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Daily Journal Masthead

Remembering the Battle of Corydon

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On the afternoon of July 26, 1863, John Hunt Morgan was famished, battle-fatigued, saddle-sore and in the custody of Union army officers.

Hours earlier, the Confederate brigadier general and the remnants of his once 2,200-plus strong cavalry division fought a bloody engagement against pursuing Union forces in Salineville, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border.

A one-sided affair, the fight resulted in 23 dead Confederates, the capture of nearly 350 more, and the end of a 46-day multistate odyssey that terrified the North, delighted the South and is known to history as “Morgan’s Raid.”

Morgan, a dashing figure whose goal was to deliver a dose of Civil War horror to the largely unscathed North — while diverting attention of its encroaching armies from beleaguered Southern forces — organized, planned and led the raid from its brazen start in Tennessee to its inglorious conclusion in the tiny town of West Point in northeastern Ohio.

Throughout the raid, which covered four states and more than 1,000 miles, Morgan’s men burned bridges and mills, stole horses and goods, and looted homes and business with impunity. Pursued relentlessly by Union cavalry, the raiders were always a day or so ahead, maintaining distance by stealing fresh horses and food at every town and village in their path, and by seldom leaving the saddle.

Sleep was a luxury. Men sometimes slept on their mounts. Stealing, looting and burning occupied the rest of their time. That, and the occasional skirmish. Combat, or the threat of it, was a constant reality.

Morgan and his men discovered that the hard way when first stepping foot on Northern soil.

‘We’re going to fight’

On the morning of July 8, 1863, they crossed the Ohio River from Brandenburg, Ky. — on two pirated steamboats — and disembarked at Morvin’s Landing near the southern Indiana town of Mauckport.

The following day, 150 years ago, Morgan and his battle-hardened veterans were greeted by a considerably smaller and exponentially less experienced group of militia who were determined not to let the Confederate incursion go unchallenged.

July 9, 1863, on a sweltering afternoon, the Battle of Corydon raged roughly a mile south of the state’s first capital.

It would be the first, and only, Civil War battle fought in Indiana, a free state whose citizens’ loyalties often were divided between the Northern and Southern causes.

But not on this day.

When Morgan and his men approached Corydon, they weren’t welcomed as liberators. They were greeted by roughly 450 members of the Indiana Home Guard, fanned out behind rickety log breastworks, determined to make a stand.

“For Indiana purposes, this was a big deal,” said A. James Fuller, a history professor at the University of Indianapolis whose specialty is the Civil War. “It shows a number of things. It shows that there was intense loyalty to the Union. And even in southern Indiana, where you had a lot of people who were sympathetic to the Southern cause in some ways, who didn’t necessarily support the war, if it comes to our soil, we’re going to fight.”

And fight, they did.

State’s place in history

Compared with well-known Civil War clashes such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh and Chickamauga, the Battle of Corydon is but a blip. Barely even that. But it has its place in history, nonetheless.

Apart from being the only Civil War battle in Indiana, it was one of the few pitch battles fought in any free state. With the notable exception of Gettysburg and a handful of smaller engagements, virtually the entire war was fought in slave-holding states. By the summer of 1863, most Northerners had been spared the horrors that ravaged the South.

But fear of the eventual possibility was constant. Northerners lived in perpetual anxiety of a Confederate invasion, particularly those living in state’s bordering neutral Kentucky, with only the Ohio River as a barrier.

When Morgan and his men crossed it into Indiana, bringing with them thousands of horses and four cannons, it confirmed the worst fears of many, including those who might otherwise sympathize with the South.

Such sympathizers were known as “Copperheads.” And there was no shortage of those in the Hoosier state.

“There was always the fear that somehow the Confederates were going to get across that river and invade,” said Fuller, who is writing a biography of Indiana’s Civil War governor Oliver P. Morton. “And there was also concern that such a movement would encourage the Copperheads, the Southern sympathizers, that they would rise up and you would have sort of a fifth column joining whatever Confederate forces came north. So there was a fear about that, and I think in the moment, in that time, it seemed like this is all that we were worried about coming true, it’s all coming about right now.

“I think there was a sense of panic, but the response was swift and sure. The leaders on the ground responded quickly.”

The Battle of Corydon

With ample warning that Morgan was on the way, the Indiana Home Guard — an assortment of farmers, store clerks and townspeople, including the editor of the Corydon newspaper — gathered arms and formed a battle line to defend the three roads leading into town. Their adversary was a battle-tested cavalry division, armed with artillery pieces, that had fought at Shiloh and myriad other bloodbaths, under the direction of a brazen leader and master horseman in Morgan.

