Battle of Buffington Island

West Virginia Review
May 1929

Morgan "Goes A-Raiding" and Views West Virginia

by Charles R. Rector

In the early summer of 1863, the Confederate Army, commanded by General Braxton Bragg, was at Tullahoma, Tennessee. General Bragg directed General John H. Morgan to move with two thousand men of his division toward Louisville, capture the city if possible, and raid middle and eastern Kentucky. Morgan picked for this service twenty- four hundred sixty men from the cavalry brigades of General Basil Duke and Colonel Adam B. Johnson. The Federal General, Burnside, was concentrating his forces in Kentucky for an advance into Tennessee. Bragg expected to delay Burnside's forward movement by luring a large part of his army in pursuit of the raiders.

Morgan resolved to disobey Bragg's order to confine his operations to Kentucky, cross the Ohio River and carry the war into the northern states of Indiana and Ohio, though knowing that his whole force would probably be lost. On his proposed route were four points which he considered difficult and very dangerous - the crossing of the Cumberland River, the passage of the Ohio into Indiana, the circuit around Cincinnati, and re-crossing the Ohio into Western Virginia. Several weeks before the start men were sent to examine the fords on the upper Ohio as far as Blennerhassett Island and the ford at Buffington's Island was selected as the place to re-cross the river.

On July 2nd the Cumberland River - though at flood tide - was safely crossed near Burkesville, Kentucky. The cavalry horses were forced to swim the swollen stream and gathered in groups on the western bank, weak and trembling, until their riders had crossed in small boats. Morgan crossed Kentucky and passed near Louisville, causing considerable panic in that city, then turned to the left and approached the Ohio at Brandenburg. A detachment of picked men sent ahead for that purpose captured two large steamboats, the J. J. McCoombs and the Alice Dean. After some lively skirmishing with Indiana militia and a river gunboat, the militia fell back into the hills and the gunboat withdrew. The whole force was ferried over to the Indiana shore and the steamboats were set on fire and started down stream under a full head of steam.

Morgan marched northeast in Indiana, then turned east. On the night of the 13th, he passed through the suburbs of the city of Cincinnati, creating the utmost consternation throughout the north. His command then headed across southern Ohio toward a well-known ford in the Ohio River, at Buffington's Island, near Ravenswood, West Virginia. With General Henry Judah's Federal cavalry at his heels and the Ohio militia obstructing the roads in front, it now became a mad race. Morgan passed through all obstructions, delaying Judah by the burning of bridges and taking all horses available along the line of march.

The Confederates began to arrive near the ford at the village of Portland, Ohio, after dark on the evening of the 18th. The command was encumbered by several hundred wounded and sick carried along in wagons, and as the night was very dark they were without trusty guides. There was danger of missing the ford so it seemed impossible to cross into West Virginia before morning. Further investigation showed also that a Federal force guarded the entrance to the river. To make matters worse, while the weather was hot and dry there came a sudden rise of several feet in the river.

The intrepid Southern leader held a conference and decided it useless to make any attempt that night.

But what Morgan did not know was that word concerning his "raid" had gone into the little town of Fayetteville two days before - a strong Federal outpost. General E. B. Scammon, with his staff at once set out for the Ohio. With him went the Twenty-third Ohio Infantry and the Thirteenth (W) Virginia Volunteers under Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, later President of the United States. This expedition boarded little river steamers at Loup Creek and on the morning of the 18th landed at Gallipolis, but not in time to head off Morgan. The Twenty-third, under Lt. Col. J. M. Comley, and the Thirteenth under Col. Amos Jones, set out along the Ohio side to Pomeroy. A skirmish ensued with Morgan rearguards in which five Confederates were killed and sixteen left wounded on the field. This all served to create confusion in the Morgan command.

At Pomeroy a large number of the Federals again boarded boats and started up the river to Ravenswood and the ford above. People fled from the little village as a "sample" of United States Navy entered that port. Two gunboats, headed by the "flagship" Elk under Captain LeRoy Fitch comprised the flotilla, followed by the chugging, churning, little river steamers loaded with infantry. Sounds of infantry firing and the screech of shells but added to the confusion. The sound of the infantry firing came from a skirmish between Morgan's men and the Federal guard the Ohio entrance to the ford at Buffington's Island. Succeeding in this the Confederates started across just in time to be caught by shells thrown at short range by the gunboat Elk. They fell back on the Ohio shore fully expecting to be surrounded by the Federal infantry, which for some reason did not appear in force in time to capture the entire Confederate force. More fighting followed.

