But when the Civil War broke out, her husband was one of the few Northeast Tennesseeans to align himself with the Union Army. So he (and Sarah) spent the next few months organizing Union sympathizers and infiltrating the Confederate ranks in Greeneville. And so, it was only a matter of time until, in 1864, Sylvanius was ambushed and killed by a Confederate soldier.
Sarah was devastated. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, she vowed revenge. She dedicated herself more than ever to the Union cause.
Well, it was about that time that a young firecracker of a General, John Hunt Morgan, was passing through the area. His recklessness had earned him the moniker “The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” and when Sarah caught wind that he’d be passing through Greeneville, she made up her mind to avenge her husband’s death.
“I took my sunbonnet in hand,” she recounted, “and went to the street and met Colonel Williams and after I had passed the time of day I asked him to pass me out after my cow as there was several cows on the hill. He told the guard to pass me out and to pass me in when I returned and I would give him some milk. So I was through the enemies lines and went on after the cow. When I got to it I threw (a rock) at her and she went down the hill and I went after her. When I was out of sight, I crossed over in a corn field and went to a friend’s house that had aided me more than one time and got a horse and went to our forces that were at Bulls Gap.”
But when she got to Bulls Gap, her story was met with jeers. Apparently, some of the Union leadership thought she was full of bologna. But she persisted, and ultimately convinced several other troops to come back to Greeneville.
Later that night, as she was escorted by Union forces, Sarah spotted General Morgan behind a garden fence outside a tavern. She alerted the Union soldiers, who promptly caught up to Morgan and killed him. According to legend, The General Morgan Inn marks the exact spot in Greeneville where his body fell.
After the war, Sarah re-married, had two kids, was divorced, re-married (again), and was soon re-widowed. She had an extremely difficult time finding suitable employment to support her daughters. The most promising effort was to give lectures (in northern cities, of course) recounting her experiences during the war. Finally, in 1897, Congress granted her a pension of $12 per month. Twelve years later, she was struck by an “electric car” and died. She was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Her deeds no doubt had a huge effect on the outcome of the war, and despite her later hardships, she gained acclaim as a hero for her contributions to the Union effort. But her story serves as a testament to courage, bravery, and commitment, and leaves us with a very important lesson: Never underestimate a woman with a vengeance!
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