When I travel the roads of Benton County, MO, I am aware that sometimes I am on sections of the old military road. Both Union and Confederate armies traveled this road during the Civil War. Sometimes they would camp in the valley of Duran Creek, below the hill where Russell Johnson now lives. The armies would break camp early in the morning and continue on to Warsaw and the ferries on the Osage.
The Civil War caused a breakdown of law enforcement in the border states and peaceful people were plagued by outlaws who would roam the country to kill, rob, and to plunder. Sometimes these outlaws were called bushwhackers, which was probably a good name for them. My great grandfather, Thomas S. Morgan, was ambushed on the old military road by two bushwhackers and in a fight for his life, he killed the two men.
To understand how Morgan survived the ambush, you would need to know his background as a strong, determined, and resourceful man. He was born in Virginia in that part that is now West Virginia. As a boy, he was strong and healthy and learned to swim the swift cold waters of the Mononghalia. He walked the area where his ancestor, David, had fought a hand to hand combat with two Indians. They had tried to tomahawk two of David's children. David, too, was a determined man. Each time that the Indians would burn his cabin, he would build it back.
When Thomas S. Morgan was a young man, his parents moved the family west to Illinois, where he was a soldier in the Black Hawk War. He married Brooky Kyger in Vermilion County, IL and soon formed a partnership with his brother-in-law to do what nobody believed possible; to build a dam of rock and dirt across the Big Vermilion River. With a lot of help from the pioneers of the county, they built the dam and the mill that served customers for forty miles around and ran day and night.
The dam greatly angered a group of flatboaters. They had Morgan arrested for building a dam across the river. The case came up for trial in Danville. At that time, Abe Lincoln was a circuit riding lawyer, who had attracted Morgan's attention. Lincoln agreed to represent him in the case. When the case was called, Lincoln asked the court for an opinion as to the river being navigable. The judge ruled that it was a navigable river, which greatly pleased the flatboaters. Lincoln then moved that the case be dismissed since a state court had no jurisdiction over navigable rivers. The case was dismissed and never pursued in Federal court.
Years later, his yen to go west again caused Morgan to move to Hickory County, Missouri. The Civil War clouds were looming on the horizon and his support for Lincoln caused him to be labeled by those of the southern side as a "Black Republican." He made friends easily and had many friends among the Southerners.
Morgan acquired 1200 acres of farm land and built a two-story farm house east of Preston, MO. Morgan had become intrigued by steam power so at a spring site on what is F highway, he built a steam mill, a distillery and large granaries for wheat and corn. He had lost his first wife in Illinois and had married Phoebe Lightner. He was father to seventeen children and some of his sons worked in the mill and helped farm.
In 1861, the mill and distillery were robbed by bushwhackers, who came from as far away as Warsaw, to haul away his grain by the wagon load. Morgan closed the mill for the duration of the war. His friends were able to provide him with a list of the names of all those that robbed the mill.
Many times, he was called to do errands for those afraid to venture out in those dangerous times. On one occasion, a union army camped on a farmer's land. The farm's stacks of oat and timothy hay were fed to the horses and the army moved on leaving the farmer without any feed. The desperate farmer came to see Morgan, who took his fastest horse and galloped after the army. Fifty miles away, he caught up with the army and got the pay for the farmer's hay.
In 1862, Morgan started on an errand to Versailles in Morgan County, going by way of Warsaw and the old military road. He took one of his farm wagons and his best team of horses. In the wagon was feed for the horses and in a cannon ball box was some food. This cannon ball box from Fremont's army is now in the Benton County Museum in Warsaw. Also, hidden in the wagon near the seat was an 1851 Navy Colt. Morgan was a marksman and owned several guns, but the Colt seemed to be his favorite. At Warsaw, he stayed overnight with a friend and his family. As he left the next morning, his friend warned him to be very careful. Due to ill feeling created by General Fremont's destruction of Warsaw the year before, travel in the area was unsafe for union people.
Morgan continued on his way, but he wasn't many miles out of Warsaw, when an incident increased his fears. Being every watchful, he had noticed a lone horseman galloping his horse far behind on the road. He stopped the wagon, but when he looked back, the horse and rider had disappeared. Some minutes later, the sound of galloping in the timber told Morgan that the rider didn't want to be seen. Morgan now feared an ambush was in the making. This fear was increased when some time later, the horse and rider appeared again on the road far ahead. Before long, Morgan encountered another problem. He met a group of armed and unfriendly men, who demanded to know if he was union or southern. Morgan answered that he was union, and the leader of the group ordered him to get out of the wagon. They did a quick search of the wagon, took nothing, but spent some time looking over the team of horses. Unharnessing the best horse, they took the horse and rode on toward Warsaw.
