Saturday, February 28, 2009

July 19, 1863: The Battle of Buffington Island

* WARNING: This section contains period writing in which racial slurs appear. These remarks in no manner reflect the views or opinions of the blog’s author. Frank and open discussions regarding racism are strongly encouraged and advised.

With the raiders nearly encircled by Union troops, the Battle of Buffington Island erupted during the early morning hours of July 19. Amazingly, this battle involved three future presidents of the United States: James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley.[i]

Dawn found the Raiders on a flood plain between Union gunboats on the Ohio River to the East and the forces of Brig. Generals Henry Judah, James Shackelford and Edward Hobson to the West. Eager to return to Southern soil, the Raiders approached the river discovering that earthworks, built by the local militia, had been abandoned during the night. But all was not well. Too late, the Raiders realized they had entered a well laid trap.

“With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,
With now the sound of a single shot, snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley,
The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on;
Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun – the dust-cover’d men,
In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,
With artillery interspers’d – the wheels rumble, the horses sweat…
As the army corps advances.”

Union Artillery rolled over a bluff. As the morning fog lifted, it became plain to see that the Raiders had been ambushed. The Raiders were standing in a v shaped funnel with Union defenders at each side and gunboats on the river. They were faced attack from three directions.

Hobson’s cavalry had finally caught up with Morgan.

“Just as the sky was growing gray with coming dawn on July 19th the welcome sound of half a dozen shots by our advanced guard told us we had struck Morgan’s outpost. Colonel Kautz immediately pushed his command forward at a brisk gait. Debouching from the river hills into the valley of the Ohio, near Buffington Island, we developed Morgan’s force where it had been delayed by fog, waiting for daylight to ford the river into West Virginia. Morgan’s two thousand horsemen were waiting on the lower end of a valley that lay between the hills and the river. The Union troops under General Judah, coming up the river from Pomeroy, where the steamboats had landed them, approached the enemy about the same time our vanguard of General Hobson’s force, led by Colonel Kautz, began the decent into the middle of the valley occupied by Morgan. Colonel Kautz attacked immediately upon arrival; our two pieces of artillery, answering Judah’s guns, informed Morgan that those who had followed him from the Cumberland River had closed in on him.

With the rising of the sun the fog lifted, showing the gunboats in the river, and to Morgan all hope of escape by fording the shallow bar was gone.”

~ Captain Theodore F. Allen, 7th Ohio Cavalry [iii]

Northern soldiers and gunboats commenced shelling from the Ohio River.

Parkersburg, July 19,1863. (Received 4:10 p. m.)

General Burnside:
News just in that the gunboats prevented Morgan crossing 18 miles below here. This was seen by the scout himself. The boats are loaded and ready to start.

Wm. Wallace,
Colonel Fifteenth Ohio Volunteer Infantry.”

General Judah had arrived during the night as Morgan slept.

“Headquarters United States Forces, Buffington Bar, July 19, 1863 – 10 a. m. (Received July 23.)

Major-General Burnside:
Agreeably with my promise by telegraph last night, I announce the defeat of Morgan’s force. I traveled all night from Pomeroy; reached Buffington Flats at 5:30 this morning. A dense fog pervades everything. I took a small advance guard, and, with my escort, advanced with my staff, to reconnoiter down a road surrounded by enclosed fields. I had proceeded cautiously but one-fourth of a mile, when I found myself surrounded by the enemy, in front and on my flanks, dismounted, who poured in a heavy fire. Before I could get a piece of artillery in position it was captured. Two men were killed –Major McCook and Lieutenant Price – and some enlisted men wounded; Captain Kise, assistant adjutant-general, and Captain Grafton, volunteer aide-de-camp, with about 30 men, were captured. Finding it impossible to resist the heavy force of three regiments brought up against me, led by Basil Duke, I retreated upon the main body, brought it into action, and, in less than half an hour, completely routed the enemy. I recaptured the piece I lost; captured large quantities of camp equipage, two pieces of the enemy’s artillery, and forced him to abandon the only three he had left, driving him upon General Hobson. Particulars given more fully in report. Large number of prisoners taken. Enemy’s loss not yet ascertained; it cannot fall short of 100 killed and wounded.

