“Here Come The Boys”: Morgan’s Last Days in Kentucky

Part of a series

After the events in Lebanon and Bardstown, Morgan and the Rebel Raiders made their way north into Bullitt, Jefferson, Hardin, and Meade counties in Kentucky. The first two stops being Lebanon Junction and Bardstown Junction, not to be confused with the previous two towns further south.

Outline map of Morgan’s Raid (http://touringohio.com/history/art/morgan-raid.gif)

One advantage Morgan had was George A. “Lightning” Ellsworth. His talent enable to climb any telegraph pole in the nation! Multiple theories exist about his nickname. However, many believe his lightning-fast ability to tap out a message on his portable telegraph key earned him the moniker. For Morgan, this meant that he would never be in the dark regarding his enemy’s plans and whereabouts.

When the raiders entered Bardstown Junction at dusk on July 7, 1863, Ellsworth went straight to the local telegraph station. There, he pointed his pistol at the operator, a blue-uniformed man, and told him not to move an inch unless directed to do so. From listening to the incoming communications, Ellsworth gathered that the Union authorities expected Morgan and the Raiders to strike at Louisville next. He also learned of a train traveling northbound. When the railroad station in Louisville inquired about its location, Ellsworth instructed the terrified telegraph operated to tell them that it had already passed, heading north.

Located by Morgan’s men a few minutes later, the train in question halted on the tracks. After a short skirmish, the Rebels boarded the train and ordered the dozen or so Union soldiers aboard to disembark and relieved them of any valuables, including hats and boots.

Morgan and his men wanted to cross the Ohio River near Brandenburg, Kentucky. For the crossing to go smoothly though, they could not give away their intent to the Union. As a diversion, Morgan sent an estimated 130 men just east of Falls City, Kentucky. He hoped that in doing so the Yankees would believe that the small river town was their intended target. Once the majority of Morgan’s forces reached Brandenburg, Captains Samuel B. Taylor and H. Clay Meriwether set about securing boats to ferry the force across the river and into Indiana. The river ran deep and swift, making it dangerous at that point for horsemen to ride and swim across.

George “Lightning” Ellsworth is on the right (Military Images Digital)

“Here come the boys” a local resident shouted as Taylor’s men began flooding the town. In a local hotel sat N.B. Standfield. Standfield knew the Confederate captain, since Taylor had resided at his home while raising his company of soldiers. Being friends, Taylor asked Stanfield for help securing the boats he desperately needed to effectively get the 2,300 raiders across the river. The first boat to arrive was the John T. McCombs, carrying about 50 passengers. Once the boat had safely been secured to the wharf’s dock, the Confederates pounced. There are multiple conflicting stories of the treatment of the boat passengers. Some claim that in order to disembark, they were forced to pay the Raiders a small sum of money. Other reports, though, claim that the passengers disembarked in great spirits, un-robbed and laughing merrily.

Once the Confederates had secured the vessel, they steered it into the middle of the river, put down its anchors, and raised the signal flags for help. Their plan to secure a second unsuspecting vessel worked almost immediately. The Alice Dean and its crew, making their way down river, spotted the McCombs and believing it to be in distress. They quickly pulled up alongside. Instantly, the Raiders boarded the second vessel. The few Yankee soldiers on board the Alice Dean were paroled and sent ashore.

The procurement of the two river boats did not go unnoticed by the Union. A couple miles down river from Brandenburg, was Mauckport on the opposite side of the river in Indiana. There, Union Lieutenant Colonel William J. Irvin of the Indiana Legion, began trying to devise a plan to prevent the Confederates from crossing or at the very least procure his own river vessel to thwart the Rebels. Shortly, he hailed the Lady Pike as it headed upriver. Given the intelligence received, the Lady Pike, promptly turned around and headed back further down the river to get supplies, ammunitions, and most importantly, a small cannon. Once the needed supplies were secured, the Lady Pike returned to Irvin’s position. Irvin and his Indiana Home Guard took up their position a short way from the river bank on the Indiana side and waited for Morgan’s next move.

