 750 who converged on the town. The engagement appeared to be a resounding Confederate success. Altogether, Morgan captured roughly 1,300 Yankees.
Events changed dramatically the next day, however, when a third Union force of about 2,400 soldiers attacked Morgan’s camp at dawn. The Federals scattered the surprised Rebels, killing and capturing many of them as they fled. The Union victory at the Battle of Cynthiana forced Morgan to end his raid and retreat to Virginia.
Morgan returned to Abingdon, Virginia, on June 20, 1864, to discover that Confederate officials had selected him to command the Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee. On June 22, 1864, Morgan issued General Orders, No. 1 (Department of Western Virginia and East Tennessee), announcing that he was assuming command of the department.
Morgan spent the next two months organizing his troops and planning another raid. On August 29, 1864, Morgan left his headquarters in Abingdon and traveled to Jonesboro, Tennessee, where he assembled a force of about 1,600 cavalrymen to curb federal operations in his department. From there he moved west and occupied the town of Greeneville, Tennessee, on September 3. While the bulk of his men camped outside of town, Morgan established his headquarters at the house of a woman named Mrs. Williams.
Because of lax picketing on the Rebel lines, the vanguard of Brigadier General Alvan Cullem Gillem’s large Union force infiltrated the town at dawn on September 4. Aroused from his sleep by Mrs. Williams’ warning, Morgan quickly dressed and attempted to escape from the house but found the street guarded.
When federal soldiers discovered Morgan hiding in the cellar, he fled to Mrs. Williams’ garden. Private Andrew Campbell, of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry, shot and killed Morgan as he attempted to escape. Some of Morgan’s contemporaries alleged that Campbell shot Morgan as he was attempting to surrender, or even after he surrendered, but there is scant evidence to support their claims.
After Morgan succumbed to his wound, Union soldiers tossed the fallen general’s body over a mule and unceremoniously paraded it through town. Afterward, Gillem ordered his men to deliver Morgan’s body through Confederate lines under a flag of truce.
Funeral and Burial
On September 6, 1864, thousands of mourners gathered at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Abingdon, for Morgan’s funeral. Reportedly, the procession, which stretched for over three miles, was “the largest and most imposing there has ever been in southwest Virginia.” Following the funeral, Morgan’s remains were temporarily buried in the Sinking Spring Cemetery. A few days later, his body was moved to Richmond, where it lay in state at the Confederate capitol building. Following a military funeral, Morgan’s body was placed in a vault in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. On April 17, 1868, Morgan’s mother had the general’s body re-interred in the family plot in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky.
On November 21, 1848, in Fayette, Alabama, Morgan married Rebecca Gratz Bruce, the 18-year-old sister of a business partner. Five years later, Rebecca delivered a stillborn son. Afterward, she developed a blood clot in her leg from a condition commonly known as “milk leg.” When the clot became infected, doctors amputated her leg to save her life. Losing the child and her limb resulted in depression, which stressed the Morgans’ marriage. Rebecca never regained her health, and she died on July 21, 1861.
The couple’s troubled marriage may have contributed to Morgan’s infidelities. Openly known as a womanizer, Morgan fathered at least one son, Sidney Morgan, with a slave he owned. Sidney Morgan’s son (the general’s grandson) was the renowned African-American inventor Garrett Morgan, who designed the modern traffic light and the first gas mask.
A year-and-a-half after Rebecca Morgan died, Morgan married Martha “Mattie” Ready, the daughter of Tennessee Congressman Charles Ready, on December 14, 1862. Their marriage produced one daughter, Johnnie, who was born after Morgan’s death. Mattie Morgan died of tuberculosis, at age 47, at Lebanon, Tennessee, on November 16, 1887. Johnnie Morgan died the next year, at age 23, of typhoid fever on June 28, 1888.