The Raid Begins: Morgan’s Raiders in Kentucky

Part 1 of a series

“I’m sent to warn the neighbors. He isn’t a mile behind;
He sweeps up all the horses— every horse he can find;
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan’s terrible men,
With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glenn.”[i]

John Hunt Morgan

John Hunt Morgan

Growing up in southeastern Indiana, I heard my share of stories and rumors concerning General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders. Assuming the tales I heard were nothing more than legends passed from one generation to the next, I never did any research. As I grew up and became interested in Civil War history, I was disappointed with the lack of war stories regarding my home state. That’s when I remembered Morgan’s raiders. After a considerable amount of digging, I discovered a few noteworthy events that took place in southern Indiana during the Civil War. While most historians focus on the events at Gettysburg, I turn my attention to the Midwest and what happened, close to the place I call home, 150 years ago.

In the summer of 1863, General Rosecrans and his forces received orders from General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C. instructing them to prepare for a march toward General Bragg’s Confederate troops. Bragg was busy trying to establish a strong position of defense in Tennessee. But he needed more time. General Morgan proposed a plan to keep Rosecrans away from Bragg. The plan was similar to one that the Union had used in the spring of the same year, when Colonel Benjamin H. Greirson led a raid behind Confederate lines for 16 days covering over 450 miles.

Morgan’s idea was to take nearly 3,000 cavalry through Kentucky to threaten Louisville. Next he would attempt to destroy the L&N rail lines that the Union troops depended on for supplies. Morgan and his men would then cross the Ohio River into Indiana, turn east for Ohio, re-cross the Ohio River, and make their way back to Bragg through Kentucky or possibly West Virginia. What started as a mere attempt to distract the Union would soon become the longest raid of the civil war.

Bragg liked Morgan’s plan because it would buy him the time he desperately needed, but he thought crossing the Ohio River was too great a risk. “I like everything you said, except crossing the Ohio River into the north,” said Bragg. “Go ahead and raid Kentucky. Capture Louisville if you can. But do not, I repeat do not, cross the river. Stay in Kentucky. Go anywhere you want in your home state, but I command you to stay south of the river.”[ii]

After getting the “go ahead” from Bragg, Morgan approached Major General Joseph Wheeler and received his approval in June. Despite earlier permission from both commanders, Morgan received orders in mid-June to delay his raid just as he was moving his men towards the Cumberland River. The Confederates in Knoxville, TN were facing Union troops that had made a raid through southern Kentucky.

Undeterred by the interruption, Morgan found a way to use the situation to his advantage. With Bragg’s permission, he had taken 1,500 men with him on the raid. Morgan, however, believed that he needed at least 2,000 men for a successful raid. After two weeks of waiting around, during which Morgan convinced General Wheeler to grant him at least 500 additional men, he set out again towards the Cumberland River. Unfortunately the water was too high for the horses to cross. Again undeterred, Morgan had flatboats built immediately. Under the cover of darkness, the entire party forged their way across the Cumberland River.

After a few skirmishes along the riverbank, day two of their journey saw Morgan and his men well on their way to Columbia, KY. The raid had begun! The Confederates spent only five days in Kentucky, but those days weren’t a vacation. Upon reaching Columbia, Morgan encountered a Union force of 150 men. Overwhelmed by the Confederates, the Union troops quickly fell back and retreated. The raiders were able to capture six of the fleeing Union soldiers. Columbia was not a major battle during the raid, but it does provide some insight as to the raid’s conduct because it was the first town Morgan’s men pillaged – an act they have since become infamous for.

Many of Morgan’s men were originally from Kentucky and therefore thought plundering any town in the state was wrong. As one commander put it: “Our men behaved badly at Columbia, breaking open a store and plundering it. I ordered the men to return the goods, and made all the reparations in my power. These outrages are very disgraceful, and are usually perpetrated by men accompanying the army simply for plunder.”[iii] Keep in mind that these men had no such qualms while plundering towns in other states.

After sacking Columbia, Morgan and his men tramped northwards toward the Greene River Bridge. In the early morning hours of July 4, Morgan sent a dispatch to the federal forces stationed there demanding their surrender: “Sir: In the name of the Confederate States Government, I demand an immediate and unconditional surrender of the entire force under your command, together with the Stockade.”[iv] The federal commander responded with a message stating: “The fourth is a damn bad day to surrender, and I prefer not to.”

It turns out that the Yankee commander made the right decision. After seven frontal assaults, Morgan concluded that the Union’s position was unbreakable. His second message to the commander was very different. He asked for permission to remove his wounded men from the field. The Union commander complied and Morgan’s men moved on.

Historical Marker at Lebanon

Historical Marker at Lebanon

Morgan experienced a great loss during the next fight. Accompanying Morgan on the raid were two of his brothers, Calvin and Thomas. While leading his men across the battlefield at Lebanon Junction, KY, Morgan’s younger brother Lt. Thomas was spotted and mortally wounded by a Union soldier. Thomas collapsed into his brother Calvin’s arms and cried out, “Brother Cally, they killed me,” just before he died. Thomas was 19.

While the majority of Morgan’s forces were fighting at Lebanon Junction, a small detachment went on to Bardstown. There they discovered a group of Yankees under the command of Lt. Sullivan. With a mere 25 men, Sullivan held out against the Confederate raiders for an entire day. When the grieving Morgan arrived on the scene, Sullivan finally surrendered. Morgan’s only comment: “You 25 damned Yankees have cost me 24 hours.”

View From 12 Mile Island

View From 12 Mile Island

After the victory at Bardstown, Morgan’s raiders split themselves into two groups. The larger half headed off towards the Ohio River by way of Brandenburg. The smaller half marched towards the river a bit farther east, near Twelve Mile Island, with hopes of drawing attention away from the main crossing. Crossing the river into Indiana was in direct violation of General Bragg’s orders, yet, for whatever the reasons, Morgan was determined to cross this watery enemy line and proceed deep into Union territory.

The Yankees did everything they could to try and prevent Morgan’s crossing, but on July 8, Morgan, along with his remaining raiders, crossed the river into southern Indiana. During the next five days, the Confederate raiders made their way to Ohio, ransacking every small Indiana town they passed through.

[i] Woolson, Constance F. “Kentucky Belle.” The Best Loved Poems of the American People. By Hazel Felleman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1936. 274-77

[ii] Horwitz, Lester V. The Longest Raid of the Civil War: Little-known & Untold Stories of Morgan’s Raid into Kentucky, Indiana & Ohio. Cincinnati: Farmcourt Pub., 1999. 3

[iii] Horwitz, 21.

[iv] Horwitz, 24.

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