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Morgan’s Lightning Strikes

By Dave Batalo and Ben Greenbaum 

The Confederate troopers pictured here struck a decidedly nonchalant pose at a unique moment in their military service during the war’s second summer. Both had recently joined John Hunt Morgan’s Cavalry in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Their decisions to join Morgan had very different impacts on each man’s wartime fortunes.

Ellsworth, right, with Henry S. Bethards of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry. Dave Batalo Collection.
Ellsworth, right, with Henry S. Bethards of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry. Dave Batalo Collection.

For the trooper seated on the left, his service culminated with a trip to a prison camp. Henry Selby Bethards, a bespectacled pipe smoker from Bourbon County, Ky., had served a 5-year stint in the U.S. Army that took him to Nebraska Territory. He mustered out upon the completion of his enlistment on April 7, 1861, a few days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter. His end date conveniently coincided with his determination to serve the Southern cause.

Bethards joined Company B of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry, where he earned promotions to corporal and sergeant. On July 19, 1863, he suffered two wounds and fell into the hands of his old employer at Buffington Island, Ohio, the culminating engagement of Morgan’s daring Indiana and Ohio Raid.

Bethards spent the remainder of the war confined at Camp Douglas, Ill., and Point Lookout, Md. Upon his release, he made his way back to Kentucky and lived a bachelor’s life on his farm in Millersburg, where he died on July 24, 1900—just a few days after the 37th anniversary of his capture in Ohio. Bethards was 68.

For the young man seated on the right, his service was marked by a high-profile role as a wily master of the telegraph, with a genius for disinformation campaigns that confused and thwarted Union commanders.

He is 19-year-old George A. Ellsworth, pictured in this previously unpublished photograph dated July 1862, the only known wartime image of him. The slightly raised eyebrow, neatly-trimmed mustache, dimpled chin and straw hat tilted at a rakish angle suggest a mischievous look that meshes with one biographer’s description of his having a “slippery, chameleon-like personality that allowed him to blend into any crowd.”

Though forever connected to the South by his wartime exploits, Ellsworth hailed from Canada and spent a significant portion of his eventful life in the North. Born in Ontario, he held a childhood fascination with the opening of the American West. He turned his dreams into reality in the mid-1850s, when, at age 14, he made his way to Chenoa, Ill., and took a job as a telegrapher for a railroad company.

Following Morgan’s rising star

Thus began Ellsworth’s career in telegraphy. Over the next few years, he moved from place to place on a western tack, absorbing the culture and customs in his chameleon-like manner. In Evanston, Ind., he marched with Wide-Awakes in support of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. In Houston, Texas, he cast his lot with the Bayou City Guards, a militia outfit designated Company A of the 5th Texas Infantry. After the regiment left the Lone Star State for Virginia without him, for telegraphers were in short supply, Ellsworth learned of Morgan and chased the future general’s rising star.

TECHNOLOGICAL WAR: John Hunt Morgan, pictured here in an August 1862 Harper’s Weekly engraving captioned “The Highwayman of Kentucky,” relied on Ellsworth to hack enemy telegraphs.
TECHNOLOGICAL WAR: John Hunt Morgan, pictured here in an August 1862 Harper’s Weekly engraving captioned “The Highwayman of Kentucky,” relied on Ellsworth to hack enemy telegraphs.

Ellsworth tracked down Morgan in Mobile, Ala. According to an edited version of his memoirs by Stephen E. Towne and Jay G. Heiser, Ellsworth recalled, “I immediately called on him and introduced myself and told him that I would like to join his command which he informed me were at Chattanooga. I gave him to understand that as he operated almost entirely inside of the enemy lines that I was satisfied I could be of material assistance to him by the use of the telegraph in throwing the enemy off his track and off their guard give false reports of his whereabouts, countermand orders that would be likely to impede his progress into Kentucky etc. etc.  He listened to what I proposed and ordered me to get ready to accompany him to Chattanooga—was only too glad to do so and the next day we were on our way up the Alabama River. At Montgomery we took the cars for Chattanooga where we found ‘Morgans men’ in camp some three or four hundred of the best mounted men in the Confederate Army. I enlisted again as a high private in Company A 2nd Kentucky Cavalry.”

