‘Reckless’ raid into Indiana and Ohio had a lasting effect
The adjectives used to describe Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s 1863 raid into Indiana and Ohio range from “spectacular” and “incredible” to “foolish” and “worthless.”
Morgan biographer James A. Ramage calls it nothing more than a pinprick in a healthy arm. Historian Bruce Catton classified this campaign with all others by Morgan, saying that it made headlines, without any doubt, but didn’t influence the outcome of the war.
Even frequent references to it as the “Great Raid” are potentially contradictory or misleading because many historians and military analysts would argue that it was anything but “great” in its effect on the Confederate effort to win the war and actually worked against it by boosting morale in the Midwest, where Union support had been waning.
One biographer even determined that Morgan must have been insane to undertake such a mission.
Historians, however, obviously are not the only people qualified to determine significance. To the people of southern Indiana and Ohio, the arrival (and rapid departure) of Morgan’s command was the defining event in the war. It left a mark on the population that is still evident.
A risk taker
In late April 1863, tiring of picket duty in southern Kentucky and middle Tennessee, Morgan dispatched scouts north to the Ohio River. He had decided to take the war to the people who were behind the invading Union armies and destroy whatever materials and resources he could at the same time.
He even flirted with the idea of linking up with Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was headed into Pennsylvania on his last serious invasion of the North. In private, Morgan planned the details of a mission that would take him into Indiana and possibly farther.
Whatever his private motives, those around him supported what he publicly proposed, which was to raid north toward Louisville, Ky. Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler, Morgan’s immediate superior, gave his permission not once, but twice, for Morgan to raid as far as Louisville but never had an inkling that Morgan would cross the Ohio River and continue northward.
Gen. Braxton Bragg, commanding the entire Army of Tennessee, did not have a clue concerning Morgan’s true plan, either, and never forgave him for the indiscretion. Morgan’s closest officer, his brother-in-law Basil Duke, was one of the few officers with whom he shared his real intentions, and Duke was seriously concerned about the dim prospects for success.
All in all, Morgan’s decision to cross the great river can only be termed as rash, stubborn and reckless, but typical of the risk taker he had become.
A lost brother
After making careful arrangements for his pregnant wife, Mattie, in Tennessee, Morgan made up his mind to go and never looked back. On June 20, his main force (about 2,500, divided into two brigades under Duke and Col. Adam Johnson and accompanied by two small batteries of artillery) crossed the Cumberland River in Tennessee and moved slowly in the general direction of Monticello, Ky., fighting several small skirmishes along the way.
On July 2, the command crossed the Cumberland River a second time, this time at Burkesville, Ky. On July 4, Morgan foolishly attacked Union forces from Michigan who were positioned strongly on the opposite side of the Green River at Tebb’s Bend, and suffered 75 casualties for his trouble.
Morgan eventually decided to bypass this force, although he could have defeated it with time and effort, and instead headed for Lebanon. Speed was of the essence.
On July 5, Morgan fought a sixhour battle in Lebanon against Union forces under Col. C.S. Hanson. Morgan’s men burned buildings in the center of town, where the Union soldiers were holding out, and eventually forced their surrender.
Tragically, though, Morgan’s younger brother Tom was killed before the town was brought under control. Morgan remained silent with grief while his men went on a rampage in revenge.
Crossing the Ohio
The small army had to continue moving. Around 4 a.m. on July 6, Morgan arrived in Bardstown. By 10 that morning, his men reached the tracks of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, 25 miles south of Louisville, where they burned a trestle, robbed a train and dispatched a company of 130 men under Capt. William J. Davis to threaten Louisville.
The following day, Morgan camped near Garnettsville. A few miles away, in Brandenburg, Ky., his advance detachment captured two steamboats, the Alice Dean and the John. T. McCombs, both of which had been lured into ambush and robbed, then outfitted for an amphibious crossing the next day.
On July 8, in a tedious operation that dragged on for hour after hour (more than 17 in all) the two steamboats ferried Morgan’s men across the Ohio River and into Indiana. After the crossing was complete, the Alice Dean was burned, but for reasons that remain unclear, the John T. McCombs was spared. The latter was sent by Union cavalry into Louisville with news of the in- vasion of the Hoosier state. The “glory” phase of the raid officially began.
Interestingly, Union forces in the area attempted to thwart Morgan without really understanding his intentions. In one case, Brig. Gen. Henry M. Judah moved to cut off Morgan’s retreat to Tennessee, never suspecting that the raider was headed in the other direction.
In another case, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was busy in Cincinnati organizing his army, which was spread throughout Kentucky, dispatched forces under Brig. Gen. Edward Hobson to prevent Morgan from crossing into Indiana. Hobson, however, arrived a few hours after Morgan had crossed the river. The Union missed several opportunities in the early stages to stop Morgan, but the truth is that even men in Morgan’s own command didn’t always know their destination until after they arrived.