Union General Edward H. Hobson, trailing the bulk of the Raiders, telegraphed the Kentucky Division of the Army of Ohio, in Louisville, requesting that a gunboat be dispatched immediately toward Brandenburg along the Ohio River to thwart any crossing attempt.

By the morning of July 8, the Rebels had begun crossing the river. Things went smoothly for a time. However, once the Federal forces realized that Morgan was not going to Louisville after-all, they focused their attention on this area, and the fighting raged. Morgan’s rearguard and the artillery batteries kept the Yankees at bay while the Raiders completed the crossing. The Indiana defenders who had gathered in Mauckport opened fire. Using the small cannon, they began bombarding the Confederates on the opposite bank. Some have wondered: why concentrate on the troops across the river, rather than the stolen boats? Provost Marshal Colonel John Timberlake of the 81st Indiana, commanded that they should not fire upon the river vessels, as he feared there could be some northern civilians onboard.

Though the onslaught from the Hoosiers took Morgan and his men by surprise, they quickly recovered. From the Kentucky bank, Lieutenant Elias D. Lawrence of Byrne’s Kentucky battery, placed two Parrott guns in a field and with extreme accuracy, sighted in on the Yankee artillery. The Northerners quickly scattered and ran for a small ridge behind them, hoping to find some shelter from the oncoming fight.

Confederates Colonel William W. Ward and Major Thomas B. Webber, after taking the Indiana shore, pressed onward toward the ridge. The Union fire continued, even under retreat, stopping about a mile outside of Corydon, Indiana. With only about 300 men in their ranks, mostly state volunteers, they were determined to make a stand, despite being vastly outnumbered. The boat that Union General Hobson had originally requested from Louisville, arrived, occupying the Confederate Parrott guns for about an hour. Shells rained down on the town of Bradenburg, during the heavy exchange, and many of the Raiders paused in their action, retreating to the safety of the surrounding woods.

As evening drew near on July 8, 1863, the Raiders were still crossing the river with men on both the Indiana and Kentucky banks. Hobson sent a telegram to Captain A. C. Semple, the Assistant Adjutant-General stating:

Captain: We are at this place [Bardstown Junction] with cavalry force. John Morgan has crossed the greater portion of his command into Indiana. . . .  We have pursued with all haste; have lost no time; and it is evident that he failed in doing as much damage in Kentucky as he expected. Cannonading at the river. We will advance in a few minutes.

In command of Morgan’s rearguard rode Lieutenant Colonel James McCreary of the 11th Kentucky. Hobson’s Yankees continued to press upon the Confederate forces but were driven back each time. The situation became increasingly dire as more and more of the Rebels withdrew to the river for transport into Indiana. Eventually, a heavy fog rolled in, obscuring both friend and foe. Aided by the fog’s cover which forced the Yankees to halt in their assault, McCreary transported the remainder of his command on the Kentucky shore across into Indiana.

Finally, as night fell on the Ohio River, the last of Morgan’s Raiders arrived on the Indiana shore. Though it had been Morgan’s goal to raid deep into enemy territory, some in his ranks were not pleased. Skeptical, Private Patton Troutt writes: “I have no quarrel with those people. I am perfectly willing to fight for my home land and my rights, but making war on the civilians in the north, I cannot do so.” Troutt refused to cross the river into Indiana and instead returned to his home state of Tennessee.

The Alice Dean made one final trip across the river, bringing the artillery which had crucially kept the Union at bay, allowing for the river crossing. With the cannon and men on northern soil, General Morgan ordered the Alice Dean and the John T. McCombs to be burned. The McCombs was spared the fiery fate. However, the Alice Dean blazed in the water. Watching the flaming boat, the Raiders grimly wondered where they would go next and if they would ever see their homes again.

To be continued…

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