During the night of the 19th, the Thirteenth and Twenty-third detachments on the boats landed on the West Virginia shore. These were deployed along the river for about five miles to prevent passage during the night. Several attempts were made which failed. The men under Morgan had now been in the saddle day and night for sixteen days and and were worn out by marching, fighting, and loss of sleep. Their ammunition was about exhausted and they now began a rapid retreat up the Ohio shore. Colonel Comley, with the Twenty-third, followed to Hockingport, took a few more prisoners and some horses. Hayes, under orders from Scammon, started back to Fayetteville on the 21st with 208 prisoners. In the entire affair at Buffington's Island, Morgan lost one hundred and twenty in killed and wounded and about seven hundred as prisoners. The steamboat on which General Judah returned to Cincinnati carried as prisoners to that place one hundred and thirteen of Morgan's officers.

The Federals seemed to feel that the command was broken up, but such was not entirely true. About eighteen miles above Buffington's Island, Morgan came to the river opposite Belleville in Wood County. Here Colonel Johnson and two hundred and eighty men swam the river, nearly all crossing over below the village at the head of Belleville Island. In doing this a few of the brave men were drowned. General Morgan made an attempt to follow, in fact was nearly over, when the "river wasp" in the shape of the "battleship" Elk hove into view and started firing on the men in the water. Morgan rejoined the main part of his command and retreated in great haste on up the Ohio side of the river.

Two miles above Belleville, Lee Creek puts into the Ohio River, and on the upper side of the creek is the Wells farm. At this time four sons of the Wells family were in the Confederate army. A younger son, foster, a boy of sixteen years, was at home. It was generally known that Morgan was coming up the valley and on Sunday morning, July 19th, hearing the firing at Buffington and guessing the situation, Foster mounted his horse and rode down on the Virginia side, intending, if the opportunity came, to guide Morgan to a ford above Lee Creek where a safe crossing could be made even at the stage of water then in the Ohio. But before reaching Murrayville he saw by the great cloud of dust that Morgan was moving up the river, and, turning, he rode back toward Belleville. When he arrived there, Colonel Johnson and two hundred eighty men had crossed. He rode with the Confederates and directed them to roads leading to the Elizabeth Pike and up the Little Kanawha River. The Elk was shelling the roads leading from the river. The guns were elevated to get above the river bank and the shells passed over the Wells house, but cut limbs from the tops of the shade trees above it. Before Foster turned back a soldier looked his fresh horse over and asked if he would stand him three days' travel. The answer was "yes," and he said, "Well, get off." The horse left behind was so completely tired out by days and nights of forced marching that no attempt was made to get him to the barn until given time to rest at a distant part of the farm. With rest and feed his fine qualities began to show and Wells said it was the best horse trade he ever made.

Almost immediately after the Confederates had gone Foster and three others were arrested by a company of infantry from the 13th Virginia and held prisoners at their camp on the river bank until the next day when Colonel Brown came down by boat from Parkersburg and directed the captain to let them go. When they started to leave the camp Wells was walking in the rear. A soldier called out, "Colonel, that little devil behind was riding around all day yesterday with Morgan's men." The released prisoners had reached the top of the river bank and Foster said that he intended to run if an effort had been made to detain him. Fortunately no notice was taken of the soldier's remark.

Morgan, with about a thousand men, retreated up the river. In a fight on the high hill back of Hockingport, six of Morgan's men were cut off from the main body and retreated back down the river. After dark they attempted to cross the Ohio above Lee Creek, but missed the place where the river could have been lorded. Of the six who started to swim the river, three only reached the Virginia shore, and they succeeded in bringing over but one horse. It is not known what became of the other three men; they may have been drowned, but probably returned to the Ohio shore and were captured. The three who crossed started down toward Belleville and hearing cavalry coming up the road left the horse and climbed over a rail fence into a pasture and hid themselves in some bushes. The party stopped and examined the horse. The leaders said, "Here is a horse. He has been in the river, for he is all wet. We do not know where his rider is and it is useless for us to look for him in the dark." Taking the horse with them they trotted on up the road. The Confederates then went on down the road. They had just made a very dangerous crossing of the Ohio by swimming its broad, swift current on a dark night. They were cavalrymen and had lost their horses and their arms. One of them was suffering from a severe gunshot wound in the hip. Another had been kicked by a horse several days before and his leg was swollen and very sore and painful. To be unincumbered in swimming the river, they took off their clothing and tied it in bundles on their saddles and in losing their horses two of them lost all their clothing. They were in a desperate situation and decided that they must find friends at once or surrender at the first opportunity.

