Morgan Engages in ‘Senseless and Purposeless’ Pillaging through Indiana and Ohio

July 15, 1863 (Wednesday)

John Hunt Morgan
John Hunt Morgan

It had been a week since the Rebel Cavalier John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River into Indiana. In all that time, he was anything but idle. His overall plans for the raid were grandiose, to say the least. Once upon Indiana’s shore, he wanted to raid into Ohio, clip West Virginia and join with Robert E. Lee in Pennsylvania. He did not yet know of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg.

Thus far, the raid had gone well. He had evaded the Federal pursuers and crossed the river with only a bit of trouble here and there. But as soon as they crossed into Indiana, the alarm was sounded. The governor issued a call to arms and the citizens went into a panic fueled by fear and rumors. Morgan, it was said, was ravaging the countryside, killing women and children with his 8,000 blood-thirsty raiders.

This was, of course, rather far from the truth. Morgan had just over 2,000 troops who were under orders not to loot. Naturally, the orders were largely ignored and Morgan seemed to find their light bit of pillaging amusing, but the people themselves were never harmed.

However, the raid wasn’t just a fun little game. Morgan knew he was being pursued and quickly realized that raiding in enemy territory was quite a bit different than raiding into Kentucky. Early on, his enemy took the shape of several hundred militiamen called out to fire off a round or two and then run away, as they had in Corydon, Indiana on the 9th.

This was also the day that Morgan learned of Lee’s defeat in Pennsylvania. His overall plan had been squashed, but he knew he had to keep moving on, burning bridges and tearing up railroads as he went. For a time, he considered attacking Indianapolis and freeing the 6,000 Rebel prisoners within the city. Unsure how the place was defended, however, he decided otherwise. Had he known that Indianapolis was relatively defenseless, he might have done well to head north. But instead he continued easterly, passing through the towns of Salem, Canton, New Philadelphia, Vienna and Lexington, where Morgan was nearly captured by some wandering Yankee cavalry.

Morgan riding through Salem.
Morgan raiding through Salem.

For the next several days as the command rode east, the same scenes repeated themselves wherever they went. “The country was full, the towns were full, and the ranks of the militia were full,” recalled Basil Duke, one of Morgan’s lieutenants, after the war. “I am satisfied that we saw often as many as ten thousand militia in one day, posted at different points. They would frequently fight, if attacked in strong position, but could be dispersed by maneuvering.”

Each house, it seemed, was empty of its inhabitants, but full of freshly baked bread, which Morgan’s troopers feasted upon daily. But a taste of bread was simply not enough.

“The Provost guard had great difficulty in restraining the men from pillaging, and was unsuccessful in some instances,” Duke recalled. The Provost Marshal “found it impossible to stop a practice which neither company nor regimental officers were able to aid him in suppressing. This disposition for wholesale plunder exceeded any thing that any of us had ever seen before. The men seemed actuated by a desire to ‘pay off’ in the ‘enemy’s country’ all scores that the Federal army had chalked up in the South…. They did not pillage with any sort of method or reason — it seemed to be a mania, senseless and purposeless.”

Today's easy-to-follow (and make) map.
Today’s easy-to-follow (and make) map.

Compared to General Grant’s plundering in Mississippi, this was next to nothing. Only one private residence was burned on the whole expedition – and only after Morgan’s men had been fired upon through its windows.

By the 13th, Morgan was grown more and more apprehensive. He and his men had crossed the Ohio line at 5am, entering the town of Harrison. What he feared was that Cincinnati, just to the east, would be heavily defended by veteran Union troops commanded by General Ambrose Burnside himself. There was a great potential that much blood would be spilled in cutting through the Union defenses, if they could even be pierced at all.

But Morgan believed the attempt would be worth it. Once past Cincinnati, the greatest danger of the expedition would be behind them. To draw the Yankees out, Morgan made a bold demonstration towards Hamilton, well north of the the city. Meanwhile, with the bulk of his men, they headed straight for Cincinnati, in the hopes that the Federal troops had moved north to counter his demonstration.

They reached the outskirts at nightfall and very quietly kept just outside the city limits, all the while working their way around it to the north.

“It was a terrible, trying march,” wrote Basil Duke. “Strong men fell out of their saddles, and at every halt the officers were compelled to move continually about in their respective companies and pull and haul the men who would drop asleep in the road—it was the only way to keep them awake. Quite a number crept off into the fields and slept until they were awakened by the enemy.”

Morgan riding through Washington, Ohio.
Morgan riding through Washington, Ohio.

Due to poor discipline of some of the units, straggling was rampant and caused much needless confusion in an already confused situation. But by morning, the danger had passed as they passed the railroad out of Cincinnati. Stopping by the fresh light of day, they grazed their horses within site of a garrisoned Union camp, who apparently took notice all too late. A slight skirmish erupted and Morgan’s men were again on the road. The militia gave chase, but quickly lost their nerve, felling trees across the road should Morgan decide to turn around and go back the other way.

The march, however, was hellish. They rode ninty-five miles in thirty-two hours – a feat that no other cavalry unit could claim. But the horses paid a heavy toll. The mounts they had brought with them had all given out to exhaustion. Detachments of Morgan’s men scoured the farms for fresh horses all along the route. Every horse that could be found was commandeered for the Southern cause.

The Ohio militia also caused quite a few problems, the least of which was firepower. While they would often run at the sight of Morgan’s Raiders, it would not be until they had felled scores of trees across the road at any given point.

By the night of this date, Morgan’s cavalry camped near the banks of the Scioto River. Before them the Ohio militia was gathering in force. 50,000 had answered the call, and though only a small fraction would be in Morgan’s front, his small band might have to do a good bit of demonstrating, maneuvering and scaring to send the poor Yankee boys running back home. The deeper he moved into Ohio, the more bold and confident Morgan became.

From Morgan’s route, however, the Federals were quickly deducing that Morgan seemed to be heading toward West Virginia. In fact, they even figured that he might attempt to cross the Ohio near Buffington Island.1

  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. []
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Morgan Engages in ‘Senseless and Purposeless’ Pillaging through Indiana and Ohio by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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