"Everything is Fair in War": The Civil War Memoir of George A. "Lightning" Ellsworth, Telegraph Operator for John Hunt Morgan
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"Everything is Fair in War":
The Civil War Memoir of George A. "Lightning" Ellsworth, Telegraph Operator for John Hunt Morgan

George A. "Lightning" Ellsworth's name has long been associated with the campaigns of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan. Morgan, the daring cavalry commander whose raids during the Civil War into Kentucky and Tennessee helped to make those states contested battlegrounds, employed the skilled telegraph operator Ellsworth to tap Union telegraph wires, collect vital intelligence of Union movements, and then send deceptive and misleading messages. These messages often sent pursuing troops in the wrong direction or sent other troops and railroad trains into traps set by Morgan. Much of Morgan's success and fame as a cavalry commander derived from his use of Ellsworth's telegraphic skills in waging war using irregular methods.1 [End Page 3]

As scholars increasingly view Morgan as a prototypical guerrilla commander of the Civil War, it is appropriate to examine the role of his subordinate Ellsworth as an implementer of his tactics. However, to date scholarly notice of Ellsworth's activities has been limited to his famously cheeky report produced after Morgan's first Kentucky raid in July 1862, a report that made both Morgan and Ellsworth famous worldwide. Ellsworth prepared his report for his commander providing details of his methods in tapping wires, intercepting enemy telegraphic communications, and sending spurious and misleading messages, all of which had the effect of confusing Federal commanders intent on closing with Morgan's force. This report was widely published in the southern newspaper press and was reprinted in the North and across the ocean in Great Britain to great acclaim. This report also appeared in the War of the Rebellion series of official records published after the war, making it widely accessible.2 Scholars have generally ignored Ellsworth's subsequent published reports during the rebellion, none of which was reprinted in the official records series for the convenience of historians. Most significantly, Ellsworth's important 1882 memoir of his actions during the Civil War has gone almost completely unnoticed.3 To this end, an annotated edition of Ellsworth's memoir will help to inform scholars [End Page 4]

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George A. Ellsworth. Confederate Veteran, November 5, 1897, 577-78

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of Ellsworth and Morgan's guerrilla tactics. It will reveal Ellsworth's activities subsequent to the July 1862 raid into Kentucky, showing continued telegraphic deception into 1863 during the Gallatin raid, the invasion of Kentucky, and the so-called "Christmas Raid" in the winter of 1862-63. Ellsworth's significant role in Morgan's raid into Indiana and Ohio in 1863 will also be shown. His memoir will go far to illustrate the connections that existed between Morgan's Partisan Ranger and guerrilla warfare activities and Confederate secret operations during the war. Finally, it reveals new information and corroborates previously known accounts of Confederate secret operations in the North during 1864 and 1865, including efforts, in cooperation with northern conspirators, to subvert the 1864 United States presidential election and foment insurrection in the North.

Treatments of Ellsworth to date have often highlighted the humorous and entertaining aspects of his activities in deceiving Federal commanders. This theme derives in part from the mocking, impudent tone with which he wrote his reports, humiliating the enemy and making warfare appear to be playful fun. This light treatment may originate in Basil Duke's important chronicle of service in Morgan's command written immediately after the war. In one anecdote, Duke mocked Ellsworth's incompetence as a soldier in losing an officer's horse and baggage: "It was the peculiarity of this 'great man' to be successful only in his own department; if he attempted anything else he was almost sure to fail."4 However, important themes are revealed in examining Ellsworth's memoir, which may have served as the writer's effort to correct the unflattering depiction established by Duke. First, the immediate effect of Ellsworth's telegraphic activities while campaigning with Morgan was to allow Morgan and his forces to move through enemy-occupied territory with seeming impunity. Ellsworth would tap...