September 4, 1864 (Sunday)
Following his escape from prison in Columbus, Ohio, Confederate General and legend John Hunt Morgan was given a new command. Most of his force had been killed or captured in the days leading up to his own. But this new command were a breed apart from the more gentile natures of his previous. Perhaps Morgan himself was a bit changed, too.
He spent some of the winter in Richmond, trying to secure a new command. He wanted again to raid into Kentucky, this time from southwestern Virginia, with the object being to bring back horses for the cavalry. The plan sounded fine enough, but Morgan’s clout had greatly diminished. Braxton Bragg, now Jefferson Davis’ very own Henry Halleck, was still smarting from Morgan’s perceived deception before the 1863 Ohio raid.
Getting nowhere in Richmond, he removed himself to Decatur, Georgia and began to gather troops on his own. They came in droves, and when he returned to Richmond, they gave him the Department of Southwestern Virginia. Come the end of May, his troops were in place near Wytheville, Virginia and he informed Richmond that he was about to raid once more into Kentucky.
But this raid was a disaster – it’s only saving grace was that it was not so much a disaster as his previous raid. Again, most of his command was gone, and this time rumors of a bank robbery drifted into Richmond. Somehow, $72,000 and an army surgeon had gone missing after his men looted the town of Mount Sterling. Also, there was another bank robbery. The raid itself cost him most of his command and yielded him not a single horse.
Richmond censured him for the two bank robberies, as well as the burning and looting of the towns of Lexington and Cynthiana. Even some of his higher ranking officers turned against him. Secretary of War James Seddon decided that on September 10th, there would convene a commission to investigate the allegations. Morgan was stripped of his department.
While waiting for his replacement to arrive, word came that Federal cavalry were seen in Bull’s Gap – ninety miles away. Seeing this as an opportunity for redemption. Disregarding the orders to stay put, Morgan arrived in Jonesboro, Tennessee on September 2nd. The next day, he arrived in Greeneville, and established his headquarters in a mansion owned by Catherine Williams.
Morgan was convinced that no Federal troops were in the vicinity. But his scouts disagreed – they were, in truth, but eighteen miles away. Morgan dismissed this as rumor and went on with his business.
In the meanwhile, Alvan Gillem, commanding the disputed Federal force, had caught wind of John Hunt Morgan’s location. “I immediately resolved not to wait for him but to endeavor to surprise and attack his forces in detail before they could be concentrated,” wrote Gillem in his report. Dividing his men into two columns, they rode for Greeneville.
“The night was one of the darkest and stormiest I ever witnessed, the rain poured down in torrents, and had it not been for the vivid and almost constant lightning it would have been impossible to have continued our march. At 6 o’clock [A.M., September 4th] we came upon the enemy’s vedettes, who were shot. The next, set were found asleep. Pushing forward rapidly we came upon the enemy at Park’s Gap, who stubbornly resisted the advance of the Tenth Michigan Cavalry, who were fighting dismounted. After a few rounds from the artillery they gave way and retreated toward Greeneville, closely pressed by the Tenth Michigan and Ninth Tennessee Cavalry. They soon found their retreat in that direction cut off by Lieutenant-Colonel Ingerton, with the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, and most of them would probably have been captured had it not been for the inconsiderate conduct of a lieutenant in ordering them to be tired upon before they were completely surrounded by Ingerton.”
Moving into Greeneville, the Federals surrounded the Williams’ mansion, clearly knowing precisely the location of Morgan’s headquarters. Just prior to their arrival, Morgan slipped away from the mansion with Captain James T. Rogers, a member of his staff.
“He handed me one of his pistols , and said that he wished me to assist him in making his escape,” wrote Rogers the day after. “I told him it was almost useless, as we were entirely surrounded. He replied, saying that we must do it if possible.”
During this exchange, they were hiding in the bushes outside the house. The two were separated, but within earshot. Just then, a man clad in a brown jacket rode near them. Figuring that he was a comrade, Morgan stepped forward. But when he did, the man demanded him to surrender.
Captain Rogers and a soldier referred to as “Mr. Johnson,” had also stepped forward. At this time, Captain Wilcox, one of the Federal officers who had been accepting surrenders, rode toward Rogers, who was between Morgan and the brown-clad soldier.
“I, with Mr. Johnson, hasted toward him, looking back in the direction of General Morgan, hearing cries, ‘kill him!’ ‘kill him!’ from every quarter except Captain Wilcox, who had receive my surrender very gentlemanly; but before I reached Captain Wilcox I saw General Morgan throw up his hands exclaiming, ‘Oh God!’ I saw nothing more of him until he was brought to the street dead.”
Immediately, there were rumors that Morgan had been killed after he surrendered. Certainly, by Rogers’ account, the object was to kill him rather than capture him. He admits that he was fired upon from several direction after his own [Rogers’] surrender, but chalked it up to innocent ignorance. “If General Morgan surrendered before he was shot I do not know it.”
Morgan had probably known the score. He was even quoted as saying “The Yankees will never take me prisoner again,” while he hid under a church building just before the brown-clad Federal came near him. The soldier in brown was Private Andrew J. Campbell.
“I, in a loud tone, ordered him to halt,” testified Campbell, “but instead of obeying he started into a run. I then repeated the order, and at the same time brought my gun to my shoulder so as to cover him, when seeing that he still disregarded me, I deliberately aimed at and shot him. He dropped in his tracks and died in a few minutes. But I did not know at that time, nor even had the least idea of, who it was I had shot.”
Morgan’s body was taken into custody, riding on the back of Campbell’s horse. Once back at the main Federal camp, Morgan’s body was returned to within Confederate lines under a flag of truce.
Basil Duke, one of Morgan’s lieutenants, who was not with him on this raid, summarized the general Southern sentiment following the war:
“His friend have always believed that he was murdered after his surrender. Certain representations by the parties who killed him, their ruffianly character and the brutality with which they treated his body, induced the belief; and it was notorious that his death, if again captured, had been sworn. His slayers broke down the paling around the garden, dragged him through and, while he was tossing his arms in his dying agonies, threw him across a mule and paraded his body about the town, shouting and screaming in savage exaltation.
“Thus, on the 4th of September 1864, in a little village of east Tennessee, fell this almost unequaled partisan leader. But not only was the light of genius extinguished then and a heroic spirit lost to earth – as kindly and as noble a heart as was ever warned by the constant presence of generous emotions was stilled by a ruffian’s bullet.” 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p489, 492; John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders by Edison H. Thomas; Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James A. Ramage; History of Morgan’s Cavalry by Basil Wilson Duke. [↩]