John Hunt Morgan was the one of the Confederacy’s most romantic heroes. In the early years of the American Civil War, he captured the Confederacy’s imagination and became a folk hero immortalized in poetry and song. Dozens of glowing anecdotes illustrated his ability to set the hearts of society Belles racing with acts of compassion and gallantry. Yet, was this dashing military figure in fact a capable leader? Did the actions and character of this single man impact the outcome of the American Civil War? What, if any, lasting impact was created by Morgan’s Great Raid into Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio?
Historian Edward G. Longacre succinctly described the purpose of raiding:
“One of the most important and most taxing assignments that devolved upon Civil War troopers was raiding. Quite often horse soldiers were ordered out in mass either to drive deep into enemy territory on a long, sustained march, or to make a quick stab in the rear of the opponents' lines.”[i]
Morgan has been hailed as an expert raider. Southern news papers reported Morgan’s deeds in the most laudable of tones, while Northern papers, such as the “New York Times” and “Harper’s Weekly,” took delight in vilifying Morgan. Today, modern authors cite Morgan as “the symbol of guerrilla war and primary model for the Confederate Partisan Ranger Act.”[ii] Does Morgan deserve such praise?
Morgan was a civilian prior to the Civil War and lacked military training. While he had created and equipped a group of home guards known as “The Lexington Rifles,” Morgan lacked textbook knowledge of the military arts. Therefore, he developed simple, yet effective, tactics. Raiding was “an inevitable strategic device in the face of the overwhelming material and numerical superiority of the North, and a logical corollary of the essentially defensive strategy of the South, but in the long run, mere raids could not affect the outcome of the war.”[iii] In this light, Morgan was a wily little David fighting a lumbering Goliath.
Morgan wisely selected battlegrounds which were steep, wooded, and difficult terrain to ride in. Thus, no traditional lines could be formed against him. Furthermore, Morgan used his men as both a cavalry and an infantry. Viewing his men as a “mounted infantry,” ala the Kentucky Mounted Rifleman in the War of 1812, the horse became a means of moving into battle. Once upon the battlefield, his men would dismount. The third member of each four man group took charge of the horses. Morgan also selected to bring along artillery. Thus he was, in effect, leading his own little army. Morgan’s Men traveled as lightly as possible, many even abandoning their sabers. Their weapon of preference was the medium Enfield rifle. Attacks were delivered on the double-quick. They were, in today’s terminology, fighting on the “hit and run” as “drive by shooters.”
Near the beginning of the Civil War, Morgan had several advantages over the Union Army which occupied Kentucky. As Lexington, Kentucky had been Morgan’s home and place of business, he knew both the terrain and the people of the areas he set about raiding. This knowledge allowed Morgan to travel directly and with speed, slip away down little known back roads, and find assistance from the citizenry when it was needed. More importantly, during this early period of the American Civil War, the South had a superior cavalry. Due to both the poor infrastructure and agrarian lifestyle of the Confederate States, Southerners had greater experience on horse back and access to stronger, more intelligent horses. Cavalry service carried an aura of glamour that attracted many young men. It was commonly accepted that "the best blood of the South rode in the cavalry." As the War ground on, the tides of fortune turned. Northerners gained experience in the saddle and were supplied with superior fire arms. Morgan’s Raider were quite surprised to find that they no longer no longer held the edge. These “brave knights” of the Confederacy were no longer invincible.
Morgan’s Men were accustomed to making foray’s from Tennessee into central Kentucky, an area many of the men had known since childhood. However, Morgan’s Great Raid through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio was no “quick stab.” While long-distance raiding against enemy lines of communications, supply depots, and railroads was recognized during this period as a legitimate cavalry tactic, this long sustained march caused Morgan’s men to become so exhausted and demoralized that they were no longer battle ready. Conversely, the morale of the forces perusing Morgan was on the rise. It was now the turn of the Union troopers to ride past their own doors with their wives and children running down the road to greet them. Rather than obtaining the goal of bringing the horror of war to the citizens of the North, Morgan’s Great Raid inspired scores of “stay at homes” to take up arms and defend their homes and loved ones. Likewise, the women of Indian and Ohio gladly supported the Union troops by preparing meals, singing, and cheering as they passed. Patriotism was never dimmed.
