Buffington Island lies in the Ohio River a half mile downstream of the town of Portland, Ohio, and three miles upstream from Ravenswood, West Virginia. On November 25, 1797, Joel Buffington of Kanawha County, Virginia, purchased the 150-acre island from John Pearce Duvall of Mason County, Kentucky, for a total of five shillings. At that time, virgin timber covered most of the island. Originally called Amberson's Island or the Island of Duvol, by 1807 people most commonly referred to the island by its present name because of the Buffington family’s ownership. Before the end of the American Civil War, the island served as an Underground Railroad stop and as the lair for John Lockwood, Ohio’s last river pirate. Over the decades, Buffington Island has been used for agricultural and mining purposes. In 1993, the whole island received protection as part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Buffington Island is best known for its association with 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 2,100 soldiers across the Ohio River into southern Indiana. Morgan's superiors had dispatched the cavalry leader into Kentucky to divert Union troops from the front lines in Tennessee. Morgan exceeded these orders by crossing north of the Ohio River, but by doing so, he did create turmoil for the Union army and civilians.
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 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, but eventually 60,000 Ohioans responded to the call. On July 13, as 65,000 Indiana militia and soldiers descended upon Morgan's men, the Confederates entered Ohio at Harrison, 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Nearly 10,000 Ohio militiamen had gathered to defend Cincinnati and Hamilton. Morgan planned to evade them. In what would become America’s longest non-stop ride of a division of horsemen in enemy territory, Morgan led his cavalrymen through the outskirts of Cincinnati during the night of July 13-14 and fought a skirmish near the Union army's Camp Dennison before making camp at Williamsburg in Clermont County. The next day, Morgan divided his men. He sent a group through Georgetown to Ripley in Brown County, while the main force traveled through Mt. Orab and Sardinia, following the Highland-Brown County line to Winchester in Adams County. The two groups merged northeast of Cherry Fork in Adams County. Morgan’s reunited division rode through Locust Grove, crossed the Scioto River at Piketon, and proceeded to Jackson. There, the Confederates split again, with one brigade heading southeast through Vinton in Gallia County while the other brigade, accompanied by Morgan, rode directly east to Wilkesville in Vinton County. At Berlin Crossroads in Jackson County, Morgan defeated a group of 1,500 Ohio militiamen in a lively three-hour skirmish, while five miles northwest of Centerville, in Gallia County, a detachment of Michigan cavalrymen drove off the raiders in a brief encounter. In the early morning of July 18, the two brigades reunited at Hanesville in Meigs County and turned east toward Middleport in an effort to reach the Ohio River and cross into friendly territory. However, heavy enemy resistance from Ohio militiamen and Union soldiers near Middleport and Pomeroy convinced Morgan to head for the low-water ford at Buffington Island.
At sunset on July 18, Morgan’s Confederates encountered a small earthwork defended by Ohio militiamen guarding the Buffington Island ford of the Ohio River. Severely outnumbered, the militiamen retreated under the cover of darkness. However, their presence, combined with an unusual flood of the Ohio River, delayed Morgan enough to allow Union cavalry to catch up to the Confederates. Brigadier General Edward H. Hobson and his Union cavalry division of 2,800 men had closely pursued Morgan from Kentucky. Union Major General Ambrose Burnside also had sent a Union cavalry brigade of 1,100 men under Brigadier General Henry M. Judah and several gunboats under Lieutenant Commander LeRoy Fitch up the Ohio River from Cincinnati toward Portsmouth. In addition, an infantry division under Brigadier General Eliakim P. Scammon traveled by steamboat from West Virginia to Gallipolis and Pomeroy to defend those towns. Some of these infantrymen had fought alongside the Ohio militia in the severe skirmish with Morgan’s division in the hills around Pomeroy. Among Scammon’s soldiers were Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Lieutenant William McKinley, Jr., future Presidents of the United States. Before dawn on July 19, Morgan's men attempted to ford the Ohio River at the head of Buffington Island. The Confederates succeeded in getting a small number of men across the river before two Union gunboats under Commander Fitch and 1,000 soldiers under General Judah appeared unexpectedly out of the thick fog around 5:30 AM.
The Battle of Buffington Island ensued. The combined Union force numbered approximately 3,000 men, while Morgan's Raiders included 1,800 soldiers. Judah’s troopers were surprised and routed in the initial action, but the Union commander organized a successful counterattack that caused the Confederates to retreat a mile and a half upriver. By 6:30 AM, dismounted men from two brigades of General Hobson’s division attacked Morgan from the west, while Judah’s troopers fought the Confederates on foot from the south. Judah’s and Hobson’s artillery were especially effective and deadly throughout the battle. In addition, from the river Fitch’s two Union gunboats, USS Moose and Allegheny Belle, continually fired their cannons into the Confederates. It was too much for Morgan’s men to handle. Morgan formed an L-shaped defensive line as he ordered his rear troops to retreat northward. Hayes’s brigade of Scammon’s infantry arrived by steamboat at this time and acted as a reserve to Judah’s cavalry.
Some uncertainty exists about the battle. Morgan did not file a battle report, and the Union officers involved left out many details in their final reports. Using multiple primary sources, the best data suggests that Morgan lost 57 killed, 63 wounded, and 71 captured on the battlefield. Among the captured was Morgan's brother-in-law, Colonel Basil Duke. During the twenty-four hours following the battle, Union soldiers captured an additional 570 men in eastern Meigs County, northeast Gallia County, and along the West Virginia shore of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, perhaps because Morgan’s Raid was very politically charged, Union records on July 20 exaggerated the number captured to be over 2,300 men – more than the Confederates had present in Ohio! Union forces lost six killed and twenty wounded men in the two-hour battle, including Major 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 (about 1,100 of the 1,800 engaged) managed to escape from the battlefield and continued in a northerly direction along the Ohio River, hoping to find a place to cross. Twelve miles upstream from Buffington Island, Morgan's Raiders found an unprotected crossing at Reedsville in Meigs County. Over three hundred of the Confederates succeeded in crossing the river before Fitch’s Union gunboats arrived. Morgan and his remaining 800 soldiers retreated westward and southward 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. Southwest of Salineville, in Columbiana County, Union cavalry under the command of Major W.B. Way engaged in a running battle with Morgan’s remaining 475 troopers. After an hour and half of fighting, the action around Salineville resulted in over one hundred Confederates killed, wounded, and captured, and less than twenty Union soldiers wounded. Three miles west of West Point in Columbiana County, Major G.W. Rue’s Union cavalry surrounded Morgan's Raiders and succeeded in capturing Morgan and 364 of his command. The surrender occurred at about 2 PM on July 26, 1863. Morgan's capture marked the end of his raid of the North.
The Battle of Buffington Island did not actually take place on the island in the Ohio River. The battle occurred on the adjacent bottomland on the Ohio side of the river. Buffington Island is near the small community of Portland on the Ohio River in Meigs County. The Ohio History Connection maintains approximately four acres of the battlefield as a historic site, but nearly 1,230 core acres of the battlefield lie in private hands, of which about 600 acres have been lost to mining and housing development. Preservationists are working to save key portions of the remaining battlefield as a memorial.
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