Operations of the Mississippi Squadron during Morgan's Raid
by Mark F. Jenkins
When Confederate General John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River into Indiana on his now-famous raid, he was to face not only the Union Army and state militia elements, but also the United States Navy. Although the bulk of the Mississippi Squadron, including all of its ironclads, was still concentrated around the Vicksburg area (that city having just fallen), an increasing number of "tinclad" gunboats were on patrol in the upper rivers.
Up until the fall of Vicksburg, the role of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, called the Mississippi Squadron after its hand-over from the War Department to the Navy in October 1862, had been straightforward: seize control of the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, in conjunction with the Army. Stronghold after stronghold fell to the Union, and the Mississippi River, in Lincoln's phrasing, now ran "unvexed to the sea."
Deprived of its primary defenses in the region, the Confederacy resorted to a form of guerrilla warfare with light units, intended to harass the Union forces and drain away their strength. The Union responded by developing techniques that a century later would be termed counter-insurgency operations; small garrisons were situated at strategic points, with mobile units (often cavalry) available to move to problem areas. The Navy's part in this was the acquisition of several dozen light gunboats, popularly known as "tinclads" for their light armor protection. Unsuited for main naval combat, they were however admirably suited for patrol work and operations against small Confederate units operating along the rivers. Lighter than the ironclads, they were faster and drew less water, yet could carry the equivalent of a battery of field artillery into action more quickly than was possible for the army, and to have it instantly ready to commence fire. They generally mounted six or so 12- or 24-pounders very similar to the Army's standard field artillery, and so Army-trained artillerists could be employed aboard; most of them also mounted a heavier gun or two, usually 30- or 32-pounders facing forward, for when a stronger punch was needed.
As the Navy received these boats and began to develop its strategy for patrolling and holding its rear areas, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter divided his command into districts responsible for specific geographical regions. In May 1863, the rivers north of Vicksburg were divided into six divisions; the Sixth Division, under Lieutenant Commander LeRoy Fitch, was responsible for the Cumberland River and the Ohio River upstream from Smithland, Kentucky. On July 3, 1863, as the guns began to fall silent at Vicksburg (and as Lee's army was being defeated at far-off Gettysburg), Fitch reported the following disposition of his command: Brilliant and St. Clair, patrolling the Ohio between Shawneetown Bar and Smithland; Fairplay and Silver Lake, patrolling the Ohio between Scuffletown Bar and Shawneetown Bar; Springfield, patrolling the Ohio from Louisville to Scuffletown Bar; Moose and Reindeer, patrolling the Ohio above Louisville; and Victory was receiving stores and would be ready on July 6.1 A ninth gunboat, Naumkeag, was descending the river to join the flotilla.2
Morgan entered the Sixth Division's area of operations on July 7, 1863, appearing at Brandenburg, Kentucky, less than forty miles downstream from Louisville. He seized two steamers for the transportation of his forces north across the Ohio River into Indiana. Initially, the Union forces were unsure if he intended to move upstream or down.3 He feinted towards Louisville, then crossed the river using the captured riverboats John T. McCombs and Alice Dean. Early the next day, Acting Ensign Joseph Watson, commanding the gunboat Springfield, heard of the incident and headed downriver to Brandenburg. As he approached, he was fired on from the Indiana side of the river, confirming that the Confederates had already managed to cross at least part of their forces. Watson continued downstream until he encountered two batteries of two guns each about a mile outside Brandenburg, including two 20-pounder Parrott rifles on a hill near a courthouse, at 9:00 AM.4 The Springfield engaged these batteries with her 24-pounder howitzers for about ninety minutes without much success, whereupon he withdrew until he was joined by two transports from Louisville, carrying about 500 infantrymen. He once again engaged the batteries unsuccessfully; though Springfield was undamaged, Watson had realized to his great unhappiness that the fire from the enemy's Parrott rifles easily outdistanced his howitzers. He returned upstream to Louisville to communicate with Lieutenant Commander Fitch.
