The “Murder” of John Hunt Morgan: “You Have Just Killed the Best Man in the Confederacy!”

Steel engraving of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan – Public Domain

It was cold.

It was getting dark.

It was December 1862 in Tennessee.

The lights from the Ready mansion, far across the fields in Murfreesboro, extended neither warmth nor cheer, but the soldiers huddled around their fire were not complaining. It was easy and honorable duty, guarding the famous wedding of the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” and his bride.

They could even hear the distant music from the brightly-lit mansion.

Then they heard hoofbeats approaching and scrambled to their feet in a rough approximation of attention. It was a cavalry officer from the 2nd Kentucky, CSA, bringing a platter of cake and, even better, white whiskey in a jar. Without dismounting, but returning their salutes with a genial smile, he passed the cake around. “Personal compliments of the general,” he said.

“He’s no more to me than I am to him,” grumbled Private Andrew Campbell, shivering in his brown wool coat (the Confederacy was short on uniforms late in 1862). But he took a piece of cake.

“That’s because you never rode with Morgan,” said the officer. “If you knew him, by God, you would salute his very hoofprints. Meanwhile, let’s drink to his health.”

He passed around the jar of ‘shine. The Union forces were miles away, and the guard duty was nothing but a formality. Discipline was loose and spirits were high.

“Could be,” said Campbell, taking a drink which warmed his gut if not his heart. An immigrant, he had been conscripted into the rebel army, and had no love for slavery. The South with its haughty aristocrats looked too much like his native Ireland. But Campbell was a willing solder, a ready fighter, and he liked and respected the men he served with. And Tennessee corn liquor tasted a bit like Irish poteen. Harsh, but friendly.

“Here’s to the bride, then. And should I ever meet Morgan I will salute him, or by God, shake his hand.”

He was to meet with him, less than two years later. But not to salute, and never to shake his hand.

Meanwhile, inside the ballroom of the elegant Ready family mansion, the traditions, pretensions, hopes and dreams of the South were being celebrated in high style. The groom and guest of honor, renowned CSA cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan, danced expertly to a Virginia reel with his bride, Martha (“Mattie”) Ready, “The Belle of Tennessee,” while two regimental bands played in turn and flutes of champagne, already dear in the beleagured South, were raised in toasts and cheers.

Morgan was at that time one of the most famous fighters of the Confederacy, celebrated in song, story and worshipful headlines in every Southern newspaper for his daring and enterprise in taking the war to the enemy. He was the very template of the Southern cavalier with his imperial goatee, his spotless uniform, knee-high boots and gold braid. His lightning cavalry raids into Union-occupied Kentucky were fodder for the newspapers both North and South. Denounced in the Yankee press as a horse thief, a “thieving, pillaging marauder,” in the rebel states he was lionized as a dashing, romantic hero on horseback, the living embodiment of Southern chivalry.

John Hunt Morgan, the “Kentucky Cavalier,” readily embraced the role he was born into. Raised in wealthy Lexington, a scion of Bluegrass planter aristocrats, famously expelled from Transylvania College for dueling, he had eagerly enlisted in the 1848 invasion of Mexico, where he had performed with honor and the requisite gallantry. After that that brief, one-sided conflict he had returned to Lexington, traded in slaves, hemp and wool, and unerringly faithful to the ideal of the Southern gentleman, gambled, drank, raced horses, hunted squirrels, charmed the ladies and defended his honor from rivals both real and imagined.

Though his sympathies were entirely Southern, Morgan at first opposed secession as impractical; but when “neutral” Lexington was occupied by Union troops, he raised a Confederate flag over his closed woolen factory, sold his slaves south, and led his volunteer “Lexington Rifles” to secessionist Bowling Green and enlisted himself and them into the Confederate army which was still holding on in western Kentucky.

Even before they were officially mustered in, “Captain” Morgan and his militia swung into action, galloping almost nightly through Union lines and burning bridges, spiking railroads and taking prisoners. The Confederates in western Kentucky were steadily losing ground, but as they retreated Morgan’s reputation grew as his “raiders” frustrated the Union command with lightning raids, cheering the area’s many Southern sympathizers, fighting swift pitched battles, and then slipping back into Bowling Green and then into Tennessee when that city was captured.

He distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh with an old-style cavalry charge into the teeth of the enemy, sabers raised and horses at the gallop. The newspapers loved it.

Even after the Union occupied Nashville, Morgan continued to strike into his beloved Kentucky. Swiftly promoted to Colonel, he was popular with his men, to whom he promised loot as well as action; generous to his prisoners, whom he often disarmed and paroled; and conspicuously gallant to the ladies in true Southern fashion. He once stopped a train and assured the Union wives aboard that he would spare their captured husbands, then removed his white kid gloves so they could kiss his hand in gratitude.

His style was traditional but his military objectives thoroughly modern. He cut telegraph lines, often after sending false messages to confuse his pursuers. In Cave City (near Mammoth Cave) he blew up a locomotive and in Gallatin, Tennessee, he destroyed the railroad tunnels funneling Union supplies into Nashville. At a time when both armies were often dressed in motley rather than gray or blue, he sometimes passed himself off as a Union officer to avoid capture or to gain intelligence.

Morgan convinced his commander, Braxton Bragg, that Kentucky could be recovered for the Confederacy, and in the Fall of 1862 Bragg mounted a larger campaign in which Morgan’s Raiders were only a part. But the Kentuckians who were eager to fight for the South had already enlisted, and even the local partisans were growing weary of war. When Bragg’s forces were met by the Union army at Perryville, the battle was a draw, but it marked the end of the South’s dream of recapturing Kentucky for the Confederacy. Bragg retreated back into Tennessee, but even so, “Morgan Victorious!” trumpeted the Southern press, more interested in the spirit than the hard facts.

His bold raids thrilled the South, which was engaged in a mostly defensive war in Northern Virginia. The army of the CSA was mostly led by West Point graduates, many of whom had served with the USA generals they now fought with all the machinery and protocols of modern war. How much better, how much more appropriate, the gallant raider, the “Kentucky Cavalier” whose exploits recalled the “romantic and daring feats of the days of knighthood and chivalry.”  All served with a Rebel Yell.

Tall in the saddle, with the brim of his black felt had hat pinned up at one side, Morgan was perfectly cast for the part. He was compared to Walter Scott’s romantic hero Rob Roy, and to Francis Marion, the South Carolina “Swamp Fox” who had helped Washington defeat the British. Heralded by the Southern press as “our gallant Marion,” Morgan lent romance to the brutal grind of war.

Children were named after him, as were forts, fords, horses and dogs. Ladies fought to claim a lock of his hair, or even a strand from the mane of his warhorse, Black Bess. Between raids he was often seen in Murfreesboro, the Confederate stronghold (since Nashville had been captured), gallantly courting his eager fiance, Mattie Ready, the daughter of a former Tennessee Congressman who had seceded from Washington along with his state.

By the time of his wedding to the “Belle of Tennessee,” Morgan had been promoted to Brigadier General. At a round of balls and receptions, he was feted and honored. The ceremony itself was performed by General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian Bishop and a favorite of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis himself was in Murfreesboro—for the wedding, it was rumored; but actually to sign off on Morgan’s promotion and slip away without attending the ceremonies. Davis was no fan of Morgan whose recent reception in the Confederate capital of Richmond (complete with parade) had proven that he was far more popular with the Southern public than the president himself, who was, to put it generously, not a charismatic man.

After the wedding, and a short honeymoon, the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” departed, with his new wife’s blessing, on his famous “Christmas Raid.” Now in command of almost a division, he led them into the heart of the Bluegrass, as far north as Cynthiana, almost to the Ohio River (the Mason-Dixon line). He was welcomed (boldly but briefly) into occupied Lexington itself, where supporters lined the streets waving the stars and bars. Then it was back to work, “liberating” horses, cutting telegraph lines, and burning the critical Muldraugh Hill railroad trestles that carried Union soldiers and supplies south.

Lincoln himself was alarmed and wired his commanders, “There is a stampede in Kentucky. Look to it!”

By now Morgan’s Raiders included Texas Rangers, Cherokee volunteers, and many freebooters who had transferred into his command to escape the discipline and boredom of camp life.

