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The Hanging Tree


Lillian Morgan Christie

  We were trudging along in a cow pasture going up a small hill where at the top once stood a farm house when Mr. Kennedy said to me,  "There it is."  I stopped, pushed back my hat which had been protecting my face from the blazing August sun, and looked up.  Yes, there it stood before me; an emblem of love; an emblem of Hate; an emblem of Revenge:  "God's Masterpiece".  The trunk of a dead white oak tree, some 12 or 15 feet high with it's branches gone many years ago, just short stubs where they were sawed off.   I stood there looking at this old dead tree pondering over its life history with tears pouring down my cheeks.  I felt as though I was standing on Hallowed ground.  Finally the silence was broken when Mr. Kennedy said, "Here is where the house used to set, some 30 feet from the oak tree."  There stood a portion of an old fireplace with the charred andirons still in it.  The old house had burned the year before.

  This is a Civil War Story, the war between the states over slavery.  It's a very true story of one family, my family, and what they endured during that terrible war.  The story of my Great Grandparents, George and Nellie Morgan and their 10 children, of Scotts Hill, Tennessee in Decatur County.

  George and Nellie were both born in North Carolina.  Their families were slave owners and owned large plantations.  Many families were not in favor of slavery, and thus it was with George and Nellie.  After the birth of their first son, James Wylie Morgan, in 1833 they packed all their belongings in a covered wagon, joined a caravan of neighbors and relatives to move westward, looking for a better place to raise a family and make a living without slavery.

  There were very few roads in those days over a mountain or through a mountain, so traveling was done around a mountain.  The roads were nothing more than Indian Trails in some places, roads had to be made as they went along.  The caravan pushed its way south across what is now South Carolina, across the corner of Georgia, westward across Alabama and across the corner of Mississippi.  It was here in Mississippi their second child, Sarah Lavine Morgan was born in 1835.  As they traveled they always stayed on the outside rim of the Tennessee River.  It was necessary to stay near the river for water, shelter and food.  They could hunt and fish.  At night the wagons formed a circle around their campfire for protection from wild animals and unfriendly Indian Tribes.  The wagons were drawn by ox teams, no feed had to be carried to take up valuable space  in the wagons.  Their trek took them northward along the Tennessee River in the state of Tennessee.  Here some of the caravan stopped to make their homes, others traveled onward, crossed the river and came to rest in Graves county, Kentucky.

  Here George and Nellie and their two children in 1835 built a log house and lived for 9 years, and 5 more children were born.  Great Grandfather George taught in one of the first public schools in  Kentucky.  It was a small log structure with one high window in each end and a small door on the south closed with bear skins.  He was paid $17.00 per month and sometimes in tobacco, which was legal tender in Kentucky at that time.  Children came to school if and when they choose.  The seats were hewn logs, there were no desks.   Books were whatever books they may have had at home, but mostly the Bible.  Pokeberries provided the ink and wild turkey quills were their pens.  It was not thought necessary then for girls and women to have an education, thus most of the pupils were boys.

  The United States Government had just bought west Tennessee from the Choctaw Indians and moved them into the Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma.  East and Middle Tennessee were anxious for West Tennessee to be settled up by white men, the rich soil and mild climate made it the best cotton growing belt in the United States.  A man could take up a homestead for himself and each of his minor sons, but not the daughters. 

  Great Grandfather George and Great Grandmother Nellie Morgan thought it would be a good place to put their roots down for good.  Again they packed their covered wagon, drawn by oxen, and with their 7 children followed the Tennessee River back down into Tennessee stopping in what is now Decatur County in 1844.  Here George took up homesteads for each of his minor sons and himself, including my own Grandfather Thomas Morgan.

  Here they cut trees and cleared the land and built houses, some were of log and some were frame, the old fro used to split the logs still stands on one of the old homesteads.  The Morgan's were a large, hard working progressive family.  They helped to build the first school houses, roads and churches.  On one of the homesteads they build a church about 25 by 30 feet large, all made of hand hewn logs.  the seats were also made of logs.  This church was called Bluff Chapel.  It was used for both school, church, weddings and funerals.  One acre on which the church stood was deeded to the United Brethren Church, it includes the family Morgan burial ground, never to be disturbed.  Frank Morgan born in 1845 was the preacher at Bluff Chapel.  he also was a circuit rider and had circuits down in Mississippi.  About 1925 when the little log church fell into disuse and began to crumble it was taken down.

  The Morgan family raised most everything they wore and ate.  They bought few clothes and few groceries.  Coffee was bought by the bushel, green and in the bean.  It was roasted in the big fireplace and ground by hand in a grinder nailed to the wall. 

