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Morgan's Cavalry by Basil W. Duke

Morgan's Cavalry
Basil W. Duke


Personality of General Morgan and His Qualities as a Commander—His Rapid Creation of an Efficient Cavalry Command, and Discovery of new Uses for that Arm of the Service.

In undertaking to write the history of General Morgan's services and of the command which he created, it is but fair that I acknowledge myself influenced, in a great measure, by the feelings of the friend and the follower; that I desire, if I can do so by relating facts, of most of which I am personally cognizant, to perpetuate his fame, and at the same time establish the true character of a body of men who, recruited and inured to war by him, served bravely and faithfully to the close of the great struggle.

General Morgan's career during the late war was so remarkable that it is not surprising that the public, accustomed to the contradictory newspaper versions of his exploits, should be disposed to receive all accounts of it with some incredulity. It was so rapid, so crowded with exciting incidents, appealed so strongly to the passions and elicited so constantly the comments of both sides, that contemporary accounts of his operations were filled with mistakes and exaggerations, and it is natural that some should be expected in any history of his campaigns, although written after the strife is over.

A narrative of the operations of a command composed, in great part, of Kentuckians, must possess some interest for the people of their own State. So general and intense was the interest which Morgan excited among the young men of the State that he obtained recruits from every county, numbers running every risk to join him when no other leader could enlist a man. The whole State was represented in his command. Many Kentuckians who had enlisted in regiments from other States procured transfers to his command, and it frequently happened that men, the bulk of whose regiments were in prison, or who had become irregularly detached from them by some of the many accidents of which the volunteer, weary of monotony, is prompt to take advantage, would attach themselves to and serve temporarily with it. Probably every native citizen of Kentucky who will read these lines will think of some relative or friend who at some time served with Morgan.

It is a prevalent opinion that his troops were totally undisciplined and unaccustomed to the instruction and restraint which form the soldier. They were, to be sure, far below the standard of regular troops in these respects, and doubtless they were inferior in many particulars of drill and organization to some carefully-trained bodies of cavalry. Confederate and Federal, which were less constantly and actively engaged in service on the front. But these essential requisites to efficiency were by no means neglected or in a great degree lacking. The utmost care was exercised in the organization of every regiment to place the best men in office. No opportunity was neglected to attain proficiency in the tactics which experience had induced us to adopt, and among officers and men there was a perfect appreciation of the necessity of strict subordination, prompt, unquestioning obedience to superiors, and an active, vigilant discharge of all the duties which devolve upon the soldier in the vicinity or presence of the enemy.

I do not hesitate to say that "Morgan's Division," in its best days, would have lost nothing (in points of discipline and instruction) by comparison with any of the fine cavalry commands, which did constant service, of the Confederate army, and the testimony of more than one inspecting officer can be cited to that effect. More credit, too, has been given General Morgan for qualities and ability which constitute a successful partisan to lead a handful of men than for the very decided military talents which he possessed.

An even cursory study of Morgan's record will convince the military reader that the character he bore with those who served with him was deserved. That, while circumspect and neglectful of no precaution to insure success or avert disaster, he was extremely bold in thought and action; that using every means to obtain extensive and accurate information (attempting no enterprise of importance without it), and careful in the consideration of every contingency, he was yet marvelously quick to combine and to revolve, and so rapid and sudden in execution as frequently to confound both friends and enemies. And above all, once convinced, he never hesitated to act; he would back his judgment against every hazard and with every resource at his command.

Whatever merit be allowed or denied General Morgan, he is beyond all question entitled to the credit of having discovered uses for cavalry, or rather mounted infantry, to which that arm was never applied before. While other cavalry officers were adhering to the traditions of former wars and the systems of the schools, however inapplicable to the demands of their day and the nature of the struggle, he originated and perfected, not only a system of tactics, a method of fighting and handling men in the presence of the enemy, but also a strategy as effective as it was novel. Totally ignorant of the art of war as learned from the books and in the academies: an imitator in nothing; self taught in all that he knew and did, his success was not more marked than his genius. The creator and organizer of his own little army—with a force which at no time reached four thousand —he killed and wounded nearly as many of the enemy and captured more than fifteen thousand. The author of the far reaching "raid," so different from the mere cavalry dash, he accomplished with his handful of men results which would otherwise have required armies and the costly preparations of regular and extensive campaigns.

I shall endeavor to show the intimate connection between his operations and those of the main army in each department where he served, and the strategic importance of even his apparently rashest and most purposeless raids, when considered with reference to their bearing upon the grand campaigns of the West. When the means at his disposal, the difficulties with which he had to contend, and the results he effected, are well understood, it will be conceded that his reputation with the Southern soldiery was not undeserved, and that to rank with the best of the many active and excellent cavalry officers of the West, to have had, confessedly, no equal among them except in Forrest, argues him to have possessed no common ability.

