Tunnel-Busting: Morgan’s Cavalry Closes Big South Tunnel
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
One can only imagine the harsh Germanic curses Louisville & Nashville Railroad chief engineer Albert Fink spat out in mid-August 1862 as he stood before the still smoking ruins of Big South Tunnel near Gallatin, Tennessee. Repairs would take months and those couldn’t even begin until the fire inside burned itself out. The Army of the Ohio’s major supply line supporting its drive on Chattanooga had been well and truly severed.
A few days before, the tunnel was open and moving multiple trains per day from the Union army’s primary supply depot at Louisville, Kentucky to its forward supply depot at Nashville, Tennessee. Now the 800-foot-long tunnel had collapsed, destroyed by Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s cavalrymen in their most devastating raid to date. The loss of this railroad line for the next three months had a major impact on the battle for control of Tennessee and signaled the bare-knuckle fighting both sides employed for the remainder of the conflict.
Colonel Morgan set out from Sparta, Tennessee on August 10, 1862 with a force of about 800 cavalrymen with orders to “break the railroad between Louisville and Nashville in order to retard Buell’s retreat to Louisville as greatly as possible,” Basil Duke recalled. The force crossed the Cumberland River at Sand Shoals Ford and was welcomed by the citizens of Dixon Springs when they rode into town that afternoon. “As our coming had been announced by couriers sent on in advance, we found that the friendly and hospitable citizens had provided abundant supplies for men and horses. It was a convincing proof of the unanimity of sentiment in that region that while hundreds knew of our march and destination, not one was found to carry the information to the enemy,” Duke noted.
The troopers marched into Hartsville, Tennessee around 11 p.m. on August 11th and continued on towards Gallatin through the overnight hours. Upon nearing the town, the force left the turnpike to avoid any Federal pickets and took position overlooking the Federal camp. Locals informed Morgan that the post commandant, Colonel William P. Boone of the 28th Kentucky, slept at the hotel in town with his wife. Captain Joseph Desha, a new arrival in Morgan’s command, was given the assignment of taking his company of 25 men to nab the good colonel. “Desha reached the house where he was quartered and found him dressed and about to start to camp. Colonel Morgan immediately saw Boone and represented to him that he had better write to the officer in command at the camp and advising him to surrender ‘in order to spare the effusion of blood.’ This Boone consented to do, and his letter was at once dispatched to camp under a flag of truce. It had the desired effect, and the garrison fell into our hands without firing a shot. About 200 prisoners were taken including a good number of officers,” Duke wrote. Dawn had hardly broke on August 12, 1862, and Morgan’s force had captured the town and its garrison without so much as a bullet being fired.
Meanwhile, Morgan’s telegrapher George A. “Lightning” Ellsworth made a beeline for the railroad depot to secure the telegraph office. “I busted in the door and running upstairs found the operator in bed, staring into the barrel of my six-shooter. He surrendered and accompanied me downstairs into the operating room. He soon acquainted me with the signals of the line, so I tested the line and found the wire ok to Nashville and Louisville.” The operators along the line didn’t go on duty until 7 a.m. and as it wasn’t even 5 yet, Ellsworth bided his time in the depot and chatted with Captain Dick McCann. “At 7:10, the operator at Nashville called me and reported the train from Louisville as being on time. I informed Captain McCann about the time the train from the north would arrive in Gallatin.”
Morgan’s men searched the camp and captured several hundred new Springfield rifles along with ample ammunition which was distributed among the command. The inferior arms which these replaced were put on wagons along with some captured supplies and sent back to Hartsville. The sound of a distant whistle indicated the approach of the southbound train and the command went into hiding throughout the town. “When the train reached Gallatin, there was not a soul to be seen at the depot, but as it stopped to take on water, the marauders broke in from all directions, firing their weapons but hurting no one,” the Louisville Journal reported. “Mr. Green, who was in charge of 70 government horses, was taken prisoner and there was hardly a citizen of Gallatin but aided and abetted the raid.”
The troopers swarmed over the 19-car train and pulled in a rich haul: 70 horses, 1,500 sacks of corn and oats, and 550 boxes of hardtack. The locomotive and cars were set afire and destroyed when angry townspeople joined in the destruction. “The secession citizens of Gallatin took sledgehammers and mallets and broke up the cars. They hauled away about a third of the grain and nearly all of the crackers to their residences,” the Louisville Journal stated. Lightning Ellsworth busied himself in the telegraph office, contacting the operator at Bowling Green and asking that reinforcements be sent to Gallatin as he expected Morgan’s men to attack soon. A train was sent from Nashville but six miles out, Morgan’s game was exposed and the train halted and returned to safety. Ellsworth continued to play cat and mouse with the Nashville operator throughout the afternoon and also took time at the end of the day to tweak Colonel Morgan’s favorite target, editor George D. Prentice of the Louisville Journal. “Your friend Colonel John H. Morgan and his brave followers are enjoying the hospitalities of this town today. Wouldn’t you like to be here? The colonel has seen your $100,000 reward for his head and offers $100,000 better for yours and at short range. Wash Morgan whom you published in your paper sometime ago when he was in Knoxville accompanied his cousin John with 400 Indians. He seeks no scalp but yours.”
