A pair of characters named George: “Lightning” and Grenfell


George “Lightning” Ellsworth

Two of the most interesting cavalrymen who fought under Gen. John Hunt Morgan weren’t Southerners. In fact, George Ellsworth and George St. Leger Grenfell weren’t even Americans.

George Ellsworth was a Canadian by birth, a telegrapher by trade and a Southern supporter by conviction. He earned his nickname, “Lightning,” by ignoring the dangers from a severe thunderstorm while tapping into Union telegraph lines and feeding false information.

The agile Ellsworth was a telegrapher in Morgan’s hometown of Lexington, KY before the war and joined Morgan’s command soon after he had formed the Second Kentucky Cavalry, CSA.

Lightning at work

Lightning At Work

Lightning had an uncanny ability to mimic the recognizable click-click-click of dots and dashes used by individual telegraphers and passed himself off as the man he was imitating to other telegraphers miles away. He learned about Union troop locations and delivered false information about the movements of Confederate forces.

The Civil War was the first time mechanized and electrified devices like trains, overhead observation balloons, torpedoes, mines, submarines and ironclad ships were in common usage. It was also the first time in the long history of warfare that modern technology was used to spread disinformation and the “London Times” declared Ellsworth’s intelligence-gathering the first and most stirring innovation of the war.

As for George Grenfell, he was a British cavalry officer. One quiet day he rode into Morgan’s camp near Knoxville, TN and drew tremendous attention, as described by author Dee Alexander Brown in his book ‘Morgan’s Raiders”:

“Dressed in an English staff blue coat and a red forage cap, this newcomer was riding one mount, leading another with two or three hunting dogs following along…his bold aquiline features were scorched by the sun and his face, while handsome, wore always a defiant and sometimes fierce expression.”

Grenfell was a soldier of fortune. He had fought for Queen Victoria in India, but he also fought all over the world for others–in Africa with the Moors, in Turkey with the Bashi-Bazouks and in South America with Garibaldi.

George St. Leger Grenfell

George St. Leger Grenfell

He presented to Morgan letters of introduction signed by Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G. Beauregard and was immediately given a responsible position, training Southern country boys the fine points of British cavalry tactics.

As Brown wrote, “He showed them how to fire pistols from the saddle by the right, left, front and rear. He explained the fine points of aiming while moving at a gallop, how the trooper should rise slightly in the stirrups, arm half extended and the body turned toward the object of the aim.”

He and Morgan also developed the concept of “dismounted cavalry.” Their troopers would ride quickly to secluded locations near Union targets, then dismount and launch surprise attacks on foot. The element of surprise was difficult for marching infantry to achieve and this new technique was eventually adopted by other cavalry units as the war went on.

But Grenfell’s spit-and-polish by-the-book approach to military discipline, eventually collided with Morgan’s somewhat laissez faire attitude. The Englishman left Morgan’s outfit and joined another Confederate organization.

Late in the war Grenfell and Ellsworth were implicated in an ill-fated Confederate plot to attack Camp Douglas near Chicago and free 8,000 Confederate prisoners. Their overall goal was to launch an insurrection among citizens in the Midwest who were southern sympathizers, commonly known as “Copperheads.”

The plot collapsed when Copperheads failed to show up in significant numbers. More than 100 conspirators were arrested and the ringleaders, including Grenfell, held for trial. Ellsworth returned to the south but Grenfell was condemned to execution by hanging. The British ambassador in Washington intervened on his behalf and his sentence was commuted to life in prison on the Dry Tortugas, a group of islets west of Florida.

After three years, George Grenfell tried to escape in a small boat but a storm came up and he was never seen or heard from again.

After the war Ellsworth became a telegrapher for Thomas Edison in Cincinnati but apparently found a telegraph office too quiet for his liking. According to Edison himself, George Ellsworth died in the panhandle of Texas, after becoming a “bad gunman.”

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