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Morgan's Last Battle - December '96 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1996 
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MORGAN'SLAST BATTLE

"THE YANKEES WILL NEVER TAKE ME A PRISONER AGAIN,"
VOWED CONFEDERATE GENERAL JOHN HUNT MORGAN

BY WILLIAM J. STIER

There was a knock on the bedroom door, and a voice from the hallway announced that breakfast was ready. Still lying in bed, Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan turned to the window. "It looks so cloudy and misty," he said. "I think I'll wait awhile, Mrs. Williams." Catharine Williams returned to the kitchen to tell her servants to delay serving the meal. Morgan remained in bed, unaware of any danger.

The commander of the legendary "Morgan's Raiders," General Morgan had arrived at the Williams mansion in Greeneville, Tennessee, the previous night. He and his staff filled the bedrooms on the third floor, while their escort and guard stayed in nearby stables. Morgan's chestnut sorrel, "Sir Oliver," and the horses of his staff officers were quartered in the Williams stables.

Catharine Williams, a distant relative of Morgan's wife, was the widow of Dr. Alexander Williams, and the daughter of William Dickson, Greeneville's first postmaster. Wishing to build a magnificent home for his only child, Dickson had brought two craftsmen from Ireland to design and build the house. In 1821, after six years of construction, it was completed. Among its many features were double chimneys at each end of the house, massive walls, and large rooms with high ceilings. An ornate circular staircase with walnut railing climbed the full three stories. The parlor took up one whole side of the main floor. On the other were a library and dining rooms. There were two ells, one of which housed a music room and nursery, and the other of which housed a small dining room and kitchen with servants' quarters above and below.

The house and grounds occupied the entire block bounded by Main, Church, Irish, and Depot Streets. Hundreds of varieties of flowers and shrubs filled the formal gardens. Walkways bordered by boxwood hedges led from Main Street to the front of the garden, known as "Green Lot." Small vineyards, approximately 100 feet long and with meandering foliage, bordered the Depot Street side, and a high, white wooden fence surrounded much of the lot. To the west, and extending southward, were the stables and small outbuildings. There was an icehouse at one corner and a row of servants' dwellings between it and the mansion. Off the property's southern corner stood Saint James Episcopal Church, a small frame building perched atop three-foot-high brick pillars. The Fry Hotel, an old store building, the Mason House, and another hotel faced Church Street.

When Morgan arrived in Greeneville on Saturday night, September 3, 1864, he had deployed his cavalry division of 1,600 troopers in a semi-circular formation on the outskirts of town. Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, commanding the Federal forces at nearby Bulls Gap, soon heard of Morgan's presence in the town and marched his troops all night through a heavy thunderstorm, planning to attack Morgan's headquarters at the Williams mansion at dawn.

The Federals emerged through a gap in Morgan's lines, and at approximately 5:10 a.m., just 25 minutes after Morgan had postponed his breakfast, Captain Christopher C. Wilcox charged his Company G of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry down Main Street. He and his men surrounded the Williams property as Captain Samuel E. Northington and his Company E of the same regiment seized the stables.

Nearly 50 Confederates were stationed in the town, asleep on porches and in doorways, at the time of the assault. The streets were congested with Confederate cavalry horses tethered to fences along the sidewalk. The startled Rebels grabbed their guns and opened fire. Some of them leaped atop their horses and galloped away bareback, shouting, "Yankees! Yankees! Look out for the Yankees!"

Morgan, alerted by the gunfire, sprang from his bed and quickly pulled on a pair of dark blue Federal cavalry trousers. Still wearing his white muslin nightshirt with alternating rows of tiny navy and pale blue diamond patterns, he snatched up his belt and holsters, threw them over his shoulder, and ran out into the hallway. He bounded down the spiral stairs in his parlor slippers and was fastening his breeches when Mrs. Williams's son, Major William D. Williams, yelled to him: "For God's sake, General, get out of here, the town is full of Yankees."

