Ohio River island site of Civil War battle
RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. -- With no coastline and no ocean ports, West Virginia seems an unlikely locale for a battle involving the U.S. Navy.
But 150 years ago today, a few miles upstream from this Ohio River town, artillery fire from a pair of Navy gunboats in West Virginia waters played a key role in bringing an abrupt end to a daring Confederate cavalry raid that swept through Indiana and Ohio.
The events that led to what would be known as the Battle of Buffington Island began in June 1863, when Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of Confederate forces in Tennessee, ordered Gen. John Hunt Morgan to lead a force of about 2,000 cavalrymen on a raid through neighboring Kentucky. The idea was to divert federal troops from what was shaping up to be a Union assault on Chattanooga, Tenn.
The headstrong Morgan spent only one week in Kentucky before deciding -- against orders to the contrary by Bragg -- to cross the Ohio River just west of Louisville on July 8, and enter Indiana, bringing the sting of war to the north.
Morgan's Raiders spent five days in Indiana, "requisitioning" horses, food and supplies from farmers and storekeepers, damaging railroad bridges and freight offices, and occasionally skirmishing with Union home guard troops. On July 13, the Confederate cavalrymen crossed into Ohio and continued their raid, passing near the outskirts of Cincinnati before pressing eastward.
Meanwhile, on the Ohio River, a fleet of six U.S. Navy gunboats was in hot pursuit of the Confederate raiders. Known as "tinclads" due to the light layer of armor they were rigged with, the gunboats were part of the Navy's Mississippi Squadron, charged with disrupting Confederate river traffic on the Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio rivers.
By the time Morgan and his men were within a day's ride of Ohio's border with the month-old state of West Virginia, they had looted farms and businesses in 12 Ohio counties, prompting nearly 4,400 Ohioans to later file claims for compensation from the raids.
Morgan did not believe that the Ohio River was deep enough at mid-summer to allow the Union gunboats to pursue him upstream of Pomeroy, Ohio, about 30 miles downstream from Ravenswood, so he made for a well-known fording spot off the tip of Buffington Island, just north of the Jackson county town. But heavy rains in Pennsylvania a few days earlier had brought the river level up from about 30 inches to nearly five feet, making upriver gunboat travel possible and a mass river-fording by cavalrymen treacherous.
By the night of July 18, most of the Navy gunboats had made it to Ravenswood, where they moored at the mouth of Sandy Creek.
The flagship of the federal squadron was the newly built USS Moose, which displaced nearly 190 tons, was 154.5 feet long, and came equipped with six 25-pound cannons. Since the river depth of five feet barely equaled the minimum operating level needed by the gunboat, its captain, Lt. Cmdr. LeRoy Fitch, ordered the dispatch boat Imperial to tow the Moose, under the cover of darkness, through a set of shoals to Morgan's expected fording spot at Buffington Island.
Morgan's force had arrived on the Ohio side of the ford during the afternoon and evening of July 18. While unopposed during most of their raid through Ohio, Morgan's cavalrymen now found themselves under pursuit by a Union force of 3,000 cavalry and infantry troops, including soldiers from the 23rd Ohio Infantry, pulled off garrison duty at Camp White in Charleston. Among them were two future U.S. presidents -- Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Capt. William McKinley.
As the Union troops closed in on the Confederates by land, the Moose and the Imperial arrived about 2 a.m. in the narrow channel separating Buffington Island from the Ohio shore, undetected by nearby encamped Confederates. A short time later, the makeshift gunboat Allegheny Belle, a sternwheeler rigged with three artillery pieces from a Michigan battery, slid into position behind the Moose and Imperial.
At daybreak on July 19, 110 men from the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, a part of Morgan's raiding party, paddled across the Ohio on a flatboat and a collection of rowboats to set up a perimeter around the fording point's West Virginia shore.
A short time after that, on the Ohio shore, dense patches of morning fog began to break up, giving Union soldiers under Gen. H.M. Judah's command their first close look at a group of Morgan's Raiders. Small arms fire broke out from both sides.
Upon hearing the sound of gunfire, Fitch ordered the Moose, Allegheny Belle and Imperial to move up the narrow channel separating Buffington Island from the Ohio shore, toward the fighting. Partway up 1.5-mile long passageway, the Moose stopped along the Ohio shoreline to pick up Capt. John Grafton, Gen. Judah's aide-de-camp, who had narrowly escaped capture in the foggy encounter with Morgan's troops.