For the spirit in which it is written, I have only to say that I have striven to be candid and accurate; to that sort of impartiality which is acquired at the expense of a total divestiture of natural feeling I can lay no claim.

A Southern man, once a Confederate soldier—always thoroughly Southern in sentiments and feeling—I can, of course, write only a Southern account of what I saw in the late war, and as such what is herein written must be received. John Hunt Morgan was born at Huntsville, Ala., on the 1st day of June, 1825. His father, Calvin C. Morgan, was a native of Virginia. In early manhood Mr. Morgan followed the tide of emigration flowing from Virginia to the West and began life in Alabama. In 1823 he married the daughter of John W. Hunt, of Lexington, Ky., one of the wealthiest and most successful men of the State, and one whose influence and efforts did much to develop the prosperity of that part of it in which he resided. Mr. Morgan is described by all who knew him as a gentleman whom it was impossible to know and not to respect and esteem. His character was at once firm and attractive, but he possessed neither the robust constitution nor the adventurous and impetuous spirit which characterized other members of his family. He was quiet and studious in his habits, and although fond of the society of his friends, shunned every kind of excitement. When failing health forced him to leave Alabama, he removed with his family to Kentucky and resided in Lexington for the remainder of his life.

John H. Morgan's maternal grandfather, Mr. Hunt, came to Kentucky from New Jersey. His family which was of old and excellent English stock, settled originally at Newton, Long Island, of which place his ancestor, Ralph Hunt, was one of the founders. The General's mother, Mrs. Henrietta Hunt Morgan, was universally beloved. Exceptionally amiable and unselfish in disposition, she yet possessed very determined traits of character and positive convictions. Her son inherited from her those qualities which commanded the perfect devotion of his followers.

John H. Morgan was reared in Kentucky. When nineteen years of age he enlisted for the Mexican War and was elected first lieutenant of Captain Perry Beard's company of Colonel Humphrey Marshall's regiment of Kentucky cavalry. His brother Calvin and his uncle Alexander G. Morgan were members of the same company. His uncle was killed at Buena Vista, in which battle Colonel Marshall's regiment was hotly engaged. Soon after his return home he married Miss Bruce, of Lexington, a sweet and lovely lady, who, almost from the day of her wedding, was a confirmed and patient invalid and sufferer. Immediately after his marriage, he entered energetically into business; was industrious, enterprising and prosperous, and at the breaking out of the war, in 1861, he was conducting in Lexington two successful manufactories. Every speculation and business enterprise in which he engaged succeeded, and he had acquired a very handsome property. This he left, when he went South, to the mercy of his enemies, making no provision whatever for its protection, and apparently caring not at all what became of it.

The qualities in General Morgan which would have attracted most attention in private life were an exceeding gentleness of disposition and unbounded generosity. His kindness and goodness of heart were proverbial. His manner, even after he had become accustomed to command, was gentle and kind, and no doubt greatly contributed to acquire him the singular popularity which he enjoyed long before he had made his military reputation. The strong will and energy which he always displayed might not have elicited much notice had not the circumstances in which the war placed him developed and given them scope for exercise. But his affection for the members of his family and his friends, the generosity which prompted him to consult their wishes at the expense of any sacrifice of his own, his sensitive regard for the feelings of others, even of those in whom he felt least interest, and his rare charity for the failings of the weak, made up a character which, even without an uncommon destiny, would have been illustrious.

His benevolence was so well known in Lexington that to "go to Captain Morgan" was the first thought of every one who wished to inaugurate a charitable enterprise, and his business house was a rendezvous for all the distressed and a sort of "intelligence office" for the poor seeking employment.

His temper was cheerful and frequently gay; no man more relished pleasantry and mirth in the society of his friends, with whom his manner was free and even at times jovial. There was never a more sanguine man; with him to live was to hope and to dare. Yet while rarely feeling despondency and never despair, he did not deceive himself with false or impossible expectations. He was quick to perceive the real and the practical, and while enterprising in the extreme he was not in the least visionary. His nerve, his powers of discrimination, the readiness with which he could surrender schemes found to be impracticable, if by chance he became involved in them, and his energy and close attention to his affairs, made him very successful in business, and undoubtedly the same qualities, intensified by the demand that war made upon them, contributed greatly to his military success.

He could, with more accuracy than any one, divine the plans and wishes of an enemy. This was universally remarked, and he exhibited it, not only in correctly surmising the intentions of his own immediate opponents, but also in the opinions which he gave regarding the movements of the grand armies. He sought all the information which could, however remotely affect his interests and designs with untiring avidity, and the novel and ingenious expedients he sometimes resorted to in order to obtain it would perhaps furnish materials for the most interesting chapter of his history. 

