Part 3 of a three-part series
After five days in Indiana, Morgan and his men left the Sunmansville area and headed east. They reached Harrison, a small town that straddles the Indiana and Ohio border, on July 13, 1863. Colonel James McCreary was quite impressed with the setting:
“Today we reach Harrison, the most beautiful town I have yet seen in the North. A place, seemingly, where love and beauty, peace and prosperity, sanctified by true religion, might hold high carnival. Here we destroyed a magnificent bridge and saw many beautiful women.”
The group remained in Ohio for about two weeks, behaving no differently than they had in Indiana. Although they thought the worst behind them, Morgan’s raiders had yet to face their most difficult challenge. Harrison’s citizens had heard tell of the approaching Confederates. When the Rebels arrived, they were met with locked stores and boarded-up homes with families cowering inside. These minimal defenses didn’t deter the raiders, however, and in their typical fashion they started pillaging. They helped themselves to anything they wanted, including some unusual items like ladies’ hats and dresses. A journal by a Harrison’s citizen reads: “They pillaged like boys robbing an orchard.” Morgan’s men managed to leave the town in complete disarray after only a few hours.
The Confederates continued east towards Hamilton, taking several prisoners along with them. Before he paroled the captives, Morgan discussed false plans within earshot hoping they would report to the next Union force they came across. The fake plan involved an attack on Hamilton, but Morgan’s real plan was in all actuality to circumvent the Union Army and make haste toward the nearest passible ford. After he released the prisoners, Morgan sent 500 of his men to Miamitown and headed northeast with the remaining 1,500.
In the meantime, Union General Ambrose Burnside and his thousands of soldiers were hard at work in Cincinnati developing a plan to stop the raiders. General Burnside ordered all militia from 32 southern Ohio counties to report to four specific locations. He told the men nearest the Ohio River to dig in and be prepared to head off Morgan should he try and cross the river.
General Burnside was very concerned with the threat against Queen City. General Henry Halleck, with no idea what General Burnside was facing in Cincinnati, ordered him to relocate to Knoxville. When he didn’t receive a response, General Halleck sent the following telegram to General Rosencrans in Tennessee July 13: “General Burnside has been frequently urged to move forward and cover your left, by entering East Tennessee. I do not know what he is doing. He seems tied fast to Cincinnati.” July 13th was the same day that Morgan moved his forces into Ohio, leaving General Burnside with a tough decision: should he protect Cincinnati or reinforce General Rosecrans and his men in Tennessee?
The decision was made for him when he received several reports informing him of the approaching raiders. Ironically, Morgan wasn’t planning to attack Cincinnati. He skirted the city and on July 14 passed through Loveland, Carthage, and Glendale before eventually arriving at Camp Dennison. The Confederates spent the night there and moved on quickly at dawn.
A few days went by without incident, but as the raiders drew nearer to the Ohio River, things took a turn for the worst. The men General Burnside had ordered to watch the riverbanks were ready. Those in West Union, Ohio observed the raiders and watched as Brigadier General Edward Hobson and his cavalry followed close behind. This Union force had been secretly following Morgan ever since he had crossed the Ohio River and entered Indiana earlier in July but until this point had failed to catch up to the raiders. Morgan was also being tracked by a large contingent General Burnside had sent out when he saw the Confederates sneaking past Cincinnati.
Morgan wished to get out of Ohio and into Kentucky or West Virginia as soon as possible.
A combination of problems prevented him from crossing near Ripley and West Union, so he decided to cross at Buffington Island, located on the Ohio-West Virginia border. Morgan had to act quickly, however, because in addition to the two forces on his tail, Union gunboats were patrolling up and down the shallow river like sharks.
When Morgan and his men arrived at Buffington Island on July 18, they saw that the ford was blocked by earthworks put up by hundreds of local militia. The Confederates outnumbered the men hiding behind the entrenchments, but Morgan was unable to launch an attack because dusk was falling fast and a heavy fog had settled over the area. Not realizing how close behind him the Union armies were, Morgan gave his tired men a break and set up camp. This was a critical mistake.
When Morgan’s raiders awoke on July 19, they found themselves surrounded by Union forces. Two Federal brigades caught up to Morgan and attacked immediately. More Union troops arrived and nearly cut off all chance of escape. Close to 3,000 Yankees engaged in battle with Morgan’s remaining 1,800 men. They were exhausted and outnumbered. To make matters worse, two Union gunboats, the U.S.S. Moose and the U.S.S. Allegheny Belle, had arrived on the scene and opened fire. A third boat showed up a few hours later.
With all hope of crossing the river lost, Morgan’s best option was to fight his way north and hope to find another ford. The raiders were torn apart by the joint Federal forces. Morgan’s second-in-command, Colonel Basil Duke, was taken prisoner, 750 raiders were captured, and 52 raiders were killed. Morgan made a narrow escape with 700 of his men and fled upstream. At Belleville, West Virginia, about 300 of them successfully crossed the Ohio River and avoided capture. Morgan was halfway across the river when a gunboat came into view. Knowing that the raiders on the Ohio side of the river would be trapped, he turned his horse around and joined them. Along with those 400 men, Morgan spent the next few days hiding from the Yankees and searching for another place to cross.
The longest raid of the Civil War ended on July 26. While eating breakfast, Morgan
received word that another Union force was moving towards him. He quickly rallied his troops and fled in the opposite direction. By this point, every Union soldier in the area was hunting him. The raiders were moving towards Steubenville when they encountered a small Federal militia. Morgan had no choice but to hoist the white flag. Captain James Burbick discussed the terms of surrender with Morgan. The raiders gave up their horses, arms, and equipment in exchange for a safe river crossing. Captain Burbick and his men agreed to join in the crossing.
On the way to the river, Morgan saw two dust clouds approaching. Union forces were heading towards them fast, one from the right and one from the left. Too tired to resist, Morgan halted his men and surrendered again, this time to Major Rue of the Ninth Kentucky Cavalry. Major Rue later wrote: “It was a hot July day and they were the tiredest lot of fellows I ever saw in my life.” The raiders had covered over 1,000 miles through 3 states, terrorizing the Midwest for nearly a month. Elusive and quick – and despite their famous pillaging – they also made their way into countless legends and stories.
“A bold ride and a long ride! But they were taken at last,
They almost reached the river by galloping hard and fast,
But the boys in blue were upon them ‘ere ever they gained the ford
And Morgan, Morgan the raider, laid down his terrible sword.”[i]
[i] Woolson, Constance F. “Kentucky Belle.” The Best Loved Poems of the American People. By Hazel Felleman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1936. 274-77