July 12, 1862 (Saturday)
Confederate partisan, John Hunt Morgan, and his band of 900 rangers, were creating quite a stir in Kentucky. They were doing much of the stirring themselves. After battling in Tompkinsville, Morgan rested his force at Glasgow, issuing a proclamation. His words were written not only as a call to arms for Kentucky Rebels, but to strike fear into the hearts of the Unionists.
“Let every true patriot rise to the appeal!” wrote Morgan. “Fight for your Families, your homes, for those you love best, your consciouses, and for the free exercise of your political rights, never again to be placed in jeopardy by the Hessian invader.”1
Following the respite in Glasgow, Morgan’s raiders continued north towards Lebanon and continued their stirring. While at Glasgow, a Union deserter told them that General McClellan had taken Richmond, putting them in a noticeably foul mood. This was only a rumor, however, and Morgan needed to know the truth. For this, he dispatched “Lightening” Ellsworth, a Canadian telegraph operator along for the ride.
Ellsworth was able to tap the Nashville-Louisville line. From this, he learned the positions of the Federal troops, which was rather handy, but not what he actually wanted to know. So with his own telegraph key, he struck up a conversation with the operator at Louisville. He asked directly and was told that McClellan had failed to take the Confederate capital.
But “Lightning” Ellsworth wasn’t finished stirring. While Morgan’s raiders were in Kentucky, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s raiders were in Tennessee. Knowing only the general whereabouts of Forrest, Ellsworth told Louisville that Murfreesboro, Tennessee had fallen to Forrest, its entire garrison being captured.
That night, July 11, Morgan’s men approached Lebanon, but were fired upon while crossing a bridge six miles out. Quick work with one of their howitzers sent the Federals running, and Morgan again advanced. His command made it to within a mile of town before the skirmishing started in earnest.
The fight through the darkness lasted only a couple of hours and few, if any, were wounded or killed. The town, however, was surrendered to Morgan around 10pm. He threw out skirmishers, expecting area Federals to attack from almost any direction. Come dawn (of this date), no attack had been made.2
Morgan’s Proclamation and continual telegraphic stirring were doing their jobs. Union General Jeremiah Boyle, commanding in Louisville, was quickly becoming unhinged at the thought of 1,500 Rebels marauding through the state. He had gathered 1,800 at nearby Munfordsville while he sent 500 by train into Lebanon, only to be whipped by Morgan.
Even before Boyle learned the outcome of the Lebanon fight, he began to panic. Writing to General Don Carlos Buell, whose Army of the Ohio was slowly making its way towards Eastern Tennessee, Boyle pleaded for reinforcements. “All the rebels of the State will join him [Morgan] if there is not a demonstration of force and power sent in cavalry. The State will be desolated unless this matter is attended to.”
Somehow or another (perhaps from Lightning Ellsworth), Boyle learned that Morgan’s band was whipped at Lebanon and sent scurrying to the south. Writing to both Buell and General Henry Halleck, still in command at Corinth, Mississippi, he told of the “victory” and how he ordered 1,600 of his men to pursue and attack the fleeing Rebels.
At some point the truth thrust itself upon Boyle, and his downward spiral began anew, picking up where it left off. “Morgan passed around and escaped and burned Lebanon; is moving on Danville and toward Lexington,” he informed Buell. “I have no cavalry and but little force. The whole State will be in arms if General Buell does not send a force to put it down… Morgan is devastating with fire and sword.”
Not much later, and in reply to nothing, he sent out another wire: “It is certain Morgan cannot be caught without cavalry. He will lay waste large parts of the State. He is aiming at Lexington. I have no force to take him. If Buell would save Kentucky it must be done instantly. I know of what I speak.” Of course, he really didn’t.
Meanwhile, as the telegraph wires surged with warnings and predictions of every sort, the city of Cincinnati was in a frenzy. Boyle did little to quell this, and probably a lot to provoke it, when he sent a message to Mayor George Hatch, telling him to “send as many men as possible by special train without delay.”
Hatch had been doing some gathering of his own, finding that the governors of Ohio and Indiana both had vested interests in keeping Morgan on the other side of their borders. Both wanted to send troops at once. In the blind anxiety Morgan had created, nobody thought to tell Washington anything. When the governors called upon the War Department to release the troops, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton refused – the Department needed “more definite knowledge before it can act intelligently.”
When Stanton received a copy of Boyle’s call for Cincinnati troops, he didn’t know what to make of it. “To-day you telegraphed me from Louisville,” wrote Stanton to Boyle, “announcing the rout yesterday of part of Morgan’s force and that you had ordered attack to be made on his main force to-day. The Department has received no further information from you. What means this sudden call on the mayor of Cincinnati to send men and artillery immediately and why have you not advised this Department of the real or supposed necessity for such a step?”3
Stanton would have to wait until the next day for his reply.