Begging, Borrowing and Stealing Horses Necessity for Morgan’s Raiders

Kentucky was one of five slave-holding states that did not secede from the Union.  These border states had strong ties to both North and South.  Consequently, issues that divided the North and South also divided the citizenry in Kentucky. civilwarhorse

Kentucky’s state government tried to remain neutral, refusing to provide troops to either side.  But Confederates invaded the Mississippi River town of Columbus, KY in September of 1861, only to be overwhelmed by massive Union forces which stayed in the state for the duration of the war.  Officially, neutrality was no longer possible.

But there was still strong support for the southern cause, especially for the cavalry led by John Hunt Morgan, a son of the Bluegrass area. 

Their hit-and-run raids in enemy territory meant they were constantly in need of fresh horses. They got them any way they could, often exchanging worn-out steeds for rested ones owned by private individuals.   This meant that few, if any, good horses were available for use by Union troops chasing the

Union Gen. Jacob Cox summed up the Federals vexation in verse.  He wrote a poem that became a campfire ditty, sung to the tune of “O’ Tannenbaum.”  The first verse went:

John Morgan’s foot is on the shore, Kentucky, oh Kentucky.

His hand is on thy stable door, Kentucky, oh Kentucky.

You’ll see your good gray mare no more.

He’ll ride her ‘til her back is sore.

And leave her at some stranger’s door, Kentucky, oh Kentucky.

General Cox’s iambic gripe notwithstanding, Union forces themselves had few scruples against confiscating horses.  The big difference being that they gave owners a chit for the value of each steed, with the Federal government supposed to reimburse the owners accordingly.

That was all well and  good by intent.  But due to a number of factors, not the least being bureaucratic bungling, reimbursements weren’t always easily obtained. Generally speaking, horse owners, no matter their feelings about the North or South, dreaded Feds as much as Rebs who coveted their stock.

We touch on this theme in a scene in the screenplay we’re writing.  The two characters speaking are Union Gen. Edward Hobson, and a fictional but typical Kentucky farmer who has lost his prized horses to Morgan.  Here’s an excerpt:


Hobson’s lead columns approach a barn and silos, situated in a pasture that’s bordered by a rail and stone fence.  AMOS and CORA WITHERSPOON (50+) sit atop fence.  Behind them, about two dozen run-down horses are grazing.  Amos addresses Hobson, his fatalistic attitude spiced with a sardonic wit.


                                                                                                                                                 Ya’ll are too late.


                                                                                                                                                 Too late for what?


                                                                                                                                                To purloin good horses.  Morgan’s bunch

                                                                                                                                                done taken ‘em all.




                                                                                                                                                Called it an even swap.




                                                                                                                                                    (gestures toward horses)

                                                                                                                                                Swappin’ my stock for them tuckered

                                                                                                                                                out crow baits is way shy of even.



                                                                                                                                           How long since Morgan was here?


                                                                                                                                           Day break. The last of ‘em was gone by day

                                                                                                                                           break, wouldn’t you say, Cora?



The rest of the scene plays out, concluding with Hobson’s cavalry trudging off on worn-out horses, frustrated that they may have fallen farther behind Morgan’s men, many of whom are riding fresh mounts.

It’s historical fact that Hobson and his troops were hot on the trail of Morgan and his 2000-man cavalry, but couldn’t catch up before the Rebs crossed the Ohio River into

This venture by the Thunderbolt Raiders became known as the Great Raid, the farthest North invasion by any regular Confederate troops.  Once in northern territory, their Raiders skill at stealing fresh horses was just as in Kentucky.

Over a few weeks Morgan’s men plundered parts of Indiana and Ohio, terrifying Hoosiers and Buckeyes, but Hobson and other Union forces finally caught up.  On the banks of the Ohio in southeast Ohio, they inflicted a severe defeat upon the Raiders at the Battle of Buffington Island, signaling the beginning of the end for John Hunt Morgan.

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