July 19, 1863 (Sunday)
When last we left the 1,700 Rebel cavaliers riding under the flag of John Hunt Morgan, they had circumvented the Yankees in Cincinnati, Ohio and were well on their way east toward West Virginia. Morgan’s original plan had been to join up with General Robert E. Lee in Pennsylvania, but after learning of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, he decided to continue east anyway.
Through Ohio, his raiders pillaged and generally terrified the civilians, though private property was rarely, if ever, destroyed. Horses, however, were fair game. From time to time, the state militia were take shots at them or, more often than not, fell trees along the road, to slow Morgan’s men. In the saddle at least twenty hours each day, Morgan’s Cavalry was a tough group with which to keep pace.
Up until the 18th, the Rebels encountered only militia. But when they hit the town of Pomeroy, along the Ohio River, regular Union troops joined in. To the west and south, two separate units of Federal Cavalry were closing in. Morgan knew about General Edward Hobson chasing him from behind, but had no idea that another force, commanded by Henry Judah moving in from the south.
For several days, it was clear to the Federals that Morgan was going to cross the Ohio River at Pomeroy, and so General Ambrose Burnside, commanding the department, sent Generals Hobson and Judah, as well as a fleet of gunboats, to set a trap for the Rebels. Morgan was tired and overconfident. Though he traveled with a scout, he failed to send out scouting parties in other directions.
When Morgan arrived at Pomeroy, he was met by small arms fire and could not get to the river. The next cross, at Buffington Island, was twenty miles miles east. The race was now on, but Morgan didn’t seem to know he was in it. As the evening of the 18th drew near, Morgan predicted that only 300 or so held the ford at Buffington. He did not want to risk a night attack, and so camped just west of the crossing. The Federals in pursuit had drawn even closer, but were both to his rear. To his front, though he was unaware of it, were three naval vessels under Lt Commander Leroy Fitch, including the ironclad flagship USS Moose.
On the morning of this date, the fog was thick along the Ohio River. Some of Morgan’s artillery was moving along the road to the ford. When they passed into a clearing, they were startled to see the Moose before them. Morgan was convinced that the river was too low to be navigable this time of year. The Moose lobbed two shells at the Rebels, who fled for their lives, leaving their two guns behind.
Hearing the reports from the navy, Union cavalry under Hobson and Judah advanced to attack. Judah came first and unsuspected. Hitting Morgan’s men from the south, their advance guard ran into a couple of Morgan’s regiments and was sent reeling back to the main body. Then came Hobson’s attack, which sent part of Morgan’s line into a steady retreat.
Soon, the Federals, outnumbering the Rebels two to one, had them nearly surrounded. And now the attack began in earnest. Hobson and Judah advanced simultaneously, while the gunboats on the river shelled Morgan’s men with a relentless ferver.
The small Confederate force, immediately commanded by Morgan’s second, Basil Duke, was fighting on two fronts. Along with Col. Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson, they formed right angles and each line held as best they could against either Union attacker. To make matters worse, another Federal unite took position upon a nearby ridge and was able to fire upon both Rebel lines, catching them in a deadly crossfire.
But not all of Morgan’s regiments were engaged. Only about half of them had been deployed to face off against the Yankees. The other half (actually only about 700), led by Morgan himself, quietly slipped north along a narrow river path and made their escape.
When it was clear that Morgan had left the battle, Basil Duke and Stovepipe Johnson determined that now was the time to make a break for it. This line of retreat, however, was sniffed out by the Federal gunboats, which raked the roads with shot and shell. This allowed enough time for Hobson and Judah’s troops to fall upon the Rebels once more, capturing 700 of them, including Basil Duke. Somehow or another, Stovepipe Johnson escaped and joined with Morgan upriver.
That evening, Morgan and about 1,100 of his Raiders arrived at Belleville [near Hockingport on the map] and began to cross. About 300, along with Stovepipe Johnson, made it to the West Virginia shore by swimming across. When Morgan himself was halfway across, the USS Moose steamed into view. With half his men in Ohio, and the other half in West Virginia, Morgan swam back to the former and his force was yet again divided. Morgan turned north and hoped to somehow escape into Ohio. Johnson and his band would never be captured.
At the battle of Buffington Island, the Federals lost about twenty-five killed, while Morgan’s men sustained twice as many dead, over 100 wounded and at least 750 captured. The captured were taken to Cincinnati as prisoners of war. The next day, Federal troopers were begin to hunt down John Morgan.1
- Sources: History of Morgan’s Cavalry by Basil Wilson Duke; Rebel Raider: The Life of General John Hunt Morgan by James A. Ramage; John Hunt Morgan and His Raiders by Edison H. Thomas; Ohio in the War by Whitelaw Reid. Note: The numbers given for how many of Morgan’s men were captured and escape vary wildly from source to source. [↩]