History

Gen-John-MorganWith the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, Americans are being reminded to take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices made on both sides of that most horrible of all times in our history.

But we should also keep in mind that even though Union and Confederate troops often ran out of food, clothing and ammunition, they generally kept a good sense of humor. 

That humor was shown by nicknames given to commanding officers on both sides. 

In 1857, as tensions over slavery festered between the North and South, the 32-year-old Morgan formed the Lexington Rifles, a small group of volunteer cavalrymen who wore colorful uniforms and traveled the Bluegrass Country demonstrating their impressive horsemanship.

In April 1861, just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States, South Carolina troops shelled the Union’s Fort Sumter, on a small island in Charleston Harbor. That somewhat minor event touched off the deadliest war in America’s history.

Kentucky declared itself neutral and never left the Union.  But Kentuckians were seriously divided in their loyalties, with some citizens remaining true to the U.S. while others wanted to secede and join the Confederate States.  Kentucky epitomized the agony of friend fighting friend and brother fighting brother.

Morgan had close friends on both sides. When war erupted, he remained on the sidelines for months.  His young brother-in-law, Basil W. Duke, a lawyer, was an ardent secessionist and urged Morgan to lead the Lexington Rifles into the Confederate Army.

On the night of September 21, 1861, Morgan did just that, quietly leading about two dozen other young horsemen out of Lexington to join Confederate forces in the southern part of the state.

Soon Captain Morgan and his cavalry were terrorizing Union troops in Kentucky and Tennessee.  They made hit-and-run raids on U.S. Army outposts and warehouses as well as on towns and businesses loyal to the Union. They burned down railroad bridges and sent false messages via telegraph lines.

Southern newspapers began referring to him as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.”   And a legend was born.

The success of Morgan and his Thunderbolt Raiders caught the eye of the Confederate military hierarchy up to President Jefferson Davis. Captain Morgan became Colonel Morgan and then General Morgan.  His brother-in-law, Duke, was  his second-in-command and confidant.

The film Thunderbolt Raiders is based on actual people and events.  It details the Raiders’ bloody hand-to-hand battles, weeks-long raids, Morgan’s capture and escape and his death by Union gunfire in 1864.  But this screenplay also focuses on the human side of the Raiders, including Morgan’s courtship and marriage to a Southern Belle who was 16 years younger than he.

Thunderbolt Raiders begins at a Kentucky resort five decades after the war as Duke presides over the annual reunion of the Morgan’s Men Association.   A charming but outspoken young female reporter interviews the 75-year-old Duke, intending to write a magazine story about Morgan.  

But she learns much more as her interviews with Duke delve into the deep psychological complexities of Morgan and of Duke himself.  They discuss how the war changed America, and all Americans; how Duke became an important business and political figure, with close ties to President Theodore Roosevelt, and how the decades had altered his views on issues such as slavery.

Thunderbolt Raiders will entertain audiences at a variety of levels. It is a Civil War shoot ‘em up but it is also a love story and an intense character study of some fascinating 19th century Americans.