Historical Marker #1809 in Lexington notes the military career of Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Years before Morgan became known as the "Thunderbolt of the Confederacy," he gained valuable military experience during the Mexican-American War.
Morgan was born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1825 to Calvin and Henrietta Morgan. After Calvin’s business failed there, the family moved to Lexington, to be near their Hunt family in-laws. Young John attended Transylvania University for a couple of years but was expelled for dueling. Shortly thereafter, Morgan attempted to gain admittance into the U.S. Marine Corps, but, due to the competitiveness of the commissions, he was refused. Morgan’s chance to regain some of the family honor lost in his dismissal from Transylvania was found with the outbreak of the Mexican-American War.
In 1846, war fever struck Lexington. At one rally, more than 5,000 people attended to see the martial display and hear patriotic speeches. Cassius M. Clay, although opposed on moral principles to the war, made a fiery speech supporting his nation in its time of need. John Morgan, his brother Calvin, and their uncle, Alexander, joined Company K of the 1st Kentucky Mounted Volunteers. John’s popularity among the men showed as he was quickly promoted to second lieutenant and then first lieutenant. The regiment was commanded by Col. Humphrey Marshall.
The 1st Kentucky Mounted Volunteers traveled by steamboat from Louisville to Memphis, Tennessee, and then cross-country to San Antonio, Texas. Like many units, the regiment suffered various illnesses on its journey to the seat of war. Although the Kentuckians missed out on many of the early battles, they fought in what was probably the most dramatic battle of the war, Buena Vista.
During the second day of the Battle of Buena Vista, Mexican Gen. Santa Anna attacked, forcing U.S. troops to fall back in disorder. During the Mexican offensive, the 1st Kentucky Mounted Volunteers - fighting on foot - became isolated and was forced to retreat. During the withdrawal, John’s uncle, Alexander Morgan, was killed. The Kentuckians regrouped, mounted their horses, and charged the attacking Mexican force, and, with the support of infantry, drove the enemy back. During the battle the 1st Kentucky Mounted lost 27 dead and 34 wounded. Gen. Zachary Taylor extolled the regiment, noting that "The Kentucky Cavalry, under Colonel Marshall, rendered good service dismounted, acting as light troops on our left, and afterwards, with a portion of the Arkansas Regiment, in meeting and dispersing the column of cavalry at Buena Vista."
The 1st Kentucky Mounted Volunteers would not see combat again in the Mexican American War. Their year-long enlistment ended and they were mustered out in New Orleans in June 1847. Back in Lexington an enormous barbeque was held in honor of the victors at Buena Vista. One toast that was offered during the celebration reputedly said, "To the Heroes of Buena Vista: By their firmness and valor, they have given themselves to history as the Spartans of the Republic."