Things looked bleak during June 1863. The American Civil War had entered its third summer, and there was no end in sight. Both the Union and Confederacy reeled from their winter and spring losses. May, in the east, had brought the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville and the subsequent death of Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. In the west, things simmered toward a boiling point.
General Rosecrans and his Union forces were on the move, after receiving orders from General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C., instructing them to move on the Confederates in General Braxton Bragg’s command. By May 1863, even President Abraham Lincoln urged the importance of Rosecrans’s movement starting in a briefly “I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep Bragg from getting off to help Johnston against Grant.” The Vicksburg campaign had begun, and General U.S. Grant—having won several victories around Vicksburg—had started a siege of the city. It was imperative that any Confederate aid be prevented.
Braxton Bragg, on the other hand, was not trying to get aid to those in Vicksburg but rather hoped to stop Rosecrans and his army in Tennessee. After a devastating defeat in December and January at Stones River, Bragg’s army had been left in shambles. He needed to establish a strong defensive position in Tennessee, but with Rosecrans, quickly preparing to move south, time was of the essence.
Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan believed he had just the plan to give Bragg the time he needed and also deal a blow to the Union. Morgan was a seasoned cavalryman, with numerous successful raids under his belt. By June 1863, he itched to add another success to his count. However, first he had to convince his superiors, Generals Joseph Wheeler and Braxton Bragg, to allow him the time and supplies to go on the offensive to the North.
Morgan’s idea was to take nearly 3,000 cavalry through Kentucky to threaten Louisville. Next, he would attempt to destroy the L&N rail lines that the Union troops depended on for supplies. Morgan and his men would then cross the Ohio River into Indiana, turn east for Ohio, re-cross the Ohio River, and make their way back to Bragg through Kentucky or possibly West Virginia. What started as a mere attempt to distract the Union would soon become the longest raid of the civil war.
Bragg liked Morgan’s plan because it would buy him the time he desperately needed, but he thought crossing the Ohio River posed too great a risk. “I like everything you said, except crossing the Ohio River into the north,” said Bragg. “Go ahead and raid Kentucky. Capture Louisville if you can. But do not, I repeat do not, cross the river. Stay in Kentucky. Go anywhere you want in your home state, but I command you to stay south of the river.”
Morgan agreed to these terms, yet the famous raider would not abided by them once away from the watchful eyes of his superiors. On June 11, 1863, Morgan and his infamous raiders left Sparta, Tennessee, and embarked on what would become one of the most famous cavalry raids of the American Civil War.
Despite earlier permission from both commanders, Morgan received orders in mid-June to delay his raid just as he moved his men towards the Cumberland River. The Confederates in Knoxville, Tennessee, already faced Union troops that had made a raid through southern Kentucky.
Undeterred by the interruption, Morgan found a way to use the situation to his advantage. With Bragg’s permission, he had taken 1,500 men with him on the raid. Morgan, however, believed that he needed at least 2,000 men for a successful raid. After two weeks of waiting around, during which Morgan convinced General Wheeler to grant him at least 500 additional men, he set out again towards the Cumberland River. Unfortunately the water was too high for the horses to cross. Again undeterred, Morgan had flatboats built immediately. Under the cover of darkness, the entire party forged their way across the Cumberland River.
The longest raid of the American Civil War had begun.
(Look for more 160th anniversary posts about Morgan’s Raid in the coming weeks!)