Elizabethtown Battered by Cannonballs
Assistant Editor of The News-Enterprise
Dec. 27, 1992
…After routing Union soldiers in Upton and Nolin on Dec. 26, Morgan’s men faced the largest Yankee stronghold along the trail—650 soldiers barricaded in Elizabethtown.
As a chilling rain gave way to a cold dawn on Dec. 27, Morgan’s men were assembled on the Elizabethtown Cemetery Hill overlooking Severn’s Valley. The town that unfolded below was easy prey for those who manned the cannons.
Morgan's View of Downtown Elizabethtown from Cemetery Hill
Courtesy of The News-Enterprise
A Union defeat was indisputable, they were outnumbered 6-1. But credit the bluecoats for attempting a clever illusion. John Allen Wyeth, then a 17 year-old attached to Morgan’s Raiders, later chronicled the chicanery.
“The Federal commander had marched his troops half a mile or so in the direction of our advance and deployed them upon a hill in an open field,” Wyeth wrote. “They were marching in double file across the brow of the hill, and to my untutored gaze there seemed to be no end of them.
“It turned out there were not quite 700 in the ‘Mighty Army.’ The wily Col. H.S. Smith was repeating the performance of that King of France for as soon as the head of the column was out of sight, it went around to the back of the line and paraded across again for our benefit.”
Captain Tom Quirk, the epitome of the stubborn Irishman, charged forward to solve the mystery, but nearly died doing so.
“Our captain ventured too near for his safety, and received a fusillade which came very near his undoing,” Wyeth wrote. “But with his Irish luck, he lived through this and many other dangerous and thrilling experiences….
The illusion now evaporated, Col. Smith then sent a messenger to meet Morgan’s forces and demanded their surrender. The Union corporal charged by horseback down the muddy lane with envelope in hand. Scrawled on the back it read:
Elizabethtown, Ky., Dec. 27, 1862
To the Commander of the Confederate Forces:
Sir, I demand an unconditional surrender of all your forces. I have you surrounded, and will compel you to surrender.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Commanding U.S. Forces
Morgan sent a counter message that Smith’s forces were the ones surrounded and they should surrender. Smith refused, and Morgan issued an ultimatum—he gave the Union 30 minutes to move women and children to safety before shelling would commence.
The Confederate general proved loyal to his word, and a deafening barrage of cannon fire roared from the hilltop. With blasts about every 15 seconds, more than 100 cannonballs plummeted into Elizabethtown in a 20 minute blitz.
“I was just behind our battery and was fascinated by the regularity with which the pieces were named and the accuracy of aim,” Wyeth wrote. “Being right behind the gun as it was fired and looking in the line of projection, it was easy to recognize a hazy, bluish steak or tail which seemed to be chasing the missile. I could plainly see great holes knocked in the walls, and soon a soldier here and there would run out of the houses, evidently looking for a safer place.
“At last, a white flag was waved from a window,” Wyeth added. “The firing ceased.”