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Morgan Rides into History and Legend: Looking back 151 years

Posted on Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 2:13 pm

“John Morgan with the remnant of a band composed of the most villainous cut-throats and scoundrels….made his way into this county on Thursday, the 22nd.” (Guernsey Times Extra Addition Cambridge, Ohio July 28, 1863)

This article by a local newspaper in 1863  sums up the feeling of Northern residents regarding the antics of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, who led his Confederate raiders on a chase through Kentucky Indiana and Ohio during the Civil War.  His main goals were to destroy supply lines while creating chaos and fear. He had hoped to pull attention from Vicksburg, East Tennessee, and away from Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the north. Morgan’s Raid took place against the orders of Braxton Bragg as Morgan joined other Confederate officers in ignoring their commander’s wishes.

What exactly was on Morgan’s mind we cannot say. However his second in command, and brother in law Basil Duke hinted the idea was to link up with the victorious forces returning from Pennsylvania and then ride triumphantly into Richmond with the Army of Northern Virginia. Morgan had stopped in Indiana just long enough to dine with some friends when he was told of the events in Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Morgan was said to have bowed his head and never spoke the rest of the evening.

All Morgan’s command had to do was reach and cross the Ohio River to be in the safety of Virginia. Morgan led his men to Buffington Island where he knew the river was only about knee deep in July. What they found was a river swollen by unusually heavy rains in Pennsylvania. Morgan had outran the pursuing northern cavalry and brought anarchy to the north. Now all he had to do was cross the river. Arriving at midnight and finding the river swollen and rising, Morgan decided to wait until morning for the crossing instead of attempting to move in the pitch darkness of night. The next morning however produced heavy fog, so again he was delayed, thus giving the riverboat USS Moose time to reach their crossing point thanks to the still increasing flood waters. Morgan had 127 wagons of goods lined up waiting to cross when the Moose opened up with naval ordinance. The naval ordinance consisted of two iron balls linked by a chain in a tin canister. These were designed to take out the sails of ships. They proved deadly against the wagon train of Morgan as they ripped through wagons causing already worn out horses to suddenly stampede. One hit an ordinance wagon and the fire spread quickly in the mayhem it caused.

In the meantime, the Union cavalry had caught up to Duke’s rearguard and the fight was on. Duke was captured along with most of the surviving Confederates. Morgan again had slipped away with 700 men and headed north. This is said to be the only Civil War battle in Ohio. The Union troops had turned Morgan and his Confederates away from the crossing with heavy losses.  What had started out as 2500 men was down to approximately 1100 after the battle at Buffington Island. A week later, Morgan was again attempting to cross the Ohio when once more Union gunboats arrived on the scene just in time to thwart the attempt. Morgan and what remained of his worn out command were captured.

What is today’s legacy of The Great Raid, the longest raid of the Civil War? In its time it was called “a great loss of men and horses,” which did little damage, nor helped the Southern cause. Looking back we see that it did bring suffering and distress to the northern population which is what Morgan had desired to do in the first place. What Morgan left as a lasting legacy is another story.
Today Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio have the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail. Towns along the raid route have annual events commemorating the “great raid.” There are small battle parks, homes where Morgan stayed and the claim to being a part of the Civil War. A Mayor from one Indiana town told this writer, “I wish Morgan had burned something in our town!” Thanks to Morgan, there are annual festivals, Civil War tourism, and visitors where there might not have been as many otherwise.
The lasting legacy of Morgan’s Raid we don’t see is the horses and military tactical side. Ever notice how many of the thoroughbred racehorses of today come out of Indiana? When Morgan’s Men left Kentucky they were described as ridding on some of the best thoroughbreds in the country. By the time they reached Indiana they were trading these worn out horses for farmers plow horses to ride as they continued on. While the farmers who needed their plow horses did not want a saddle horse, they were given the best of the best. General Morgan was indeed known as “The King of Horse Thieves” in Indiana, however, he did give them the seed for the modern thoroughbred horse industry in the state.

Morgan’s Raid was criticized as “not doing much harm.” Today it is studied in war colleges around the world. In fact, it is in the top twenty most studied campaigns. Why? Because Morgan took a small amount of men and caused the total disruption of the northern army. Thousands of men and supplies were moved because of the threat. He brought fear to a large populace area. He destroyed millions of dollars of goods in short order. He traveled light and he traveled fast. Despite working in enemy territory, he almost pulled it off. Had the river not been unseasonably swollen, he would have.

Before the US tank invasion of the first Gulf War “Stormin Norman” Schwarzkopf, studied Morgan’s Raid. It is an action he already knew well as he had studied it in War College. Morgan’s raiding tactics are alive and well 151 years later. Indiana and Ohio, well, you have your battlefields too, thanks to Morgan and his “terrible” men.

-By Tim Massey

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