LeRoy Fitch arrived at Louisville on the morning of July 9, having heard about the incident the day before at Cincinnati. By noon he came over the falls in his flagboat Moose and met with Watson, ordering him and Springfield to patrol off Portland, Kentucky. He arrived at Brandenburg by about 5 or 6 PM with Moose and Victory, to find that Morgan had successfully made his crossing and burned the two captured steamers. He also found Union General Hobson's forces just arriving in pursuit of the Confederates. An hour or so later, two more gunboats arrived, Fairplay and Silver Lake, convoying seven transport steamers, which were used to ferry Hobson's troopers across the river that evening. Fitch set these two gunboats to patrol below Brandenburg, in case Morgan should turn downstream, and sent Victory to join Springfield on patrol above.5
On July 10, Fitch issued the following general order: "For the present unarmed steamers must not run below Madison, Ind., without convoy. Gunboats will be in readiness to convoy from there down.
"Boats from Evansville will also receive convoy from Fredonia up, or, if necessary, from points lower down the river, and they must not run without it."6
A day later, Fitch reported to Porter that it seemed as if Morgan was moving in two different directions, though he suspected the main movement was upstream towards New Albany, Indiana. He noted the difficulty in preventing Morgan from crossing back southward, saying, "The river is fordable at several points both above and below the falls; therefore, unless we can get word as to the probable point Morgan makes for, he can come in and ride across in less than an hour."7 However, Morgan was not intent on crossing back south just yet; in fact, a sizable body of troops was attempting to reinforce him.
About twelve miles above Louisville, near Twelve Mile Island, Springfield and Victory encountered a force of men attempting to cross northward, apparently intending to join Morgan. The two gunboats attacked the force, estimated at up to 1,500, just as it began to cross the river. 45 men made it across; 39 men and 40 horses were stranded on the island and captured, and the rest turned back.8 The two gunboats continued upriver after the engagement, hunting for and destroying flatboats and skiffs to prevent traffic across the river. With a mixture of frustration and hopefulness, Fitch wrote Porter, ". . .The whole river appears to be infested by guerrillas all at once. I expect there will be very lively times here this summer. I am now in great hopes of being able to meet Morgan."9
In the meantime, the situation had sunk in with the Union high command. The top Army officer in the region, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside kept up a constant stream of reports of Morgan's whereabouts from his headquarters in Cincinnati. Though he had been ousted from command of the Army of the Potomac some months previously after the disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg and the "Mud March," Burnside had earlier earned his spurs with his "amphibious division" in the North Carolina sounds and at Roanoke Island, and he knew how to cooperate with the Navy. For his part, Captain Alexander M. Pennock, commanding the principal Union inland naval base at Cairo, Illinois, scraped up what he could and sent the gunboat Queen City upstream to support Fitch.10
On July 13, Fitch was able to report to Pennock, "Have been following up on Morgan's right flank. . . Think I have prevented him from striking the river,"11 but it still remained a game of trying to out-guess the wily Southern cavalry general. The Union gunboats continued upstream, attempting to keep abreast of Morgan and to guard every potential crossing point. Fitch received some help at Madison, Indiana, where fellow Lieutenant Commander George Brown had rapidly fitted up a civilian steamer, the Union, with an "armor" of hay bales and some light guns to guard the town. Fitch reported to Porter, "No steamers are permitted to run below Cincinnati unless properly armed and in Government employ. All flats, skiffs, or scows that we could find have been destroyed."12
