From Wife to Widow in 630 days

Shirley Farris Jones, The Murfreesboro Post, January 6, 2008

Mattie Ready Morgan

Mattie Ready Morgan

Gen. John Hunt Morgan made his miraculous escape from the Columbus, Ohio prison on Nov. 27, 1863 (the day his daughter was born) and managed to reach his beloved wife Mattie in time for Christmas.

It was later felt that John’s overwhelming desire to be with her inspired this reckless plan. After the couple was reunited, they were more devoted than ever. And more determined than ever to be together. They even made a covenant, which was most likely a verbal commitment or promise to each other, to this effect. Mattie accompanied him to Richmond in early January of 1864 for a nearly three-month ovation in the capitol. They were wined, dined, and extensively made over. He was celebrated as the South’s great hero; Mattie enjoyed it all and continued to gain strength.

At the end of March 1864, Gen. Morgan was given command of the Confederacy’s Southwestern Virginia Department (which included part of east Tennessee), and they moved to the headquarters in Abingdon, Va. This was Morgan’s first and only departmental command and one of the most undesirable in the entire army.

The next few months brought a different picture into focus. At this time in his career, Morgan was a very disenchanted man. There were clouds of suspicion and disgrace from previous unauthorized military actions hovering around him and a court of inquiry threatening to ruin his career. His intense love for Mattie was the only bright spot in his life during this dark time. On his way back to Abingdon from what would be the last Kentucky Raid, he wrote: “How very anxious I am to see you & to hold you in my arms. Do not think I shall permit myself to be separated from you again.” His appearance indicated that he was a tired, sick man who had aged considerably, and Basil Duke, who had just been released from the Ohio prison, was appalled at the change in Morgan. The new command was a mixed group, with many untrustworthy elements among them, while most of his former command was still in prison in Ohio.

On Aug. 28/29, 1864, Morgan and his men once again rode off from Abingdon to Greenville, Tenn. Even though Tennessee was a Confederate state, it was widely divided, and this part of east Tennessee was very pro-Union. Though strongly advised to the contrary on separating himself from his men, Morgan selected the largest and most comfortable house in the area for his headquarters, that of Mrs. Catherine Williams, a friend and possibly distant cousin of Mattie’s family.

That day, Sept. 3, 1864 he sent Mattie the last telegraph she would ever get from him: “Arrived here to day. Find that Enemy have not been this side of Bull Gap & none there. ‘Mizpah’” (Mizpah was the location in ancient Israel where Jacob and Labana erected an altar as a sign of the covenant between them. John used it to renew his covenant with Mattie never to surrender.)

Mrs. Williams had three sons, two of whom fought for the Confederacy and one for the Union. The Union soldier-son was married to Lucy, a woman of questionable character. During the summer while operating in Greeneville, John Morgan had revoked the parole of a Union officer whom Lucy Williams had “befriended” and it was always believed by Morgan’s family and friends that it was she who sought revenge.

Four days after leaving Mattie in Abingdon, a Union cavalry force, commanded by Military Gov. of Tennessee Andrew Johnson’s adjutant general, Alvan C. Gillem, surprised the Confederates and John Hunt Morgan was shot and killed by Union private, Andrew J. Campbell, Company G, 13th Tennessee Cavalry. It was believed that Johnson, himself a native of Greenville, felt it his duty to promote the Union cause in the area and was particularly offended by Morgan being recognized as a hero by Southern sympathizers. Ironically, this same Andrew J. Campbell, a native of Ireland and then Helena, Ark., had previously fought for the South and was a member of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry, General Patrick Cleburne’s command. Even more ironic, he was encamped just north of Murfreesboro at the time of Mattie and John’s wedding, although there is no record of his having ever met Morgan and was most certainly not a part of the same social circle. He deserted the Southern cause and then enlisted in the Union Army and that was how he came to be in Greenville on that fateful morning.

Although there was no evidence to actually prove Lucy’s betrayal as to informing the Federals of Morgan’s whereabouts, it was generally accepted that this was indeed the case. She herself never denied the accusations and Joe Williams began divorce proceedings almost immediately. He later visited the Ready family in Murfreesboro. There were other theories as well as to just who did inform the Federals as to Morgan’s whereabouts. One is that a townsperson by the name of D. E. Miller did the “dasterly deed”; the other was that a secret society called the “Red String” informed the Federals. The real truth remains one of history’s mysteries to this day.

Morgan was the only headquarters officer killed, and many believe that he was murdered after surrender and his body desecrated. The facts from eyewitness accounts that “his body was thrown over a mule, paraded around town before being dumped in a muddy ditch, … devoid of almost all clothing … while his enemies shouted and screamed ‘in savage exultation’” certainly couldn’t have made the burden any easier for Mattie to bear. Others feel that he chose death over surrender and indefinite separation from Mattie. Perhaps the covenant he and Mattie had agreed upon previously entered into his decision to gamble on life, rather than death. This was on Sept. 4, 1864 —— the same day that Atlanta fell.

