Articles & Stories

John Hunt Morgan's L&N

Raid, Christmas 1862

L&N Magazine - 1932

Christmas night, 1862, a chilly, penetrating wind swept across the hills of old Kentucky; an occasional flurry of snow gave promise of more severe weather yet to follow. The inhabitants of the little village of Upton, Hardin County, Kentucky, some 60 miles south of Louisville on the L&N Railroad, had brought in water and food for the night, put out the cats, and retired as usual. Only the guard of Union troopers down near the railroad tracks remained awake; they were thinking of other Christmas nights far away to the north on the banks of the Wabash, for most of them were Indiana men. Little did anyone in Upton know of the strange scene which was taking place in the densely wooded hills about five miles to the southeast.
There, sheltered by dense timber and hills from the chilly December blasts, General John H. Morgan, that fearless, hard-riding raider of the Confederacy, and his men were celebrating Christmas. Three days prior to this time, they had left Alexandria, Tennessee, their object being the destruction of the L&N Railroad, which was the chief means of supply between Union Headquarters in Louisville and General Rosecrans' forces in northern Tennessee.
Morgan's was a picked force. No braver men ever straddled horses. Most of them were young men ranging from 18 to 35 years of age. Morgan himself, although a brigadier general, was only 37 years of age and an experienced veteran of the Mexican War. Upon the outbreak of hostilities, he had given up prosperous business in Lexington to raise a troop of cavalry which he proffered to the Southern cause. In an incredibly short time, his daring exploits caused him to become known as one of the leading cavalry men of the age. Moreover, there was a certain romance attached to service in his legion.
Before daylight, long brisk, swinging trots through the rosy hours of daybreak, scarcely halting to breathe their animals and adjust equipment, the miles fell behind. Then at night, far from the morning's starting point, the dusty, yelling troopers would fall upon the unsuspecting Union forces. Although in the majority of cases outnumbered, Morgan counted upon this element of surprise and fury of attack to equalize the discrepancy in numbers. Yelling, shouting, and shooting like wild men, they would swirl through bivouacs and camps. Then, while calls for reinforcements were being broadcast from the Union lines, Morgan and his men would gather in prisoners, supplies, and equipment sorely needed by the Confederates and silently vanish into the night. Daybreak of the next morning would find them miles away and safe from pursuit.
Tireless and fearless himself, a daring horseman and a splendid shot, Morgan demanded the same qualifications in all his recruits. His men were all well-mounted, and at home on horseback. Days and nights in the saddle without food or sleep and the ever-present chance of combat soon developed a seasoned and hardened corps of veterans equal to any task with which they might be confronted. Morgan had confidence in his men; they worshipped him and placed absolute and implicit trust in his leadership and judgment. Such a combination was invincible.
With 3,900 men, 400 of whom were unarmed to start with, and with two light batteries of field artillery, Morgan left Alexandria on December 22, 1862. With the exception of the artillery, he had nothing on wheels. Each man started with three days cooked rations, and thereafter depended upon the country traversed for sustenance. The 400 unarmed men were to do duty as horse holders until arms could be captured from the Union forces for them. (Such implicit faith!) The balance of the men were nondescriptly armed. A few had cavalry carbines, some carried double-barreled shotguns, but the majority had long-barreled Enfield, Austrian, or Belgian rifles. Most of the men carried one or two Colt's army pistols, the majority of them bore the markings of the U. S. Government, because they had been captured from the Union forces. Outside of the officers, very few men carried the saber.
Each man carried his own ammunition, two extra horseshoes, 12 nails, one blanket in addition to his saddle blanket, and some men were fortunate enough to possess oilskins or overcoats, but the majority depended upon garments improvised from carpets and similar material. They were a motley crew insofar as uniformed appearance was concerned but incomparable as concerned discipline, morale, and esprit.
Morgan's advance guard entered Glasgow, Barren County, Kentucky, at dusk on Christmas Eve. Several troops of the Second Michigan Cavalry which had been out on a foraging expedition rode into the public square just as Morgan's men entered from the south. Without a moment's hesitation and with a whoop and a yell, Morgan's men charged. In the brisk fight which followed, the Federal troops were defeated leaving behind one dead and two wounded. Twenty prisoners were captured, and incidentally numerous Christmas turkeys, which the foragers carried tied to their saddles.