On the night of July 9, 1862, during Morgan’s “First Kentucky Raid,” the command went into camp within a few miles of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, about 90 miles due south of the city of Louisville. Morgan took a small group of men, including Pvt. Ellsworth, and located telegraph lines near the village of Horse Cave to intercept messages. A heavy lightning and thunderstorm ensued, making the receiving and sending of messages difficult. Ellsworth completed his duties despite the weather, sending false messages to aid Morgan. Because he handled the telegraph that stormy night, Ellsworth was given the moniker of “Captain Lightning” or “Morgan’s Lightning.”

The following day, Morgan promoted Ellsworth to captain. A most important and productive relationship had now commenced between Morgan and Ellsworth. Armed with his pocket telegraph, Ellsworth intercepted federal telegrams, sent false orders, and provided incorrect information regarding the location and strength of Morgan’s command.

“Like the wolf in ‘Red Riding Hood’”

SHREWD TELEGRAPHER: This artist’s rendering depicts Ellsworth as decidedly older and without a mustache. The illustration appeared in Stories of Indiana, published in 1898. 
SHREWD TELEGRAPHER: This artist’s rendering depicts Ellsworth as decidedly older and without a mustache. The illustration appeared in Stories of Indiana, published in 1898. 

Ellsworth filed an official report about the Raid on July 16, describing in some detail how he manipulated messages using a pocket instrument which could be connected to live wires at any point along the telegraphic lines. He signed the report as General Superintendent Confederate States Telegraph Department.

The press picked up the report, and it spread like wildfire through newspapers North and South, and also in England.

Some newspapers highlighted the novel use of the telegraph as a weapon of war; much in the same way today’s media report activity by computer hackers. The Standard of London headlined Ellsworth’s report “Extraordinary Telegraphic Strategy—A Curious Chapter in the History of the War.” The Examiner of London complimented Ellsworth as “a gentleman of lively imagination” in its report headlined “Tapping the Telegraph.” The Atlanta Confederacy heaped praise on Ellsworth: “His feats in telegraphing,” reported the newspaper, “are among the most extraordinary of the age.”

The Confederacy added, perhaps the ultimate compliment when it embraced Ellsworth as an honorary son of the South: “Captain E is a Canadian by birth, but an ardent, whole-souled Southerner in his feelings.”

The London Times meted out perhaps the highest praise in an editorial. “Mr. Ellsworth attaches himself to the advance guard of the squadron and enters one town after another with his successful chief. In each case, while others are busy plundering or destroying, he repairs instantaneously to the telegraph office, ejects or supersedes the legitimate operator, and installs himself in the vacant post, like the wolf in ‘Red Riding Hood,’ or a clown ‘minding the shop’ of some unsuspecting tradesman in a pantomime. None of his correspondents ever ‘suspicioned’ in the least what a trap they were falling into, and General Morgan had the pleasure of learning from the enemy’s own mouth all that it concerned him to know, and what he had best do or avoid doing.”

Library of Congress.
Library of Congress.

The Times went on to take an unnamed Southern newspaper to task for giving spiritualism credit for the hacking of telegraphs. “No spiritualism was half as clever. It is an uncommonly pretty story, and goes far to redeem the character of the Americans for inventive genius and dexterity in the stratagems of war.”

Ellsworth’s deeds were even celebrated in song: “How are you Telegraph!,” also known as the “John Morgan Song.”

Not all press was friendly to Ellsworth. In Evansville, where Ellsworth had once marched with the Wide-Awakes, The Daily Journal described him as “the man who does the dirty work for Morgan by stealing government dispatches while his master is stealing honest men’s horses.”

Sowing confusion and fear in a series of raids

Similar exploits ensued in August 1862 during the raid on Gallatin, Tenn., including the capture of a train that was a direct byproduct of Ellsworth’s telegraphic misinformation.  Ellsworth had a real affinity for mimicking the telegraphic techniques of other operators, thereby misdirecting the intended recipients of telegraphed messages. Brig. Gen. Basil W. Duke, who noted that Ellsworth was a masterful, telegraphic genius in a telegraph office, recognized this gift for mimicry.

Returning to Kentucky, the raiders entered Lexington, Morgan’s hometown, on Sept. 4, 1862. They received a glorious welcome from the townspeople and a week’s furlough from Morgan. Ellsworth received an added bonus when Morgan placed him in charge of all telegraphs in the state. Morgan and his command remained in Lexington until after the Union victory at the Battle of Perryville forced the Confederates to evacuate Kentucky.