  They raised and butchered 10 to 15 hogs each fall for their winter meat.  The razor back hogs lived in the woods upon acorns, hickory nuts and roots.  At butchering time they were hunted down and shot by the owner, he knew his own hogs by the mark put on the ear when it as a pig, so many slits or crops in the ear.  these marks were known miles around and were generally respected, yet many a bitter and long standing feud has had its origin in the killing of another man's hog.  Great Grandmother Nellie and the daughters ground and made their own sausage.  It was cooked into patties, stored in large stone crocks or jars, sometimes into large dried gourds, covered with rendered lard to preserve them for winters use.  Headcheese was made from broth, small pieces of meat boiled, seasoned and cooked with corn meal.  This also was poured into jars and covered with lard.

  Wood ashes were saved to make lye for soap making time, following the hog butchering event.  Water was added to the ashes, then drained off in which was put meat scraps and fat, boiled in the big black kettles until the right consistency then allowed to cool.  Sometimes it was cut into squares and dried, sometimes it was in a semi-solid form, tan in color; it lathered well and was a good dirt remover.

Sometimes when they ran out of salt for the table a shovel full of salty dirt from under the smoke house where the meat had been salted down was covered with water, boiled then drained, boiled down and used for salt for the table. 

  Sugar cane was grown to make the family supply of sargum molasses.  Cotton was their cash crop.  Sometimes corn was sold and for as much as 50 per bushel, and maybe a hog was sold for 10 per pound.  they grew what they ate and made what they wore.  Many bushels of peas, and beans were grown, dried and stored for winter food for the large family.   The big apple orchard provided apples to eat raw and many bushels to dry.  Potatoes were raised and stored under straw.

  Great Grandfather George had a grist mill, he not only ground meal for his family but for many neighboring families.  Great Grandmother Nellie cooked the corn pones in big black kettles in a bed of coals in the fireplace.  All the cooking was done in the fireplace. 

  Sheep were raised for wool, it was carded, made into yarn then into homespun cloth and finally finding its way into clothes for both the men and the women, dresses, shirts, pants.

  Great Grandfather George had a favorite mule named Judy, he rode Judy most everywhere he went.  he was a tax collector, he collected the money from the farmers and took it to the County Seat, Decaturville, a distance of about 8 miles, and Old Judy was still his mode of travel.  In 1845 framers paid a tax of 18 per 100 acres of land.

  Tennessee had been good to the Morgan family the past 18 years, bringing them 3 more children, making George and Nellie a family of 10.  they owned several farms consisting of more than a thousand acres total.  They had become self sufficient and prosperous, as prosperous as hill country farmers are.

  April 12, 1861 the Civil War between the states broke out which lasted 4 years.  The state of Tennessee was the last to secede from the Union and the first to return to it.  When the Governor of Tennessee asked for volunteers most able bodied men of age responded.  Great Grandfather George Morgan and 4 of his sons were in that war in the Union Army.  The first Morgan to enroll was the oldest son, James Wylie, the 29 year sold.  He left his wife and children and went off to war to fight for waht he believed was right.  He enrolled in June of 1862 and was in until the war was over.  George and Nellie's second son, George Jr. enrolled in August of the same year, he was 23, and not married.  One month later Great Grandfather George enrolled, he was 52.  War was so close to their home they could hear the cannons roar all day long, they were still asking for volunteers.  The third oldest son of George and Nellie, Jonathan B. Morgan, then 20, enrolled in September 1862.  Great Grandmother Nellie had seen her husband and 3 sons go off to war.  Just how much heartache a mother can take is shown in this true story of one family affected by war, and there were thousands of other mothers who suffered the same.  She said, "I believe the Lord will give me the strength I need."  and He did.

  In March of 1863 while in battle in the town of Boliver, Great Grandfather's horse reared and threw him to the pavement, breaking several ribs and his shoulder, he was confined to a hospital to recover.  In March of 1863 Jonathan Morgan was sent home to rest for a 10 day furlough.  While there some 70 guerillas came out of the hills and raided the Morgan farm.  There were men on horseback and men in wagons.  Jonathan tried to protect and defend his mother and sisters and 2 brothers.

  My own Grandfather Thomas Morgan was then 16 years old.  The guerrillas put a rope around his neck and pulled him up to a limb of the white oak tree in the front yard.  They held him there until he was almost dead, then brought him down, threw a bucket of water in his face to revive him and then pulled him up again.  But they did not kill him.  They hollered and laughed and had their fun.  Great Grandmother Nellie and the family left at home recognized some of these men as ones they had grown up with in the neighborhood, they begged the men to go away and leave them alone.

  Begging didn't help any.  The guerrillas loaded all the hay and feed in the barn on their wagons, tied the cows, mules and horses to their wagons then burned the barn.  Lavine Morgan was plowing in the field, the guerrillas unhitched the mules, dropping the harness, took the mules leaving her standing there holding the plow.  They made the women cook a lot of food to take along, they then loaded the hams, dried beans, dried apples, took the clothing and bedding from the house and left.  yes, included in the things they took was Great Grandfather's favorite mule, Old Judy.

  After they had gone the Morgan family buried Jonathan.  He had fought in the front lines of war and was shot and killed at home.  He is buried in the Granny Austin Cemetery near Scotts Hill, one of the first cemeteries in that area.  The Austin's migrated from North Carolina with the Morgan's in 1835.  I personally visited the gravesite of Jonathan B. Morgan in August of 1967.  He has a Government Civil War headstone.

