31 October 2005 by Published in: Confederate Cavalry 5 comments

Last spring, I attended a special event on Ohio’s only Civil War battlefield, the Battle of Buffington Island, in Meigs County, on the Ohio River. Buffington Island was fought on July 19, 1863, between Morgan’s Raiders and a large force of Union cavalry. The battlefield is in imminent danger of being destroyed by being dug up for a sand and gravel pit. I had been there once before, and wanted to see it again while it was still pristine.

The visit got me thinking about John Hunt Morgan. If ever there was a Confederate cavalry officer who was grossly overrated, it was John Hunt Morgan. Morgan had no talent for scouting, screening, or reconnaissance whatsoever, and was largely useless in those roles. He was also a terrible battlefield commander…a careful review plainly shows that his brother-in-law, Basil W. Duke, was the tactical brians behind Morgan’s operations. While he was a raider of some reknown, it raises a question of the value of a purely raiding force.

The raid that led to Morgan’s capture in Ohio was gross insubordination. Morgan asked for, and got permission to make a limited foray from Braxton Bragg. He took those orders and construed them as he saw fit, and then led his command on a 28 day raid through Indiana and Ohio that had absolutely no military value, ate up a lot good horseflesh, and led to the destruction of Morgan’s command, most of which ended up being captured. By the end, it wasn’t much more than a pursuit and capture operation that led to the theft of thousands of horses and a lot of atrocities being committed along the way. It’s no wonder that Morgan was thrown in the Ohio Penitentiary when he surrendered–he and his command acted like common horse thieves in an action that had no military value. When Morgan escaped, he received an extremely chilly reception from the Confederate high command instead of the accolades he expected. I suspect that the only reason why Morgan did not receive a court-martial for his actions is because he was captured.

There is no doubt that Morgan embodied the quintessential dashing cavalier. He was a dashing, handsome, courtly fellow of good breeding, and that lent an aura of legitimacy to his operations. While he embodied the beau sabreur, he was not the sort of soldier that Stuart, Fitz Lee, or Hampton were. Unless he was raiding, he really had no value at all to the army commanders he served under.

Although he was called the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” an unblinking assessment of Morgan’s military career suggests that his reputation is grossly overstated, and that he really doesn’t deserve the accolades that he has received. I think that Duke was a better commander of troops, and ultimately, a better cavalryman.

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  1. Dave Kelly
    Mon 31st Oct 2005 at 10:33 pm

    Always seems as though the “treat” of partisans is greater than their bite. A lot of troops got diverted to prevent rear area upset; but when guerilla actual tried to do something on a large sacle they blew their own primary strength of concealed possibility. Morgan was of more value hiding and commiting small atrocites…

    Everybody seems to have known that the 9th Corps had left the area (although they were slow to realize where they went off to – Vicksburg.)
    Guess the presence of 25th Corps was a surprise to Morgan.

    Never been to Buffington; did do Corydon and Salem IN when I was in the midwest.

  2. Mon 31st Oct 2005 at 10:42 pm


    I agree, and think that you’re quite right in your assessment of the value of Morgan and his command. They certainly weren’t good fighters in the battlefield sense, and they had no value in any of the conventional roles of cavalry.

    Today, Buffington is absolutely pristine, but for a handful of 20th Century structures. However, a major portion of the battlefield is going to be destroyed when the sand and gravel pit begins operation. It’s a tragedy.

    I haven’t been to Corydon. Is there much of anything to see there?


  3. Dave Kelly
    Tue 01st Nov 2005 at 10:01 am

    The “Gettysburg of Indiana” is actually a state/county preserve.
    corydonbattlefield.com .

    Salem was a neat little old midwestern village, with markers in front of the courthouse commemorating the wicked day, 10 July 63 when Morgan’s raiders reassembled in Salem, exacted monies to keep from burning the place down, and moved on.

    Salem is actually home to a venerable concrete 1/2 mile race oval known to stock car buffs. (He admits, red faced, that it was the real reason for my first visit ;). )

  4. Tue 01st Nov 2005 at 11:08 am


    We all have our dirty little secrets. 🙂

    Thanks for the information. Having gotten interested in Morgan’s Raid, I need to visit those sites, and plan to do so next year.


  5. Fri 27th Apr 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I’m new to the blogosphere and just found your site, which I will put as a link on mine.

    I’ve enjoyed most of your posts, especially on the cavalry. Good job bringing to light many of the cavalry soldiers who get lost in the focus on Stuart and Custer.

    I must disagree to some extent with your rather harsh criticism of John Hunt Morgan, however. I am a Civil War reenactor and ride in the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, which was a Morgan unit. We have thus done a considerable amount of studying of Morgan and his campaigns.

    Militarily, Morgan did quite a bit to advance the use of combined arms, and cavalry as a dismounted fighting force. Any discussion of his effectiveness as a commander also should take into consideration Bragg’s limited ability to wisely utilize cavalry, which frustrated Forrest and Morgan regularly. Had he been better utilized, I have little doubt his effectiveness rating would be considerably higher. As it was, Morgan destroyed considerable railroad and other military assets of the federals in TN and KY on his raids.
    I would also point out the numerous times Morgan occupied hundreds, if not thousands, of federal troops in chasing him throughout Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, when those troops could otherwise have been engaged in attacking Bragg and Confederate forces in Tennessee.

    There is little doubt that Duke was an excellent tactician and disciplinarian, but any effort to parse his accomplishments away from Morgan’s is mostly assumption of those who like the joke that when you hit Morgan in the head, Duke’s brains fall out. Certainly, your view of Morgan was not that held by Duke, as evidence by Duke’s “History of Morgan’s Cavalry.”

    As for Morgan’s “chilly reception” after his return from prison, I believe that counts him in with some other pretty good officers who were disliked by the High Command in Richmond – e.g., Joseph Johnston and Patrick Cleburne to name two. Given the absurd support for Bragg held by President Davis, there is little question that he would be critical of Morgan and slow to reassign him to command. Objective merit often had little to do with how well-liked any officer was in the WBTS.

    Disagreements aside, though, keep up the good work and I will look forward to reading more on your site.


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