On Dec. 22, 1862, Morgan’s men ventured back into Kentucky on what would become known as the “Christmas Raid.” Ellsworth rode with them, gleaning information and sowing confusion with his telegraph. The operation was a complete success. The gifts to Southern loyalists included the destruction of portions of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the capture of 800 men of the 91st Illinois Infantry.

After this highly successful foray, Morgan spent the winter of 1862-1863, in Tennessee. On one occasion, Ellsworth obtained permission to venture behind enemy lines to tap the wires. The mission went as expected, as he intercepted a number of messages for Morgan’s review. Emerging from heavy brush that had concealed him, Ellsworth started his journey back to the Confederate lines. Along the way, he stopped off in Union-occupied Tompkinsville and wandered into a local store. Dressed in a civilian suit and a blue overcoat, he brazenly invited a couple Union soldiers to have a drink with him.

In March 1863, Ellsworth had another close encounter, but not at his instigation. While on a tapping mission, he encountered and exchanged shots with a Yankee cavalryman approximately 20 miles from McMinnville, Tenn. Ellsworth made it back to camp with a fractured left leg, about four inches above the ankle. He claimed the Yankee had wounded him.

The attending physician in Morgan’s brigade hospital, Asst. Surgeon J. Benson Wier, disputed the story. In his medical opinion, the likely cause of the break was Ellsworth’s horse running against a tree. 

Ellsworth recovered in time to join Morgan on his memorable raid into Indiana and Ohio.

The raid commenced on July 2, 1863, an inauspicious day in hindsight: 525 miles southwest along the Mississippi River, the beleaguered Confederate garrison at Vicksburg was about to surrender, and 675 miles east in Pennsylvania, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army failed to break the Union lines at Gettysburg.

Morgan’s men began their journey under far more favorable circumstances when they crossed the Cumberland River near Burkesville, Ky., and rode north. Their good fortune was due in part to Ellsworth’s telegraphic skills, which created havoc within the nearby Union Army—as word that Morgan’s raiders were on the move, the Yankees feared using the telegraph to communicate. Telegraphers closed their offices and removed instruments and batteries, fearing that the Confederates would use the lines to their advantage. Their fears were realized in the form of misleading and inaccurate messages about Morgan’s whereabouts to the Cincinnati headquarters of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the military Department of the Ohio, courtesy of Ellsworth.

Unfortunately for the raiders, their luck waned and ended with a crushing defeat on July 19 as they attempted to cross the Ohio River at Buffington Island. Nearly 750 of Morgan’s men were captured, including Ellsworth’s pard, Henry Bethards. Those who avoided death or capture, including Ellsworth, attempted a river crossing a dozen miles north, opposite Belleville, Va. A number of Morgan’s men drowned in the attempt. Ellsworth made it across the river by holding on to the tail of another officer’s horse, and made his way to safety.

Morgan and a handful of his troopers escaped the debacle only to fall into Union hands six days later near Salineville, Ohio. Held in the Ohio State Penitentiary, Morgan and six of his officers escaped in November 1863, and returned to Kentucky.


Ellsworth also found his way back to Kentucky. At some point after his return, he suffered a hip wound while being chased by Union soldiers near Salyersville, Ky. Ellsworth evaded his pursuers and made his way to his homeland, Canada, in April 1864. There he recuperated from his injury and became enmeshed in a plot to liberate Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas. The camp’s population included a significant number of Morgan’s men, including Bethard.

The plot never materialized. It fizzled in November 1864 with a series of arrests of suspicious citizens in and about Camp Douglas and the greater Chicago area. By this time, Morgan was dead—shot in the back by Union cavalry during a Kentucky raid.

Ellsworth ended his war service as Lt. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s telegraphic department chief. In an 1884 biography of Beauregard, the general is credited as sending Ellsworth to Morgan “in order that he might bewilder the enemy” with false dispatches. There may be truth to this claim, as Beauregard had earnestly recommended Morgan for the colonelcy and command of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry back in April 1862.

Union telegraphers eventually caught up with Ellsworth’s pioneer efforts and struck back with their own attacks, and the use of cipher telegrams, to protect lines of communication. Although the art of cryptography was not new—it had existed since times of antiquity for entertainment, political and military purposes—Ellsworth can be fairly recognized as a prominent name in Confederate military counterintelligence.

