Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Three More Strangers and the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy

A couple years ago I posted a short piece on my discovery of an unknown Confederate soldier buried not far from where we spend our summers in Maine – Just recently I chanced upon the graves of three more Confederate “strangers” buried far from home.

I never quite know what I am going to chance upon when I embark on a road trip.  This past week we drove to Ohio to visit family near Columbus.  On the return trip we jumped off Interstate 70 for breakfast near Zanesville, and afterwards we left the interstate to the trucks and the through traffic, choosing to continue our eastward journey along US 40 - the National Road - through Concord and Cambridge to Old Washington before rejoining the interstate. For awhile we seemed to have the highway to ourselves.

We made an unexpected stop in Old Washington.  It was platted in 1805 as “New Washington,” making it the oldest permanent settlement in Guernsey County.  It was incorporated as “Washington,” in 1829, and by mid-century it was known formally as “Old Washington.”  As we passed through this small town I noticed the familiar silhouette of a historic marker high atop a hill and I wondered what made this quiet hamlet historic?  I made a detour to the hilltop to discover that we had arrived at the site of the northernmost exchange of hostile fire between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  This was news to me; I had grown up in the belief that the Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1-3, 1863, was the geographic highwater mark of the Confederacy.  Apparently not, as Old Washington is approximately ten miles further north in latitude than Gettysburg.   Confederate raiders appeared in several Guernsey County villages, including Old Washington, where they wreaked havoc before being caught by Union cavalry. The three unknown Confederate troops killed at Old Washington are buried in the hilltop cemetery near the graves of two Union soldiers (local soldiers who were not killed here) and adjacent the historical marker.  The town erected a tombstone in 1847 bearing the inscription "Here was laid to rest by the citizens of Washington under public authority, the bodies of three confederate cavalrymen killed during the battle of Washington July 24, 1863, when a force in command of Confederate General John Morgan, was overtaken and defeated by Federal cavalrymen in command of General James M. Shackelford."  So when I got home I looked into this little known chapter of Civil War history.

At the same time Robert E. Lee was leading his army into southern Pennsylvania in his second invasion of the North (the first coming the previous September when he was defeated at Antietam/Sharpsburg), a regimental force of approximately 2500 calvary troops under the command of Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan was conducting a separate campaign of hit and run raids throughout Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.  This following Brigadier General Henry Heth’s earlier unsuccessful attempt to capture Cincinnati only to be turned back by redoubtable Union fortifications south of the Ohio River in Kentucky.  “Morgan’s Raiders,” as they came to be known, spread a long swath of destruction in their wake during their raids of July 1863.

On July 8, 1863, Morgan led his troops across the Ohio River near Brandenburg, Kentucky despite specific orders not to do so. Morgan’s intention was to draw the attention of thousands of Union troops away from their normal duties, including support of the Union defenses farther east in Pennsylvania, and to strike fear among the civilian population in the north. They swept across southeastern Indiana in less than a week, procuring horses and provisions while the Indiana militia tried to organize defenses until Union reinforcement could arrive.  Morgan and his troops entered Ohio just north of Cincinnati on July 13 thereby flanking the Union fortifications south of that city.  The Ohio governor called out his own state militia on July 12, and Major General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of the Ohio with headquarters in Cincinnati, quickly organized Union regulars and the Ohio militia in an attempt to protect the southern part of the state from Morgan and to cut off his escape across the Ohio River.  But not before Morgan and his cavalry advanced across southern Ohio, torching fields and farms and bridges as they made their way east toward the Ohio River and the West Virginia border.  Morgan had hoped to cross back into Kentucky but the river crossings were fortified by Union garrisons.

Morgan arrived at the river on the evening of July 18, but decided not to attempt a crossing that night.  On the following day, Union troops under Brigadier-General E.H. Hobson, who had been pursuing Morgan since shortly after he entered Ohio, finally caught up with the Confederate raiders at Buffington Island, near Ravenswood, West Virginia where Morgan hoped to cross the swollen Ohio River.  Morgan succeeded in getting a small number of his men across the river before Union gunboats arrived to block this route of escape.  Union cavalry with a two-to-one superior force attacked the Confederates before most could cross, however, and in a very short period of time Morgan lost between 800 and 1200 men, nearly all of whom were captured. Such as it was, this “battle” was the largest fought on Ohio territory during the war.

Licking their wounds, Morgan and his remaining raiders turned north having broken through the Union lines. They eventually found an unguarded ford where some 300   Confederates succeeded in crossing while many others drowned before Union gunboats arrived.  Morgan and what remained of his men then turned northwest feigning an advance in the direction of Athens and Columbus before turning northeast in the general direction of Zanesville and Cambridge.  Union Brigadier General James M. Shackelford and elements of the 1st and 3rd Kentucky and the 14th Illinois followed in hot pursuit.  On July 22 Morgan and his men forded the Muskingum River south of Zanesville before turning northward into Guernsey County near Cumberland.

This ragtag band of soldiers wanted to get across the Ohio River and return home.  They stole horses and other provisions while burning bridges to slow down their Union pursuers.  Still they had one more fight left in them.  Morgan and his men reached Old Washington on the morning of July 24.  They rested and sought food and new provisions in town until the early afternoon when there were reports that the Union calvary was approaching from the south. The Confederates prepared to flee and many had already left town when Shackelford’s troops gathered at the top of Cemetery Hill and open fired on the Confederates still in town.  They returned fire and three Confederate soldiers were killed while several others were captured. A skirmish more than a battle.  Those that escaped headed farther north, still hoping to find a way across the Ohio River. 

Morgan and his troops lasted two more days, until Union cavalry under the command of Major W.B. Way and Major G.W. Rue finally surrounded them.  They surrendered on July 26 near West Point, Ohio, in Columbiana County not far from the Pennsylvania border and  some 100 miles northeast of Old Washington. Morgan and several of his officers were sent to the Ohio Penitentiary, in Columbus. Many of the enlisted men were confined in the Camp Chase Confederate prison camp west of there (where today almost 2300 Confederate dead are buried far from their homes) while others ended up in the Camp Douglas stockade in Chicago.

The story of Morgan Raider’s - the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy - ends with an interesting footnote.  After arriving at the penitentiary on October 1, 1863, Morgan and several of his men planned an escape, seven of them eventually tunneling their way to freedom on November 27.  Using money smuggled to him in prison, Morgan purchased a train ticket to Cincinnati where he escaped across the Ohio River into Kentucky, something he and his men were unable to do during their three-week raid across Ohio.  He returned to the war but was killed in action on September 4, 1864 at Greenville, Tennessee.

So now I know the rest of the story.

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  1. Did you know many Confederates made it further north in Ohio...staying at prison camp on the island just north of Sandusky where our dear Aldo lives? You can visit the cemetery. Some tried to escape to Canada.

  2. Confederate prisoners were held that far north and AWOL soldiers tried to flee to Canada, but no combat units penetrated that far north. There were camps and stockades for Confederate POW throughout the northern states, but the raid I describe was the farthest northern penetration by active Confederate troops.