Kentucky was rich in thoroughbreds and Confederate sympathizers, and the federals were frustrated in their attempts to capture Morgan or cut him off. (“They are all on race horses!” complained a Union officer.) Riding “like a rocket,” covering five hundred miles in fourteen days, Morgan’s Raiders wrecked railroads, burned bridges and ferries, and “confiscated” cattle, horses and even slaves. Morgan carefully cultivated his image as the embodiment of Southern chivalry, but his men grew less restrained as the war got meaner. Brandishing shotguns and Bowie knives, they robbed local banks and looted stores, even those of Confederate sympathizers. Their welcome into Kentucky grew less enthusiastic as they laughingly scattered near-worthless Confederate dollars while carrying off hams, horses, bourbon and bullion. They were even known to steal the coats and shoes of their prisoners.

Glorified by the Southern papers for his “knightly and heroic deeds,” Morgan was vilified in the North as “one of the greatest scoundrels that ever went unhung.”  He was also mistrusted by his superiors in the CSA military, who found the loose discipline of his men and his arrogant disregard for the chain-of-command troubling. Still, his exploits inspired the South, which was sorely in need of victories, even militarily unimportant ones. Morgan’s dashing raids showed that the martial spirit of the South was still intact. So Bragg reluctantly agreed to yet another cavalry raid into Kentucky.

Thus in the Spring of 1863, Morgan and his men mounted up for what came to be called the “Great Raid.” At first it was the usual pageantry of thundering hoofs, burning barns, rebel yells and clever evading of Union pursuers. Then in a bold and ultimately foolhardy move, even though he was under strict orders not to cross the Ohio River, Morgan seized a ferry in Brandenburg and crossed into Indiana. The local militias, never expecting to fight “real” Confederates, much less Morgan’s Raiders, fell back in disarray. It was big news, and the newspapers North and South followed Morgan’s every move as he led his cavalry through southern Indiana and then east across Ohio. Cincinnati cowered under martial law as Morgan’s Raiders galloped across the Midwest in a colorful (if pale) precursor of Sherman’s March through Georgia less than a year later.

The South was thrilled once again. Morgan, “the gallant Kentucky ranger,” was taking the war to the enemies’ heartland, something even Lee had failed so far to do. “More Morgans!” cried the Richmond papers. Here was a fighter with dash and derring-do.

This was his most glorious and popular escapade, and also his most conspicuous failure. Morgan planned a triumphant getaway into Virginia where he hoped to hook up with Lee. But he and the bulk of his “raiders” (some 2,000) were cut off, surrounded, and captured trying to cross the Ohio into West Virginia. It was a disaster.

General Morgan, fallen into Union hands at last, then learned to his dismay how powerful his legend was in the North. His hopes that he might be exchanged for Union officers, a common practice berween the two armies, were dashed when he and his staff were marched into a penitentiary rather than a POW camp. The Northern papers crowed, and the South was outraged when the Kentucky Cavalier’s locks and beard were shorn and he was thrown into a cell like a common criminal. (5) It looked like Morgan’s glory days were over.

But after months of solitary confinement, he and a handful of his officers managed an escape, tunneling out of the Ohio prison. The failure of the “Great Raid” was eclipsed by the bold success of Morgan’s escape and return, with a precious few of his men, back South, where allies helped him through Kentucky (disguised as a mule buyer for the Union) and back to Confederate lines.

United with his faithful Mattie in Virginia, Morgan found himself more a hero than ever. “The Leopard is free … is free!” sang the Southern headlines, seeking new hope after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. “O, for a Dozen Morgans!”

He was feted and adored once again in Richmond with a parade of thousands (while Davis glowered), and Mattie herself was honored by a special decree of the Confederate Congress. Encouraged, Morgan put out a call for replacements for his depleted “raiders” and 14,000 responded, but the CSA military, stung by his losses, denied transfers to almost all.

He appealed to Bragg, who allowed him one last glory raid, in the spring of 1864. Morgan collected his scattered raiders, and added to them a dubious mix of deserters and “bummers.” With a force of 1900 he swept into Kentucky through the Cumberland Mountains and raided the Bluegrass towns of Winchester, Mt. Sterling and Georgetown. This time even the Confederate sympathizers were shocked as his undisciplined men kicked in doors and looted stores of coffee, cloth, pots and pans, silverware and cash, with little of the “chivalry” of his earlier ventures.