H. M. Judah,

The Raiders’ luck had run out. There was little choice but to try to evade capture.

“Cincinnati, July 19, 1863.

Lieutenant-Colonel Drake, Lexington, KY.:
Morgan’s force broken up today; about 1,000 prisoners already captured; a great many killed and wounded. Troops pursuing and picking them up. Colonels Ward and Dick Morgan among the prisoners. I will telegraph Colonel Harney direct. Expect to start back in noon train.

Geo. L. Hartsuff,

Morgan encouraged those who dared to swim across the river under an unholy rain of cannon fire.

“In the early morning General Morgan rode into the river, but when about half way across, seeing that the greater number of his men would be forced to remain on the Ohio shore, he turned and rode back to that side of the stream, resolved to share the fate of his men.

Accompanying the raiders were a number of active and intelligent colored boys serving their young masters, to whom they were singularly devoted. Among them was a little fellow named “Box,” a privileged character, whose impudent airs were condoned by the cavaliers in consideration of his uniform cheerfulness and enlivening plantation melodies. When General Morgan had returned to the Ohio shore he saw Box plunge into the river and boldly swim toward the other side. Fearing the little fellow would be drowned, The General called him to return. ‘No, Marse John,’ cried Box, ‘if dey ketch you dey may parole you, but if dey ketch dis nigger in a free State he ain’t a-gwine ter git away while de wah lasts.’ Narrowly missing collision with a gunboat, Box crossed the river all right and escaped southward to the old plantation.”

~ Private George Dallas Mosgrove, 4th Kentucky Cavalry[vii]

Morgan turned northeast and made a second attempt to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia.

“Columbus, Ohio, July 19, 1863. (Received 9:30 p. m.)

Major-General Burnside:
Morgan struck the river at Buffington Island and was there repulsed. Proceeded up the river. Has twice tried to cross, without success. We have a good force at Marietta, and at Parkersburg militia force under command of Colonel Runkle. I doubt not we will take his entire command.

David Tod,

“The one desperate chance of escape was by the road leading out of the upper end of the valley, and towards this Morgan’s confused troopers swept through the standing grain fields of the fertile farm lands, with Colonel Kautz’s command in hot pursuit.”

~ Captain Theodore F. Allen, 7th Ohio Cavalry [ix]

“Sunday, July 19
Still pressing hard on Johnny. Came up with him about noon. Capture over 1000 prisoners at eight mile island.”

~ Charles W. Durling, Company G, 45th Ohio Infantry[x]

“July 18 – 19. All are on the ‘qui vive,’ for the Ohio River is full of gunboats and transports, and an immense force of cavalry is hovering in our rear. We reached Buffington tonight. All was quiet. A dense fog wrapped this woodland scene. Early in the morning of the 19th the Yankees guarding the ford were attacked by our force, and driven away and their artillery captured. Immediately after this, and whilst we were trying the river to ascertain if it was fordable, the gunboats steamed up the river. The transports landed their infantry, thousands of cavalry moved down upon us, and the artillery commenced its deadly work. We formed and fought here to no purpose. The river was very full inconsequence of a heavy rain away up the river. Shells and Minnie balls were ricocheting and exploding in every direction, cavalry were charging and the infantry with its slow, measured tread moved upon us, while broadside after broadside was poured upon our doomed command from the gunboats. It seemed as if our comparatively small command would be swallowed up by the innumerable hordes. About half of it was captured or killed. I made my way out by charging through the enemy’s lines with about one-half the Regiment, and finally formed a juncture with the remnant of our command under Gen Morgan, now numbering 1,200. With these we moved toward Cheshire, traveling rapidly all night, passing around the enemy’s pickets, over cliffs and ravines, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been considered insurmountable.”

