Fought on July 19, 1863, the Battle of Buffington Island was the only major Civil War battle to take place in Ohio.
The only major American Civil War combat to occur in Ohio was the Battle of Buffington Island. Confederate cavalry leader Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan led a force to northern Kentucky to create disorder within the Union military. Morgan unsettled the enemy and exceeded his orders by crossing north of the Ohio River. On July 8, 1863, Morgan and approximately 2,000 soldiers crossed over the river into southern Indiana.
Morgan Moves into Ohio
While journeying into the Hoosier state, Morgan’s men, known as Morgan’s Raiders, began to spread false rumors that the Confederates planned to attack the state’s capital of Indianapolis. After spending five days gathering supplies and horses from Northern civilians in southern Indiana and with the Indiana Militia approaching closer, Morgan and his men moved into Ohio on July 13. They entered Ohio near the Hamilton-Butler County line.
Morgan Divides and Then Re-unites His Forces
For the next two nights, Morgan led his soldiers near the Union Army’s Camp Dennison on the outskirts of Cincinnati. On July 15, Morgan divided his men, sending one detachment through Warren, Clinton, Fayette, Ross, and Jackson Counties. The other, the main section of his force, crossed the Scioto River at Piketon to reach Jackson, traveling through Clermont, Brown, Highland, and Pike Counties. Once they reached Jackson, the two sections reunited. Now the full force journeyed east through Jackson, Gallia, Vinton, and Meigs Counties hoping to reach the Ohio River.
The Ohio Militia Buys Time
Three evenings earlier, on July 12, Ohio Governor David Todd issued a proclamation. The document directed the Ohio militia to muster to protect the state from Morgan’s men. Many militiamen did not hear of the governor’s order, and luckily for Morgan, his army faced little opposition. However, on July 18, the Confederates met a small force of militiamen at an earthwork, slowing Morgan’s advance. Finding themselves severely outnumbered, the militia retreated that evening.
The militiamen’s efforts allowed for Brigadier General E.H. Hobson’s federal cavalry to locate the Confederates. In addition, Union General Ambrose Burnside sent soldiers and gunboats to patrol the Ohio River, hoping to intercept Morgan’s Raiders as they crossed the river. Identifying a ford near Buffington Island, an island in the Ohio River, Morgan’s men tried to cross the river on July 19. Only a few men successfully crossed the river, as Union soldiers under Hobson, including Colonel August Kautz’s Cavalry Brigade, and General H.M. Judah had arrived. A battle erupted between Morgan’s 1,700 men and the North’s approximately 3,000 soldiers.
Morgan never filed a battlefield report, and the Union officers involved did not provide detailed reports. Specific battlefield movements are unknown. Historians estimate the number of killed or wounded Southerners from between fifty-two and 120, with an additional 800 to 1,200 men being captured. Daniel McCook of the Fighting McCooks was one of the twenty-five soldiers whom the North lost in the battle.
Federals Capture Morgan
Morgan himself and his remaining force broke through the Union lines and traveled north along the river, trying to find a place to cross. They found an unprotected ford approximately twenty miles north of Buffington Island, where several hundred Raiders forded the river before Union gunboats intercepted the rest of the Confederate force. Morgan then led his last group of men westward through Meigs and Gallia Counties. He eventually moved to the east and north, traveling through Vinton, Hocking, Athens, Perry, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Carroll, and Columbiana Counties. Unfortunately for Morgan, Major W.B. Way’s and Major G.W. Rue’s Union cavalry captured Morgan and his remaining soldiers at Salineville, in Columbiana County.
Union authorities transported Morgan and most of his command and imprisoned them in Columbus. Officials placed the enlisted men at Camp Chase, a prison camp, while officers served their time at the Ohio Penitentiary.
Arriving on October 1, Morgan and a few other prisoners began to plot an escape attempt. On November 13, 1863, the plotters tunneled out of their cell and into an airshaft. Remaining imprisoned for two weeks more, Morgan and six prisoners crawled through the air shaft to the prison yard on November 27, 1863. From the yard, the escapees used their prison uniforms to create a rope, allowing them to climb over the prison wall to freedom.
During his time in prison, Morgan’s sister had sent him roughly 1,000 dollars concealed in a bible. Once free, Morgan used this money to purchase a train ticket to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. He rejoined the Confederate military, but Union forces killed him on the battlefield in Greenville, Tennessee, less than one year later on September 4, 1864.
Morgan’s Raid and the Battle of Buffington Island alarmed Northern civilians in Ohio and Indiana. The event also caused some Ohioans to suffer financially. Approximately 4,400 Ohio residents sought $678, 915.00 from the federal government in compensation for their losses. The government eventually reimbursed these Ohioans $576,225.00.
The raid also helped buoy the declining spirits of some Southerners, especially following Confederate defeats at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi in early July 1863. Most scholars, however, believe that the raid caused more harm than benefits to the Confederate military. Morgan’s soldiers accomplished little, inflicting no significant damage to Northern railroads, bridges, telegraph wires, or supply depots. The Union did not have to dispatch any significant numbers of men away from the front lines to deal with Morgan’s threat. Morgan’s Raid cost the Confederacy nearly 1,600 veteran cavalry soldiers killed or captured. The limited property damage that Morgan inflicted and the slight boost to Confederate morale that he inspired did not outweigh the loss of those men to the Confederacy.