In the same essay referenced above, Mr. Longacre outlined the objectives of a cavalry raid:
“Basically, the objectives of cavalry raiders, whether on full- or limited-scale, long- or short-range expeditions, were to strike unexpectedly and decisively at assigned targets, to avoid battle with enemy forces of equal or larger size when at all possible, to gather intelligence about opponents' positions or campaign plans, to create maximum damage to enemy re- sources in minimal time, and to return to home base while suffering as few casualties as possible.
Favorite targets of Civil War raiders included enemy communication lines (particularly railroads), supply bases, garrisons, wagon trains, and loosely defended cities of military value. Raids were conducted either as ends in themselves or as diversionary maneuvers designed to distract the enemy's attention from larger movements by the main army.
Several conditions had to exist if a mounted raid were to be conducted successfully. First of all, the officer in charge had to be bold and aggressive but also prudent, capable of exercising strict authority when necessary and allowing subordinates the discretion to launch secondary operations when desirable.
He had to be adept at meeting unexpected turns of events, at implementing contingency tactics, and at fighting on the defensive as well as on the offensive, as conditions warranted.
Likewise, his subordinate officers had to be enterprising and imaginative, as well as deeply committed to serving their commander faithfully in moments calling for unity of purpose and action.
Then, too, the common soldiers had to be adaptable and resourceful, willing to endure the hardships of a long march in any sort of weather, capable of acting with individual initiative but also as members as a unified team, and able to wield axes and crowbars with vigorous precision.
Finally, the scouts and guides needed a full, accurate comprehension of the country to be traversed, a knowledge of nearby enemy troops and hostile citizens, and a wealth of detail about back trails and blind roads to be used in event of emergency.”[iv]
Morgan was a master of time management. During his Great Raid, he established the world’s record for moving cavalry as his men skirted the city of Cincinnati traveling nearly 100 miles in about 30 hours. He was also an expert at evasive maneuvering. Rarely was Union leadership able to pinpoint the exact city of Morgan’s aim. Following the old Napoleonic methods, the raiders were responsible for providing themselves with food and horses. They became as destructive as a plague of locust adeptly depleting the path of the raid of food, horses and fodder. Furthermore, Morgan allowed his men to “take the spoils of war” from Northern citizens. This often included “opening” stores and saloons. Toward the end of the Great Raid, reports of drunkenness and theft abounded. The once cunning unit was now more akin to a mob of drunken Fraternity brother armed with loaded shot guns. These raiders broke the code of traveling lightly and became weighted down with bolts of cloth, extra clothing, and unusual trinkets such as bird cages and ice skates. By turning a blind eye to this behavior Morgan betrayed his own departure from the actions of a gallant military hero. He grew notoriously lack in exercising authority over the irresponsible actions of his men. Northern newspapers mockingly rechristened the Great Raid as “The Calico Raid.” Only once did Morgan object to his men’s conduct, adamantly ordering stolen Masonic jewels be immediately returned. Regardless of it’s shamefulness, this wide spread theft was not the sort of damage capable of turning the tides of the war. Even the bridges, railroad tracks, locomotives, and flour mills destroyed by the Raiders were mere drops in the bucket. During the Great Raid, Morgan failed to capture or destroy any major targets.
Morgan’s imprudent manner in selecting to ignore General Wheeler’s orders is key to understanding his rapidly deteriorating state of mind. Wheeler had extended Morgan the right to move as he desired within the state of Kentucky, but commanded that he halt at the Ohio River. Nevertheless, Morgan could not reign in of his emotions and personal desire to recapture his former prestige. Many Cavalry men viewed long-distance raids as their best change at winning lasting fame. Yet, such raids were often of little practical strategic value. Morgan’s caprice resulted in dooming his entire command.
With the exception of his new wife Hattie, Morgan showed callous indifference. Gone was the benevalent figure of Southern folktale who protected women, bestowed gifts on children, and always looked after his men. This new self-centereed Morgan showed little thoughtfulness toward his subordinate officers and men. Morgan had been blessed with the good fortune to hand select the roughly 2, 400 men who accompanied him on the Great Raid. He surrounded himself with familiar subordinate officers including his brother Dick Morgan, his brother-in-law Basil Duke, and old cronies from his Lexington Rifles Days. This nepotism insured him unquestioning loyalty and adherence to his plans rather than to Wheeler’s orders. Morgan showed heartless insensitivity toward the troops he commanded. Morgan’s men spent the winter prior to the Great Raid in Tennessee where they were forced to make their camp in open fields building pitiful lean-tos out of fence rails and their raincoats. Each night as they slept, ice formed on their blankets. These men starved on rations of parched corn supplemented with whatever they could scrounge from the surrounding countryside. While there were a few deserters, most of the men continued to ardently follow their well heeled General who slept comfortable in elegant homes, dined at the finest tables, attended lavish balls, and married a young society belle. The devotion of these Confederate Volunteers stemmed from their desire to defend their homes, their families, and their agricultural life style. Their patriotic zeal for the Confederate States of America was so abundant; it blinded them to the flaws in their commanding officer. Morgan’s men were guilty of hero worship.