He had another faculty which is very essential to military success; indispensably necessary, at any rate, to a cavalry commander who acts independently and at such distances from any base or support as he almost constantly did. I believe the English term it having "a good eye for a country." It is the faculty of rapidly acquiring a correct idea of the nature and peculiar features of any country in which military operations are to be conducted. He neglected nothing that a close study of maps and careful inquiry could furnish of this sort of knowledge, but after a brief investigation or experience, he generally had a better understanding of the subject than either map-makers or natives could give him.

However imperfect might be his acquaintance with a country, it was nearly impossible for a guide to deceive him. What he had once learned in this respect he never forgot. A road once traveled was always afterward familiar to him, with distances, localities and the adjacent country. Thus, always having in his mind a perfect idea of the region where he principally operated, he could move with as much facility and confidence (when there) without maps and guides as with them.

His favorite strategy on his important expeditions or "raids" was to place himself by long and swift marches — moving sometimes for days and nights without a halt except to feed the horses—in the very heart of the territory where were the objects of his enterprise. He relied upon this method to confuse if not to surprise his enemy, and prevent a concentration of his forces. He would then strike right and left. He rarely declined upon such expeditions to fight when advancing, for it was his theory that then a concentration of superior forces against him was more difficult, and that the vigor of his enemy was to a certain extent paralyzed by the celerity of his own movements and the mystery which involved them. But after commencing his retreat, he would use every effort and strategem to avoid battle, fearing that while fighting one enemy others might overtake him, and believing that at such times the morale of his own troops was somewhat impaired. No leader could make more skill ful use of detachments. He would throw them out to great distances, even when surrounded by superior and active forces, and yet rarely was one of them (commanded by a competent officer who obeyed instructions) overwhelmed or cut off. It very seldom happened that they failed to accomplish the purposes for which they were dispatched, or to rejoin the main body in time to assist in decisive action. He could widely separate and apparently scatter his forces and yet maintain such a disposition of them as to have all well in hand. When pushing into the enemy's lines he would send these detachments in every direction, until it was impossible to conjecture his real intentions—causing, generally, the shifting of troops from point to point as each was threatened, until the one he wished to attack was weakened, when he would strike at it like lightning. 

He knew how to thoroughly confuse and deceive an enemy, and induce in him (as he desired) false confidence or undue caution; how to isolate and persuade or compel him to surrender without giving battle; and he could usually manage, although inferior to the aggregate of the hostile forces around him, to be stronger or as strong at the point and moment of encounter.

He seldom failed to discern and to take advantage of the ruling characteristics of those who approached him, and he could subsidize the knowledge and talents of other men with rare skill. He especially excelled in judging men collectively.

He knew exactly how to appeal to the feelings of his men, to excite their enthusiasm, and stimulate them to dare any danger and endure any fatigue and hardship. But he sometimes committed the gravest errors in his estimation of individual character.

General Morgan had more of those personal qualities which make a man's friends devoted to him than any one I have ever known. He was himself very warm and constant in the friendships which he formed. It seemed impossible for him to do enough for those to whom he was attached, or to ever give them up. His manner, when he wished, prepossessed every one in his favor. He was generally more courteous and attentive to his inferiors than to his equals and superiors. This may have proceeded in a great measure from his jealousy of dictation and impatience of restraint, but was the result also of warm and generous feeling. His greatest faults arose out of his kindness and easiness of disposition, which rendered it impossible for him to say or do unpleasant things, unless when under the influence of strong prejudice or resentment. This temperament made him a too lax disciplinarian, and caused him to be frequently imposed upon. He was exceedingly and unfeignedly modest. For a long time he sought, in every way, to avoid the applause and ovations which met him every where in the South, and he never learned to keep a bold countenance when receiving them.

His personal appearance and carriage were striking and graceful. His features were eminently handsome and adapted to the most pleasing expressions. His eyes were small, of a grayish blue color, and their glances keen and thoughtful. His figure on foot or on horseback was superb. He was exactly six feet in height, and although not at all corpulent, weighed one hundred and eighty-five pounds. His form was perfect and the rarest combination of strength, activity, and grace. His constitution seemed impervious to the effects of privation and exposure, and it was scarcely possible to perceive that he suffered from fatigue or lack of sleep.

Men are not often born who can wield such an influence as he exerted, apparently without an effort; who can so win men's hearts and stir their blood. He will, at least, be remembered until the Western cavalrymen and their children have all died. The bold riders who live in the border-land, whose every acre he made historic, will leave many a story of his audacity and wily skill.

Basil W. Duke, Morgan's Cavalry (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906), 11-19.


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