Morgan continued into Ohio, but his raid was rapidly degenerating into an attempt to survive rather than a mission of destruction. On July 15, one of his pursuers, Brigadier General H.M. Judah, reported to Burnside, "I have requested Captain Fitch to move immediately with the gunboats to Pomeroy and Gallipolis. I sent up boats to Colonel White, directing him to ship cavalry and a little infantry, and send up, under convoy of the gunboats, to Gallipolis or Pomeroy, as may be directed."13 The coils of this end of the Union anaconda were beginning to settle around Morgan. Burnside commandeered a steamer, the Alleghany Belle, and fitted her with cotton bales and a rifled gun. He turned her over for Fitch's use, under the command of her pilot, John Sebastian.14
On July 16, as Morgan's forces were reported near West Union and Georgetown, Fitch's gunboats struggled up the fast-flowing Ohio. He dolefully observed to Burnside, "The prospects now look rather dubious. He [Morgan] is said to be making for the mountains, and, I fear, will make through and strike some point on the river beyond our reach, as the water is now falling very rapidly," but he continued, "If I can get him on the river in my reach, I can prevent his crossing."15
By the evening of July 18, Moose was at the foot of Buffington Island at Sand Creek Bar, Reindeer was guarding Goose Island crossing. Naumkeag was guarding a ford at Eight-Mile Island, and Victory and Springfield were guarding Pomeroy and Wolf's Shoals.16 Great efforts had been expended to bring the gunboats upriver; indeed, only a higher-than-normal stage of the Ohio River allowed them to be this far upstream at all. It seemed to be well within Morgan's power to go too far upstream for the gunboats to follow, but events proved otherwise, as Union cavalry and mounted infantry closed in on the Confederates from the Ohio interior.
Early on the morning of July 19, Moose attempted to move closer in to the foot of Buffington Island, but the darkness and a dense fog prevented her from getting too close. Shortly after dawn, musketry was heard off the port bow, and Fitch ordered the gunboat to get underway, accompanied by the dispatch boat Imperial. As the boats felt their way up the chute between Buffington Island and the Ohio bank, the fog suddenly lifted, revealing Morgan's troops heading toward the bank at such a speed that Fitch thought they were charging the gunboats. The Moose opened fire, driving off the Confederates. As the two boats got above the head of the island, they found themselves opposite Morgan's left flank, and the gunboat opened with a broadside of 24-pounder howitzers, scattering the Southern troops nearest the bank.
The Moose, soon joined by the makeshift gunboat Alleghany Belle, moved upriver, pursuing the retreating Confederates. The fog and the highness of the bank had kept Fitch from observing the attack of the Union cavalry and artillery; consequently, his report makes it seem that the gunboats' fire was what broke the Confederate line. (We may forgive him for being confused by a literal fog of war). Farther up the river, a column of Confederate cavalry was observed attempting to cross the river; a few shells convinced them to return to the Ohio shore. Moose and the Alleghany Belle continued to fire on this column, causing it to abandon two pieces of artillery and a quantity of arms, equipment, and booty, and forcing them into the shelter of the woods. Fitch ordered the dispatch boat Imperial to take possession of the abandoned artillery.
The Moose and Alleghany Belle continued the ragged, running fight upriver, now supported by infantry in the form of General Scammon's troops embarked aboard several transport steamers. The Union boats discovered four to five hundred troops attempting to cross the river; shelling convinced most of them to return to the northern bank, although several dozen managed to make good their escape on the southern side. Fitch estimated that a "good many" had been drowned in the attempt, "judging from the number of horses left standing in the river and on each shore." Fourteen miles farther upriver, lookouts aboard Moose spotted about thirty Southerners attempting to cross; the water was so shallow and swift that the gunboat was unable to get in range in time to prevent their crossing. This force then fired two volleys of musketry into the Union boats; a sailor aboard Moose was struck in the arm by buckshot and a deckhand aboard the Alleghany Belle received a minor but humiliating wound through the muscle of his right buttock.17 The Moose returned fire with her starboard battery, killing nine Confederates.