"General Morgan and his 2,460 handpicked Confederate cavalrymen, along with a battery of light artillery, departed from Sparta, Tennessee, on June 11, 1863, intending to divert the attention of the Union Army of the Ohio from Southern forces in the state."[v]
Morgan’s Men did an excellent job of downing telegram lines and intercepting Union intelligence sent in telegraph messages. They also excelled in planting counterintelligence. Upon entering Indiana, the Raiders spread false rumors that Morgan intended to attack Indianapolis. Morgan furthered this ruse by repeatedly having his telegraph operator, George “Lightning” Ellsworth, tap into the Union lines and, pretending to be a local operator, join any “conversations.” In this manner Morgan was able to spread disinformation regarding the size of his force, their direction of travel, and the number of artillery pieces with which they were equipped.[vi]
Tacitly, Morgan excelled at misdirection. He often broke his forces into small units, allowing one or two units to backtrack, zigzag, or act as decoys. These maneuvers purchased the main column valuable time. However cunning he was at tactics, during the Great Raid Morgan lacked a long term strategy that could bring military triumph to the Confederacy. After his younger brother Tom was killed in battle at Lebanon, Kentucky, Morgan seemed to lose his taste for warfare and avoided battle whenever possible. If a show of artillery did not bring immediate surrender, Morgan simply “vanished.” Almost every town that stood to confront him with a force of armed men discovered that Morgan led his men around the town on back roads as they evacuated their women and children.
While in Kentucky and Indiana, Morgan avoided “battle with enemy forces of equal or larger size.” In Ohio, as Morgan lost time facing road blocks and home guards, large numbers of Union troops amassed. By the time of the Battle of Buffington Island, Morgan was out numbered. Not only was this a result of meticulous planning by Burnside, Morgan’s own growing overconfidence and lack of willingness to view the situation as it was rather than as he wished it to be, led to his undoing. To his great shame, Morgan lost over 2,100 of his men at a time when every Confederate soldier was desperately needed.
While the timing of the Great Raid coincided with Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Brigadier-General John Imboden’s raid upon the B & O railway in Bedford County, Pennsylvania; the only correlation to these campaigns lay within Morgan’s mind. It is rumored that Morgan hoped to join forces with Lee in Pennsylvania. As Lee suffered defeat and was forced to retreat, we shall never know if this was Morgan’s true intent. The Great Raid proved to be just another disheartening defeat for the Confederacy during the summer of 1863.
Morgan’s overconfidence led to poor planning. Morgan had attempted to conduct reconnaissance of Southern Indiana in June. He selected Thomas Hines to lead a small party of twenty five men to posing as a Union patrol. These men attempted to contact Southern sympathizers, commonly referred to as Copperheads, in the hope of to swaying them into joining the raid or providing support. Ominously, the reconnaissance attempt failed miserably. Not only was no such support found among the Northerners, the true identity of Hines’ party was discovered. During a skirmish near Leavenworth, Indiana, Hines abandoned his men and swam across the Ohio River. After weeks of wandering about in Northern Kentucky, Hines rejoined Morgan’s forces at Brandenburg, Kentucky. Apparently, Morgan was not shaken by anything Hines reported. Morgan heedlessly forged ahead. Once Morgan left Kentucky, he was out of his element and completely without aid. He no longer knew the lay of the land, which were the most direct roads, or which families could be counted on for assistance. Forced to press local citizens into guiding his columns, Morgan often lost valuable time. Another blow to Morgan’s intelligence gathering capability was the lost Captain Thomas Quirk, who was shot in the reign arm at Marrow Bone Creek. Quirk had led an elite group of scouts consisting mainly of former “Lexington Rifles.” Reconnaissance was the key to effective cavalry operations. Once Quirk was gone, intelligence gathering crumbled. The ultimate blunder came when Morgan’s scouts failed to note that Home Guards, rather than Union soldier, guarded the earthworks at Buffington Island. If the Raiders had attacked before the gunboats arrived, a greater number might have been able to escape.
