Tom Eblen: 100 years later, descendants to honor 'Thunderbolt of the Confederacy'

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 22, 2011 

Descendants of Gen. John Hunt Morgan's men and other Civil War buffs will gather Saturday outside the Lexington History Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of Morgan's heroic statue being placed there.

But it will be nothing like the spectacle that occurred at what was then the Fayette County Courthouse on Oct. 18, 1911. That day, 10,000 people packed the square, and hundreds more filled the windows and roofs of nearby buildings to honor the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy."

It was quite a tribute, especially since many of those people might have once cursed the man whose troops stole their horses, looted their stores, burned their homes and robbed their banks. Nostalgia is a strange thing.

As two excellent books published last year explain, Morgan's statue marked the zenith of Kentucky's ironic transformation from Union to Confederate state. That's right; once the Lost Cause was truly lost, most white Kentuckians sided with the losers.

As America begins a four-year commemoration of the Civil War's 150th anniversary, this is a good time to reflect on John Hunt Morgan — one of Lexington's most colorful and controversial characters — and the role nostalgia has played in Kentucky's collective memory.

Morgan was born in Alabama in 1825, the maternal grandson of John Wesley Hunt, one of Lexington's founders and first millionaires. His family soon returned to Lexington, where Morgan attended Transylvania University for two years before being kicked out for dueling.

He joined the Army as a private in 1846 and emerged from the Mexican War as a battle-tested officer. Morgan returned to Lexington and went into the hemp business, but he missed the military life. He formed the Lexington Rifles in 1852 and drilled his militia in city parks.

Morgan, like most slave-owning Kentuckians, opposed Southern secession at first. But by 1862, he had raised a Confederate cavalry regiment and led his men through the Battle of Shiloh.

"He was the very image of the grand cavalier — a man who was romanticized, particularly by the women of the Confederacy," said James Klotter, Kentucky's state historian and a Georgetown College professor.

Morgan was a brilliant cavalry officer and tactician. His daring raids into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio destroyed valuable federal property and supply lines, earning him the nickname "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy."

But he pushed his luck too far; Morgan and most of his men were captured during a raid on Ohio in 1863. He and a few others made a daring prison break and returned to Kentucky to form a new unit. But his fortune had changed.

Morgan's new men weren't nearly as good as those who sat out the rest of the war in prison. He especially missed Basil Duke, his brother-in-law and second in command, who enforced discipline among his troops. Kent Masterson Brown, a Lexington lawyer and historian, described Morgan's last unit as "a motley crew."

As the war dragged on, Kentucky life got leaner and meaner. Raiders increasingly turned to civilian targets as they sought supplies and military advantage. Morgan's men confiscated horses, robbed banks, looted trains and stores, and set several blocks of Cynthiana on fire.

When he was killed in Greeneville, Tenn., on Sept. 4, 1864, Morgan was ignoring a suspension order from superiors, who were investigating charges of thievery brought by his own officers, according to Rebel Raider, a biography written James Ramage, a Northern Kentucky University history professor.

Kentuckians might have been angry with Morgan's raiders, but they were even angrier with Union occupiers. Gen. Stephen Burbridge had turned Kentucky into a police state. Arbitrary executions earned him the nickname "Butcher Burbridge."

The war's end brought a new social order. Many white Kentuckians feared former slaves and were determined to keep blacks "in their place." Racism intensified, white-on-black violence grew rampant and Kentucky earned a national reputation for lawlessness.

Many white Kentuckians longed for the "good old days" and embraced Confederate identity, a phenomenon that Anne Marshall, a Lexington native and history professor at Mississippi State University, chronicled last year in her book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky.

In the book How Kentucky Became Southern, Maryjean Wall, a historian and former Herald-Leader turf writer, explained how Kentucky Thoroughbred breeders encouraged that Old South mythology to attract wealthy Northern horsemen.

By 1907, the United Daughters of the Confederacy was raising money to erect a monument to Morgan, the martyred cavalier. The result was Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini's statue of Morgan mounted on a stallion — ironic, since his favorite horse was a mare. (Generations of college pranksters have spray-painted the inaccurate genitalia under cover of darkness.)

By the end of the Civil War, the reputation of Morgan's men was one of "murder and highway robbery," wrote Duke, his former second-in-command. But a few years later, thanks to white public nostalgia, "if you could claim that you rode with Morgan, you were a kind of nobility," Brown said.

The ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday will try to strike a historically accurate balance, said Sam Flora, president of the Morgan's Men Association, an old veterans' group resurrected in 1988 by soldiers' descendants and Civil War buffs.

"Our take on it is that we're proud of our history and heritage," Flora said.

We will hear many more such comments over the next four years, as Americans keep trying to understand the Civil War's complexities and the legacy of slavery.

"What we do is not a defense of slavery," Flora said. "Most of the men who served under Morgan were young and did not even own slaves. They were caught up in the war and the adventure of the war. Our ancestors are no different than anyone else's; they all had their warts. We just try to celebrate their memory."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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