July 8, 1863 (Wednesday)
Eight or nine months had passed since Confederate cavalier, John Hunt Morgan made the headlines. Since his previous raid into Kentucky, he and his men had mostly performed services typical of any cavalry unit – scouting, screening, and picketing for Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee which was then settled in near Tullahoma. Through the winter and spring, they had faced off against William Rosecrans’ Union Army of the Cumberland, an imposing, but seemingly unmoving lot.
From the east, word reached Morgan about General Lee’s advance towards Pennsylvania. It was the 10th of June when he called together his lieutenants and proposed his greatest plan to date – he and his men would cross the Cumberland River into Kentucky, and then the Ohio River into Indiana. From there, they would hit Ohio, move into West Virginia, and if all went well enough, link up with General Lee in Pennsylvania. Bragg, with whom Morgan first met, found it an absolutely absurd idea. He knew Morgan had the chops to pull off a raid, but this was unthinkable. While he allowed Morgan to cross the Cumberland, he forbade him to leave Kentucky. Indiana, Ohio, and, of course Pennsylvania, were completely out of the question.
But when Morgan met with his men on the 10th, he laid it all out for them. They were going to not only cross the Cumberland, but the Ohio river and border, as well! While some of his men, according to Basil Duke (one of Morgan’s lieutenants), “were filled with a grave apprehension,” most believed that he could pull it off.
The next day, they crossed the Cumberland River and set their eyes upon a Union garrison at Carthage, Tennessee. As they were about to attack, a message came from Bragg to chase down some Federal cavalry threatening Knoxville, 140 miles east. Due to poor weather and poorer roads, Morgan’s Raiders arrived too late. All his division accomplished was postponing the raid for three long, miserable weeks.
Finally, on July 2nd, as Lee and Meade faced each other at Gettysburg, Morgan and his men once more crossed the Cumberland. Near the town of Burkesville, the Cumberland was out of its banks. The recent rains (which would arrive in Gettysburg on the night of the 3rd) had swollen the river, but did not prevent Morgan’s men from crossing.
It was surprising that it went as well as it did. They had only a few canoes and a rickety flat which looked light it might sink at any moment. Somehow or another, by dawn, all 2,400 men and horses, plus four pieces of artillery, were safely on the opposite shore.
They were only safe because Union General Henry Judah, commanding the cavalry in the area, believed that the racing and overflowing river itself would stop Morgan. He didn’t even bother to send scouts or pickets. It was not because he had no clue of Morgan’s intentions. General Rosecrans had informed Ambrose Burnside (the department commander), who had dispatched Judah specifically to stop Morgan. Though Judah’s main force was fifty miles west of Morgan’s route, he had a strong presence in Columbia – the next large town Morgan wanted to hit. Rather than moving his entire command to Columbia, Judah called his Columbia contingent towards him as he moved south towards the river Morgan had already crossed.
The doorway into the heart of Kentucky was now open for Morgan thanks to the bumbling Union cavalry sent to stop him. Braxton Bragg, however, seemed a more threatening monkey wrench than anything the Yankees could muster. Bragg had sent with Morgan a train of empty supply wagons which were to be filled by Morgan’s raiders and sent back to Tennessee accompanied by one of Morgan’s regiments. But soon came that Bragg was retreating from Tullahoma as Rosecrans’ Federals finally advanced upon them.
Morgan then decided that it would be too dangerous for the wagon train to leave him, and he’d be damned if he was going to give up an entire regiment to guard the thing. Besides, with Bragg in retreat, their route back would be far too long. It would be best, reasoned Morgan, for all to continue on.
Though the door into Kentucky was open, and only a relative handful of Judah’s Yankees dared tangle with Morgan, there was a fairly strong outpost along the Green River at Tebb’s Bend. The Federals were only 200 in number, but they had constructed a parapet that cavalry simply couldn’t overcome. Not only was it protected on three sides by the river, Morgan’s artillery couldn’t be placed well enough to hit it. The only way to overcome it was by frontal assault.
Morgan could have left it behind, but, due to some sense of duty or honor, could not. It was July 4th and when Morgan sent word into the little fort demanding its capitulation, the reply came quickly: “It is a bad day for surrender, and I would rather not.” With a quick burst from one of Morgan’s guns, the dismounted Rebels charged. They swept up the Yankee skirmishers, pushing them back into the works surrounding the fort, but could do little more.
The fire coming from the entrenched and emboldened Federals was accurate and deadly. The firing from the fort was light. There were no sustained volleys. One could almost count each single shot as it rang out. But nearly all hit their marks. Morgan lost 35 killed (including a colonel) and 40 wounded in an attack he never had to make. The Federals lost six killed and 23 wounded defending the crossing at the Green River. Before Morgan could effectively massacre his own men, he called off the attack and finally bypassed Tebb’s Bend.
Even greater fighting transpired the next day as Morgan’s men came upon Lebanon. Less than 400 Yankees defended the town and, like their comrades along the Green, refused to surrender. Morgan attacked just after dawn and the battle raged in the streets until noon, when he again demanded surrender. And again the Yankees refused, even after he threatened to burn the town to its foundations.
True to his word, Morgan ordered Lebanon’s businesses put to the torch an hour later. With flames bursting from the windows of the depot near Union headquarters, the Federals finally surrendered. The battle had cost Morgan dearly – in the last charge, his youngest brother was shot through the heart and was dead before he hit the ground. The loss hit not only Morgan and his remaining brother hard, but the whole brigade took it personally and enacted a nasty revenge upon the town of Lebanon, burning most of it before the day was through.
Previous to this battle and the death of his little brother, Morgan and his men had been a well-behaved lot, respecting the private property of civilians and banning almost all plundering and pillaging. Now, however, Morgan’s sorrow had unleashed something once hidden. No longer would he restrain his men from such destruction.
Morgan had arrested three men who he believed killed his brother, and marched them along a quick jog while his own men rode. The prisoners were not allowed to stop and not allowed water. A bit of afternoon rain helped their plight, but after nine miles, the first gave out and begged to be placed in a wagon. Morgan’s men refused, telling him to move on or be killed. After a few steps, he collapsed and died. The second fell soon after and was run over by an artillery caisson. He died a few hours later. The last prisoner nearly met a similar fate. He fell and his head was run over by a piece of artillery, yet somehow he managed to survive. He, along with the regular prisoners were paroled before reached Bardstown. Morgan had the first taste of his revenge.
Morgan’s men cleared Bardstown the next morning and captured a train that evening along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. All the way through to Brandenburg on the Ohio River, Morgan’s men pulled down telegraph wires and sent Burnside’s headquarters into a frenzy.
At 10am on this date (the 8th), Morgan arrived on the banks of the Ohio. The crossing took all day as small steamboats ferried his men into Indiana. Burnside had dispatched cavalry to stop him, but they never showed up. The only folks to make any appearance was a small regiment of Indiana militia with an ancient brass cannon. The Indiana boys fired from atop a bluff overlooking the river, but were quickly dismissed by Morgan’s own artillery. Around noon, a Federal gunboat put in an appearance, but quickly ran out of ammunition and begged off.
By midnight, all were safely upon the shores of Indiana. In making quick work of the Federal outposts (except for Tebb’s Bend, of course), Morgan had made fools of Burnside’s cavalry. As they entered Indiana and Ohio, however, things might not be so simple.1
- Sources: History of Morgan’s Cavalry by Basil Wilson DukeRebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James A. Ramage; John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders by Edison H. Thomas; The Stones River and Tullahoma Campaigns by Christopher L. Kolakowski. [↩]