For their part, the Corydon defenders — commanded by an elderly War of 1812 veteran, Col. Lewis Jordan — had no cannon, no combat experience and no swashbuckling leader. Their lone advantage was that some men from one of the militias were armed with 12-round Henry repeating rifles, an expensive and rare commodity of the day that Morgan’s men did not have.

When the shooting started around 12:30 p.m., the invaders were briefly taken aback.

“Morgan’s men were stumped for a while because the Ellwsworth Rifle Militia opened fire with repeating rifles. Morgan’s men didn’t have those kind of guns. They had single-shots,” said Lester Horwitz, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book “The Longest Raid of the Civil War,” a detailed account of Morgan’s Raid.

“They weren’t aware that some of the militia groups had these repeating rifles, and they thought there were a lot more people defending Corydon than there were because of all this firepower coming out,” Horwitz said. “It wasn’t until they captured them that they realized that they had better guns.”

In the face of superior numbers, experience and firepower, capture was inevitable. But it didn’t happen as swiftly or as painlessly as Morgan might have hoped.

For about a half-an-hour, the belligerents exchanged gunfire and inflicted casualties, with dead and wounded on both sides. Eventually outflanked on both sides by the mounted troops, the Home Guard didn’t yield until Morgan ordered up his artillery pieces and launched a couple of salvos into downtown Corydon.

With that, the fight was over.

“Once they opened with the cannons, they knew they were beat. There was no defense against that,” Horwitz said. “The mayor ran up the white flag. When (the shells) exploded in downtown Corydon, the mayor gave up. He didn’t want the town destroyed.

“So Morgan’s men walked into town and took it over.”

But at a cost in blood. Eleven of Morgan’s men lay dead on the battlefield. Another 40 were wounded.

The Home Guard suffered four deaths, a dozen wounded and 350 taken prisoner. About 100 sprinted safely back to town.

Among the defenders’ dead was Col. Jacob Ferree, the great-grandfather of Indiana governor and Corydon native Frank O’Bannon.

The aftermath

By 1 p.m., Morgan controlled Corydon. He set up a temporary headquarters at the Eagle Hotel on the north side of town and requisitioned a Presbyterian church as a makeshift hospital.

Shortly thereafter, he paroled the prisoners, looted the town, robbed its citizens of cash and valuables, and directed its newspaper editor — a member of the Home Guard — to get to work before he and his troopers rode out of Corydon late in the afternoon.

“I always find it amazing that the editor of the Corydon newspaper, the Daily Democrat, he fought Morgan in the morning and he produced a paper in the afternoon,” Horwitz said. “It’s amazing.”

And in its own unique way, so was the Battle of Corydon.

Although Morgan’s Raid would continue for nearly three more weeks, the half-hour fight in Southern Indiana clearly demonstrated that Confederate soldiers — contrary to what Morgan might have expected — would receive little in the way of sympathy north of the Ohio River.

Therein lies the legacy and significance of the Battle of Corydon, largely forgotten but richly deserving a memorable place in Civil War history.

“Indiana was considered critical in the war,” Fuller said. “There were those who thought that the state might very well go out of the Union if the Confederate soldiers gave them the opportunity to do so. There were those who were saying they may not want to join the military and go off and fight the South in the South, but if the South comes North, if the Confederates come up here, we’re going to fight them.

“The fact that they all responded the way that they did shows you something about the loyalty to home and country.”

Key points in the battle

Lester Horwitz is the author of “The Longest Raid of the Civil War,” a detailed day-by-day chronicle of Morgan’s Raid, which technically began June 11, 1863, near Sparta, Tenn., and ended July 26, near West Point in northeastern Ohio, about nine miles from the Pennsylvania border.

When Morgan’s Raiders crossed the Ohio River into Indiana the morning of July 8, 1863, it set the stage for the one and only Civil War battle fought in Indiana: the Battle of Corydon.

Horwitz’s book provides a thorough examination of the bloody July 9, 1863, engagement, fought for about half-an-hour between 450 largely untrained Indiana militiamen against more than 2,200 battle-hardened cavalry veterans of Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s invasion force.

What follows is a synopsis of events, provided by the author, leading up to the battle after Morgan crossed the Ohio River on two captured steamboats at Morvin’s Landing near Mauckport.

Crossing the Ohio

Wednesday, July 8, Morgan crossed the Ohio River with 2,300 mounted cavalry, plus 2,300 horses, four cannons, ammunition and hospital wagons. Morgan needed at least two large river boats. The day before, his men captured two vessels: the Alice Dean and the J.T. McCombs. At 8 a.m., they began crossing.

