Sometimes a war story can be reduced to one seemingly endless fight.
Probably no aspect of Confederate cavalry raider John Hunt Morgan’s operations are more obscure than those from early 1863. Without a doubt, those operations represent some of Morgan’s most notable military achievements. John M. Porter remembered them, although they appear in his memoirs as one continuous fight.
When Confederate General Braxton Bragg withdrew the Army of Tennessee to the Highland Rim after the Battle of Murfreesboro in January 1863, Morgan’s division was given the task of screening the right flank of the army. Major General William Rosecrans’ Federal Army of the Cumberland occupied Nashville and Murfreesboro. Selecting a sector that included Liberty and Woodbury, Tenn., both on direct routes to Murfreesboro, Morgan kept his command in the foothills and brought elements forward to attack outlying Federal positions in the darkness. Between January 22 and the end of April, Morgan frequently seized Federal wagon trains—and lots of officers and soldiers—and killed, wounded and captured hundreds of others.
Each time Morgan struck a Federal position, Rosecrans ordered a retaliatory strike. Porter recounts the savagery of the fighting in January and March 1863 along the Murfreesboro Pike from Milton to Auburn to Prosperity, and along the Lebanon Pike to Liberty and Snow Hill.
Vividly I do call to mind the country in which we spent the Winter and Spring of 1863 in the most exciting and arduous duties. Every day was one of excitement and more or less danger. To write all that we did or all we saw of army life during this time would be merely a repetition of many things already written. It is enough to say that it was hard service, and I will only give the main items of interest, including an account of the most severe fights with the enemy.
When we first came to Liberty, Tennessee, it was to drive from the vicinity a body of Federal cavalry, which we did after a skirmish. Liberty is situated about half a mile from the intersection of the turnpike from Murfreesboro and the turnpike from Lebanon. We moved out of Liberty to meet the enemy and had a brisk fight. The object of the enemy was to gain our rear. When we withdrew to Liberty, we took up positions just beyond the town, across the creek. Here, they again advanced upon us and we had a severe battle in which we were forced to fall still farther back in the direction of Snow Hill.
During the retreat, for half a mile, we were terribly shelled by the artillery of the enemy. They poured a raking fire at us. We formed a line at the base of Snow Hill and again waited their approach. Our company was dismounted and sent to the left of the road from Liberty to Snow Hill. From our position we had a fine fire at the enemy as they advanced up the valley, and we held our position, driving them from our immediate front till finally it became evident that they could not advance and drive us from our position.
They made preparations to send a large force around us, one or two miles, and obtain possession of the road in our rear, and thus force us out in the hill country towards Carthage. To avoid this, we withdrew to the summit of Snow Hill just in time to engage the enemy and drive them from the road in great confusion. This repulse caused them to waver along their entire line, and soon they were in full retreat towards Murfreesboro. By this time, darkness came on and we camped on the field. Our loss was considerable in wounded and killed. The enemy lost, but how heavily, we could not learn.
This single narrative of an action at Snow Hill will serve for a dozen similar ones at the same place during the Winter and Spring of 1863. Every inch of the ground was fought over. Some times they came in the darkness, some times during the day time. They never found us unprepared. It may be well supposed that our duty was onerous in the extreme, as well as dangerous.
While here we drew from the quartermasters’ stores new uniforms, which were needed and gladly received by the men, our men were paid a paltry sum in money for their services. Of course, it was gladly received. Those who think the Southern soldier fought for pay does not know of what he speaks. The pay was the least motive; indeed, it was no motive at all. That was generally true of all branches of the service.
The arm to which we belonged, the cavalry, perhaps paid less attention to pay, and cared less for pay, than any other branch of the army. A good horse was the only thing desired, and a good horse was generally possessed by each one. He had no need of money, like a poor infantry soldier who was confined to his camp and obliged to eat what was in hand. He could use money in buying things from sutlers and others. A horseman could gallop around till he found a place where he could get a “square meal” as we called it. There were many advantages which the cavalry had over the infantry arm of the service, not the least of which was that, while the infantry for weeks and months were often confined to camp—by reason of which diseases were contracted—the cavalry were almost continually on the wing, so to speak, and, owing to their activity and exercise, they were generally more healthy, even if their service was harder.
The hardest and most severe fight we had with the enemy during the time we were at Liberty occurred at a little village called Milton on the Murfreesboro Road, some ten miles or more from our encampment, about last of March or first of April 1863. The enemy advanced from Murfreesboro in a large force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and an engagement took place in and about Liberty. The fight began in earnest. The enemy was somewhat worsted, and at nightfall began their retreat back towards Murfreesboro.
During the night the remainder of our full division came up. General Morgan, in person, ordered an advance for the purpose of overtaking the enemy and making battle. The pursuit was vigorous and spirited, and early in the forenoon we came up with the rear of the enemy and at once the fight began. The enemy formed its line on the crest of a gentle hill, thickly studded with cedar and made rugged by projecting limestone rock which rose in crags all over the ground. A battery of artillery was planted immediately on the left side of the pike in a position to rake our line as it advanced.
The Tenth Kentucky Cavalry and the Ninth Tennessee Cavalry were ordered to charge on horseback and capture the artillery if possible, while, at the same time, the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry, our regiment, was ordered to dismount and advance on foot on the right of the road through the open fields, and drive the enemy from their position on the crest of the hill in the cedars. This was a difficult and serious undertaking, for the enemy had great protection, while we were exposed to their destructive fire.
During the day, Captain [Thomas] Hines was in command of the regiment, which left the command of the company to me. The regiment, as ordered, charged across the open space and entered the cedar woods only to find the enemy concealed thick as autumn leaves in the brake. We were met with a terrible fire, and a short, hotly-waged contest for half-an-hour took place, during which time our line steadily advanced, driving the enemy before us and capturing those who could not get away.