"Where are they?" Morgan asked urgently.

"Everywhere," said Mrs. Williams.

"The Yankees will never take me a prisoner again," Morgan remarked as he darted for the back door. Then he paused, gave his hostess a military salute, and said with a smile, "Goodbye Mrs. Williams, I am alright now."

Morgan tossed aside his belt and holsters, grasped a Colt revolver in each hand, and dashed through the dense swirling fog. Morgan and his quartermaster, Major C.W. Gassett, ran through the garden toward the stables to retrieve their horses. But the approach of Federal troops compelled the Rebel officers to return through the garden and hide in the Williams's shrubbery and grape arbors–until a shower of bullets forced them to flee again.

Morgan and several of his staff officers scrambled beneath Saint James Episcopal Church. Major C. Albert Withers, Morgan's adjutant general and the last officer to leave the mansion, crawled through the wet flowers and found Morgan and his men crouching behind the brick pillars. Morgan ordered Withers to return to the house, go to a top-floor window, and attempt to signal Captain M. Jerome Clark and his battery.

Braving the gauntlet of fire again, Withers reached the building as the few surviving Rebel sentinels were shooting at Federals from ground floor windows. He grabbed a red doily from the dining room table, climbed the circular stairs, and waved the flag furiously out one of the windows. Realizing his effort was in vain, he scanned the streets for an avenue of escape and returned to the first floor.

Morgan was still under the church with Gassett, Captain James T. Rogers, acting assistant adjutant and inspector general, and L. Claude Johnson, staff clerk, awaiting the return of Withers. But the Federals swarmed through the Williams garden and poured a heavy fire at point-blank range into the shrubbery. Rogers, who had left his revolvers inside the mansion, wrote of how Morgan responded to the predicament: "He handed me one of his pistols and said that he wished me to assist him in making his escape. I told him it was almost useless as we were entirely surrounded. He replied, saying that we must do it if possible."

Withers ran down the stone steps of the Williams house and passed through a fusillade of bullets unscathed. He plunged into the vines and reported his observations to Morgan, who was still under the church. Withers suggested that they barricade themselves in the mansion until rescuers arrived. "It is useless," Morgan replied. "They have sworn never to take me a prisoner."

Morgan and his staff officers were contemplating their dilemma when they heard a heavy splintering of wood above their heads. Federal soldiers were battering down the church door with their musket butts. "Follow me," Morgan told his men, and then dashed across the pathway into the vineyard. He and his comrades hid behind the thick grape leaves and the Federal soldiers passed them by.

As the Confederate officers lay motionless, Lieutenant Xenophon Hawkins and 25 men of the 2d Battalion–a remnant of the 2d Kentucky Cavalry, Morgan's original regiment–galloped into Greeneville in an attempt to rescue Morgan. The charge forced the Federal soldiers to scatter in all directions. Major Gassett found a stray horse and rode out of town. Lieutenant Benjamin K. Schaffer, who had gone into Greeneville that morning for brandy rations, was also able to escape.

Captain Henry B. Clay, assistant adjutant general, was clutching Morgan's jacket when he was captured near the servants' houses. He had been trying to hide in a hole where some potatoes were buried. Major Williams, familiar with the premises, found a hiding place under the family smokehouse and avoided apprehension.

Morgan was hiding behind a small tangle of grapevines when Mrs. David Fry, looking down from her second story window, discovered him. She and several other women pointed and yelled: "There goes Morgan. That's him. That's Morgan over there in the vineyard."

Withers described Morgan's efforts to escape: "All movements were effected by almost crawling and taking advantage of each bush, as the enemy were not over twenty yards from us; and crouching down among the vines, L.C. Johnson and myself again urged him to go up to the house. This he refused…."