Ellsworth returned to his civilian occupation as a telegrapher at Western Union in Cincinnati. One of his fellow operators happened to be 18-year-old Thomas A. Edison, at the beginning of his storied career. In a 1929 biographical sketch of those early days, author Frank L. Dyer noted, “Edison says that while apparently a quiet man in bearing, Ellsworth, after the excitement of fighting, found the tameness of a telegraph office obnoxious.”

EDISON ON ELLSWORTH: “Edison says that while apparently a quiet man in bearing, Ellsworth, after the excitement of fighting, found the tameness of a telegraph office obnoxious.” —Thomas A. Edison to Frank L. Dyer.
EDISON ON ELLSWORTH: “Edison says that while apparently a quiet man in bearing, Ellsworth, after the excitement of fighting, found the tameness of a telegraph office obnoxious.” —Thomas A. Edison to Frank L. Dyer.

Edison continued, “We soon became acquainted,” and added, “he wanted me to invent a secret method of sending dispatches so that an intermediate operator could not tap the wire and understand it. He said that if it could be accomplished, he could sell it to the Government for a large sum of money. This suited me, and I started in and succeeded in making such an instrument, which had in it the germ of my quadruplex now used throughout the world, permitting the dispatch of four messages over one wire simultaneously. By the time I had succeeded in getting the apparatus to work, Ellsworth suddenly disappeared.”

Edison took Ellsworth’s apparatus with him as he progressed in his career. “Many years afterward I used this little device again for the same purpose. At Menlo Park, New Jersey, I had my laboratory. There were several Western Union wires cut into the laboratory, and used by me in experimenting at night. One day, I sat near an instrument, which I had left connected during the night. I soon found it was a private wire between New York and Philadelphia, and I heard among a lot of stuff a message that surprised me. A week after that I had occasion to go to New York, and, visiting the office of the lessee of the wire, I asked him if he hadn’t sent such and such a message. The expression that came over his face was a sight. He asked me how I knew of any message. I told him the circumstances, and suggested that he had better cipher such communications, or put on a secret sounder. The result of the interview was that I installed for him my old Cincinnati apparatus, which was used thereafter for many years.”

The little device outlived Ellsworth. After leaving Edison and Cincinnati behind, he became embroiled in several unsavory events, notably a drunken shooting of a bartender in a Kentucky gambling den in 1867, and an attempted masked robbery of a train near Houston in 1875.

In 1880, an apparently chastened Ellsworth resurfaced as a married man, working as a telegrapher in New Orleans. His Civil War memoirs, Telegraphic Strategy in Warfare, appeared in installments in the New Orleans Times-Democrat in 1882, and provided a wealth of information about his exploits.

Ellsworth died of a heart attack, on Nov. 28, 1899, while working at a telegraph machine. A conductor discovered his lifeless body in a chair with his hand upon the telegraph key.

References: Descriptive and Historical Register of Enlisted Soldiers of the Army, National Archives; Henry S. Bethards military service record, National Archives; The Bourbon News, Paris, Kentucky, July 27, 1900; Towne and Heiser, “‘Everything is Fair in War,’ The Civil War Memoir of George A. ‘Lightning’ Ellsworth, Telegraph Operator for John Hunt Morgan,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 108, Nos. 1 & 2, Winter/Spring 2010; Towne, “The Adventures of Lightning Ellsworth,” New York Times, Dec. 23, 2012; George A. Ellsworth military service record, National Archives; The Evansville Daily Journal, Evansville, Ind., Aug. 28, 1862; The Standard, London, England, Sept. 9, 1862; The Examiner, London, England, Sept. 13, 1862; The Charleston Daily Courier, Charleston, S.C., Oct. 30, 1862; Liverpool Mercury, Liverpool, England, Sept. 13, 1862; Duke, Morgan’s Cavalry; Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861 to 1865, Including a Brief Personal Sketch and a Narrative of His Services in the War with Mexico, 1846-8, Vol. 1; Electrical Review, Aug. 2, 1883; Dyer, Thomas Alva Edison In Menlo Park, N.J.; The Sedalia Democrat, Sedalia, Mo., Nov. 29, 1899; Thompson, Stories of Indiana.

Dave Batalo is president of the Central Virginia Civil War Collectors’ Association, and proprietor of Richmond Civil War Antiques, LLC. A retired nuclear engineer who has collected Civil War artifacts since the mid-1970’s, he specializes in cased images of identified Virginia soldiers. He lives in Richmond, Va., with his wife Cecilia.

Ben Greenbaum is the co-owner, with Bill Irvin, of Perry Adams Antiques in Petersburg, Va.

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