By the time Morgan returned to Virginia, Lee and the Confederate commanders had had quite enough of his adventures. He was far too popular to cashier, so in an effort to rein him in, he was “promoted” to Commander of the Department of Eastern Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia, which held the saltworks and lead mines essential to the South.

Stationed in tiny Abingdon, Virginia, it seemed his glory days were over. Mattie joined him, and was soon pregnant. But domesticity was not to his liking. Pinned down by administrative duties, “unhorsed” as it were, the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” fretted while his men played cards, drank and grumbled. Or simply deserted.

Though Tennessee, unlike Kentucky, had seceded, mountainous east Tennessee was still a contested area. The Appalachian southerners owned few slaves, and many were resentful of the cotton aristocracy that ruled the Confederacy. Greeneville, a prosperous town of ten thousand at the foot of the Smokies, had been a hotbed of abolition and a station on the Underground Railway. A convention there had even tried to secede from Tennessee when Tennessee joined the Confederacy. Its population was bitterly divided, and banditry and partisan raids from Union sympathizers were common.

Indeed Lincoln had appointed a native of Greeneville, Andrew Johnson (later his vice-president), as Military Governor of mostly-occupied Tennessee.

By late 1864. the Confederate army was stretched thin. Vicksburg on the Mississippi had fallen, Sherman was on the march toward Atlanta, and Richmond was besieged. The South was being lost, piece by piece. Morgan got word that Johnson was sending a Union force sent to sieze Greeneville, his home town, which was thinly defended, for the Union.

This was part of his command, and Morgan saw his chance to get back into action. He assembled his forces in VIrginia and on September 4th, they mounted up and headed south and west, to surprise the federals. His glory days were not quite done.

Ironically, that very morning he had been relieved of his command pending of an inquiry into the scandalous behavior of his troops on their last two Kentucky raids. But the order from headquarters had either arrived too late—or he had chosen to ignore it.

In his customary high style, Morgan rode boldly into Greeneville in the vanguard of his division of about 1500. Black Bess had been lost in battle but he now rode Sir Oliver, a thoroughbred stallion given him by a Bluegrass supporter. With his customary flourish, he presented himself at the Williams mansion, home of the town’s leading family, staunch Confederates. One of his staff officers was Mrs. Williams’ son.

He was welcomed enthusiastically but warned by Mrs. Williams that the area was thick with Union sympathizers, and that the federals were at Bulls Gap only twenty miles away. Morgan, who wore his legend like his uniform, coolly reminded her that he was quite capable of defending the honor of the South from Yankee marauders. Besides, he added with a smile, “They don’t know I am here with a full division, and are in for a big surprise.”

While the Williams family and their slaves prepared a grand dinner and reception in his honor, Morgan stationed his troops in an arc a few miles north of town, facing Bulls Gap. A small force, including his headquarters staff and a few pickets, stayed with him in the town.

Morgan’s hostess, Catherine Williams, had two sons in the army of the CSA, but reflecting the divided loyalties of the region, another son-in law with the Union. His wife, Lucy Williams, was also in the house, although she absented herself from the festivities by taking a wagon out to check on the family farms.

After an elegant dinner party, with the town’s leading Confederates hanging on his every word, Morgan rode out on Sir Oliver to review his forces outside of town. Confident that the Union army at Bull’s Gap didn’t know his division was in Greeneville, he ordered his men to prepare for an attack at dawn.

While they pitched tents and bedded down in the rain, he returned to entertain the ladies of the town at the Williams mansion reception. He was always ready to fight alongside his men, but less eager to share their rations and tents; like most of the Confederate commanders, he preferred clean linens and a featherbed.

Meanwhile, a local teenager, who was resentful that a sack of flour had been stolen by Confederate soldiers, was on his way to Bull’s Gap, where he informed the Union commander that Greeneville was being reinforced with CSA troops. At least a hundred or so, he thought.

The Union commander decided to advance in the rain and gain the advantage of surprise. Expecting a skirmish at most, he sent a force of about 500

to approach Greeneville by back roads. .

