by Andy Turner
Ohio played an important role in the Civil War. The state provided more than 300,000 men in more than 250 regiments. A number of well-known personalities were born in Ohio, including Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and generals and future presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. For all of its participation, Ohio only saw one action that was large enough to be considered a battle: the Battle of Buffington Island.
As the summer of 1863 approached, Confederate general Braxton Bragg was planning a movement by his army. He decided John Hunt Morgan and his men could create a nice diversion and tie up Union forces that might otherwise move against Bragg. In telling Morgan of his plans, Bragg said Morgan had free reign to go anywhere he wanted in Tennessee and Kentucky. He was not, however, to cross north of the Ohio River.
As soon as he received his orders, Morgan knew what he would do. He would go north of the Ohio River. It would give Morgan an opportunity to take the war to the North and show them how it felt to have a war being fought on their doorsteps.
On June 11 Morgan and his command left Sparta, Tennessee, with 2,500 men on what would become a raid crossing four states. By July 18, Morgan’s men were exhausted. After leaving Sparta, they had crossed into and through Kentucky, crossing the Ohio River into Indiana. From there they turned east, entering Ohio on July 13. Crossing the border they bypassed Cincinnati, making the longest continuous ride of the war, covering almost 100 miles in 32 hours.
The raid, which had at first been enjoyable to the men as they created panic and caused a bit of havoc, had turned into a race for their lives. By the 18th they had been in hostile territory for ten days, pursued by two groups of Union cavalry. The first, led by Brig. Gen. Edward Hobson, was following as close as they could behind Morgan’s men. Their pursuit was hampered by Morgan’s men commandeering all the horses they could as they crossed Indiana and Ohio. Hobson’s men, riding equally tired horses, were left with nothing but the worn-out horses the Confederates left behind to replace their equally tired mounts. Another group of Union cavalry, led by Brig. Gen. Henry Judah, traveled along the Ohio River, parallel to Morgan. That way whenever Morgan tried to cross the Ohio, Judah hoped to be there to meet him.
On the 18th Morgan and his men approached Pomeroy, Ohio, on the Ohio River across from the new state of West Virginia. As they neared, they discovered a large force of militia guarded the town. Morgan decided to bypass Pomeroy and move on to the next ford upriver. Before the raid began, he had men scout the crossings of the Ohio and knew what fords lay ahead of him.
The Confederates stopped to water their horses at a spring by the county fairgrounds. Leaving the spring, the troopers rode through the hills of southeastern Ohio which were manned by local militia that fired on the raiders. The Confederates later referred to that part of the ride as the Gauntlet.
Once Morgan’s men got through the Gauntlet, they had an easier ride to the village of Chester, where they arrived about 1:00 in the afternoon. Sensing that their escape was close at hand, Morgan sat on the front porch of a house in Chester while his men rested. As Col. Adam Johnson rode up, Morgan said to him: “All our troubles are over now, the river is but 25 miles away and tomorrow we will be on Southern soil.”
While in Chester, the first reports came in that the Ohio River was higher than normal. Recent heavy rains in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania had reached the area, raising the level of the river considerably. On July 9, the ford at Buffington Island was two feet deep. By the 13th, it was almost six feet deep. A local elderly woman stated that there hadn’t been high water there in July for 20 years and only twice in the previous 60 years. The high water would prove fateful for the Southerners.
Leaving town after their rest, the raiders once again were fired on by locals who also blocked roads with felled trees to slow down the enemy troopers. By the time Morgan’s men rode down onto the bottom land along the Ohio River, it was getting dark. As the first men approached the river, they saw some earthworks had been constructed guarding the ford. This was unexpected and the men were unsure how to proceed.
Morgan was riding further back in the column and they waited for him to arrive to make a decision. By that time it was almost dark. Morgan surveyed the situation and decided they would spend the night where they were and cross in the morning. The time spent at Chester was proving to be a critical mistake.
The morning of July 19 dawned with a heavy fog along the bottom land. As the Confederates cautiously approached the ford, they found it deserted. It had been manned the night before by 300 local militia who eventually got scared and fled during the night. Now the path to freedom was clear.
As the raiders prepared to cross, however, Union cavalry came riding out of the fog. General Judah’s men, riding along the river, had caught up to the Confederates, taking them by surprise. One Confederate later wrote, “we could not have been more surprised if they had fallen from heaven.”
The Confederates quickly regrouped and established a defensive line. The Union troopers, riding down a road with a fence on either side, were temporarily bottled up as they struck the Confederates. This allowed both sides time to deploy for battle. The Union forces pushed the Confederates who had to fall back to the north. As they did, General Hobson’s cavalry arrived from Chester and hit Morgan’s men from the west.
To add to Morgan’s problems, three Union gunboats that had steamed upriver from Cincinnati, following Morgan’s progress, arrived and shelled the field. Had the river not been so high, they would not have been able to get within range. In fact, the river was falling so fast that the boats had to withdraw by that evening to avoid being grounded.
Unable to hold against the attack, the Confederates withdrew northward where the bottom land narrows from a wide plain to a narrow passage between the river and bluffs. At that point, the Confederate rear guard was able to hold off the Union cavalry long enough for Morgan and part of the command to escape northward. The rear guard, including Morgan’s brother-in-law Col. Basil Duke, was captured.
The Battle of Buffington Island was over. Though not a large engagement, the battle prevented Morgan from escaping across the river. He and his remaining men traveled northward through Ohio for another week before finally being captured at Salineville, Ohio. Morgan was not to remain in the north long. Held at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, he and six others escaped that November.