~ Lt. Col. James B. McCreary, 11th Kentucky Cavalry CSA[xi]

“ The first streak of morning light aroused us from our weary slumbers and mounting our tired and starving horses we prepared to meet the enemy, who in overwhelming numbers were rapidly closing around us, and several Gun Boats Gun Boats had ascended the river immediately in our front. We fought until our ammunition was expended and then retreated up the river, losing three or four hundred men; among them Cols. Duke, Smith & Morgan. I now had the command of our right & moving 9 m. up the river we again attempted to cross. Col. Johnson with about 300 men succeeded, but Gen. Morgan with the main body of the Comd. was nearly all night and making a wide detour on the 20th of July at 4 P.M. we arrived at Cheshire, O., on the river some 50 or 60 miles below Buffington. For several hours previous to arriving at Cheshire the 5th Ky. under my Comd. & the 6th Comd. by R. D. Logan were actively engaged with Woolford’s and Judah’s Cavalry that hotly pressed our rear. Ammunition being entirely exhausted, and one-half the command having lost their guns during the rapid retreat of the preceding day and night, and the river being impassable, we were forced to surrender. We held a Council of War on a high hill about 4 mi. below Cheshire and sent a flag of truce to Col. Coleman, of Cluke’s Regt. Was our senior officer left, & the terms of surrender was agreed about sunset.”

~ Captain Thomas M. Coombs[xii]

With about one thousand gallant but hopeless men, General Morgan withdrew form the Melee at Buffington Island and rode eastward, closely pursued by Hobson’s indefatigable cavalry. Weary and harassed, the Confederate chieftain continued to elude his relentless pursuers for six days, when, his followers reduced to two hundred men, he surrendered, July 26th, to a detachment of Hobson’s Kentucky Cavalrymen – Greek against Greek.”

~ Private George Dallas Mosgrove, 4th Kentucky Cavalry[xiii]

Another 700 Raiders became trapped with Basil Duke and Col. Smith and fought stubbornly until they were completely overwhelmed and forced to surrender.

“The dreaded missiles passed overhead and their hiss increased the panic. A shell struck the road throwing up a cloud of dust. Troopers began unloading their booty of the raid. Shoes, parasols, skates, birdcages were scatted to the wind. Long bolts of muslin and calico spun out in banners of brilliant colors, streaming in the morning sunlight. The wounded and terror-stricken occupants of the ambulance wagons urged the scared horses into headlong flight. Often they became locked together and were hurdled over as if by an earthquake. Occasionally a solid shot or unexploded shell would strike one, and dash it into splinters. The remaining section of Confederate artillery tumbled into a ravine as if the guns had been as light as feathers. The gunboats raked the road with grapeshot. In a moment the panic was complete and the disaster irretrievable.”

~ Brigadier-General Basil Duke[xiv]

“Immediately after the stampede began each one of Morgan’s troopers began to unload the plunder carried on his horse – boots, shoes, stockings, gloves, skates, sleigh bells, and bird cages scattered to the winds. Then the flying horsemen let loose their bolts of muslin and calico; holding one end, each cavalryman let the whole hundred yards stream out behind him. The most gorgeous kaleidoscopic view imaginable would not serve to describe the retreat of this ‘army with banners,’ and instantly, though greatly to our surprise, we found ourselves to be rainbow chasers in almost the literal sense of the word. No road could accommodate such a confused mass of two thousand flying horsemen, and they spread across the narrowing valley. Across the upper end of the valley a stream came down out of the hills to the river, cutting its way through the plain in a deep gorge. Into this gorge plunged and piled the flying cavalry, with their wagons of plunder, and our force close behind them. Some succeeded in getting beyond this sunken gorge to continue their flight, though many, dismounted and disabled, were captured here, while some halted a short distance beyond in the forest-clad hills to surrender, rather than continue a hopeless flight.”

