‘The Great Escape’
CONFEDERATE Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan undoubtedly was particularly thankful 150 years ago today.
On Thanksgiving Eve in 1863, Morgan and six of his men escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary, and the famous raider was able to make his way to the South.
A month before, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 28 as Thanksgiving but Morgan probably wasn’t paying much attention to that because his allegiance was to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
Details about “The Great Escape” as well as events on the raid are featured on “The General’s Tour” in the Blue & Gray magazine whose editor/publisher is David E. Roth, a Martins Ferry native.
And the driving tour was a major undertaking involving three states and covering about 1,000 miles. Roth noted that The General’s Tour places emphasis on the military events of the raid. There still, however, are plenty of anecdotes adding spice to the events from those long-ago days, and the colorful photos enliven the tour.
In addition, Roth provided several maps of the route followed by the raiders, who penetrated farther north than any other Confederate unit.
After Morgan’s surrender at West Point in Columbiana County on July 27, 1863, authorities in the North wanted to put the “horse thieves and land pirates” in a place where escape was”impossible.”
The war prisoners were treated as convicts. According to the tour information, “They were stripped naked, placed in tubs and scrubbed with a horse brush, then had their hair cut and beards shaved. Even Brig. Gen. John Mason, commanding U.S. troops at Columbus, objected to this treatment, but penitentiary rules prevailed. Soon each man had a private cell 3.5 feet wide by 7 feet deep.”
A rope made of bed clothes and a tunnel were utilized in the escape, and the Rebels might have had some inside help or assistance outside the penitentiary walls. Regardless, they “went into the Columbus night with money in their pockets and civilian clothes on their backs.”
Morgan boarded a train after his escape, and Roth includes a story that a passenger – some say it was a Union officer – tipped his flask toward that (penitentiary) building where Morgan was held and “told the stranger seated next to him, ‘There’s the hotel at which Morgan and his officers are spending their leisure.’ The stranger responded that he hoped Morgan would board there for the rest of the war as he was ‘a great nuisance.’ The stranger was Morgan.”
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s boyhood home in Georgetown is featured on the current cover of the Blue & Gray magazine, and Roth quotes Grant’s “Memoirs.” The former general and president had some interesting comments about voting for the presidency in that town. He told how Morgan’s Raiders helped themselves to horses and other items, adding, “This was no doubt a far pleasanter duty for some families than it would have been to render a like service for Union soldiers.”
In an interview, Roth noted, “The value of the raid to the South was a morale booster after Confederate losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg as well as the loss of Middle Tennessee to the Union in Ohio Gen. William S. Rosecrans’ Tullahoma Campaign (which forced Morgan’s boss Gen. Braxton Bragg back to Chattanooga).” He said it also delayed Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s march to East Tennessee, and this had a positive effect on Confederate fortunes in the Chattanooga area.
Roth pointed out the raid spread fear and panic throughout Ohio and contributed to the election of a strong war governor, John Brough. “Brough’s election caused President Lincoln to declare that Ohio had saved the Union,” he added.
As to what he considered the most interesting part of the raid, Roth said his interest grew the closer Morgan got to Eastern Ohio.
Pointing out the Union cavalry forces under Majs. William Way and George Rue were briefly in Martins Ferry, Roth said, “It must have been exciting for folks to see the blue-coated cavalry and their horses on trains parked down along the river. … Way’s men even got off the train for a while to scout toward St. Clairsville.”
Many Eastern Ohio towns are included on the maps.
As a person, Roth described Morgan as “a nice guy, devoted to his wife and family, a gambler who relished a stacked deck, and women said he was handsome. Morgan was considered the beau ideal of a Southern cavalryman … but during the Ohio Raid (his greatest independent action), he proved lacking in certain qualities necessary for success.” One of those lacking qualities was his failure to pay attention to details.
“The Great Escape” issue of the magazine also includes a major article on the raid by Dr. James A. Ramage, author of an award-winning biography on Morgan, as well as accompanying pictures of persons related to the raid and the war itself.
Blue & Gray magazine is available in national bookstore chains, by visiting the magazine’s website www.bluegraymagazine.com or calling 1-800-CIVIL WAR, Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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