Death of the Thunderbolt

Historian Keith Ashley stands next to a memorial at the Buffington Island State Memorial, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002, near Portland, Ohio. The memorial stands where Union soldiers battled Confederate troops led by Brig. Gen. John Morgan on July 19, 1863, in the Civil War. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Before daylight, Sunday morning, Gillem ordered Captain Charles Willcox and Company G (approximately 150 men) of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry to by-pass the 16th Georgia Cavalry encamped on the Warrensburg Road and enter Greeneville on the Newport Road. Willcox’s orders were to encircle the Williams’s house and to capture or kill Morgan. In order to create a diversion, Gillem and his men would attack Bradford’s men on the Bull’s Gap Road. The 13th Tennessee Cavalry was the ideal unit to conduct the mission as most of its men were from the Greeneville area. They knew the exact location of the Newport Road and the William’s house and could easily approach their target in the dark.

At about 6:30 A.M., Gillem believed that Willcox and his men had time to be in position and began the attack on Bradford and his men. Upon hearing the gunfire, Willcox ordered his men to charge into town and surround the William’s house. The attack completely caught the sleeping Rebels by surprise. The soldiers guarding the house managed to fire a volley or two before being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Someone rushed to Morgan’s room to inform him of the situation. He immediately pulled on his trousers and socks. Grabbing his pistols, he ran down the stairs and out the backdoor into the shrubbery in the yard.

As Morgan ran into the vineyard in the backyard, he was joined by Captain Rogers (who was unarmed) and Captain L.E. Johnson. Morgan handed Rogers one of his pistols and asked him to help assist in escaping. The three men scurried up under the Saint James Episcopal Church. Hearing the Yankees tear down the doors of the church, they rushed back into the vineyard to hide among the thick leaves. Unfortunately, Mrs. David Fry, a Union sympathizer, observed them. She began to holler and tell the Yanks the location of the hiding Rebels. At that time a soldier rode up to the area where the three men were hiding. Seeing that he was wearing a brown, jean-cloth jacket, they assumed he was a Confederate soldier and stepped out of their hiding place. Unfortunately, they were mistaken; the soldier was Private Andrew Campbell of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. The mistake was an easy one to make, as Campbell had once been a Confederate soldier, deserting to join the Union Army.

At the command to surrender, Rogers and Johnson stepped out toward other Union soldiers while Morgan went in the direction of Campbell. Captain Rogers stated that, “Before I reached Captain Wilcox, I saw General Morgan throw up his hands, exclaiming: Oh God! “ He also heard “Kill him, kill him” and then heard a gunshot. He then heard Campbell say that he had “killed the horse thief”. Rogers did not see Morgan again until Campbell came riding by with the body of Morgan thrown over the horse in front of him. Campbell claimed that Morgan refused to surrender but a hostler in the barn observing the action reported that Morgan raised his hands to surrender and was shot down in cold blood. To this day, the conflicting stories have not been resolved. Had the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy walked in the same direction as Captain Rogers, he might have been given safe quarters and lived, but fate rode a different horse that day.

The incident then became a circus, as other Union soldiers began to abuse Morgan’s body, cutting parts of clothing and hair for souvenirs. One of Morgan’s staff officers that had been captured, Captain Withers, asked Colonel John Brownlow to put a stop to the abuse. Brownlow immediately sent a squad of twenty (20) Union cavalrymen to bring Morgan’s body to the Williams’ house. The Union officer in charge of the detachment had to threaten to fire upon the maddened crowd before they would relinquish the corpse of Kentucky’s finest Cavalier. Upon recovering Morgan’s remains, he allowed Withers and Rogers to go to the house to attend to the body. Assisted by a Negro servant, the two (2) men washed and clothed the body.

Meanwhile, Giltner’s men were eating breakfast when they heard gunshots in the direction of Bradford’s men encamped on the Bull’s Gap Road. At first they were not alarmed, as they believed Bradford’s men were only firing off their wet weapons. Upon hearing firing behind them in Greeneville, they knew something was wrong. After waiting several minutes for orders to arrive by a staff officer, Giltner assumed responsibility for their actions. He ordered his men to saddle their horses and to mount in preparation for battle. He ordered Captain Caudill and the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles to take the brigade’s three wagons around Greenville to the Jonesboro Road. The remainder of the brigade then began advancing toward Greeneville. They had not advanced very far when a young officer galloped up to them. He informed Giltner that Colonel D. Howard Smith had assumed command of the small Confederate Army and had ordered Giltner’s Brigade to travel around Greeneville as quickly as possible to join him on the Jonesboro Road.

