October 18, 1862 (Saturday)
The Confederate attempt to seize Kentucky was at an end. General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi was in full retreat towards Cumberland Pass and Tennessee. That did not mean, however, that Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Rebel cavalry was going gentle into that good night.
Quite the opposite. Morgan had been ordered to cover the retreat of Kirby Smith’s wing of the army. It was his duty, but it was the job he liked least. The cavalier felt best at the head of an independent command. Acting as a rear guard was not his forte.
To add to the tedium, General Smith’s column was not followed (and perhaps not even noticed) by the Federals. On the 15th, correctly gathering that Smith was out of danger, Morgan asked to be allowed to find his own line of retreat of Kentucky. It wasn’t just retreat that Morgan was after, of course. He laid out a plan, rather similar to one dreamed up by a certain Eastern Theater cavalry commander in a plumed hat, in which he would ride around the entire Union Army of the Ohio. Smith agreed to the scheme without consulting Braxton Bragg. By the 17th, Morgan and 1,800 rangers were riding – not south to Tennessee, but north towards Lexington, Kentucky.
Morgan was very familiar with the town. He had been raised there all the way through to his college years. After fighting in the Mexican War, he opened a handful of businesses, married, and finally gained some success in manufacturing hemp and wool. He employed several free blacks, but owned thirty slaves, and made money on the side renting them out and selling them. By the time the war rolled around, he was turning quite a profit in wool and slaves. And while his business took him to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville and even New York, home was always found in Lexington.
And home was where he was headed. This part of the state had a very Unionist lean to it, so procuring a guide might prove difficult. Brash and bold as he was, Morgan decided to give it a try anyway. Stopping at a nearby house, the Confederate Colonel rapped upon the door and roused the head of the house from his bed. Morgan introduced himself as Union Colonel Frank Woolford. The man at the door, a Unionist, was overjoyed to see this Woolford fellow and happily accepted the honor of leading him and his men into Lexington.
Along the way, the Unionist cursed that devil John Hunt Morgan. As they rode, the false Col. Woolford encouraged the Unionist, prodding him to tell him just how much he disdained the Rebel marauder.
By midnight, they were within ten miles of the town. Two hours later, Lexington was a mere three miles away. Even closer, however, was the camp of the 4th Ohio Cavalry, who had been detached to guard the town.
The column halted and began to make preparations for a dawn attack. This was were the Unionist guide finally discovered that Col. Frank Woolford wad really the devil John Hunt Morgan. The Unionist was sure that Morgan was about to have him killed. He was soon assured that he wouldn’t be harmed and was allowed to ride back to his house, now many dark miles away. Before they parted, Morgan warned him to be careful of how he confided in soldiers in the future.
The Ohio cavalry had split up their regiment. Some were encamped outside of town, while others were near the courthouse. At dawn, Morgan’s men encircled and fell upon the camp. It was not a clean fight. As one of Morgan’s regiments closed in on the camp, another, approaching from the opposite direction, fired over the heads of the Union soldiers and sent bullets into the ranks of their comrades.
After all that was sorted out, Morgan’s artillery, ordered to fire only if things looked bad, opened fire anyway, sending both Union and Confederates running. And when that was dealt with and the Federals fully began to realize their fate as prisoners, a Texas regiment burst onto the scene, wildly firing at captors and captured, alike.
Having had a plateful of this, Morgan ran between the prisoners and the Texans, waved his armed and ordered them to cease firing. It was miraculous that he was not shot. His coat, however, was not so fortunate – after the battle, Morgan found several holes piercing the garment. In the weird fray, a prisoner was also shot.
As for the two Union companies in the town, they put up a defiant front of resistance, but were soon convinced that it was ridiculous to do so. In all, Morgan and his men captured 500 to 600 Yankees.
The people of Lexington had no idea what to think of all this. The previous day, with the 4th Ohio Cavalry protecting the town, the Unionists flew their Stars and Stripes. But when Morgan’s men arrived, their ornamentation was happily replaced by the town’s secessionists.
By 1pm, Morgan’s men were gone, on their way to encircle the Federal Army. They would pass through Versailles before encamping. That night, the Union commander at Frankfort, just ten miles north of the Confederate camp along the Kentucky River, learned of Morgan’s raid. He dispatched cavalry and infantry to fall upon the Rebel front, near Lawrenceville, and rear, following their line of march from Versailles.
The Federals coming from the rear tipped off Morgan by blindingly firing artillery towards the Rebel camp. Realizing what was happening, Morgan quickly crossed the river, and entered Lawrenceville before the Yankees coming from Frankford could occupy the town. Supposedly, Morgan had given the Union troops the slip by about thirty minutes.
He and his men would seldom stop over the next six days as they circumnavigated General Buell’s Army (giving it a very wide berth), before entering Tennessee.1
- Sources: History of Morgan’s Cavalry by William Basil Duke; Rebel Raider by James Ramage; OR, Series 1, Vol. 16, Part 2. [↩]