Thus ended one of the greatest love stories of the War Between the States. Their marriage had lasted a total of 630 days.

Mattie learned of her husband’s death and claimed his body under a flag of truce. Grief stricken and pregnant, the 24-year-old widow returned to Augusta, Ga. to stay with relatives. Seven months after the death of Gen. Morgan, Mattie gave birth to their daughter, and named her Johnnie. (Johnnie Hunt Morgan was born on April 7, 1865, just two days before Gen. Lee’s surrender.)

The child was a great comfort to Mattie in her grief. In a letter to her mother-in-law written a few months later, Mattie wrote: “She has indeed proved a blessing to me direct from God, and the only happiness I look forward to in the future is that of rearing her. She is said to be a perfect little Morgan in appearance.” During the summer of 1865, Mattie and little Johnnie returned to her parents’ home in Murfreesboro, where she devoted most of her time and energy to raising her young child and representing her late husband as the widow of a Lost Cause hero.

Her involvement in the Ladies Aid Society, which would eventually evolve into the United Daughters of the Confederacy, brought both honor and remembrance to those living and dead who had fought for the South. In 1984 a UDC Chapter in Murfreesboro was organized and named in her honor. But in 1865, the picture must have been a very bleak one indeed for a young widow with a small baby. Her home, her family and the Southern way of life she had previously known were gone forever.

The period following the war years was a difficult time for everyone, and the Ready family was no exception. In 1870, in order to help alleviate the shortage of family funds, the “New Ready House” opened as a boarding house, with Mattie’s brother, ex-Col. Horace Ready, as its proprietor, “keeping a ledger of those who came to dinner and to spend the night.” This was after the “Great Fire” in Murfreesboro in 1868, when perhaps the old house was either burned or badly damaged.

Mattie remarried on Jan. 30, 1873 after about eight years of widowhood. Her second husband was Judge William H. Williamson of Lebanon, a one-armed Confederate veteran and friend of sister Alice Martin and her husband. They would become the parents of five children over the next several years. Johnnie was known as a loving older sister. She grew up to become an attractive and accomplished young woman. After her graduation with distinction from Patapsco, Md., which was the same prestigious school her Aunt Alice had attended, she was described accordingly: “In appearance, she is very much like her father, has a gifted mind, particularly in elocution, and in her manner has that peculiar magnetism that so characterized her father and gave him influence over men.”

Mattie remained true to her Southern philosophy, unable to let go of the past, even to the point of breaking off a romance between Johnnie and a young man of a pro-Union background. In the early 1880’s, Mattie was described in “Prominent Tennesseans” as “noted for her fine address, intellectual vigor and cultivation, her strength of character and devotion to her children. Handsome in person, and clothed with the graces of the highest order of womanhood, she is naturally of great influence in the community.” Martha Ready Morgan Williamson died on Nov. 16, 1887 at the age of 47, most likely of tuberculosis.

Her love for Morgan was apparent even after death. On her tombstone is the following inscription, “Our Mother – First the wife of Gen’l John H. Morgan – And then of Judge Wm. H. Williamson.”

Six months after her mother’s death, Johnnie married the Rev. Joseph W. Caidwell, a Presbyterian minister from Selma, Ala. On June 28, 1888, at age 23, shortly after her honeymoon, Johnnie died of typhoid fever, thereby leaving no direct descendants of John Hunt and Martha Ready Morgan. There are, however, several descendants still living today both in Lebanon and Nashville who are direct descendants of Mattie and Judge Williamson. Mattie and Johnnie, along with Judge Williamson and some of the other children, are buried in Lebanon’s Cedar Grove Cemetery. Aunt Alice Ready Martin and her family are buried nearby, and keeping watch over all of them are men from the 2nd Kentucky who were with John Morgan and killed in Lebanon in May of 1862, the year that it all began.

Article from the FREE PRESS, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sunday,
February 28, 1988.

Arnette, C.B. “From Mink Slide to Main Street,” Williams Printing

Company, Nashville, TN, 1991.

Interview and information obtained from Mrs. Tennie Hooker Buchtel, granddaughter of Mattie and Judge Williamson, February-March, 1992, Nashville, TN.

Jones, Katharine M., Ed. “Heroines of Dixie: Spring of High Hopes,” Bobbs—Merrill, 1955.

Memoirs of General Basil W. Duke, interview with “NEWS-BANNER” reporter, Louisville, Kentucky, August 31, 1912.

Neff, Robert 0. Unpublished manuscript based on interview and information obtained from Mrs. Samuel B. Gilreath of Lebanon,Tennessee in 1985. Mrs. Gilreath is the granddaughter of Mattie and Judge Williamson.

Neff, Robert 0. & Edith E. Pollitz. “The Bride and the Bandit.” Private publication by Evansville Bindery, 1998.

Pittard, Mabel. “History of Rutherford County,” Memphis State University Press, 1984.

Ramage, James A. “Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan,” The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1986.

“Tennessee Historical Quarterly”, Spring, 1991, Vol. L., No. 1.

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