John Hunt Morgan

This portrait of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan was made between 1870 and 1890. A similar portrait appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1864 announcing Morgan’s death. Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Dennis E. Powell

If you look in some of the history books, you’ll learn that the only significant battle in Ohio in the Civil War was fought at Buffington Island in Meigs County.

Books that say that are wrong. They’re close, but they err in important details. The battle wasn’t fought at Buffington Island, and Buffington Island isn’t in Meigs County — it’s in West Virginia.

For some reason, and despite a lot of research over several years I do not know that reason, the West Virginia line does not follow the center of the Ohio River the way you’d expect. It actually extends clear across the river in places. Among them is an area of swampy land due south of Portland and south of Buffington Island itself, although the island is separated from Meigs County (and therefore Ohio) by what amounts to a narrow creek.

The little dab of land connected to Ohio, and Buffington Island, is technically West Virginia. It seems a small point, but we could reasonably guess that there are legal implications. To whom would taxes be paid? If a crime were committed there, who would respond, and with what legal authority? It’s all a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is that the Battle of Buffington Island wasn’t fought on Buffington Island but in nearby Portland, Ohio. It is also sometimes called the “St. Georges Creek Skirmish,” but look: about 31,000 Ohioans were killed in the Civil War, out of a total population of 2,339,511 in 1860. That’s nearly 1.5% of all Ohioans, not serving or wounded but flat-out killed. A total of 310,654 people from the state — more than 13% of the population — fought in the war. We’re really entitled to more than a mere skirmish. So Battle of Buffington Island it is.

In normal years — and in this respect we can count 2021 as “normal” — there is a memorial service at the actual battlefield in Portland on or near the anniversary of the fight. This year it’s this Saturday, July 17, at 11 a.m. at Buffington Island Memorial Park, 55890 State Route 124. It’s a beautiful area, and people planning to attend the event might want to make an afternoon of it, heading south on 124, the river on one side and farmland and bluffs on the other. Not far south of Portland is the memorial at the spot where George Washington and his surveying party camped the night of Oct. 28, 1770. Continuing south there’s a lot of scenery — but not a lot of business, so take water, maybe some snacks, and have a full tank of gas — and you’ll ultimately encounter intersections with highways you’ll recognize.

Back to the battle. In mid-July 1863, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his 2,500 raiders ran wild across much of southern Ohio, having crossed the Ohio River to Indiana July 8, just a few days after the Rebel loss at Gettysburg. His job was to sow fear, distraction and confusion within the Union military. He and his cavalry spent most of the time being pursued by Ohio militia and other Union units. Trapped, Morgan sought to recross the river at the Buffington Island ford. The water was unusually high, confounding the plan, though some of the southerners made it before Union gunboats arrived.

This led to what might correctly be called the Battle Near Buffington Island on July 19, 1863. Morgan’s crew was down to about 1,700 men, while the Ohio Volunteer Infantry and others numbered 3,000 or so. Fighting was fierce, with between 50 and 120 of Morgan’s soldiers killed or wounded and the majority of the rest captured. Union forces lost 25 men, among them the legendary Daniel McCook, head of the famous “fighting McCooks” — three Ohio brothers and their 15 sons who had taken up arms in defense of the Union. Dan McCook was 65 years old at the time.

You’d think it was a rout, but it wasn’t. Morgan and about 700 of his men (the numbers are all estimates because no one did his paperwork) made their way up the Ohio past Reedsville, where they tried again to cross the river at a point where, bizarrely, the state line is such that you begin in Ohio, enter West Virginia, then cross into Ohio again, then back into West Virginia, all while in the river. About 300 of Morgan’s men made the crossing before being interrupted by the Federal gunboats.

Morgan, who himself was halfway across the river (though we do not know in which state), turned back when he discovered that most of his men had been pinned down by the Union ships. He and the others then followed woodland paths as they traipsed around much of the area, including a memorable time in Nelsonville, then an important part of the canal system. There they ate and drank, reprovisioned themselves, stole horses, and burned much of the place down. The Nelsonville militia was said to have been in Athens at the time.

Morgan and his greatly diminished command were captured following the Battle of Salineville on July 26. (It was apparently not big enough to count as significant, which is why it’s said that Buffington Island was the only real Civil War battle in the state, and as noted even that is sometimes called a skirmish.) Morgan and his officers were imprisoned in Columbus, but the wily old Kentuckian still wasn’t done. He and a few others tunneled out of prison to their freedom; Morgan then boarded a train to Cincinnati, whence he crossed the river and was in his home state once more.

He resumed raiding in Kentucky, but without the flair and success he had previously enjoyed, and got shot in the back and killed in a raid on Greeneville, Tennessee, 10 months after his escape from Ohio.

I hope that knowing all that will encourage you to head over to Portland on Saturday to learn more and take part in the memorial.

The Battle of Buffington Island ain’t Antietam, but it’s ours.

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