Morgan’s Raid, 1863
Volume XXX, #2, an Excerpt from:
Morgan’s Great Raid, 1863
Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio
By James Ramage
General John Hunt Morgan was one of the greatest special forces commanders in history, and he stands higher today in military history than ever. In the important book A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War, Daniel Sutherland, a leading scholar on irregular warfare in the Civil War, wrote that Morgan was “a master of guerrilla tactics” who, beginning in the summer of 1862, “stood alone as the premier Confederate partisan.” As “the central figure” among Confederate guerrillas, by example, Morgan “resuscitated many local bands that had gone to the ground” and renewed the hopes of Southerners. David L. Mowery, in his excellent, new book, Morgan’s Great Raid: The Remarkable Expedition from Kentucky to Ohio, concludes that the Great Raid was “an extraordinary military operation” and one of the most outstanding, “groundbreaking” military achievements in military history.
Finally, today, historians have accepted what was common knowledge in the Civil War when the Washington Star declared:
It is safe to say that his four thousand light cavalry have given our troops more work, and destroyed and taken more property, than any sixteen thousand other rebels in arms. For more than a year past these guerillas have kept occupied, principally in Kentucky, a Union force of some 20,000 men; the rapidity of their movements making it necessary to endeavor to be prepared for their sudden appearance, go where they might.
Once Morgan and his raiders were well into the State of Ohio, every horse they stole, every meal they took and ate on the fly, and just about every shot fired was in pursuit of one thing—an unguarded ford on the Ohio River. Here at Middleport in southeastern Ohio they were denied.
Morgan was the model for the Partisan Ranger Act and the Southern people made him a hero, a chivalrous knight from a romantic novel come to life. He was 38 years old, six feet tall, 185 pounds, and one of the most handsome men alive. The first thing eyewitnesses noticed was that he moved with manly strength and grace. Up close, his most remarkable feature was his matchless smile; he had perfect white teeth and one of his women friends said his smile “comes over his face like the laugh over a child’s countenance—having in it an innocence of humor which is very beautiful to me.” Large crowds gathered to see him, and his horse was guarded from women attempting to feed it candy and sweet cakes and clip a swatch of hair from its mane or tail. Women requested his autograph and pleaded for a button from his uniform. He gave a young woman a ride on Black Bess and she vowed to marry only a man from Morgan’s command.
In the poem, “The Federal Mother’s Lullaby,” a Northern mother pleaded with her baby to hush crying, for down the street she heard the clatter of hooves:
Why, surely, ’tis the Morgan,
Him whom I would not greet.
For there’s that in his glances
That makes my heart-strings thrill,
So darling, hush thy wailing,
And be for mother still.
One of his goals in the Great Raid 150 years ago was to reconfirm his status as a hero of the Southern people. When he crossed the Cumberland River on July 2, 1863, heading north, he was confident that his raid into the enemy land of Indiana and Ohio would be a great success. He had authority to attack Louisville, but he expected that spectacular headlines would overshadow his violation of orders not to cross the Ohio River. His closest friend, brother-in-law, and second in command, Col. Basil Duke wrote later that Morgan “was sanguine of success.”
Contingencies—unexpected developments—often determined the outcome of Civil War military operations, and Morgan had no idea when the Great Raid began that he was riding into a perfect storm of contingencies. His strategic plan was excellent—he would march his 2,400-man division through Kentucky, cross the Ohio River on captured steamboats at Brandenburg, traverse Indiana and Ohio and escape into West Virginia at Buffington Island where, in July, the river was too shallow for Union gunboats.
At that point in the war, deep Union cavalry raids were unusual, but one such raid delayed Morgan for about two weeks. Col. William P. Sanders came south out of Kentucky with 1,500 men and drove in the pickets in Knoxville; Morgan had to suspend his expedition to chase Sanders. The delay seemed insignificant at the time, but during Morgan’s expedition an unusual heavy summer rainstorm came on the Upper Ohio, and by the time the raiders reached the ford at Buffington Island the river had risen unseasonably, enabling gunboats to block the ford.
Morgan had sent scouts to check on the ford, but they had not investigated the terrain west of the island that would challenge the raiders during the final miles of the incursion. Before the raid was broken up in the Battle of Buffington Island, Morgan and his men had campaigned for 35 days, June 14 to July 19, and for 18 of those days, July 1 through July 18, they were behind enemy lines with a strong Union cavalry force in pursuit—18 days with only about three hours of sleep each night.
When the men and horses were exhausted, in southeastern Ohio, they approached 55 miles of terrain across the rugged Allegheny Plateau. Geologists Gregory A. Schumacher and Donovan M. Powers analyzed the impact of geology on the raid and concluded that the “narrow, sinuous ridges separated by deep valleys” slowed the raiders “just enough to allow the pursuing Federal troops to catch up and defeat Morgan’s command at the Battle of Buffington Island.” Schumacher and Powers noted that, “Narrow, north-south trending hills and ridges separated by narrow, steep-sided valleys dominate this region and are the result of erosive forces acting over millions of years to remove hundreds of feet of shale, siltstone, sandstone, coal, limestone, and clay.” In the 55 miles from Jackson to Portland the “topographic relief averages 200 feet and 44 deep valleys cross Morgan’s route.” This was “one valley for every 1.25 miles” of travel. Previously, they marched at the rate of three miles per hour, but for the last ten miles from Chester to Portland, their rate slowed to 1.4 miles per hour. “The struggling horses no sooner climbed out of one valley before the road descended into the next valley.”
The Federal pursuit force had the same challenge, but they were not burdened with a train of spoils and during the last five miles the Meigs County Home Guards were not firing down on them from the hills above the road winding through a ravine. For Morgan’s men the enemy Home Guards made it like running a gauntlet. Morgan’s telegraph operator, George A. Ellsworth, wrote later that when they arrived at Buffington Island the raiders were “completely worn out—men and horses suffering.” A Cincinnati Gazette correspondent reported that when some of Morgan’s men were captured at Buffington Island, “They were so much worn and fatigued that they laid down all over the grass in the orchard where they were placed, and were asleep in ten minutes after they were brought within the lines of our guards.”
Another contingency was the wounding of Capt. Thomas Quirk, Morgan’s best scout and the leader of his scouts. Quirk was severely wounded in the left arm in a skirmish at Marrowbone in southern Kentucky on July 2, and he was left behind.
As a special forces warrior, Morgan avoided attacking enemy forces that were obviously stronger than his raiders. He avoided fights when on the return from a raid. But he had the policy of capturing posts along the route on the way into a raid; he realized that this would give the expedition momentum and enhance the self-confidence of his men. The policy resulted in two significant fights in Kentucky during the raid. In the battle and capture of Lebanon, 19-year-old Thomas Morgan, the youngest Morgan brother on the raid, was killed in the final charge.
The other skirmish in Kentucky was on July 4, at Tebbs Bend on the Green River. This time, Morgan should have made an exception and marched around the Union force guarding the bridge. Betty J. Gorin, in “Morgan Is Coming!”: Confederate Raiders in the Heartland of Kentucky, provides the first in-depth analysis of the battle. She discovered new information on the Union commander, Col. Orlando H. Moore, and the men of the 25th Michigan Infantry, and she presents valuable information on how the Union men occupied good, high ground in one of the strongest defensive positions in the Civil War.