Saturday, August 15, 2009

Just finished reading - Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James A. Ramage, 1986.

As a boy growing up in southern Indiana there weren't too many local places associated with the Civil War. But, thanks to John Hunt Morgan and his raiders, a youngster of 10 or 11 could go to Dupont or Vernon and imagine the pound of hoofbeats of hundreds of horses, or to help even more with one's imagination -even possibly attend a very small reenactment (minus all the horses).

Yes, the one thing that our area could claim, and did claim -on state highway markers, heritage trails, and in local legends, was that "Morgan and his men went through here in July of 1863." Pretty much for that reason alone I knew a thing or two about John Hunt Morgan, but I had never really spent much time reading about him. I think one reason for that is that sometimes....I'll admit, I do judge a book by its cover. The only real serious study about Morgan for years has been Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James A. Ramage, and as you can see the cover does leave a lot to be desired. I would have probably read the book eventually now that I am in Kentucky, but recently it was kindly given to me by a co-worker, so I took the opportunity to finally read it, and as usual, I am glad I did.

Dr. James A. Ramage earned his PhD from the University of Kentucky, and is now a professor of history at Northern Kentucky University. He has also written about the Hunt family, and another well known "Rebel Raider;" John S. Mosby.

John Hunt Morgan was born in 1825, the oldest child of Calvin and Henrietta Morgan in Huntsville, Alabama. The Morgans left Huntsville in the early 1830s after Calvin Morgan lost his home and business and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he managed one of the farms of his wealthy father-in-law, John Wesley Hunt. Ramage explains that John Hunt Morgan entered Transylvania University when he was 17, but did he not do very well academically, and in 1844 he suspended for fighting a duel with another student; he never returned to his studies.

John, like many young men of elite family heritage in the South, craved adventure and honed a fragile sense of honor (as evidenced by the duel). When the Mexican War broke out Morgan enlisted as a private in the cavalry and eventually saw combat in the Battle of Buena Vista where Morgan's unit, the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, lost its colonel and also its second in command, Henry Clay's son, Henry Clay, Jr.

Morgan returned to Lexington, started a hemp business, dabbled in some other business interests, and to keep his military fires burning, helped start a local militia company that soon failed, but would start another, the Lexington Rifles, that would become part of his war-time force. Morgan married Rebecca Bruce in 1852, but the marriage would end with Rebecca's death in 1861; they produced no surviving children.

Morgan, like many Kentuckians, was slow to answer the Southern call to combat. He finally enlisted in September 1861. He was elected colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry and participated and organized a number of irregular operations behind enemy lines against supply and communication bases. His success in these operations quickly won him favor in the Southern press and he was named the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy." Morgan's rise to fame was meteoric. Women wrote poems in his honor and songs were sung to praise his accomplishments (however insignificant they later proved to be in the grand scheme of the war).

Ramage makes a strong emphasis in pointing out that Morgan's military career took a strong turn after meeting and marrying his second wife Martha "Mattie" Ready (pictured below). The 36-year-old Morgan met the 21-year-old Mattie in February of 1862 when he moved his headquarters to Mattie's hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Mattie was hailed by some as the "prettiest woman in Tennessee." After a short courtship they were engaged and eventually married on December 14, 1862. Ramage contends that Morgan's love and dedication for Mattie kept him from being the successful leader that he had been earlier in the war. Ramage suggests that when John and Mattie were together he was confident and reassured, but when away on his missions, he was insecure and indecisive. John's letters and telegraphs to Mattie provide vivid evidence of this dependency. His military failures immediately after his marriage would have a significant impact on his largest operation to date.

Morgan's biggest gamble and failure of the war was his raid into Indiana and Ohio in the summer of 1863. He left his Tennessee base and made his way through Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River at Brandenburg, Kentucky and made is way toward Cincinnati; being careful to avoid that heavily defended city. He entered Ohio and fought a skirmish near Buffington Island where a crossing was attempt but thwarted, and was eventually captured near New Lisbon, Ohio and placed in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. Morgan made a dramatic escape after about a four month stay. Mattie was pregnant at the time and gave birth to a girl, who died shortly thereafter.

Morgan made his way to Danville, Virginia where Mattie was staying and then they went Richmond where he was greeted as a hero. Speeches were made and bands played for the "Gallant Morgan." Morgan attempted to recruit and reorganize his old units, but was eventually sent to the military backwater of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. Morgan made one last raid into Kentucky in June of 1864, but the men that he had in his command now used the opportunity to rob citizens and banks instead of focusing on military targets. Morgan, never the strong disciplinarian, let much of the activity go, but it did not go unnoticed by those in higher command.

From his headquarters in Abingdon, Virginia, in August of 1864, Morgan led a group of men in an attempt to drive Union forces back toward Knoxville, Tennessee. While staying at the home of a Southern-friendly family in heavily Unionist Greeneville, Tennessee, Morgan's men were attacked by a force led by General Alvin C. Gillem. Morgan attempted an escape, (as he had vowed to never be taken prisoner again and be away from Mattie for an indefinite period) and was shot trying to leave the yard of the home where he had stayed that night. The man that shot him was Andrew J. Campbell, a former Confederate infantry soldier that had deserted and joined the Union.

Mattie was again pregnant at the time and later gave birth to a girl, who this time did survive. The child was named Johnnie, in honor of her father. Unfortunately, Johnnie would die at the age of 23 of typhoid fever never having had children to carry on the Morgan lineage. Mattie eventually remarried, but died in 1887 at the age of 46.

Morgan's story is a tragic, but interesting one that Ramage deftly covers in Rebel Raider. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about this interesting man, his life, and the peculiar place of Kentucky, during and after the Civil War.

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