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The Battle of Kingsport was a family affair

Ned Jilton • Dec 4, 2019 at 1:30 PM

There is a cemetery in Kentucky that has buried in it a lot of history surrounding the Battle of Kingsport.

Lexington Cemetery, in Lexington, was designed as much as a rural park as a resting place for the dead. Its tree-lined roads wind through graves, statues, monuments, lakes and grassy areas where people can pause to pass on their family heritage and history to the next generation.

This sounds nice, you might be saying, but what’s that got to do with the Battle of Kingsport?

Well, the Confederate soldiers on the bank of the North Fork of the Holston River in December of 1864 were Kentucky cavalry. And all the top officers involved in the battle and the events leading up to it are buried in Lexington Cemetery. Most next to each other.

When you talk about Confederate officers buried at Lexington Cemetery, you might as well start at the top with Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge.

Breckinridge, a former vice-president of the United States who lost to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election, commanded the East Tennessee-Southwest Virginia District of the Confederate army in 1864. His main task was to defend all the raw materials for the war effort that came out of this region. Things such as salt from Saltville, used to preserve meat and for potassium nitrate used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and lead from the mines in Wytheville and Marion used in the manufacture of bullets.

One of Breckinridge’s top generals in East Tennessee, and the man who originally commanded the Confederates fighting in Kingsport, is buried near Breckinridge.

Gen. John Hunt Morgan led several raids into the North. The biggest was in 1863, when he rode through Kentucky and across Indiana before finally being run down and captured in Ohio. His raid was the farthest north of any uniformed Confederate troops.

Morgan staged a daring prison break, tunneling out from the Ohio Penitentiary, and returned to Confederate lines in Tennessee. Eventually, he and his cavalry were placed under the command of Breckinridge and stationed in Greeneville.

If you visit Morgan’s grave, take note of the date of his death: Sept. 4, 1864. It was on this day that Morgan’s cavalry was surprised by the 13th East Tennessee cavalry in Greeneville and the general was killed.

It was this same 13th East Tennessee that charged across the ford on the North Fork of the Holston River and attacked the Kentucky cavalry from the front while Kingsport’s Col. Samuel N.K. Patton and the 8th East Tennessee cavalry attacked from behind after crossing the river farther north.

Taking command of Morgan’s forces upon his death is the man who is buried in front of him at Lexington Cemetery: Gen. Basil W. Duke.

Duke was Morgan’s brother-in-law and had trained many of the raiders in mounted combat for the ride into Ohio, where he was captured along with Morgan. He was later exchanged and commanded the 2nd Kentucky cavalry in Greeneville before assuming overall command. At the end of the war, he was part of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ bodyguards that escorted him out of Richmond when it fell.

After the war, Duke wrote a book about Morgan’s raid into Ohio and played a part in preserving the Shiloh battlefield.

But on the day of the Battle of Kingsport, Duke had been ordered to Bristol, being so ill with influenza he was unfit for duty. This meant that command of the Confederate forces fell to the person buried to the left of Morgan and Duke at Lexington Cemetery: Col. Richard Morgan.

Col. Morgan was Gen. Morgan’s younger brother and at one time commanded the 14th Kentucky cavalry. At the start of the war, Dick, as the younger Morgan was known, served as an aide on the staff of Gen. Breckinridge. Now it fell to the colonel to delay the Federals at Kingsport to buy time for the general to gather his forces to defend Saltville.

Col. Morgan was in a strong position at Kingsport, but there were two things he had not counted on: the speed of the Yankee advance and who would be leading the way.

The Federal cavalry had pushed through Rogersville very quickly, and the Confederates were surprised when they woke to find the Yankees on the other bank of the river on the morning of Dec. 13.

Leading the Federal attack were the 8th, 9th and 13th East Tennessee cavalry, whose knowledge of the area allowed them to get around the Rebels and attack from in front and behind at the same time.

The Confederates were routed, according to Union Gen. Alvan Gillem’s report, where he noted, “This movement completely surprised them, and after a feeble resistance, considering the advantage of their position, they fled in confusion, and were pursued for seven miles. The pursuit only ended when the enemy, loosing all semblance of organization, scattered through the woods for safety.”

Among those taken prisoner in Kingsport was Col. Morgan.

The Battle of Kingsport lasted less than a day. By the evening of Dec. 13, Union cavalry was through Blountville, overran Bristol on Dec. 14, and was skirmishing outside of Abingdon by Dec. 15.

The Confederate command at the Battle of Kingsport was made up of family and friends. And even though they were separated during the battle, they now rest together in Lexington Cemetery.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]