During this time the action was warm all along our lines and resulted in the enemy being driven from their positions. Just when victory was in our grasp, large enemy reinforcements came up, the retreating Federals were rallied and we in turn were driven slowly back. Our ammunition at this time failing, we were withdrawn, and the enemy also at the same time withdrew and retired to Murfreesboro. After gathering up the dead and wounded, we went back to Liberty.
This was a hard-fought field, and I dare say every man of Morgan’s command who took part in that battle at Milton will remember it as long as he lives. Our loss as well as that of the enemy was severe. Several valuable officers were killed. Captain R.T. Riggen of our regiment was killed as we entered the cedar brake, and several others here fell to rise no more. It is astonishing that more were not killed when I consider the disadvantages under which we labored.
Just as our company was ordered into line preparatory to dismounting, a cannon shot from the enemy’s line whizzed through the line, but fortunately did no harm. I distinctly saw it as it was coming, strange as it may seem, and, before I had time to speak, it struck a stump at my horse’s neck and shivered it into a thousand pieces. It could not have missed my horse more than a foot. This was a narrow escape from a devastating injury.
Many incidents connected with this battle will have to remain untold in these pages. The men fought gallantly and received praise from our general, who was everywhere on the field. This day’s doings taught the enemy that they could not venture out from Murfreesboro without having to encounter Morgan. After this, they always came in large bodies and cautiously felt their way. Indeed, after a time, they became afraid to venture far from the main body of their army. This one single account will suffice, for all our operations were of a similar nature to the foregoing, and it is of no use to relate them all.
Many scouting parties, of from fifteen to a hundred men, were sent out into the enemy’s lines, and they were always successful. One of these parties, numbering some fifty men or more, advanced to the turnpike leading from Nashville to Murfreesboro, inside the enemy’s line, and, securing a position in close proximity to the road, remained for several hours and succeeded in capturing a considerable number of the enemy who were traveling along the pike. As they were captured, they would be sent off to the spot where the horses and guards were, and there they were kept till the party was ready to move away.
Among the number thus made a prisoner was Vincent S. Hay, Esq., whom I knew well before the war and in whose office I had read law. He had espoused the side of the Union, as it was called, and was at the time of his capture acting as division quartermaster for some division of Rosecrans’s army. Being placed in my care, I treated him with all the kindness I could and loaned him some two or three hundred dollars, Confederate money, which, at that time, was worth about eighty cents, perhaps, to the dollar. He was sent on to Chattanooga and finally to Atlanta, where he took sick and died, I have no doubt, from exposure. He was a good man, but, in my opinion, controlled and guided too much by other persons. I pay this tribute to him; he was sincere in his convictions and a man of the very highest honesty and integrity, and although he was sternly and unalterably for the Union, I give him credit for his pure motives and aims. In this connection I will add that his administrator paid the amount due me for money loaned him. He was born and raised in Butler County, only two or three miles from where my father lived, and I had known him from my infancy. He was about fifty years old, I presume, at his death. After the war, his remains were removed to Butler County and re-interred in his family burying ground on the old Hay place, now known as the Bumpas farm, which belonged to my father at his day of death.
Upon another occasion Colonel [William Prescott] Breckinridge selected about one hundred men from his brigade for the purpose of penetrating the lines of the enemy and capturing some couriers from Nashville to Murfreesboro with important dispatches. Most were chosen from our regiment, and some ten or more from our company, Captain Hines and myself and Lieutenant Edward L. Hines also being in the party.
We proceeded by way of Lebanon and on in the direction of Laverne. In order to reach the pike leading from Nashville to Murfreesboro, at the point which we wished to strike, it was necessary to cross Stone’s River, which was much swollen, owing to late rains, and was still rising. After nightfall, we crossed and were then in the enemy’s lines. I was put at the head of the advance guard, a very dangerous and responsible position on such an occasion. I was furnished with a guide who was familiar with the country, and, after moving cautiously for some two or three hours with frequent halts and reconnaissances, we came to the pike on which the enemy was almost continually passing.
The night was dark and the roads muddy. There was a house about four hundred yards up the pike which was used as a picket stand and as a relay place for couriers. Other stands were scattered at intervals of a mile in both directions.
I was ordered to make a rapid circuit with the advance guard and take a position three hundred or four hundred yards south of the house, so as to intercept the Yankees if they should attempt to escape by flight. I had scarcely reached my position and formed in line before our men on the other side of the house began the attack. As was expected, one or two enemy troopers mounted their horses and attempted to escape, but ran into our arms before they knew what had been done. After a brisk skirmish we captured the entire party, and, as a matter of course, had to move rapidly to avoid being captured ourselves.
The firing alarmed a regiment or two of cavalry in close proximity, and they were soon in close pursuit. I was not in the rear with my men, and I found it anything but pleasant under the circumstances. The night was dark, a turgid and angry river must be crossed, and the enemy was close on us. Our march was very rapid, and fortunately we succeeded in crossing the river safely and reached the other side as the enemy came to the river bank. By this time it was near daylight, and we traveled an hour or so and camped for the purpose of getting something to eat. The enemy did not pursue us further. I do not think there had ever been any published account of this scout, but it was nevertheless one of those most daring and successful ones of the war.
Porter was captured by Federal troops while on a scouting mission in Kentucky in the summer of 1863, and spent 19 months imprisoned at Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. After the war, he returned to Kentucky and practiced law.
Adapted from One of Morgan’s Men: Memoirs of Lieutenant John M. Porter of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry edited by Kent Masterson Brown (University Press of Kentucky, 2011)
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.