  The Morgan family with the help of neighbors managed to survive through the summer with whatever food they could raise and with very little clothing.  In August of 1863 the 4th son of George and Nellie, Francis (known as Frank Morgan) enrolled in the Army, he was just 18 years old.  The homestead became a wasteland of overgrown weeds and tall grass, with no stock to keep it down.  Great Grandmother Nellie thought she just could not go through the winter there without clothing, bedding and food for the table.  The atrocities in any war are terrible and this one was no exception.  Her husband and 4 sons had fought in the Union Army, she had one son left at home, my own Grandfather Thomas. 

  Great Grandmother Nellie sold enough farm machinery to outfit one covered wagon with a team of oxen.  they loaded what few personal things they had left, nailed the house shut, left a note on the door and with Lavine, Betty, Cynthia and Thomas started for Kentucky where they used to live.  They walked most all the way and the ground was cold.  Great Grandmother Nellie froze her feet and suffered with them the rest of her life.

  by spring Great Grandfather George had been discharged with his injuries.  That day in May he arrived home to find it a devastated wasteland, no barn, no stock, no family.  He sent word to Great Grandmother Nellie and the family in Kentucky.  They came back to the farm, together they all began to repair and rebuild.  It was a harder task than when they had homesteaded in 1844.  That one year and eight months he was serving his country had destroyed all it had taken him and his family 20 years to accumulate and build up.  It took courage, it took faith, but like thousands of other families of war town homes, when you needed that faith most of it was there for the asking.

  Great Grandmother Nellie, her daughters and son Thomas gave Great Grandfather the names of many of the guerrillas who raided their farm, they knew these men.  They had lived there 20 years. 

  In August they received word their son George Jr. had been taken prisoner by the Confederates and sent to the Andersonville prison in Georgia.  At the same time his brother-in-law  William Blundell was captured and held in the same prison.  They were put before a firing squad, William was not injured but George Jr. was shot in the arm.  He faked being very bad, they thought he was going to die anyway so they traded him for a Confederated prisoner.  William was a prisoner till the end of the war.  George Jr. spent 9 months in prison.  Great Grandfather George and his 4 sons ere all in the Union Army in the Tennessee Cavalry of Volunteers.  they all came home safely, with the exception of Jonathan, who was killed at home.

  The war was over on the battlefront but not yet at home.  The Morgan's had blood in their eyes and wanted revenge from the guerrillas.  They were a religious family but still lived by their guns and believed an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Great Grandfather and his sons went through those hills and hollers in Decatur and Henderson Counties looking for the men who raided their farm, killed Jonathan, hung Thomas till almost dead, threatened the women folk, took his cattle, horses, mules, feed, bedding and clothing.  As they found them they were brought to his house to be identified.  Great Grandfather said you must be very sure of your identification of these men, a "yes" he is one or "no" he is not.  9 men were hunted down and identified as some of the raiders.  A rope was put around their necks, one by one, pulled up to the limb of this same white oak tree, there they hung till dead.  It was all legal as far as the law was concerned, at that time the hanging of horse thieves was not frowned upon by the law.  Everybody was too busy rebuilding the war torn community to be concerned with horse thieves.  The Morgan family had their revenge, but that did not bring them back their son, or their stock or rebuild their barn, that took many years.

  In August of 1967, I, Lillian Morgan Christie, went to Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and visited the children of those who witnessed this terrible Civil War tragedy in 1863.  This story has been related to me by many of the Morgan descendants and people who are living in and around Scotts Hill, Tennessee who also have knowledge of this hanging.  Mr. Charles Kennedy, who owns one of the Morgan homestead, and whose family has lived there many years and knows the Morgan's first told us this story of the hanging tree and took me to see it.  This homestead is now being farmed by a 4th generation descendent of George and Nellie Morgan, Robert Grimsley.

  I stood before this same old oak tree, which holds within it's heart the terrible memory of the atrocity in which it was involved.  The same oak tree Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather planted when they moved there from Kentucky in 1844.  they had nursed and protected it from a sapling to see it grow into a beautiful shade tree where they had sat many a hot day looking out over their fields.  Where Great Grandmother Nellie and her daughters had sat summer after summer in its shade churning butter in the old wooden churn.  Where much wool had been carded, and many pairs of wool socks and sweaters knitted, mending and weaving done for their family and home.

  After the Morgan children were married and moved away, except Lavine, after the passing away of Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather, Nellie and George Morgan in 1897 this old oak tree seemed to know it had filled its purpose in life.  The One who gave it life also took away its life, its branches were sawed off and used for firewood.  Today it stands as a monument to a pioneer family and has stood there 123 years, how much longer it will stand is known only to its Maker.  I saw this old oak tree for the first and only time in 1967 and have personally given it the name of  "The Hanging Tree"

The End