The Christmas Raid of Gen. John Hunt Morgan
by Robert L. Thompson
(a Confederate cavalryman who rode with Morgan)
Original article entitled “Morgan’s Raid into Kentucky” by Robert L. Thompson, 2904 Pine Street, St. Louis, in Confederate Veteran magazine, Vol. 13, No. 12, December, 1905. Gen. Morgan’s Christmas Raid was a non-stop two-week cavalry raid by 4,000 Confederates launching from Tennessee into Kentucky and back, each man carrying only “Horse and gun with forty rounds of cartridges.” It took place from December 22, 1862 to January 5, 1863.
LATE IN DECEMBER, 1862, Gen. John H. Morgan, with nine regiments of mounted troops and one company of scouts, made what was known as his Christmas raid through Kentucky. There were Breckinridge, Chenault, Cluke, Duke, Gano, Grigsby, Johnson, Smith, and Ward, all regimental commanders, and Capt. Tom Quirk of the scouts. During Gen. Morgan’s invasion of Kentucky the battle of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was fought between Gens. Bragg and Rosecrans. It was said at the time that Gen. Morgan’s purpose for entering Kentucky was to get in the rear of Gen. Rosecrans’s army, cut his communication, and otherwise menace him and draw his attention while Gen. Bragg attended to him in the front. Gen. Morgan’s part of the work was well performed.
I was a private in Company F, 9th (Breckinridge’s) Regiment. We left Alexandria, Tenn., in the night. Early next morning we had crossed the State line and were in Tompkinsville, Ky. Another day and night’s hard ride brought us to Glasgow, where early in the morning we encountered a foe, who struck back with such force that our chief ordered us to withdraw, and by a rapid flank movement we passed around him and proceeded straight to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at Munfordville. There we found the enemy strongly posted in a stockade. We had with us a little battery of three or four funs that Gen. Morgan named the “Bull Pups.” Our usual method of attack was to drive in the pickets or shoot them down or get shot down, as some of our gallant advance guard did at Glasgow, then dismount, surround the garrison, fire a few shots with small arms, throw in a few shells from the battery, when the enemy, finding it useless to hold out longer, would display a white flag, and the job was finished.
Our next step was to parole the prisoners, destroy their guns, and move on to the next. Accompanying Gen. Morgan there was a young man, George A. Ellsworth, a telegraph operator, who would now and then cut the wire, attach his instrument, and send misleading dispatches to the Federal authorities in Louisville or Nashville. I saw him one day seated on the roadside with his battery attached to a wire fingering the key, while Gen. Morgan and staff sat on their horses about him. They all seemed to be in a good humor, as though they were indulging in humorous messages.
Early on the morning of December 27, our regiment attacked a body of Federals in Elizabethtown, Ky. They had taken refuge in the courthouse and other buildings in the town. The battery was brought forward in a dash and took position on a little hill south of the town. Our regiment followed the artillery double-quick, and formed along the base of the hill between the battery and town, so that the shells thrown into town passed over our heads. We dismounted and advanced in full view and range of the enemy. We had to cross a narrow bottom through which ran a creek that was full to its banks, caused by incessant rain of the night before. We plunged through the water waist deep—at the place I crossed—holding our guns above our heads, and entered the town.
As I passed along a street I remember keeping close to the wall of a house that I might be shielded from bullets, when three Federal soldiers came out of the house with guns and approached me. I said: “Surrender.” They put their guns down, and I ordered them to the rear. I then entered the house they came out of, and found it to be a hotel with breakfast on the table, but saw no landlord or guests. Other Confederates came in, and together we ate the breakfast, and during the whole time we were eating the little battery on the hill was being worked to its full capacity. When we had finished our breakfast and went out on the street again, we saw white handkerchiefs tied to ramrods hanging out of the courthouse windows. We then knew that the boys in blue had surrendered, and I was glad. A member of my company told my comrades that when I saw the three Federal soldiers coming toward me with their guns I had thrown my gun down and rushed on them with my fists, demanding their surrender, but that was a joke. However, I never did tell the boys how badly scared I was at the time, but I do not mind telling it now.
After the prisoners were paroled and their guns destroyed, together with some other government property in the town, we moved out a few miles north of town, stopped, and fed our horses. If I remember correctly, nearly all of Gen. Morgan’s force was bunched there that morning. While we were feeding Gen. Wolford’s Federal cavalry came up and attacked our rear guard. Our regiment was ordered to form and assist in holding the enemy in check, while the main part of our little army passed the Rolling Fork, a swift-running stream immediately in our front. We met with some loss that morning, quite a number being wounded. Among the officers there was Col. Duke, who received a wound on his head from a fragment of a shell. We crossed the Rolling Fork in safety, and then went forward at a swifter gait than before. Gen. Wolford followed us, but he never caught up any more.
It was then on to Bardstown, within forty miles of Louisville then to Springfield and Lebanon, then south to Burksville, where we recrossed the Cumberland River, thence back to Tennessee again. I had no personal knowledge of what any of the other regiments did on the trip; I remember only the part that mine took. That the others performed their part well is quite certain, as it is well known that there were no drones or sluggards who rode with Morgan.
With the exception of Gano’s and Ward’s regiments, quite all of Morgan’s men were Kentuckians. Most of Gano’s were Texans, and all of Ward’s were Tennesseans. With but few exceptions, Morgan’s troopers were young men, quite a number being boys under age. Gen. Morgan was only thirty-eight. My colonel was twenty-six, and there was not an officer in the regiment whose age exceeded thirty, except one, and he was not over forty. Capt. Tom Henry Hines, of Company E, who escaped prison with Gen. Morgan one year later, was but twenty-one. In Company H there was little John Kemper, aged thirteen, who rode a pony and carried a carbine. I was sixteen, and the youngest soldier in my company.
If I am not mistaken, Gen. Morgan’s official report of the expedition stated that we had been fourteen days in the saddle, and I can well believe it true; for if we ever stopped for any purpose, except to fight or feed our horses, I have no recollection of the time or place. There was no wagon train followed us loaded with commissary stores and camp equipage, not even an ordnance wagon or an ambulance. Horse and gun with forty rounds of cartridges was what each man started with. I supposed we were expected, if we should run short of ammunition, to capture what we needed, which we did, and more than we had use for. How we were expected to obtain food for ourselves, I do not know. It seems that the soldiers’ needs of sleep and food were not considered; only the horse he rode must be fed. If from any cause we halted, night or day, for a few minutes, we slept during the interval. Stops were seldom made. It might be that the guide had lost his way, when we would stop to establish the right direction, etc. At such times we would snatch a moment’s sweetest sleep, either leaning over on our horses’ necks or dropping down on the cold earth, holding the horse by the bridle. The loss of sleep is very likely the cause of my recollection of its seeming more like a dream than a reality, although the services rendered were quite real and earnest. The command was “Go forward” and “Close up” all the time, night and day, through rain, snow, and mud; no rest or sleep, but a constant prodding forward. I do not remember the results accomplished, the loss or gain or victor’s spoils. I only remember the arduous service and that most of us escaped, being thankful now that it is all past and will never happen again and that I am still alive and able to tell the tale.