Panic in Indiana
On the night of July 8, Morgan and his men camped about five miles north of the river. The residents of Indiana were already in a state of panic. Gov. Oliver P. Morton immediately began preparations for mobilizing every healthy male in the state. The telegraph records for those weeks reveal a massive effort to respond to the danger of invasion.
The next day, the only official battle of the raid was fought at Corydon. Four hundred and fifty men of the 6th Indiana Legion under Col. Lewis Jordan formed a line of battle along a wooded ridge just outside town.
Morgan’s artillery began lobbing shells into the town itself, and the first wave of invaders charged the ridge. Four Indiana soldiers and 16 of Morgan’s command became casualties in the initial charge, which wasn’t a serious attack.
A few minutes later, Jordan saw it was hopeless and surrendered. More than 300 Indiana militiamen were paroled quickly before Morgan moved on. The vanguard passed through New Salisbury and camped near Palmyra.
The next day, 350 militiamen near Palmyra retreated rather than meet up with Morgan’s main force. All through the raid, Morgan split his force into different groups, confusing every effort to intercept him, and on this day, one column destroyed a railroad bridge while another captured Salem and paroled another 200 militia members. In Salem, Morgan forced the town millers to pay a ransom to avoid having their property destroyed.
Morgan encountered stiffer resistance later at Vernon, where a large Home Guard force refused to surrender. He wisely decided to bypass this situation, skirting to the southeast.
Ham and whiskey
That night, Morgan slept in Lexington, Ind. Forces were converging on him from all directions, including Gen. Lew Wallace (the postwar “Ben-Hur” author) with more than 1,000 Indiana troops. But no one would be able to catch him in Indiana.
On July 11, Morgan’s men entered Dupont, where they captured more than 2,000 Mayfield hams, resulting in an odd spectacle for anyone brave enough to peek out the window. Raiders strapped as many as a half-dozen hams on their mounts. Morgan slept in Dupont that night at the Thomas Stout house.
On July 12, Morgan’s main force reached Versailles. Union forces, including those under Hobson, were just hours behind Morgan, so he wasted no time in paroling the 300 prisoners he took.
In the looting that occurred, Morgan’s men captured vast stores of whiskey, which they consumed freely. Two of Morgan’s men were shot later that day near Sunman. That night, Morgan slept in an old schoolhouse known as the Ferris School, just a few miles from the Ohio River.
The next day, Morgan’s men passed by Klump’s Tavern, where patrons still can enjoy a drink, and reached the Ohio River at Harrison. Exhausted, Morgan napped for a few hours before moving into southwestern Ohio. Forces under Hobson were less than two hours behind him.
Into another state
The Ohio portion of Morgan’s raid was a continuation of the same story, perhaps at a slightly more frenetic pace: burning bridges and buildings, canal boats and depots; ripping up railroad tracks; seizing funds; and forcing civilians to cook and provide food.
Like her sister state, southern Ohio found itself in a state of panic. The authorities did not fail to act, however. More than 115,000 men were placed under arms to counter Morgan’s raid in Indiana and Ohio.
The Ohio portion of the raid lasted from July 13 to 26. Morgan skirted north of Cincinnati, again avoiding heavy forces that had been arrayed against him. Federal cavalry had tracked him through Indiana and stayed with him in Buckeye country as he crossed the main part of the state in about six days.
On July 18, Morgan arrived in Portland, Ohio, fully expecting to cross back into Virginia (actually West Virginia) and circle back to Kentucky and Tennessee. The ford on the Ohio River was guarded, but Morgan was not overly concerned. He slept that night imagining that his greatest risks were about to be put behind him. He failed to post pickets, however, and the next day, everything began unraveling.
Caught in a vise
On July 19, as they were beginning the Ohio River crossing, Morgan’s men made an unpleasant discovery. Around the corner of Buffington Island loomed the steamship Moose, ready to open fire.
To make matters worse, the pursuit that had been following him for weeks finally caught up with him. Hobson and Judah — who had been tracking the Confederates since they had crossed the Ohio — along with Col. August V. Kautz fell on Morgan’s men with numerically superior forces of militia and cavalry.
From this point on, things went from bad to worse. Morgan encouraged those who could make it to complete the river crossing under fire. About 300 men made it back to Bragg’s army that way. Another 700 or so became trapped with Basil Duke and Col. Smith, fighting tenaciously until they were overwhelmed and forced to surrender. The rest of the command accompanied Morgan north, farther away from home, in an attempt to find a safe place to cross.
Morgan never crossed the river. Arcing farther north over the next seven days, the Confederates found themselves pressed harder and harder on all sides.
Small pockets of Morgan’s remaining forces were picked up daily, and finally Morgan himself and a remnant of about 300 men were forced to surrender near West Point and New Lisbon, Ohio.
Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. He is the author of numerous books, including a Civil War novel, “Gray.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan led a raid to destroy materials and resources being supplied to Union forces, but the effort boosted morale of Union supporters.