THE FIGHT TO SAVE
THE BUFFINGTON ISLAND BATTLEFIELD
By: Eric J. Wittenberg
On July 19, 1863, the Battle of Buffington Island was fought in Meigs County, Ohio, on the banks of the mighty Ohio River. In the big scheme of things, this fight, involving 13-15,000 men, was fairly minor. However, it was the only significant engagement fought in Ohio, and it is noteworthy for a number of reasons. In addition, three future presidents of the United States, James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, were all present at the Battle of Buffington Island. How many other Civil War battlefields can make such a claim?
In order to understand the significance of the Battle of Buffington Island, some historical background is necessary. On July 2, 1863, as the Battle of Gettysburg was being fought, Confederate cavalry leader Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan took his division, with approximately 3500 men, and set off on a month-long raid through Indiana and Ohio. Crossing the Ohio River and entering Indiana, they rode east through the defenses of Cincinnati and through the southern portion of Ohio. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the Dept. of Ohio, sent a 14,000 man force of Federal cavalry and infantry after Morgan's 2100 men.
Following a series of running skirmishes across the width of Ohio, the Federals finally caught up to Morgan's men at the town of Portland, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River, not far from Pomeroy, in Meigs County. Morgan's force had gone there to take advantage of a ford across the river, but were met there by Yankee forces, including three Federal gunboats in the river. There, in a day-long, running fight, 10-12,000 Federal infantry and cavalry engaged Morgan's men in a fight known today as the Battle of Buffington Island. There, blueclad forces commanded by Brig. Gens. Henry Judah, James Shackelford and Edward Hobson, clashed with Morgans force in the narrow flood plain on the Ohio side of the river, with the safety of Virginia enticingly beckoning the Southern cavalier from across the river.
When the Yankee forces finally caught up to Morgans column, around three in the afternoon, Morgan requested an hour to decide whether to surrender. Shackelford granted the truce, which Morgan used to prepare a defense. Judahs force pinned down Morgans men, while Hobsons column flanked the Confederates. Bearing down, Hobsons four thousand troopers charged into Morgans column. Maj. Daniel McCook, aged 65, and the father of the famous Fighting McCook brothers, was mortally wounded in the opening volleys of the fight.
Morgan's men were driven back across the flat, wide-open flood plains of the Ohio River. Their line of escape across the river was cut off by the presence of the three Federal gunboats, and the Confederate troopers had to fight their way out, finally running a gauntlet. Morgan's brother-in-law, and chief lieutenant, Col. Basil W. Duke, was captured, as were nearly 1200 of Morgan's "terrible men", including the commanding generals younger brother John Morgan. Most of those captured were imprisoned in the Ohio Penitentiary, located in Columbus. Fifty-two of Morgan's men lay dead on the field.
Morgan himself escaped to the north and east, again being driven from another river ford by the presence of the Federal gunboats. As the gunboat approached, Morgan himself was halfway across the river, with a large portion of his command still on the Ohio side. Unwilling to abandon these men, he turned back, and his force sought an escape route. Several days later, he and his remaining men were brought to bay in Columbiana County, Ohio, and Morgan would join Duke in the Ohio Pen. Morgan would eventually make a daring escape from the Pen.
Thus ended the story of the month-long Morgan Raid, a single raid which lasted longer than all of JEB Stuart's raids combined. It passed into history. So, unfortunately, did the Battle of Buffington Island, which is not well-documented anywhere. There is no report by Morgan, who was a POW, and the Federal reports are not good. There simply is not a great deal of good information available on this fight.
Today, the battlefield is largely pristine, although there are some 20th century structures present. There are two handsome monuments, one to the battle, and the other to Major McCook. Four acres are preserved in a park operated by the Ohio Historical Society. The park contains the battle monument, an Indian burial mound, and a pair of interpretive markers.
Unfortunately, the rest of this important battlefield is not preserved at all. Indeed, approximately 600 acres of the most critical portion of the battlefield are in imminent threat of being obliterated in the name of progress. A sand and gravel company has applied for the necessary permits to destroy 600 acres of the battlefield for a gravel pit, which would tear out the heart of the battlefield. There is a large area of wetlands that will be destroyed if this gravel pit is permitted to be constructed, and a major barge loading area is to be built in the Ohio River. Historicaly significant ground will sacrificed forever in the name of commercial development.
Perhaps most importantly, no records exist to document where the 52 dead Confederate troopers were interred. We do know that they were buried on the battlefield by the local residents. Since the area where the gravel and sand pit is intended lies in the middle of the most important section of the battlefield, where Hobsons flanking column ran into Morgans line of retreat, it is very possible, indeed likely, that these graves will be disturbed by the digging of the gravel pit. These graves, and their contents, may be destroyed capriciously by a company that does not care about the significance of these grave sites.
It is not too late to try to save the battlefield. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has not approved the permit yet, and neither has the Army Corps of Engineers, which can veto the wetlands permit. For those interested in battlefield preservation, please take a moment and send a letter to Ohio Senators Mike DeWine and John Glenn and to any Ohio Congressional representative. In addition, letters to Ohio Governor George V. Voinovich may also help to avert this tragedy.
Sens. John H. Glenn and Michael DeWine:
United States Senate
Governor George V. Voinovich:
77 South High
Street 30th Floor
Columbus, Ohio 43215.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources:
For those interested in more information, a web site will go on-line shortly. The address for the site once it is ready. Further, the next issue of Blue & Gray magazine will feature this fight as its General's Tour, and the Blue & Gray Education Society will be conducting a tour of this portion of Morgan's Raid in June, 1998.
Undoubtedly, each person who reads this article gets inundated with requests for assistance with efforts at battlefield preservation. Some fights are worth fighting. Others, while honorable, are not. This fight clearly is worth fighting, if for no other reason that the preservation of those unknown Confederate troopers laying in the middle of the proposed sand and gravel pit. In this instance, I again call on those of you interested in battlefield preservation to do what you can to help save this battlefield before it's too late.
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