Perceiving the desperate situation, Morgan finally acquiesced to his officers' entreaties. He ordered each one "to make his way separately to the house" to rally what men of the escort they could locate and to barricade the doors of the house "until the boys come up, as they surely will do when they hear the firing." In parting he shook Withers's hand and remarked, "You will never see me again." The men began to disperse quietly through the grapevines.

Captain Rogers, seated beside Morgan, wrote, "We were concealed in a clump of bushes, when a soldier rode up to the fence, wearing a brown jeans jacket. We naturally supposing him a Confederate soldier, came out of the bushes, General Morgan stepping at the same time through the fence. The soldier demanded a surrender, much to our surprise."

Morgan and Rogers had by that time dropped their revolvers. Morgan realized that any further resistance on his part would be futile and attempted to surrender. "Captain Wilcox of the Federal Army, with some other soldiers rode up," Rogers wrote. "I, with Mr. Johnson hastened toward him, looking back in the direction of General Morgan, hearing cries, 'kill him!' 'kill him!' from every quarter except Captain Wilcox…."

"I had not crawled over ten feet when I heard the General call out: 'Don't shoot; I surrender!'" Withers wrote. "Stopping immediately, I looked around and upon the outside of the fence almost over the General who had risen and was holding up his hands sat a Yankee with gun presented who replied: 'Surrender and be G-d d—-d. I know you.'"

"Before I reached Captain Wilcox," Rogers wrote, "I saw General Morgan throw up his hands, exclaiming: 'Oh God!'"

Morgan, unarmed, was defenseless and desperately pleading for his life when Private Andrew J. Campbell of Company G of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry raised his carbine, aimed, and fired. "The General fell forward on his face," Withers wrote. "As his distance was only twenty feet the shot must have caused instant death which was subsequently proved."

The bullet struck Morgan squarely in his left breast, turned downward, passed through his heart, and exited through his left shoulder blade. He crashed down on a cluster of gooseberry bushes and gradually slipped to the ground. "The man began shouting, 'I've killed the d–d horse thief,'" Withers wrote of the assailant. "His cries caused a number of others to ride up, and they soon had the fence torn down."

Wilcox rode up to the white picket fence as the Union soldiers were ripping apart the planks. Suspecting from Morgan's clothing that he was an officer, Wilcox turned to Captain Clay and asked him to identify the body. Clay fell to his knees beside Morgan, crying: "You have just killed the best man in the Southern Confederacy."

"Who is it?" Wilcox asked.

"It is General Morgan," Clay responded.

Wilcox turned to the Union soldiers around him. "Load him on Private Campbell's horse, boys," he ordered.

"No," Clay yelled in protest of the barbaric treatment of the corpse, "take him in the Williams' house."

"My orders are to take him out, dead or alive," Wilcox replied, "and as he is dead, I have no other way to take him."

Withers described the frenzied behavior of the Federals: "Rushing in, they picked up the body of the General, and the slayer had the body thrown across the saddle in front of him and galloped off, shouting as he went." Corporal J. G. Burchfield of Company G of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry recalled, "I assisted my comrades to place the body on the horse in front of Campbell, and then took my place in the rear guard, where I remained until we reached the advancing troops…."

Rogers remembered encountering Morgan's body: "I saw no more of him until he was brought to the street dead. I am sure that Johnson and myself were both fired on after we surrendered…."

Campbell galloped down the streets of the town with Morgan's body draped over his saddle, the upper torso hanging over the right side of the horse. "I've killed the Kentucky horse thief," he shouted.

James D. McGaughey, who lived with his parents at the southwest corner of Irish and Summer Streets, wrote: "This detail of Federal soldiers having accomplished what they wanted to, fell back to the main, and in doing so they passed my father's house, and as I, with my mother and brother, Will, were standing in the front room looking out of the window, we saw Morgan, his head and body being toward the house, I could see from the blood on his night shirt where the fatal bullet had struck. My mother almost fainted at the sight, but, as the firing was getting rapid and dangerous, I assisted her to the cellar, where we remained till the entire fight had ended."

