Buffington Island was the site of the largest battle to occur in Ohio during the American Civil War.
On July 8, 1863, Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate cavalry leader, led approximately two thousand soldiers across the Ohio River into southern Indiana. Morgan's superiors had dispatched the cavalry leader into northern Kentucky to cause disorder among the Union military. Morgan exceeded these orders by crossing north of the Ohio River, but he did create turmoil for the United States army.
Crossing into Indiana, Morgan's Raiders spread false rumors that the Confederates intended to attack Indianapolis, Indiana. Rather than doing this, the men spent five days in southern Indiana, procuring supplies and horses from Union civilians. On July 13, as the Indiana militia descended upon Morgan's men, the Confederates entered Ohio, near the Hamilton-Butler County line. Morgan led his men to the outskirts of Cincinnati, where he spent the night of July 13-14, within sight of the Union Army's Camp Dennison. The next day, Morgan divided his men. He sent a small portion of his men through Warren, Clinton, Fayette, Ross, and Jackson Counties, while the main force traveled through Clermont, Brown, Highland, Pike, and Jackson Counties. The larger group crossed the Scioto River at Piketon and proceeded to Jackson, where it reunited with the smaller detachment. The reunited Confederates proceeded east through Jackson, Gallia, Vinton, and Meigs Counties, in an effort to reach the Ohio River.
On the night of July 12, Ohio Governor David Tod issued a proclamation, calling out the Ohio militia to protect the southern counties from Morgan's Raiders. Many militiamen did not hear of the proclamation in a timely manner. The Confederates faced little opposition until July 18, when they encountered a small earthwork defended by Ohio militiamen. Severely outnumbered, the militiamen retreated under the cover of darkness. However, their presence had allowed Union cavalry under Brigadier General E.H. Hobson to catch up to the Confederates. Union General Ambrose Burnside also had sent Union soldiers and gunboats to patrol the Ohio River. Morgan's men attempted to cross the Ohio River at a ford near Buffington Island. The Confederates succeeded in getting a small number of men across the river before Union gunboats and soldiers under Hobson and General H.M. Judah arrived.
The Battle of Buffington Island ensued. The Union force numbered approximately three thousand men, while Morgan's Raiders included 1,700 soldiers. Some uncertainty exists about the actual battle. Morgan hoped to lead his men across the Ohio River, and Union soldiers and gunboats intercepted him. Morgan did not file a battle report, and the Union officers involved left out many details in their final reports. Estimates for the number of wounded or killed Confederates range from fifty-two to 120 men. Union soldiers captured an additional eight hundred to 1,200 men. Among the captured men was Morgan's brother-in-law. Union soldiers lost twenty-five men in the battle, including Daniel McCook of the Fighting McCooks. During the Civil War, fifteen McCook family members fought for the Union, earning these men the nickname the Fighting McCooks.
Morgan's remaining men managed to break through the Union lines and continued in a northerly direction along the Ohio River, hoping to find a place to cross. Twenty miles from Buffington Island, Morgan's Raiders found an unprotected crossing. Several hundred of the Confederates succeeded in crossing the river before Union gunboats arrived. Morgan and his remaining soldiers retreated westward through Meigs and Gallia Counties and then moved in a more northeasterly direction through Vinton, Hocking, Athens, Perry, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Carroll, and Columbiana Counties. At Salineville, in Columbiana County, Union Cavalry under the command of Major W.B. Way and Major G.W. Rue surrounded Morgan's Raiders and succeeded in capturing Morgan and most of his command. Morgan's capture marked the end of his raid of the Union.
The Battle of Buffington Island did not actually take place on an island in the Ohio River. Buffington Island is a small community near the Ohio River in Meigs County. The Ohio History Connection maintains approximately four acres of the battlefield as a historic site. Preservationists are working to save the entire battlefield as a memorial.
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