Continuing north from Glasgow on Christmas Day, the advance guard encountered the Union troops drawn up for battle about ten miles north of Glasgow. The commander of the advance guard dismounted his men to fight on foot and attacked. However, the Federals had concealed a company of infantry in ambush, and no sooner had the attack begun than the Confederates were met with a murderous fire from the flank. The lead horses and holders stampeded, leaving the attacking force alone in the presence of a vastly superior number. Dismayed and temporarily disorganized by this surprise attack, the Confederates retired across the field to the protection of an oak thicket 100 or 200 yards away. The timely arrival of the main body and a prompt charge by them routed the Federals. The march was resumed.
Later in the day, Morgan fell upon and captured a large and richly laden sutler's train. Indeed Santa Claus was good to these men so far from home and traveling on Christmas Day. The march was continued across the Green River and through Hammondville. At dusk a halt was ordered between Hammondville and Upton. Here, protected from surprise by far flung sentry squads, unfriendly elements, and spying eyes by dense woods and hills, Morgan's men celebrated Christmas. A myriad of carefully screened fires were lighted, the luxuries from the hapless sutler's store were distributed. Turkeys captured from the Second Michigan the day before were broiled and augmented the usual scanty fare from saddlebags. Tired as they were from a hard day's riding and fighting, some of the men attempted to sing a few of the old Christmas songs. Gradually, it spread from fire to fire and threatened to become a mighty chorus when the officer of the day put a stop to it for fear the bivouac would be betrayed to the Federals who would surely be scouring the country now in search of the illusive "will-o-the-wisp," Morgan. The little town of Upton and its guards only five miles away remained in blissful ignorance and oblivion to the impending threat at its doors. The sentries over that strategical railroad maintained their watch, while cats excluded from the warmth of homes for the night sought shelter in friendly haylofts.
Bright and early the next morning (the 26th) a swirling avalanche of horsemen descended upon the unsuspecting town of Upton. Its garrison was taken completely by surprise and captured, for rumor had it that Morgan was heading for Bardstown to the north and east. Here, General Morgan had his little joke at the expense of the Union commander at Louisville, General Boyle. Attached to his headquarters was a quick-witted, young telegraph operator named Ellsworth, admiringly known to his comrades as "Lightning." Taking possession of the telegraph office, "Lightning" took over the key, listened to dispatches from Louisville to Nashville awhile; then, copying the sending style of its erstwhile operator (who stood by under guard), Lightning transmitted several messages dictated by General Morgan to General Boyle in Louisville, messages making inquiries concerning the disposition of the Federal forces in the vicinity (signing himself of course as one of the Federal commanders along the line). Numerous messages were likewise sent to other commanders, and some very misleading information as to the whereabouts and strength of Morgan's command was disseminated. General Boyle's office was thrown into turmoil as a result. That Morgan's presence along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was absolutely unknown to the authorities in Louisville was evinced by the fact that while General Morgan and "Lightning" were amusing themselves at the telegraph office, a train laden with artillery and other supplies came into sight from the north. The engineer, however, saw the danger in time to reverse his engine and escape.
Moving on, the stockade and garrison at the bridge over Bacon Creek were attacked and captured. Later in the afternoon, the stockade and garrison at Nolin suffered the same fate. These stockades were a part of the general scheme for the protection of the L&N Railroad. Supplies for the depot at Nashville were mainly received by rail from Louisville (185 miles away). "The success of the Southern campaigns depended entirely upon holding this line with such tenacity that no serious break could be made in it by cavalry raids, or by the disaffected population of the district through which it passed. The destruction of a single important bridge would have made matters in front look very serious. The destruction of a number of bridges would have compelled the army to retrace its steps." (Col. W. E. Merrill's Report of Engineering Activities, Army of the Cumberland). Stockades built of heavy logs and banked with earth were therefore erected at each and every railroad bridge. Some of the stockades were built with towers or second stories to afford an elevated point of observation from which to observe the approach of raiders. Such were the stockades at Bacon Creek and Nolin. Both fell before the determined assault of Morgan's men that day.
The night of December 26th, Morgan bivouacked a few miles south of Elizabethtown. Elizabethtown was strongly garrisoned by a regiment of Illinois troops, 652 men strong. A number of brick warehouses in the vicinity of the railroad station had been loopholed and strengthened for defense. In the early hours of the morning, Morgan threw a cordon of men about the town. His artillery was placed upon a commanding height and opened fire early in the morning. Seeing the futility of defense, the entire garrison surrendered leaving Morgan free to march onto Muldraugh's Hill, where he burned the two long trestles of the Louisville and Nashville line. To effect this bit of destruction, it was first necessary to reduce two strong stockades determinedly defended by 700 Indiana troops.