McGaughey wrote also that when Morgan's body was being carried from the town, it "was held on the front of the saddle by the rider." Lieutenant Colonel John B. Brownlow of the Federal 9th Tennessee Cavalry said, "I had the pleasure of seeing the lifeless carcass of their fallen chief…with his body thrown on the neck of his horse, his head and face covered with blood. I pointed the men of the 9th to the corpse, assuring them it was the veritable John Morgan. They made the welkin ring with shouts of applause."

Campbell, after parading Morgan's body through Greeneville, rode to General Gillem's headquarters on the outskirts of town. He presented the corpse to the Federal officers and then flung it from his saddle into a rain-swollen ditch, observing: "There he is, like a hog."

Undetected by the mob, Withers, knowing all was lost, made his way back to the Williams house and was captured in the hall. Federal soldiers seated him upon a horse without a bridle or saddle and led him down the road to Bulls Gap. "On the outskirts of the town," he wrote, "we approached a crowd shouting and dancing around an object lying in a ditch by the roadside. They called to the Sergeant, 'Bring that d—-d rebel over here; we want to show him something.' Making me dismount, I was led to that 'object' and wiping the mud and blood out of his face with my shirt sleeves, I recognized, what I anticipated, the features of my General."

Corporal Burchfield viewed Morgan's body immediately after the murder. His description of the general's clothing read, "Blue pants, white shirt with blue round dots, a pair of parlor slippers, a small masonic pin in shirt front, no hat." Brownlow and an S.M. Arnell also described Morgan's clothing: "He had on a pair of blue Federal Cavalry pants and a dotted muslin shirt, no coat or vest, and was without a hat."

Sergeant R. Seth Ingram of Company L of the 10th Michigan Cavalry was also present at the scene and recorded his observations: "We killed John H Morgan the old original John of Kentucky…. He was a mighty man physically broad chested heavy limbed and about 5 feet 9."

Morgan actually stood six feet tall and did have broad, square shoulders. He had a muscular physique and weighed approximately 185 pounds, yet remained exceedingly graceful in his mannerisms. His eyes were grayish-blue, and his hair, mustache and beard were sandy-colored. Following an 1863 escape from the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he was held as a prisoner of war, Morgan was reported to have dyed his mustache and goatee black and his hair a dark shade of auburn. In order to disguise his appearance, he alternately changed the styling of his beard. It is uncertain what color Morgan's hair, mustache, and beard were at the time of his death.

Major Withers witnessed the Union soldiers desecrating Morgan's remains. The body, partially submerged in the muddy ditch water, had been stripped and was covered only by undershorts. Withers wrote that Morgan's clothing was "then being torn up into small pieces as souvenirs of the 'Dead Lion.'"

"I will send you a piece of John Morgans shirt with some of his hearts blood on it I cut it off myself and I know what it is," wrote Sergeant Ingram in a letter to his father dated September 12. He included the fragment, approximately two inches square, when he mailed the letter.

Withers, grief stricken and horrified at the savage indignity shown Morgan's body begged to be taken to see General Gillem. Returning to the Williams mansion, Withers and his escort found Gillem standing on the back porch with his officers. Withers protested to the general that Federal soldiers were treating Morgan's body like that of a dog. "Ay Sir," Gillem shouted back, "and it shall lie there and rot like a dog!"

Withers was then taken to an old dismantled mill, where other members of Morgan's staff and escort were being held under guard. Lieutenant Colonel Brownlow later summoned Withers and gave him permission to retrieve Morgan's body. Withers and Rogers, along with a Union escort of 20 men, went back to the roadside to where Morgan's body lay. "The same drunken crowd was still howling around it," Withers wrote, "and the Lieutenant had to threaten force before the escort could move the body."