~ Captain Theodore F. Allen, 7th Ohio Cavalry [xv]

“Sunday, July 19th, 1863. Weather clear. Day light came slow. We went to a stable and got corn for our horses before the fog cleared off. After feeding we rode down the river bank four or five hundred yards to a little village called Portland, Ohio where we dismounted to rest. I went to a house and got some bread and meat. About half of the people had left their houses. I had not been in town more than an hour when a detail of thirty men was called for to strengthen the pickets a few hundred yards below town. Sergeant Miller detailed me for one. We all went to the picket base and halted. We learned that one of our Brigades had taken some earthworks and a piece of artillery a short distance below us. About fifteen prisoners passed to the rear. We were on the river bank. Three of four of us gave our horses in charge of others and went down to the river and took a wash. We heard the boats puffing very plain and hurried to our horses. Buffington Island lay just below us. In five minutes more a shell burst some distance below us. The next one burst nearer on a bee line with us. We knew at once that the Yanks were shelling us. I dismounted and held my horse. The next shell burst right over us about fifty feet high. The boys commenced moving back slow, and I led my horse thinking it safer from the shells. Then two or three of the boats followed us up the river shelling us every few minutes. I saw a shell or solid shot strike the ground within two feet of the heels of a horse in the rear of one of the regiments, giving both horse and rider a shower of dirt. On reaching the hills our regiment bore a little too far to the left and got separated form the rest of the command. Myself, Henry Allen, Sergeant Brown and several others in going through the thick woods and bushes got separated from the regiment. We could hear them ahead of us. Sergeant Brown dropped a bundle and as he was leading an extra horse I dismounted and got it for him. The Yanks getting pretty close in our rear, we moved on. I took the lead. We crossed gullies, climbed steep banks, through thick matted undergrowth that I would have thought impossible to do. I felt proud of my horse for the manner in which he carried me through. In climbing a steep bank a grape vine took off my hat and nearly pulled me off my horse. I had to choose between my hat and my gun which I would loose. I concluded to let the hat go and save my gun and went on without going back for it. I reached an open road and found myself alone. I passed several pieces of our artillery upside down in a ditch with the horses cut loose. I soon found the regiment. A shell or two passed over us about tree top high showing that the Yanks were determined to shell us as long as we were within range. We still had hopes of getting with the balance of the command. The Yanks came up and fired into our rear. Co. A dismounted and fought them till the balance of the regiment reached a rise in the woods, and formed a line. We dismounted to fight and advanced about twenty-five yards. We stood behind trees waiting for the enemy to come up again. There was about two hundred stragglers from other regiments with us. They attempted to get away while we were in line, but they did not go more than a few hundred yards when a sharp fire was opened on them from the front and they came back in a hurry. Nothing coming up in the rear we mounted our horses, but had hardly done so when the Yanks came up and fired into us. We moved back slowly firing a few shots. I saw one Yankee horse loose in the front without a rider. No one hurt on our side. We soon found out that we were surrounded and cut of from the command entirely. Some of the officers by order of Col. Dick Morgan, who had been lost and just got with us, raised a white flag in the shape of a handkerchief on a ram rod. I left the regiment and took a road to the left in hopes of getting away. I did not go far till I met three or four of our boys coming back. They said they had tried to get out on several roads but the Yanks were all around us. I picked up a new hat that was too large for me and went back with them to the regiment. While Col. Dick Morgan was making the conditions of our surrender, we threw away nearly everything we had got on the raid. All of the pistols were thrown as far into the bushes as we could throw them. Some were thrown away in pieces. I met Pa [Burke’s father was a member of the same Company] looking as if he had lost something. I laughed and told him that we were trapped and had better make the best of it. Some of the boys even threw away greenbacks and watches for fear that the Yanks would treat them rough if they found such things about them. We cleared our saddles of everything new. There was enough things scatted through the woods to set up quite a respectable variety store. I got a hat to fit me. Most of us put on what ready made clothing we had on hand. There was some eight or ten left us with the bold intention of cutting their way out. We mounted, took our places, and rode four or five hundred yards down the road handing a Yank our guns as we passed. This made the second gun the Yanks had gotten from me. We came to where two or three regiments of Yankee cavalry and some artillery were in line. We formed two lines in front of them and were counted. The boys gave their spurs to the Yanks standing around. I called a young Yank and told him to take mine off and he did so thanking me for them. We then dismounted and stood in front of our horses. I loosened my saddle girt and slipped my bed comfort out knowing that I would need it to sleep on. I also took my journal from my saddle pockets and wrapped it up in the comfort, feeling very uneasy for its safety. We went through a light examination for arms and were marched into a field near by in the shade. We silently bid our horses good-by as they were led away. It was very warm and we were all very thirsty. Some of the Yankees took our canteens to a spring and filled them for us. WE were impressed with the unwelcome fact that we were no longer at liberty to do as we pleased. We were all in hopes that our being captured would give the rest of the command ample opportunity to escape from the large army in pursuit. Pa came across Lt. J. S. Pankey who before the war was one of his best marble agents in business. Lieut. Pankey said he would do anything he could for us. He appeared a little tipsy and gave me a fifty cent green back bill and would not let me give it back. We then marched through the dust back to our old camp near the river, a distance of three miles, where we found Lieut. Peddicord and a lot more of our boys. We halted in the middle of a wheat field with infantry guards around us. I noticed a good many pieces of artillery, also our own pieces that the yanks got before we could get them out of the bottom. I saw but one of our men dead on the field, but I heard that our loss in killed was five. In an hour or two Cols. Basil Duke and D. Howard Smith with about a hundred more of our command was brought in. The boys were all sorry that Duke was captured, but they cheered him when they found he was unharmed. The yanks issued some fat bacon and army crackers to us, and I picked up one of their haversacks with a tin cup and a spoon in it. I soon silenced all honest scruples and kept them. They were just the things that I needed. The guards and by standers handed us the nearest wheat shocks to sit on and sleep on. I opened three or four bundles of wheat and spread it on the ground myself. Henry White and Leven Young slept on it, and covered with my comfort. It was a warm one and the only thing in the mess in the way of bed clothing. I slept very well.

