John Hunt Morgan
The Other Great Escape
General John Hunt Morgan Eludes the Yankees in 1863.
We had never been inside the old house. But somehow I wangled a grand tour of our great-grandfather’s home in 1995. It was about one hundred and thirty-five years old when we saw the magnificent interior for the first time. It was a grand old palace on two floors with straight brick walls and doors that were much larger than those we use today. Like many central Kentucky houses, this one was surrounded by a covered porch. Unlike many Kentucky houses, this one had a secret passageway from the second floor to the outside.
Our guide, the owner of the property, would not let us leave until he showed us the exact spot on the front porch where General John Hunt Morgan had stood in 1863. I agreed with him that it was an important spot, all right, but that was so we could get away and continue our tour.
I supposed that General Morgan’s presence had something to do with the imprisonment of my great-grandfather Will Pryor, and his flight to Canada. But I did not know much else. My brother knew even less. Except that Will Pryor had been Kentucky’s chief justice longer than anyone on the supreme court of Kentucky. I wondered if it helped to have served a jail term before one was appointed to such a high legal position, but there was no one to ask.
As soon as I got back to California, I began to research the General John Hunt Morgan episode, but was disappointed at how little I could find. Until, that is, I dug into papers found in obscure corners of the Internet and information I gleaned from friends and family back in Kentucky.
Morgan and his aide Thomas H. Hines and other officers managed to escape from a Columbus, Ohio prison in the fall of 1863. This was because Hines noticed that his cell was dry and there was no mold on the cement floor where mold should exist. He reasoned there was an air passage under the floor. They dug their way through the floor to the passage and tunneled past a granite wall to escape. They split up once outside. Morgan and Hines took a train to Cincinnati, jumping off as the train entered the city’s limits.
Fortunately for Morgan and Hines, a man in Ontario, Canada signed into a hotel using the name, J. H. Morgan. Union detectives became determined that the General went north, allowing the two escapees time to go down the Ohio River and cross into Kentucky. They were met with much help as they made their way to the home of Will Pryor. At 2:00 AM one morning they stopped at the inn of a man named Pollard. Pollard had been reading a Cincinnati newspaper about the escape and recognized the two men. It was a very dramatic time for them until Hines and Morgan understood Pollard was on their side. He gave them food and a comfortable bed for the night, then escorted them to the Pryor home.
Pollard, who knew Pryor, was the great-grandfather of Wendell Berry, probably America’s finest active writer. He supplied me with his family’s story about the escape.
Pryor obtained passes through Union army lines for Hines and Morgan. They left that night, hoping telegraph lines had been truly destroyed. Almost as fast Pryor was warned that had been found out. He slipped out of his house that night through the secret passageway, hoping to get to Canada.
Four men were suddenly scrambling to avoid the heavy hand of the Yankees.
And all of a sudden, I realized why some people could get excited about the spot where John Hunt Morgan stood in December of 1863.