Morgan started to Versailles and he intended to do just that. He held up the wagon tongue and coaxed his remaining horse to pull the wagon to a secluded spot from the road. He unharnessed the horse, and took a blanket from the wagon for a saddle. He decided that it was time to put the Colt in his pocket. He proceeded on his way, knowing that a possible ambush was still ahead. Quite some distance down the road, he neared a creek where the postoaks grew tall and thick. Among the dense trees, almost hidden, were two men on horseback. They had rifles cradled in their arms. Morgan knew that this was the ambush, but he hoped that his change from a wagon to a horse would help him. The men road quickly to block his path and Morgan turned his horse slightly to conceal the gun in his picket. The man that seemed to be the leader asked Morgan if he was union or southern. Morgan gave his usual reply that he was union. At this point, the leader grinned broadly. He waved his gun barrel toward a jagged oak that had been damaged by lightning. He ordered Morgan to dismount and walk over to that jagged oak. Morgan noticed that both men had their rifles ready to fire. He mustered all the speed that an old man could muster, and slid off his horse on the side away from the men. As he dismounted, he whipped out the Colt and fired one shot at each man. Both men tumbled to the ground and laid still.
When Morgan told the story to his family later, he stated that the had intended to run for his life, if the Colt had misfired. Morgan quickly scanned the woods for other men and then reloaded. He hitched his horse to the jagged oak and then made friends of the horses that the ambushers had ridden. When he had selected the best saddle, he put it on his own horse. He selected the best of their two horses and hitched it to the oak. With the saddle and the bridle off of the lesser of the two horses, he waved his arms at the horse and told it to go home. Riding his horse and leading the other, he journeyed back to where he had left the wagon to find it still intact. When he had harnessed the horses, he started once more to Versailles.
As he neared the ambush area, he approached the scene with caution. Seeing one man move, he stopped and getting out of the wagon walked to the man who was suffering greatly. He was the man who had grinned when Morgan said that he was union. He seemed to be trying to say that he was sorry. Morgan examined the man's wound and decided that the wound would be fatal and more time would only add to his suffering. He told the man, "You men were very foolish to do what you tried to do in the way you tried to do it." Morgan took his crumpled handkerchief from his pocket; stretched it; folded it; and laid it across the poor man's eyes. He walked to the wagon and got the Colt and returned to end the man's suffering.
His trip to Versailles was without further incident. After two days in Versailles, Morgan started the tiresome wagon trip home. When he arrived at the scene of the ambush, he recognized the jagged postoak. he stopped the wagon briefly and surveyed the scene of the encounter. The bodies were gone, and so were the rifles, the saddle and the bridle.
The terrible war lasted three more years. When peace was declared, Morgan bought grain and started the mill again. He let bygones be bygones. At one time, he bought a load of grain from one of the men who had robbed his mill. He was elected judge of the county court. The job of judge, running the mill, and operating a 1200 acre farm didn't keep him from starting on a new project.
During the war, he had decided to dam the Big Niangua River in Camden County and build a mill there. The river took a meander of seven miles in a horseshoe bend, known as the Whitworth bend, and came back within one quarter mile of the starting point. A high hill of limestone rock was at the base of the bend. He bought the land and proposed to blast a tunnel under the hill, build a mill at the lower side, and then build a dam to force water through the tunnel. Nobody in those days believed that his plan would work. Using black powder to blast the rock and men to carry out the rock, he completed the tunnel.
In the hot July of 1869 he commenced the mill. With four men cutting trees, he hewed the logs for the mill. The pace that he worked at was far too much for an old man. Before the two-story mill was completed, he collapsed. His sons hauled him home in a wagon and sent for the doctor. The doctor checked him and shook his head, saying that this man is too far gone. Morgan then wanted to make a will, but when the notary arrived, he too shook his head. The next morning, the sands of time ran out for the old miller. That night, one of the largest crowds of men every assembled in Starks Township, came to pay final respects to the man who wasn't afraid of a shadow.
At the sale of his personal estate, one of the horses sold, was the horse Morgan had confiscated from the two bushwhackers in Benton County. Among the firearms sold was the 1851 Navy Colt that killed the bushwhackers. About a hundred years after the sale, this author was able to buy the gun from the grandson of the purchaser. It is now resting in a safe deposit box. The old cannon ball box that carried provisions is resting in the Benton County Museum. Maybe it is proper that these two reminders of the wagon trip on the old military road should remain in the county.
(Source: Benton County ..., 20 Feb 1992) The newspaper editor wrote an "Editor's Note" which Clifford cautions was not correct where it stated that Levi Morgan served as an officer on the staff of General Robert E. Lee. The correct information, Clifford stated, was that Levi Morgan's oldest son was in General Lee's guard and he didn't know if he was an officer. The note follows:
(Editor's Note: The following article is the winner of a contest on historical events in Benton County, MO sponsored by the county historical society. T. Clifford Morgan's great grandfather, Thomas S. Morgan, was a Union sympathizer. However, two of his brothers were members of the Confederacy with one, Levi Morgan, serving as an officer on the staff of General Robert E. Lee. The Navy Colt .36 caliber revolver mentioned is owned by Morgan and has his great grandfather's name on the trigger guard. Morgan, age 72, grew up near Preston and moved to the Warsaw area after retiring from General Motors in 1979.) A photo of Clifford and grandson, Dan Marshall, looking at the revolver, accompanied the article.
Email Dick Henthorn: Rhenthorn1@aol.com
Posted: 23 Sep 2009