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John Morgan in 1864.

by Basil W. Duke, Brigadier-General, C. S. A.
General John H. Morgan escaped from the prison at Columbus, Ohio, November 27th, 1863,1 and reached the Confederate lines early in December. He was not ordered upon active service during that winter, but in April was virtually placed in command of the Department of South-western Virginia, which embraced also a portion of east Tennessee. The forces at his [423] disposal for the defense of the department, exclusive of the militia or “reserves” of that territory, numbered about three thousand. Of these nearly one thousand were men of his former division, who had either been left in Tennessee when their comrades set out upon the Ohio raid, or had escaped capture in that expedition. Five or six hundred of these troops were mounted, and were organized into two battalions, commanded respectively by Captains Cassell and Kirkpatrick. Some four hundred were dismounted and were temporarily employed as infantry. Two brigades of Kentucky cavalry, under H. L. Giltner and George B. Cosby, of excellent material, although numerically depleted by hard and constant service, had been stationed in that region for two years previously, and the thorough acquaintance of their officers and men with the country rendered them especially valuable.

On the 8th of May intelligence came of the simultaneous advance of two strong Federal columns. General Averell, with a body of cavalry, threatened the salt-works, and General Crook, with infantry and cavalry, was approaching Dublin Depot, near New River Bridge. It was of vital importance to repulse both. The Confederacy was largely dependent upon the works at Saltville for its salt supply, and the lead-works at Wytheville, not far distant, were nearly as valuable. If Crook should be successful he would be able to damage the railroad. in that; vicinity to such an extent that communication with Richmond might be permanently destroyed and the transmission of supplies from all that region prevented. It was necessary, therefore, at once to confront and cripple, if not completely defeat, both columns. General A. G. Jenkins, with his cavalry brigade, detached from the Army of Northern Virginia, put himself in front of Crook, but was not strong enough to cope with him. Morgan hastened the four hundred dismounted men of his command to the assistance of General Jenkins. Colonel D. H. Smith, commanding them, reached Dublin on the morning of the 10th and found General Jenkins there, hard pressed by the enemy, and that gallant officer severely wounded. Smith at once reported to Colonel John. McCausland, who had taken command, and the timely reinforcement restored the battle, which had been sorely against the Confederates. Holding the enemy in check until sunset, the Confederates retreated to New River Bridge and encamped in a position to protect that structure. [See map, p. 478.]

In the meantime General Morgan, with Giltner's brigade and the two battalions of Cassell and Kirkpatrick, sought Averell. He was convinced on the 9th, by the reports of his scouts, that Averell's first blow would not be delivered at Saltville, but that he was striking at Wytheville. Pressing rapidly on past Saltville he fell on Averell's track and followed it to the junction of the roads leading respectively to Crab Orchard and Wytheville. Averell had taken the road to Crab Orchard, and doubtless wished and expected to be closely pursued by that route. In that event, by a judicious employment of a part of his command, he could have held his opponent at bay in that very rugged country long enough to have thrown a detachment into Wytheville (which was garrisoned only by a small provost guard), and could have destroyed the military stores there and the neighboring lead-mines, besides rendering the railroad useless for many weeks. Morgan, believing this to be his skillful adversary's plan, marched directly to Wytheville by the shorter road through Burke's Garden, arriving there on the afternoon of the 11th. Colonel George B. Crittenden, taking command of a small detachment of W. E. Jones's cavalry brigade, which had reached Wytheville the day before, was instructed to occupy a small pass or gap in the mountain, through which alone the enemy's approach to the town, from the road on which he was marching, was practicable. Crittenden was attacked soon after he reached the position assigned him, but Morgan marching to his assistance with all of the troops, Averell fell back to a commanding ridge, about eight hundred yards from the gap. He was immediately attacked and, after a sharp combat, dislodged. The fighting continued, however, until after nightfall, in a succession of attacks on the one side and retreats on the other. At length Averell withdrew from the field, which he had very gallantly and obstinately contested. Morgan lost in killed and wounded fifty or sixty. Averell's loss was somewhat more, besides nearly one hundred prisoners.

Notwithstanding these successes, the department; was by no means out of danger; for neither Crook nor Averell was materially weakened, and both continued to menace it. It soon became apparent that when supported by a movement already in progress from Kentucky they would return to the attack with greater determination. Burbridge and Hobson were reported en route for south-western Virginia, with all of the Federal forces in Kentucky available for active service. General Morgan had no hope of successfully resisting a combined onset of these various forces; but he was confident that he could avert the invasion of his own territory by himself assuming the offensive. His plan can be best explained in his own words. On the 31st of May, after commencing his march, he wrote General Samuel Cooper (Adjutant-General) :

While General Buckner was in command of this department he instructed me to strike a blow at the [424] enemy in Kentucky. As I was on the eve of executing this order, the rapid movement of the enemy from the Kanawha valley, in the direction of the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, made it necessary that I should remain to cooperate with the other forces for the defense of this section. . . . I have just received information that General Hobson left Mount Sterling on the 23d inst. with six regiments of cavalry (about 3000 strong), for Louisa, on the Sandy. This force he has collected from all the garrisons in middle and south-eastern Kentucky. At Louisa there is another force of about 2500 cavalry, under a colonel of a Michigan regiment recently sent to that vicinity. It is the reported design of General Hobson to unite with this latter force and cooperate with Generals Averell and Crook in another movement upon the salt-works and lead-mines of southwestern Virginia. This information has determined me to move at once into Kentucky, and thus distract the plans of the enemy by initiating a movement within his lines. My force will be about 2000 men.