Mr. Longacre concluded his essay by illuminating the criteria used to determine the relative success or failure of a raid:
“Military strategists have drawn up some informal rules that, if followed, would have led to a successful raid. One of the most important of these concerns the degree of value a raid might reach.
To be considered a complete and enduring success, a raid had to be linked in some way with a larger operation. Damage to enemy property, however extensive, was not deemed a sufficient feat unless it materially aided the greater designs of the general-in-chief of the army. In other words, a raid could be pronounced a full success only when it made strategic as well as tactical contributions to the fortunes of the army.
Another informal rule stated that a raiding force had to be small enough to facilitate speed and mobility (the key features of mounted campaigning) but at the same time sufficiently large to handle all of its assigned duties and, if necessary, follow contingency planning. Hence, the amount of work to be done in large part dictated the size of the force sent to accomplish it.”[vii]
The Great Raid was of very little value. Rather than confining his movements to Kentucky as he had been ordered, Morgan invaded Indiana in the hope of creating a spectacular, everlasting impression. While Morgan did recapture headlines and managed to act as a diversion allowing Bragg to withdraw toward Chattanooga, he did not achieve the glory for which he was striving. His greatest aims were unfulfilled. Politically, Confederates dreamt of bringing Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois into the fold. Yet not one of those states succeeded from the Union or brought aide to the Confederate cause. Likewise, there was no military value in Morgan’s Great Raid. Raiders captured and paroled nearly 6,000 Union soldiers and militia. These men were immediately released with little more impact than a bruise to their honor. Some Union supply lines were disrupted and infrastructure was somewhat disrupted when thirty four bridges were destroyed and railroad tracks were torn up at some sixty locations. Union troops were diverted from other duties to chase Morgan however; it was not enough of a drain on Northern man power to prevent Union victories Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Monetarily, 4,375 claims were filed which resulted in awarded damages totaling $576,225.[viii] In Ohio alone, approximately 2,500 horses were stolen and nearly 4,375 homes and businesses were raided. Morgan's Raid cost Ohio taxpayers nearly $600,000 in damages and over $200,000 in wages paid to the 49,357 Ohioans called up to man 587 companies of local militia.[ix] Intrinsic rewards included a renewed hope among Southners that the Confederacy might yet rally after the devastating losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and the perverted thrill of creating panic among the citizens of Southern Indiana and Ohio. On the balance, the Great Raid was a fruitless exercise.
“It is therefore doubtful on balance, these hit-and-run raids were ever worth the price the Confederates paid for them in dispersion of effort and in the absence, at critical times, of large bodies of cavalry from their proper place with the armies.”[x]
Southern historians such as Colonel Basil Duke have attempted to paint the Great Raid in glowing terms:
"The objects of the raid were accomplished. General Bragg's retreat was unmolested by any flanking forces of the enemy, and I think that military men, who will review all the facts, will pronounce that this expedition delayed for weeks the fall of East Tennessee, and prevented the timely reinforcement of Rosecrans by troops that would otherwise have participated in the Battle of Chickamauga."[xi]
While Morgan managed to cover Bragg’s retreat, the Great Raid brought about the utter destruction of Morgan's command. Only 300 men managed to escape across the Ohio River. Thus, all of the remaining 2,160 were among the died, the wounded who were left behind on the battle at the mercy of Union Troops or Northern civilian, or those captured and sent to Union prisons.
In the final years of the war, Union leadership came to view cavalry raids on lines of communication as calculable risk. Sherman blatantly ignored raiders. In the ultimate insult to Southern pride, raiders, once viewed as daring and glamorous cavalry men, were now considered little more than a pesky nuisance.