In an effort to get to the Jonesboro Road as soon as possible, Giltner ordered a local man to guide them through the woods. Whether accidentally or not, this guide soon had the Brigade lost. Giving up on the guide, Giltner began to use the firing near Greeneville as a landmark to travel by. After almost three hours of rambling in the woods, they finally came out on the road to Jonesboro. Stragglers informed them that Smith and most of the Confederate Army had just passed on the way to Rheatown. Ordering the Brigade to press on toward Rheatown, Giltner raced ahead in an effort to persuade Smith to turn around and attack the Union forces holding Greeneville. While arguing about what to do next, Giltner’s Brigade began to arrive in Rheatown. Smith refused to return to Greeneville but did allow Giltner to send a flag of truce in an effort to obtain information on General Morgan. Colonel Giltner directed Captain John McAfee to take a squad of men under a flag of truce and return to Greeneville. After the departure of McAfee, Captain Caudill and his men arrived. He informed Colonel Giltner that he thought an attack on the wagon train was imminent and had abandoned the wagons. Lieutenant George Houck and a small detail of men managed to save the mules but had to burn the ammunition. Nothing seemed to be going right for the small army.

Captain McAfee arrived in Greeneville and was immediately informed of Morgan’s death. At this time, he sent a courier back to Smith with the sad news. Colonel Brownlow was in charge of the Union forces occupying the town and allowed McAfee to obtain a small, one-horse wagon to transfer the body back to Confederate lines. McAfee was also able to obtain a beautiful but plain, walnut casket to encase Morgan’s body. He then began the slow, sad march back to Rheatown.

The courier sent by McAfee arrived at Rheatown and had the sad task of informing the anxious Confederate Cavaliers of the bad news. An eerie cloud of silence hung over the camp as word spread like a weeping fog up and down the line of gray-clad men of the loss of their beloved general. Some men were in shock, some swore in anger, some sought vengeance, others stared into space with tears streaming down their face, unashamedly crying for their fallen hero. The scene of hardened troopers observed with tears in their eyes would have been heart wrenching. The dashing leader that they had followed to fame and glory was now dead. Giltner sat down at his small desk and penned one of the hardest messages that he had ever written. The following dispatch was sent to General Morgan’s wife, Martha (Mattie) Ready Morgan:

Headquarters Brigade, near Rheatown, Tenn.

September 4, 1864

Mrs. General Morgan, Abingdon, VA:

With deep sorrow I have to announce the sad intelligence of your husband’s death. He fell by the hands of the enemy at Greeneville this morning. His remains are being brought away under flag of truce. We all mourn with you in this great affliction.

Most respectfully,

H.L. Giltner,

Colonel, Commanding Brigade.

McAfee arrived in Rheatown with Morgan’s body just as the Brigade received word of the fall of Atlanta. Bad news seemed to come in bunches. Ironically, Morgan’s brother in-law, Colonel Basil Duke, and his brother, Colonel Richard Morgan, rode into town at the same time. The two men had just recently been exchanged as prisoners of war and had been anxious to rejoin their old unit. Tragically, it was not the homecoming reunion that they had hoped to experience. They accompanied the body back to Abingdon, where Morgan was buried following a military funeral. Later, the body was exhumed and reburied in Richmond, Virginia. After the war in 1868, Morgan’s body was once again exhumed and interred in the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky. The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy had finally come home.

The Department of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee was now under the command of General John Echols. Echols kept the majority of his small army in the Jonesboro area for the remainder of September. Meanwhile, he sent the 10th Kentucky Mounted Rifles back once more to scout the Virginia and Kentucky state line. Their previous leader, Major Chenoweth, was exchanged and returned to take command of his old regiment.

Morgan’s old command did not have long to grieve for their fallen leader as word came of the buildup of Union forces in Kentucky for the purpose of invading Virginia. Their target would once again be the saltworks at Saltville. (Taken from: Appalachian Rebels; Brown, Richard G. & Chaltas, David)

Note: On September 4, 2021 (10-3 P.M), the 200th anniversary of the Dickson-Williams Mansion at Greenville, TN, will be held featuring the death of General Morgan, Meet The Generals, Celebrate Freedom (Caleb Howard), the embalming of the general and other demonstrations.