Morgan accordingly entered Kentucky with Giltner's brigade, the mounted men of the old Morgan division, and 800 dismounted men from the various cavalry commands stationed in the department. It was impossible to carry artillery over the roads by which he expected to march. The column reached Pound Gap on the 2d of June, dislodged a small Federal garrison occupying it, and pushed through. More than 150 miles of the most rugged regions of the Kentucky mountains were then traversed in seven days. The dismounted men, whose numbers were constantly augmented as horses broke down from fatigue and lack of forage, kept pace with their comrades in the saddle. Giltner's brigade lost more than 200 horses. On the 7th of June detachments were sent forward to destroy the bridges on the Louisville and Lexington and Kentucky Central railroads, to prevent troops from being sent from Indiana and Ohio to the defense of central Kentucky. Night fell on the 8th while the column was still struggling in the gloomy and difficult wilderness through which wound the “rebel trace” ; but on the morning of the 9th they had reached the confines of the beautiful blue-grass country, and were not far from Mount Sterling. That day the town was attacked and captured, and 380 prisoners were taken. Leaving Giltner to destroy the captured stores and property, and provide for mounting the foot-men, Morgan promptly moved upon Lexington with the greater part of the mounted troops. That night the first disaster of the expedition befell him, and it was visited on the brave men who had made the long and painful march on foot.

The Federal movement from Kentucky was made as Morgan had anticipated. Burbridge, with the Fifth Division of the Twenty-third Corps, had proceeded some distance east of Louisa when Morgan passed through Pound Gap. The respective columns were distant from each other, but it was impossible to conceal all evidence of the Confederate advance, and Colonel John Mason Brown, commanding the Second Brigade of the Fifth Federal Division, became convinced of its character and urged Burbridge to return, and, if possible, intercept Morgan at Mount Sterling. His advice was taken and the Federal troops countermarched with extraordinary celerity. They reached Mount Sterling at midnight of the 9th, and at 3 P. M. of the 10th attacked the camp of the dismounted men, which was very inefficiently picketed. Colonel Brown's brigade, supported by Hanson's, rode over the picket detail and into the encampment. A desperate fight at close quarters ensued. Giltner was not near enough to render prompt assistance, and Colonel R. M. Martin, commanding the body assaulted, with great difficulty extricated it and effected a junction with Giltner after three or four hours of combat. Martin's loss was 14 officers and between two and three hundred men; he was twice wounded. The Federal loss was about two hundred. On the same morning, the 10th, General Morgan captured Lexington, and found in the Government stables there a sufficient number of horses to mount the survivors of the dismounted brigade, who, with Giltner's brigade, rejoined him that night. He immediately marched on Cynthiana, taking that place, after a brisk skirmish with the garrison, on the 11th. That afternoon, General Hobson, coming to the relief of the town, approached with 1500 cavalry. He was immediately attacked in front by Giltner, while Morgan, assailing him in the rear with Cassell's battalion, compelled his surrender. On the 12th Morgan was attacked at Cynthiana by Burbridge at the head of 5200 men. Morgan's effective strength was now reduced, by losses in battle and details to guard prisoners and destroy railroad track and bridges, to less than 1300, and his ammunition was nearly exhausted. After some hours of hard fighting he was defeated and forced to retreat, with a loss of fully one half of his remaining command in killed, wounded, and prisoners. He destroyed all of his captured stores and paroled the prisoners he had taken, and marching instantly back to Virginia, via Flemings-burg and West Liberty, and thence through the mountains, reached Abingdon, Va., June 20th. Disastrous as this raid was, in some respects, it accomplished its purpose, and delayed the apprehended incursion into south-western Virginia for several months, and until measures were concerted to frustrate it.2

From this period until the date of his death, September 4th, 1864, General Morgan was engaged in no military operation of consequence. He was killed at Greenville while advancing to attack Gillem at Bull's Gap in Tennessee, with the intention, if successful, of marching into middle Tennessee. He was succeeded in the command of the department by General John C. Breckinridge.

1 Generals Morgan and Duke and sixty-eight other officers of Morgan's command, captured in Ohio, at the close of July, 1863 [see Vol. III., p. 634], were confined in the State penitentiary at Columbus. On the night of November 27th, Morgan and Captains J. C. Bennett, L. D. Hockersmith, C. S. Magee, Ralph Sheldon, Samuel Taylor, and Thomas H. Hines escaped from their cells, having cut a way through the cell-walls into an air-chamber, and tunneled the outer foundation-walls of the prison at the end of the chamber. The tools used in cutting away the masonry and the earth were two small knives, and the work was accomplished in twenty days, of five hours labor each day. After leaving the prison the party separated. General Morgan and Captain Hines took the cars at Columbus for Cincinnati. At Cincinnati they crossed into Kentucky, and, passing southward through New Castle and Bardstown, reached the Cumberland, near Burkesville, on December 5th. Soon afterward they fell in with a detachment of Morgan's men that had not taken part in the Ohio raid, and on the 13th crossed the Tennessee near Kingston. After several adventures with scouting parties of Union cavalry, in one of which Captain Hines was retaken, Morgan reached the Confederate lines.--editors.

2 General S. G. Burbridge reported officially that the losses in his command during these operations amounted to 53 killed, 156 wounded, and 205 captured or missing = 414.--editors.

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