As the Moose passed the north end of Buffington Island, its crew could see Morgan's cavalrymen beginning to ford the river, protected by two artillery pieces, which had yet to be loaded or brought to bear on the approaching gunboats.
"I at once engaged him, drove him from the banks, and captured two pieces of his artillery, a portion of his baggage train, horses, small arms, etc.," Fitch wrote in an after-action report. The Allegheny Belle added her cannons to the barrage when she cleared the channel and had room to move abeam of the Moose.
In all, gunners aboard the Moose fired 40 rounds of artillery into the Confederates, heading off their river crossing, as Union infantry and cavalry on the Ohio side of the river encircled them. At least 52 Morgan's Raiders were killed, more than 100 were wounded and an additional 750 were taken prisoner. Union losses were 25 killed and wounded, including Seaman John Napenberger of the Moose who was shot through the arm, and a crewman on the Allegheny Belle whose buttock stopped a minie ball.
Morgan's second-in-command, Col. Basil Duke, later wrote that he wished the Union Navy gunners' sense of security "could have been subjected to two or three shots through their hulls."
Morgan and about 700 of his men managed to escape the federal trap by following a narrow path through the woods on the Ohio side of the river, and heading north toward another ford near the site of the present-day Belleville Lock and Dam.
The Moose and Allegheny Belle, paddling upriver at about 6 miles per hour, pursued the troops, firing on them when they came within range. The gunboats arrived at Belleville in time to once again fire on an attempt by Morgan's Raiders to ford the river. About 300 Confederates managed to cross into West Virginia and eventually return to their lines before the Moose's shells began landing.
Morgan, who was reportedly in mid-stream when the gunboats began shelling the ford, opted to return to the Ohio shore to lead the larger group of surviving raiders.
"Weather warm and clear," wrote acting Master's Mate Charles W. Spooner in the Moose's logbook for the noon to 4 p.m. watch on July 19, 1863. "Had a second engagement with a portion of Morgan's men. Killed nine."
Morgan and his remaining men fled westward, away from the gunboats, then traveled north to Salineville, Ohio. There, on July 26, 1863, the exhausted raiders were captured by federal troops.
Most of Morgan's captured cavalrymen were taken to Camp Chase, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Columbus. Morgan and several of his officers were also taken to Columbus, but were held in the Ohio State Penitentiary.
But Morgan's days of roaming the Ohio countryside were not yet over. On Nov. 27, 1863, the Confederate general and five of his officers tunneled out of their cell into an airshaft, which gave them access to the prison yard. From there, they scaled a wall, using a rope fashioned from tied-together prison uniforms.
Once free, Morgan bought a train ticket to Cincinnati, using money his sister had smuggled into the prison in a Bible. From Cincinnati, he walked across a bridge into Kentucky and eventually reached Confederate lines.
Morgan returned to duty in the Confederate army, and was given command of the Department of Southwestern Virginia. In September 1864, while in Greenville, Tenn., where he was planning a cavalry raid on Union-occupied Knoxville, he was killed by a raiding party of Union cavalrymen.
Morgan's Raid gave Confederate civilians some hope that their army could still achieve success following defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The raid also raised fears among northerners that they may not be immune to attack. But overall, the raid was viewed as a failure, since no significant harm came to the Union's transportation or communication infrastructure, and the Confederates lost almost an entire division of cavalrymen.
The USS Moose spent the remainder of the war patrolling the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, occasionally shelling Confederate artillery positions and guerrilla camps.
The battle's namesake, 1.5-mile long Buffington Island, is now a part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
On Saturday and Sunday, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Buffington Island will be commemorated with a living history weekend at the Buffington Island State Memorial and nearby Portland Community Center, on Ohio Route 124, about five miles north of Ravenswood, off U.S. 33. Wagon tours of the battlefield and living history encampments of Union and Confederate soldiers will be among the activities. For more information, visit www.ohiohistory.org/museums-and-historic-sites/museum--historic-sites-by-name/buffington-island/Battle-of-Buffington-Island-150th-anniversary.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.