John Hunt Morgan was born on June 1, 1825, in Huntsville, Alabama. At the age of six, he moved with his family to Lexington, Kentucky, the state with which he would become so closely identified in later years. Educated partly at home and partly in a local school, he briefly attended Transylvania University but was suspended for dueling in 1844 and never took a degree.
He saw service as a first lieutenant at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War with the First Regiment of Mounted Volunteers but returned to Lexington at war's end and became a prominent businessman dealing in hemp and jean cloth. His enthusiasm for the military life stayed with him, however, and he organized the Kentucky Rifles, an exclusive militia group that was decidely pro-secession and ultimately joined the Confederate Army in September of 1861.
Morgan quickly established himself as a daring and successful cavalry leader, and he was promoted to colonel on April 4, 1862. Although the only battle of any major significance in which he took part was Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, his reputation continued to grow as a result of his Second Kentucky Cavalry Regiment's continual harrassment of the Union Army through a series of raids into Kentucky. On December 11, 1862, just one day before his marriage to Martha Ready (his first wife, Becky, had died in July 1861), Morgan was promoted to brigadier general.
Morgan is perhaps best remembered, with no small justification, for his amazing escape from the Ohio State Penetentiary in Columbus. Captured after a raid near New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 26, 1863, Morgan and a number of his men were branded as "criminals" (rather than as prisoners of war) and incarcerated in the state prison. On November 27, following months of surreptitious tunneling, he and six of his officers took an unscheduled leave from what was thought to be an escape-proof facility and resumed their raids into Kentucky.
Morgan's luck ran out on September 3, 1864, when he and men were surprised by Union troops at Greenville, Tennessee. Morgan had not fared well while in captivity, and rather than face further imprisonment, he attempted to escape but was shot and killed.
Morgan's remains were first interred in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery but were removed to Lexington in 1868 and buried beside those of his younger brother Tom, who was moved at the same time from Lebanon, Kentucky, where he had been buried following his death in battle on July 5, 1863.
The telegraph mentioned in the title of this song came to be associated with General Morgan because of the presence in his ranks of one George A. Ellsworth, a Canadian telegraph operator who had been working in Houston, Texas, before the War. According to James A. Ramage, writing in Rebel Raider: The Life of John Hunt Morgan:Ellsworth would "milk the wires" of intelligence and use a ground wire to cut towns from the circuit, then answer for them when other operators called. He disrupted [Union] communications and sowed confusion in all directions. Near Horse Cave, Kentucky, early in [Morgan's first Kentucky] raid, he tapped the line on the L&N Railroad during a thunderstorm. Sitting on the end of a crosstie, water up to the knees of his cavalry boots, he continued to operate while the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, thus earning the nickname "Lightning Ellsworth"...The London Times declared Ellsworth's intelligence-gathering the first and most striking innovation in the war.
Image of John Hunt Morgan
courtesy of Joe Grau's General Officers of the Civil War
"How Are You, Telegraph?"