A detachment under Lieutenant Rogers was sent south about three miles from town to burn the bridge over Mansker Creek, but the true prize of the operation lay eight miles north of town: Big South Tunnel. Colonel Morgan gave the assignment of destroying the tunnel to his older cousin Major George “Wash” Morgan who set off with a few hundred troopers to complete the job. Wash discovered a detachment of the 28th Kentucky along with some black workers laboring on a fort to guard the tunnel and quickly set them to flight, capturing about 50 men in the short engagement. “The roof of the tunnel was of a peculiar rock which was liable at times to disintegrate and tumble down,” Basil Duke recalled. “To remedy this, huge beams, supported by string uprights had been stretched horizontally across the tunnel and a sort of scaffolding had been built upon these beams. Some freight cars were run into the tunnel and set on fire and the woodwork was ignited.” The roaring freight cars caught the tunnel supports on fire and with a tremendous crash, they soon gave way, blocking the entire tunnel with thousands of tons of rock.
That evening, Morgan gathered his command together and set out along the turnpike to head back to Hartsville, leaving a small detachment under the command of Lieutenant Manly tasked with burning the amphitheater at the fairgrounds where Colonel Boone’s men had camped. The next morning, Colonel John F. Miller arrived with 900 men from the garrison of Nashville including troops from the 11th Michigan and his own 29th Indiana. “While marching into town, they came upon a company of Morgan’s men who had been detached to burn the bridge attached to the fairgrounds and were just returning. A Rebel captain [Manly] and two others were killed, and one was taken prisoner along with some of the horses stolen the previous day,” the Louisville Journal reported. “In the officer’s pocket were found the orders to burn the fairgrounds and the depot, but the latter was saved. When Colonel Miller reached the city, he searched the houses, taking away all the arms he could find and making about 30 arrests. In the houses, crackers were found and in the stables part of the stolen grain, all of which was recovered. When the colonel executed his orders and was prepared to return, the cars were in a deep cut on the other side of the Mansker Creek. The guerillas charged upon them and fired two volleys , killing one and wounding three of our men. Colonel Miller brought his artillery into service and delivered several rounds of grape which dispersed the assailants. A house, barn, and haystack which sheltered the flying Rebels was knocked to pieces.”
After disarming the prisoners of the 28th Kentucky, Colonel Morgan paroled them on the afternoon of the 12th and sent them marching north along the railroad line. Elements of two companies of the 28th Kentucky had left town the day before Morgan’s arrival in pursuit of a herd of wayward government cattle. They returned on the 13th and warily approached Gallatin, unsure of who had possession of the town but soon learned that Morgan’s men swooped right back in as soon as Colonel Miller’s force returned to Nashville. The marched to Big South Tunnel and found Colonel Boone and the parolees waiting on the north side of the hill waiting for a train to carry them back to Louisville. “Colonel Boone ordered our command to throw away their arms fearing that it would endanger the lives of the paroled prisoners,” one officer reported. No train being sent, the whole force of roughly 300 men started the long walk north to Louisville, being accosted along the way by Confederate cavalry.
A week after the raid, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Heffren led a detachment of his 50th Indiana Infantry to Big South Tunnel and assessed the damage. “I found the trestle one mile south from South Tunnel burned but a new one can be easily erected. The tunnel was arched by timbers and wood in its construction, and this had been fired and was still burning in the middle,” he reported. “We penetrated as far as possible for the heat and smoke drove us back and found that from six to ten feet or rock had fallen on the track from above.” Work crews soon set to work clearing the tunnel, but it would not re-open until November 20th by which point the entire Kentucky campaign had been fought, and the Federal army had a new commander in the form of General William S. Rosecrans.
Duke, Basil W. Morgan’s Cavalry. New York: The Neale Publishing Co., 1906, pgs. 140-143.
“Another Telegraphic Feat of Morgan’s Operator,” Atlanta Southern Confederacy (Georgia), August 24, 1862, pg. 3.
“Colonel John F. Miller,” Louisville Daily Journal (Kentucky), August 18, 1862, pg. 3.
“Morgan’s Last Known Raid,” Fayetteville Weekly Observer (North Carolina), August 25, 1862, pg. 3.
“Companies B and F of the 28th Kentucky Infantry, Louisville Daily Journal (Kentucky), August 19, 1862, pg. 1.
Report of Lieutenant Colonel Horace Heffren, 50th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Nashville Daily Union (Tennessee), September 7, 1862, pg. 1.