Lt. Col. William Irvin of the Indiana Legion, the home guard, ordered Capt. G.W. Lyons to open fire with their one cannon. Col. John Timberlake, who outranked Irvin, demanded that the cannon fire be directed against the Confederates on the opposite shore rather than at the approaching boat. Timberlake was afraid that the Confederates had citizen-hostages aboard and didn’t want them killed or injured by their cannon bombardment. Aboard the boat, there were no hostages, just raiders. But some of the shells hit the pilot house of the J.T. McCombs.

As the Confederates came close to the Indiana shore, the Indiana Legion troops abandoned their cannon and retreated north toward Corydon, where they hoped to make a stand.

Once Morgan’s men, horses and equipment crossed into Indiana, Morgan ordered the boats be burned so the pursuing Union cavalry in Kentucky couldn’t use them.

The Alice Dean was burned, but the J.T. McCombs was spared because of Confederate Col. Basil Duke’s pre-war friendly relations with the boat’s captain.

About the Indiana Home Guard

The Home Guard was made up of average citizens: farmers and townspeople, mainly old men and young boys because most of the fighting men were gone fighting on southern battlefields.

About the Battle of Corydon

The Battle of Corydon pitted 450 Indiana residents against 2,200 battle-tested Confederate soldiers.

With their superior numbers, the Confederates quickly outflanked the Corydon defenders. Morgan’s men were temporarily halted when Indiana’s Ellsworth Rifles militia opened fire with their Henry repeating rifles. Morgan’s men had rifles that had to be reloaded after each shot.

Once Morgan opened fire with his four cannons, the Indiana Legion fled back to Corydon. They had no defense against cannons and couldn’t match the rebel firepower. The mayor of Corydon ran up the white surrender flag after two cannon shells exploded in his town. The battle lasted about a half-hour. Morgan took over the town and made his headquarters in John Kintner’s Eagle House Hotel.

Battle-hardened Confederate veterans

Morgan fought two major battles in Kentucky before entering Indiana. On July 4, he fought a small Michigan force of several hundred at Tebb’s Bend along the Green River in Kentucky. When he asked Union Col. Orlando Moore to surrender, Moore’s reply reminded me of Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s reply to the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge when he was asked to surrender. He emphatically replied, “Nuts!” Col. Moore’s eloquent response was: “The Fourth of July is a damned bad day for a surrender, and I would rather not.”

Seeing that he had lost almost 100 men and was unable to dislodge the Union defenders, Morgan withdrew.

The next day, July 5, Morgan had another major encounter at Lebanon, Ky. That battle lasted for several hours, and Morgan lost many men. Among those killed was his younger brother, Lt. Thomas Hunt Morgan. The Battle of Corydon was not as costly nor as long as the two encounters in Kentucky. But it would be the only major engagement in Indiana.

Union forces trapped Morgan in Meigs County, Ohio. That clash would become known as the Battle of Buffington Island, where Morgan lost more than 700 men. That battle started at 5:30 a.m. July 19 and lasted until noon.

Morgan’s treatment of

Corydon and its residents

If Morgan’s men found an empty home, it was because the owners left before the Confederates arrived. Many times, when the raiders found a home occupied, they went elsewhere in search of food.

Sometimes, after they were served a meal with a modicum of hospitality in a home they had invaded, they offered to “pay” with cash: sometimes with Confederate dollars but mostly with “greenbacks” stolen from other Northerners. If they entered an occupied home, they were usually courteous and “gentlemanly.” These actions reflected the family training, attitudes and inherent qualities that prevailed in the South.

This does not mean that all the Confederate soldiers, nor all of Morgan’s men, were “Southern gentlemen.” There were a few “bad apples” who accompanied Morgan on his Indiana-Ohio raid. Morgan dealt with them harshly if they didn’t follow the guidelines he set forth for the treatment of civilians. Neither side was pure and innocent of reprehensible actions. But for the most part, Morgan’s men were a chivalrous group of warriors.

Rachel Tignor of Eagleport, Ohio, was caring for a Confederate who had been shot. She said the soldier told her that all the raiders had been ordered by Morgan to respect the womenfolk on the raid but to take anything they wanted or otherwise needed.

In the aftermath of Morgan’s visit, most of the horses were taken out of the community. These horses were vital for communications, the transportation of people and supplies.

Some of Morgan’s original horses were left behind because they were worn out (“jaded”) and could go no further. Many were Kentucky thoroughbreds and unfit for pulling a plow.

Food supplies had been confiscated by the Rebels. Some fields of corn and grain were damaged. Valuables, personal belongings and cash often were stolen. But fewer than two dozen noncombatant Northern citizens were killed. Many were deaf and didn’t hear the Rebels shouting “Stop!”

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