On land, Judah's and Hobson's forces took the surrender of a majority of Morgan's force, though Morgan himself, along with about one-third of his troopers, escaped. Due to the low stage of the water in this part of the Ohio, Fitch ordered Moose downstream, leaving the lighter Alleghany Belle to patrol the upstream reaches. The gunboats of the Sixth Division, Mississippi Squadron, convoyed the transport steamers with their load of prisoners downstream to Cincinnati, and returned to their regular patrol areas.18
Fitch's report on the Battle of Buffington Island is reproduced here in toto:
In a postscript to his report of the battle, Fitch defended his "extravagant use of boats" for the pursuit of Morgan, saying, "it was not more than was absolutely necessary. The shape of the river is such, and fords or crossings are so numerous, that a less number could not have done the work. Not knowing Morgan's exact moves, I have been compelled to patrol the river a long distance both ahead and behind him. Many places he has been in large bends in the river, where by marching 4 or 5 miles he could have struck several fords, which, by water, would perhaps be 15 or 20 miles apart. All these fords in the rear, ahead, and intermediate had to be guarded." He went on to say that more of his gunboats would have been engaged, except that, "the Springfield, [Victory],* and Naumkeag could not stem the current over Letart Falls and at many other points above. The Reindeer was 4 miles below me guarding a very good ford which I did not think prudent to leave open."20 He may have worried that Porter and the Navy Department would be critical of his performance.
* Fitch's report mentions Reindeer here, but this is obviously an error since Reindeer was already above Letart Falls. It is reasonable to assume that Victory was meant.
Fitch's worries were groundless. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote him on July 27, saying, "Your recent pursuit of the flying guerrilla Morgan, following him upwards of 500 miles, intercepting him and frustrating him in his attempt to recross the Ohio, capturing his train, a portion of his guns, and routing his band, all of which materially crippled his strength and led to his final capture, gives additional evidence of your zeal and ability and reflects additional credit on the service and yourself."21 Fitch was also well commended by Burnside, who wrote to Porter on July 31, "It affords me great pleasure to bear testimony to the efficient services performed by the gunboats of the Upper Ohio Squadron, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander LeRoy Fitch, in the pursuit of the rebels under General John H. Morgan. Too much praise can not be awarded the naval department at this place for the promptness and energy manifested in this movement. . . The brilliant success which has attended the joint operations of the Army and Navy in this movement gives abundant evidence of the good feeling between these two efficient arms of the service, and promises much for the future success of all such operations."22 Burnside's later report to the Army's Adjutant-General stated, "When he [Morgan] approached the river at Buffington Island, where he intended to cross, our forces were close upon him, and the gunboats were in positions to prevent his crossing. He was forced to fight and the combined forces, under Generals Hobson and Judah, together with the gunboats under Captain Fitch, succeeded in capturing at least two-thirds of his forces, and all his artillery and supplies. Morgan himself escaped, and turned back from the river with the remnant of his men, but was closely followed by General Shackelford, with about 500 men of Hobson's command. . . Soon after which General Shackelford came up, when Morgan surrendered the remainder of his command. The prisoners, together with those previously captured, were in all about 3,000."23
The aftermath of the battle of Buffington Island was that Morgan's forces, greatly weakened and increasingly trapped by pursuing Union troops, surrendered at Salineville near New Lisbon, Ohio, on July 26. The Alleghany Belle, left on patrol upstream by Fitch, was apparently what had prevented him from a further attempt to cross the Ohio at Blennerhassett's Island near Parkersburg.
Appendix: Union Vessels Involved24
* George W. Foutty is listed as commander of St. Clair at this time. However, Hamersly lists only a George W. Foutly, and he is reported to have died on 10 Apr 63.
** Porter's periodic reports list AVL Thomas B. Gregory in this position, but Fitch's combat reports specify Watson.
AE = Acting Ensign
Hamersly, Lewis Randolph. List of Officers of the U.S. Navy and of the Marine Corps, 1775-1900. Originally published New York: L.R. Hamersly, 1901; reprint Gaithersburg MD, Olde Soldier Books.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. 30 vols + index. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1927.
Silverstone, Paul H. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.
1 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, cited hereinafter as ORN, I:25, pp. 223-4
Copyright © 1999 Mark F. Jenkins