After burning the trestles on the 28th, Morgan moved to the Rolling Fork River. The greater portion of his command crossed that night and moved on towards Bardstown. Five hundred men and some artillery, under command of Col. Basil Duke, were dispatched to destroy the stockade and bridge over the Rolling Fork. In the midst of the engagement, a force of over 3,000 Federals under command of Colonel Harlan (later a Judge of the Supreme Court) arrived upon the scene and forced the withdrawal of Duke and his men. A spirited engagement took place at the crossing of the Rolling Fork in which Colonel Duke was wounded and escaped capture only through the heroic action of Captain Quirk of Quirk's Scouts who placed the wounded colonel across the pommel of his saddle and then holding him with one arm, guided his horse into the stream. The horse carried them both safely across the stream. Next to Morgan and Mosby, Duke was one of the most eagerly sought after of the Confederate raiders, his capture would have been a feather in the cap of the pursuing Federals and would have done much to alleviate the stinging consternation and humiliation caused by Morgan's march around the Federal armies.
Bardstown was reached on the 29th and fell prey to Morgan's men. The pillaging of one of the largest general stores in town is graphically described by a Dr. J. A. Wyeth who accompanied General Morgan on this raid. Dr. Wyeth says in part, "I witnessed one of the frequent incidents in all warfare, the pillaging of the largest general store in this town. The men who had crowded through the doors, which they had battered down, found difficulty in getting out with their plunder through the surging crowd, which was pressing to get in before everything was gone. One trooper induced the others to let him out by holding an ax in front of him, cutting edge forward. His arm clasped a bundle of a dozen pairs of shoes and other plunder, while on his head was a pyramid of eight or ten soft hats, telescoped one into the other just as they had come out of the packing box."
By this time, the whole state was aroused. Troops from Louisville and other garrisoned cities had been sent out to head off the elusive Morgan. His whereabouts no longer a secret, it was essential that he should turn southward and beat a hasty retreat from the state if he wished to evade capture or destruction. He accordingly left Bardstown on the 30th. A cold, chilling rain had set in, and his march to Springfield was one of misery and hardship. He reached Springfield about dusk on the 30th. There he rested his men an hour, and then resumed the march towards Lebanon, nine miles distant. Detouring around Lebanon with his main body, he caused the rear guard to drive in the pickets on the north side of town and to light a myriad of campfires to give the impression that he was halting in force before the town and only waiting daylight to launch his attack. He was successful in his ruse, for several Federal columns were deflected from a course which would have thrown them across his line of retreat and marched to the aid of Lebanon. When they arrived in the morning, Morgan and his men were miles to the south.
All through the bitter cold night, he continued his march. At times, the half-frozen troopers dismounted and led their horses to restore the circulation to their benumbed limbs. Horses and men were covered with sheets of ice, but on and on they went. There was no stopping for rest until noon of the 31st when a fleeting hour was snatched for man and beast. Reports had come to Morgan that columns had been dispatched from Munfordville and Glasgow to intercept him at Columbia or Burksville before he could cross the Cumberland. He was taking no chances with the irate Federal commanders. He continued the march.
The night of the 31st found him at Campbellsville. He and his men had been continuously in the saddle, with the exception of two brief rests, for over 30 hours. Now that he had safely outdistanced his pursuers for the time being, he ordered a halt and went into bivouac for the night. On the morning of New Year's Day, after eight hours rest, he again took up the march. On through Columbia, ahead of the oncoming enemy, he went on without stopping to Burksville where he arrived on the morning of January 2nd. Several miles away was the Cumberland and safety. There was not a sign of an intercepting force. He had again successfully out marched his adversaries. In a few hours, he was safe beyond the river.
What a glorious Christmas week it had been. He had thrown consternation into the enemy camp, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was a wreck from Upton to Shepherdsville, he had captured or destroyed vast amounts of enemy property, captured 1,900 prisoners, and his command was returning better mounted and armed than when it had started. It was six months before the hardworking Federal engineers were able to repair the damage he had done to their main line of supply, and in those days, time counted.