~Curtis R. Burke, 14th Kentucky Calvary, Co. B[xvi]

Very few Confederates managed to swim across the Ohio River and flee into West Virginia. Reports vary, giving numbers between 300 and 400 men managing to reach the opposite shore.

“About 350 of the boys crossed the river some distance above Buffington Island in the afternoon of July 19th under the command of Col. Adam R. Jackson [Johnson].”

~John Weatherred, 9th Tennessee Cavalry[xvii]

Among those who escaped across the river were David Berry, Colonel Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson, Warren Grigsby, and George Lighting Ellsworth.

“Looking back across the river I saw a number of hats floating on the surface, and knew that each represented a brave and gallant Confederate who had found a watery grave…”

~ Colonel Adam R. Johnson[xviii]


[i] Wittenberg, Eric J. “The Fight to Save The Buffington Island Battlefield”
[ii] Whitman, Walt. “An Army Corps on the March.”
[iii] Allen, Theodore F. “In Pursuit of John Morgan,” Sketches of War History 1861-1865, Papers prepared for the Commandery of the Sate of Ohio, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States 1896 -1903, pages 236-237.
[iv] “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Part I –Reports, p. 779.
[v] “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Part I –Reports, p. 776.
[vi] “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Part I –Reports, p. 775.
[vii] Mosgrove, George Dallas. “Following Morgan’s Plume Through Indiana And Ohio.” Southern Historical Society papers. Vol. XXXV. Richmond, VA., January – December. 1907.
[viii] “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Part I –Reports, pages 778 -779.
[ix] Allen, Theodore F. “In Pursuit of John Morgan,” Sketches of War History 1861-1865, Papers prepared for the Commandery of the Sate of Ohio, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States 1896 -1903, p. 237.
[x] Diary of Charles W. Durling.
[xi] Diary of James B. McCreary.
[xii] The Diary of Captain Thomas M. Coombs.
[xiii] Mosgrove, George Dallas. “Following Morgan’s Plume Through Indiana And Ohio.” Southern Historical Society papers. Vol. XXXV. Richmond, VA., January – December. 1907.
[xiv] Duke, Basil W. “History of Morgan’s Cavalry,” 1867, pages 452.
[xv] Allen, Theodore F. “In Pursuit of John Morgan,” Sketches of War History 1861-1865, Papers prepared for the Commandery of the Sate of Ohio, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States 1896 -1903, pages 237-238.
[xvi] Journal of Curtis R. Burke.
[xvii] Diary of John Weatherred.
[xviii] Walsh, George. “”Those Damned Horse Soldiers” p. 195.

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