Meanwhile, in the elegant drawing room of the Williams mansion, The “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” was being toasted with blackberry wine and Tennessee whisky. The Southern stalwarts of the town were enchanted to meet he dashing Kentucky cavalier and his genial staff officers. At about midnight, the general bade them all good night. It was still pouring rain, so he amended his morning orders from dawn to seven a.m. While the Williams slaves brushed and hung up his uniform, he pulled off his boots and went to bed in an upstairs room.

While he slept the Union forces were slogging through the mud. At about dawn, a “citizen” rode into their ranks with “urgent news!” Morgan’s Raiders, 1500 of them, were stationed in an arc around the town, and the federals were marching into a trap! “For God’s sake, get out of here as quickly as possible, or every one of you will be captured or killed!”

Morgan’s raiders in Greeneville?! The commander ordered a halt.

Before hurrying off the “citizen” (thought to be one of the clandestine Greene County Unionist militia) then added an interesting detail: General Morgan himself was in the Williams mansion, along with his general staff, guarded by a few pickets.

Rather than turn back, the Union commander saw a chance and took it.

He sent two crack companies of cavalry, under a bold captain Wilcox, on a “dash” into the town. Their orders were to surprise the Confederate pickets, surround the Williams mansion, capture Morgan, and “bring him out, dead or alive.”

The surprise worked well, as did the surround. Morgan’s pickets, many of whom had taken shelter from the rain in sheds and porches, were caught dozing. Some were immediately captured and disarmed, while others managed to escape. Awakened by the melee, Morgan grabbed two loaded pistols, and ran downstairs clad in only a nightshirt and slippers . Mrs Williams met him at the kitchen door.

“Where are they?” Morgan demanded.

“Everywhere,” she said. “They are onto you, General! Hide! Quick!”

He looked around for his officers, but they were all outside, many of them already captured and disarmed.


She pointed to the Episcopal Church next door. Leaving his uniform and boots upstairs, Morgan grabbed a coat off a peg and ducked out the back door and into the church basement. But he heard running boots upstairs and knew he would be discovered, so he slipped back outside, into the Williams’ formal gardens, which connected the house to the stables.

He was joined there by his aide, Captain Rogers, one of the few officers who had evaded the Union troops. 

“We’re surrounded, sir,” he said. “There is no chance of escape.”

“We must try,” said Morgan, handing one of his pistols to Rogers.

Ducking down below the trimmed box hedges, they were headed toward the stables, when a woman’s voice cried out, “I see him! There he goes! There he goes!”

A man on a horse galloped up. He wore a brown denim jacket instead of Union blue, so Morgan and Rogers emerged from the hedges, taking him to be a Confederate rescuer.

But it was Andrew Campbell, the same Irishman who had helped guard Morgan’s magnificent wedding in Murfreesboro less than two years before. He had since deserted and joined the Union, where he served with Wilcox’s cavalry. Raising his carbine, he ordered them both to surrender.

Rogers obeyed, dropping his pistol, but Morgan ducked and ran toward the stables where his last hope, Sir Oliver, waited.

Campbell shouted “Stop!” then fired one shot—which was to reverberate throughout the South.

Struck in the back, John Hunt Morgan fell face forward into the mud, crying out, “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

Campbell had no idea who he had shot. He saw a man in a nightshirt, slippers and a rough wool coat, and feared it was a civilian. By then a crowd was gathering, Wilcox among them. He ordered one of Morgan’s captured staff, Captain Henry Clay (the Kentucky statesman’s grandson) to identify the body.

Clay knelt down and turned the body over. He wiped the mud from Morgan’s face, turned to his captors, and wailed, “You have just killed the best man in the Confederacy!”

Rogers and Clay complained bitterly as their commander’s body, in its bloody nightshirt, was roughly slung across Campbell’s horse. But Wilcox said his orders were to “bring Morgan out dead or alive,” and he sent Campbell mounted behind the body toward the Union lines. Meanwhile, Morgan’s forces north of town had heard the shooting and were striking their tents and grabbing their weapons.

Then they heard a mighty roar—what was later described by one of them as “a loud, sustained and chilling sound.” It was the Union troops, cheering wildly, as the horse with Morgan’s body on it was led through their lines.

