“A damned bad day for surrender”: Morgan’s Raiders at Columbia, Kentucky

Part 1 is here

For 21 days Morgan and his raiders were delayed in Tennessee. The 2,000 troops under Morgan’s command searched for the opposing enemy through heavy rains, muddy and impassable roads, but the elusive Union troops had already left Tennessee and no longer posed a threat. Morgan, upon learning this information, turned northward to the Cumberland River, intent on crossing it once again. This long delay however, would be critical, costing Morgan and his men not only time but also vital supplies that would be desperately needed once behind enemy lines.

John Hunt Morgan

Lucky for Morgan, the Union—having closely watched the river and seeing no sign of the raiders for 10 days—began to return to normal duties, thinking the threat to be over and that the raiders must have retired to General Braggs main column near Tullahoma. Reaching the Cumberland on July 1, 1863, Morgan found the river to be extremely high, creating concern, as it would be impossible to cross without the use of canoes. Many of the men stripped off their uniforms placing them along with their rifles in the canoes and began wading across the river. Once on the opposite shore, they redressed. The Union soldiers still in the area saw the naked men slogging up the river bank and exclaimed “They’re naked as jay-birds!” running from their position as these “wild” men made their way across the river.

On July 3, Morgan’s force arrived in Columbia, Kentucky, the first of many towns he would plow through on his northern raid. Just outside of the small town, the raiding Confederates encountered part of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry and battalions of the  2nd and 45th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

This was not the first time a raid had brought Morgan to the area. Six months prior, during what is now called the Christmas Raid, Morgan and his men destroyed bridges along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, diverting reinforcement troops from coming to the aid of Union General Rosecrans before the Battle of Stones River. The Christmas Raid was considered to be highly successful; Morgan only hoped that this one would be as well.

Captain Jesse M. Carter commanded the Union troops near Columbia. Vastly outnumbered by the 2,000 soldiers under Morgan’s command, the Union forces retreated back into town after only a brief fight, as Captain Carter fell mortally wounded on the field. Falling back into the town, Captain Brent Fishback, began to fight house to house for the next hour before union troops withdrew completely, leaving Columbia in Confederate hands. In the aftermath of the short battle, six union soldiers were captured, three wounded and two killed. For the raiders, two had been killed and two wounded.

Columbia faced the pillage and plundering that Morgan’s Raiders became infamous for. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Alston, wrote later in his journal “Our men behaved badly at Columbia, breaking open a store and plundering it. I ordered the men to return the goods and made all the reparations in my power.”

Many of the men in Morgan’s command were natives of the Orphan State. With no claim to the Confederacy or the Union, Kentucky teetered between the two warring sides. However, many in the ranks with Morgan felt a kinship to those in the area, and for them that was enough to prevent the pillaging and plundering in the Bluegrass state.

Quickly moving from Columbia in order to stay ahead of the Union troops giving chase, the raiders camped about six miles from the Green River Bridge near Tebb’s Bend. The Union forces there at the river had spent the evening prior felling trees and fortifying their position, hoping that it would be enough to withstand an attack should Morgan choose to fight.

Battle of Tebbs Bend (1895 British book Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century, volume 2. )

As morning came on July 4, Morgan ordered Captain Edward Byrne to open fire on the Federal barricade. Only one round had been fired from the Parrott gun before Morgan sent Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Tucker, under a flag of truce to the Union commander, with a handwritten message stating, “Sir: In the name of the Confederate State Government, I demand an immediate and unconditional surrender of the entire force under your command, together with the Stockade. I am, Very Respectfully, Jno. H. Morgan”

Unfortunately, Colonel Orlando Moore, was not in the surrendering mood and replied: “Present my compliments to General Morgan and say to him that the Fourth of July is a damned bad day for a surrender and I would rather not.”

Upon receiving Moore’s response Morgan ordered an attack. The 5th, 7th and 11th Kentucky regiments made seven frontal assaults against Moore’s position, yet all seven were repulsed. Morgan realized that the position could not be taken, and sent a second correspondence, this time not asking for a surrender but rather a truce and be allowed time to collect the dead and wounded. In all, the Confederate raiders suffered 36 killed and 45 wounded. For the Union six killed and 23 wounded.

Moore’s strategy and defense worked, forcing Morgan and his men to move further downstream crossing at a nearby ford. Despite the defeat, many in the Confederate ranks were impressed by Moore and his command. Alston would write “He [Moore] is a gallant man, and the entire arrangement of his defense entitles him to the highest credit for military skill. We would mark such a man in our army for promotion.”

As night fell on July 4, the songs of the soldiers could be heard above the sounds of nature. Morgan’s own brother, Lt. Thomas Morgan, a musician, sang along with the men with the words of “Lorena.” The raid was far from over as the men prepared to head further north.

To be continued…

2 Responses to “A damned bad day for surrender”: Morgan’s Raiders at Columbia, Kentucky

  1. Thanks for your post. It humanizes the tragic events. Keep them coming.

    Norman Vickers.
    Penscoa Civil War Roundtable

    1. Thank you for your comment, Norman! It is much appreciated, and I am delighted to hear you are enjoying the posts. This is a small series on the raid’s 160th Anniversary! Stay tuned for many more posts to come!

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