"After their capture, the enlisted men of Morgan’s command were transferred to military prisons as prisoners of war. The officers, however, were treated as civil criminals and imprisoned at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. This brought about cries of outrage from Southerners but it really worked to the officers’ advantage. If they had been treated as prisoners of war, they would have been taken to the Confederate Officers’ Prison at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. This was an island in Lake Erie from which there was little chance of escape. The Ohio penitentiary was not escape-proof, however, and on 27 November 1863, seven men including John Morgan tunneled out of the prison and escaped south."[xii]
John Hunt Morgan’s Great Raid was an abject failure. Not only was Morgan guilty of open defiance of orders, disgraceful vanity, rampant egotism bordering on mental illness, and a scandalously reckless lack of command; his twisted scheme to regain acclaim sacrificed his men upon his self-constructed alter of narcissism. John Hunt Morgan was no hero. He was, in the central Kentucky vernacular, “a damned fool!”
“Morgan's Raid netted few positive results for the Southern military. It did provide some hope to Confederate civilians that their military could still succeed following the Northern victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in early July 1863. It also caused a great deal of fear among Indiana and Ohio residents and cost several of these people some personal property that the raiders had seized. Almost 4,400 Ohioans filed claims for compensation with the federal government for items that they lost to the Confederates during the raid. The claims amounted to 678,915 dollars, with the government authorizing compensation in the amount of 576,225 dollars. While the Confederates succeeded in instilling fear in the civilian population, the raid inspired many of these people to fight even harder to defeat the Confederacy. In addition, the Confederate military lost an entire division of veteran cavalrymen. Morgan also failed to destroy any railroad tracks, bridges, or supply depots. The raid caused no significant harm to the transportation and communication infrastructure of the North. The raid had as many negative effects as positive ones for the Confederacy.”[xiii]
“He was not a brilliant military mind, but was instead a brash commander whose bravado often resulted in military failure, especially in 1863 and 1864.”[xiv]
“I will say this. That General Morgan could have got out of Ohio with his command had he have managed different. A day or two before we reached the Ohio River, he stopped the two last nights, before reaching the river and we slept the most of the night, when we should have been moving to the place where we expected to cross. We arrived at Portland on the Ohio at 8 P.M. the 18th when we should have got there or might have arrived early in the forenoon. We also had an ambulance and carriage train two miles or more long with sick and wounded who were able to travel. This ought to have been abandoned. We also had four pieces of artillery. All of this we brought up to this point. We should have plunged into the river as soon as we got to the river, abandoning our carriage and artillery. About 60 yards in middle of river was swimming. We could have built bonfires on each side of the river for light and got across and not many would have been drowned, not as many as was killed next morning in the fight. Yet, we remained until the sun must have been one hour high, before we made a move to cross and all night long every one of us that I heard express themselves said we would be captured, many of us if we remained all night. So it was as all seemed to this of course General Morgan's desire was to take everything over the river. But he should have known with the thousands after us, it was impossible.”
~John Weatherred, Bennett's Regiment or 9th Tennessee Cavalry [xv]
iLongacre, Edward G. “Mounted Raids of the Civil War”
[ii] Ramage, James A. “Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby”
ii Starr, Stephen Z. “ Cavalry Tactics in the Civil War” Cincinnati CWRT, April 26, 1959 http://www.cincinnaticwrt.org/data/ccwrt_history/talks_text/starr_cavalry_tactics.html
iii Longacre, Edward G. “Mounted Raids of the Civil War”
iv U.S. War Department, “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”, 70 volumes in 4 series. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
v Mosgrove, George Dallas, "Following Morgan's Plume in Indiana and Ohio," Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXV. January-December, 1907.
vi Longacre, Edward G. “Mounted Raids of the Civil War”
vii Figures supplied by the Ohio Historical Society
viii Harper, Robert S., “Ohio Handbook of the Civil War”. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio Historical Society, 1961. page 23.
ix Starr, Stephen Z. “ Cavalry Tactics in the Civil War” Cincinnati CWRT, April 26, 1959 http://www.cincinnaticwrt.org/data/ccwrt_history/talks_text/starr_cavalry_tactics.html
x Duke, Basil Wilson, “A History of Morgan's Cavalry.” Cincinnati, Ohio: Miami Printing and Pub. Co., 1867. page 460.
xi Barret, Frank. “”John Hunt Morgan” http://www.mahoningvalleycwrt.com/john_hunt_morgan_link.htm
xii Ohio History Central “Morgan’s Raiders.” http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=610
xiii H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Science. “ John Hunt Morgan and the Civil War in South Central Kentucky.” http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=13552
[xv] The Wartime Diary of John Weatherred http://www.jackmasters.net/we1863.html