The disheartened Confederates knew immediately what it meant. After a short skirmish and a few cannon shots, they regrouped and retreated to nearby Jonesborough.

The fighting was over, for a time.

There was still honor, at least among officers, in those days, and the Union commanders returned Morgan’s body to the Williams mansion and arranged a truce.

John Hunt Morgan, the Kentucky Cavalier, was taken upstairs and reverently cleaned up, then dressed in his still pressed, still spotless uniform by the tearful ladies of the house—Lucy Williams among them. The Confederates were allowed take his body out of the house, through an honor guard of raised sabers, and carry it to Abingdon, where it was met by his pregnant wife, now widow, Mattie.

The news was rushed to the White House by a War Department courier. Sherman, who got it by wire, replied only “Good.” Within days, Andrew Campbell was promoted to sergeant and then lieutenant for his success in “arresting, by an accurate shot, the flight of John Hunt Morgan, one of our country’s most prominent enemies.”

The South, already demoralized by Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, was at first silent–then outraged. Stories were told of how how Morgan’s naked body had been dragged the mud and abused. It was even said that he had been betrayed by Lucy Williams and murdered in cold blood after he had surrendered.

The “Belle of Tennessee,” his widow, knew better. Morgan had vowed never to be captured after his experience in Ohio, and had even signed his letters “Mizpah,” after a BIblical covenant, to remind her of his vow.

After funeral services in Abingdon, Morgan’s body was then taken to Richmond where it was laid in state in the Confederate House of Representatives, to be viewed and mourned by thousands, including all the top officials and notables of the Confederacy (except fellow Kentuckian Jefferson Davis, of course). It was then interred in a vault until 1868, when it was returned to Lexington and he was buried with great ceremony attended by both his supporters and former enemies . The war was over and the myth of the Lost Cause was already building.

John Hunt Morgan’s glory days long outlived the man himself. The Confederacy, which lost war, won the peace, and before the turn of the century the war to preserve slavery had become “the Lost Cause” honored by white Americans both North and South.

The postwar reconciliation of former enemies came at the expense of African-Americans, who lost most of the rights they had gained in the brief period of Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws and KKK terror accompanied the beatification of Robert E.Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Morgan and other Confederates as gallant heroes of the “Lost Cause.” The slave society they had fought for was whitewashed into a nostalgic memory of “My Old Kentucky Home” where even “the darkies were gay.”

The war was lost but the myth flourished. “Morgan’s Men” were honored throughout formerly contentious Kentucky. One of his officers was twice elected governor, and for years it was hard to be elected to any Kentucky office, even mayor or sheriff, without claiming an ancestor had ridden with Morgan.  In 1911 ten thousand or more crowded into Lexington for the unveiling of a gigantic statue of Morgan on Sir Oliver that had been erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Kentucky state legislature. The stars-and-bars waved while the band played “Dixie.”.

The legend of the Kentucky Cavalier accomplished what his raids had never done, and Kentucky joined the Confederacy after the war and became part of the “Solid South.”

After Morgan’s Abingdon funeral, the heartbroken Mattie retreated to Georgia and gave birth to a daughter, named after her father. After the war beautiful young Johnnie Morgan was a favorite at Confederate veteran reunions throughout the South as the heroes of the Lost Cause were honored and remembered with battle flags, nostalgic speeches and Rebel Yells.

After her untimely death in 1888, Johnnie was mourned as the last direct descendant of the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” But that was not exactly so.

In fact, an early leader of the NAACP was also a direct descendant of the Kentucky cavalier. His grandmother had been a “favored” slave of Morgan in Lexington, and he acknowledged his patrimony though he took no pride in it.

His accomplishments were all his own.

A distinguished Ohio scientist and engineer, (the first African-American to own a car) Garrett Augustus Morgan is credited with the invention of a smoke-mask which saved many firefighters’ lives; and even more importantly, the three color traffic signal, a necessary device in the early twentieth century as Cleveland and the nation transitioned from horseback to the automobile.

Green for Go.

Red for Stop.

Yellow for Caution, a hue to which John Hunt Morgan, in both legend and military reality, was color-blind.

Terry Bisson is an award-winning science fiction writer, mainly known for his short stories, who lives in California. His most recent volume of stories is TVA Baby (PM Press).