The corpse was transported in an ambulance to the Williams house, taken into the porch room, and placed on a plank supported by two barrels. Withers and Rogers, with the assistance of one of the Williams's servants, washed the body. They searched Morgan's bedroom but found that a Lieutenant Mort of Company F, 9th Tennessee Cavalry, had already confiscated the general's personal effects, which included his coat, vest, pipe, and private papers. They dressed the corpse in some of their own clothes.

Withers described the preparation of Morgan's body: "The wound was full in the breast, and seemed to have glanced on the breast-bone, passing through the heart and coming out under the left arm. The head was much bruised and the skin broken in several places upon the face and temples, seeming a verification of the statement that the body was thrown over a horse, with the head dangling against the stirrups…. Cutting off a lock of the General's hair, I gave it to Mrs. Williams to send to Mrs. Morgan at her first opportunity."

Morgan's body was laid out on Lucy Williams's bed. Brownlow visited the mansion to view "the features of the great raider."

"Morgan was handsomely laid out," he wrote. "He was a very fine looking man. Tall, weighing 190 or 200 lbs, with no surplus flesh but splendid muscle. He had a splendid head."

Later in the day, the Greeneville undertaker embalmed the body. Upon application from Captain Clay, Brownlow returned Morgan's coat and vest so they could clothe the body for burial. But he appropriated Morgan's pipe and razor as trophies. "It is a large wooden pipe, with a splendid plaster of paris picture of Morgan in it," he wrote of the items. "Mrs. William's Cook says she saw Morgan smoking with the pipe I have."

Morgan's Colt revolvers were confiscated by the Union force also. Corporal Burchfield was at the scene of the murder and retrieved the pistols from the spot where Morgan and Rogers had dropped them. "One of these I gave to Col. Miller and the other was given to Gen. A. C. Gillem," Burchfield wrote.

There have been various accounts as to whether Morgan discharged his revolvers while fleeing from the Williams mansion. Considering that he was attempting to conceal himself, it is doubtful that he would risk drawing attention to his whereabouts by firing a gun. But he certainly would have shot at the Federals had he been given the opportunity.

Morgan's staff officers were transported in an ambulance to Bulls Gap, escorted by Sergeant Ingram and seven men. "They all took the death of their General very hard but none took it as hard as Capt Clay," wrote Ingram. "They told me if they were ever exchanged and I fell into their hands I would be treated like a gentleman as I had treated them."

The following morning, September 5, Captain John J. McAfee of the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, four of his men, and several other troops returned to Greeneville under a flag of truce to retrieve Morgan's remains. Morgan's body, freshly appareled with the coat and vest and some garments from Withers and Rogers, had been placed in the Williams mansion parlor for viewing. Captain McAfee, while awaiting the completion of a walnut coffin, found the parlor filled with women "very deeply affected and seeming without distinction to deplore his fall."

McAfee and the escort took the body by horse-drawn wagon to Jonesboro. "When we had started down the street with the body a lady called to me and gave me a nice robe to put over the coffin," reported trooper T.J. Childress. On September 6, at 4:00 p.m., a Doctor Cameron officiated at the funeral at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church. From Jonesboro, the body was transported by railroad to Abingdon, Virginia, and placed in an above-ground vault at Sinking Springs Cemetery. It was moved later to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, and then to Lexington Cemetery in his hometown, Lexington, Kentucky.

No one was ever tried or punished for Morgan's death. No outcry for justice rose from the citizens of the victorious North, who had learned to fear Morgan's name in the aftermath of his bold raids through Ohio and Indiana. But long after the war had ended, the late Morgan's friends and former comrades in arms spoke bitterly of his shooting, which they viewed as a clear breach of established military ethics.

"That General Morgan was murdered there is not the shadow of doubt," Major Williams wrote. "The fact that only one ball struck him, and that at point blank range, the powder burning his body, is, of itself, proof sufficient…."

To them, perhaps it was less important how Morgan had died, than that a seemingly unstoppable source of anxiety and fear had finally been stopped.


William J. Stier is a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Florida.



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