Coming to the Wells home the man who was clothed went forward and knocked at the door. It was opened by Miss Kate Wells. He asked if there were any soldiers about and she answered, "lots of them." He then said, "Well, ladies, I am one of Morgan's men." He was almost pulled inside to the light of an oil lamp. His clothing, being wet, appeared dark in color, but at last, being satisfied that he wore a Confederate uniform, they told him that he had come to the right place. He then told them that two comrades were outside and they said to bring them in. It was then necessary to explain that they had no clothes.

Sometime before this, two Confederate prisoners had jumped from a moving train in western Pennsylvania, and, coming to the Ohio River, found a boat and traveling by night had reached the Wells place, where they were concealed for some time, and finally made their way south. These escaped prisoners donned citizens' attire and left their gray uniforms at the Wells home, which uniforms were now brought out for the naked men. After being clothed, given food and having their wounds dressed, the three soldiers were hidden for two weeks in a thicket of briars in the Wells orchard, and eventually reached the Confederate lines. After the war ended, a letter came to a member of the Wells family from one of them, who was a mere boy at the time of the raid. He was then a student at the University of Tennessee.

On a farm at Fountain Spring where State Route No. 2 now crosses Little Tygart Creek, and about sixteen miles from Belleville, lived Enoch Rector and his wife, Mindwell (Ransom) Rector, with their son, Ransom Rector, and his wife, Lydia (Cooper) Rector. Enoch Rector was a Baptist minister, had grown to manhood in Fauquier County, Virginia, and was familiar with the evils of slavery. He was opposed to it and became a Union man. His wife was of Puritan ancestry, but, as was often the case, three or four sons were directly opposed in politics. Ransom Rector was a Southern sympathizer. On the afternoon of Sunday, July 19th, he and his wife had gone to visit at the home of a neighbor about a mile from home.

Seeing a dense cloud of dust rising over the trees to the southwest, they at once concluded that it was stirred up by marching troops. Hitching the horse to the buggy, they hurried home. When they arrived, the barnyard was full of troopers. They had demanded the keys to the crib and some were filling sacks with corn to feed their horses. Enoch Rector's riding horse was in the stable, and a soldier stood guard at the door. Others of the force were at the house for food as long as anything to eat could be found there. The officer in command, presumable Colonel Johnson, was informed by Rector that he was for the Union, live or die. Asked if he was related to the Rectors of Arkansas, he replied that the relationship was distant. The Colonel said there was a great difference in the views which they took of the war. After a few words of conversation, Colonel Johnson said, "We are going to take that horse in the stable," and Rector said, "Is that the way you are doing business?" The Colonel replied, "Yes, it is, but we take what we need; when you damned Yankees come down South you don't stop at that. You even carry off women's wearing apparel." Taking the horse from the stable they placed on him the saddle and bridle stripped from an old farm horse unfit for cavalry service, which they turned loose. As they filed out of the barnyard into the road, the officer in command turned back and said, "If you fellows bushwhack us we will burn every house on this road."

At about a half mile from the Fountain Spring they came into the Elizabeth Pike at the Mount Pleasant Church. The first stop that night for a short rest and to feed the horses was at the Hammond farm on the lower side of the big hill below Elizabeth, nearly thirty miles from Belleville.

At Burning Springs men working in the oil field were housed in a long, low building by the roadside, with a row of windows next to the road. They knew nothing of the crossing at Belleville and late that night were aroused from sound sleep by the noise made by the trampling of the horses, and the rattle of cavalry equipment. They all sprang from bed and put their heads out of the windows to see what caused the commotion, and immediately heard another sound - the click, click made by the hammers of the carbines as they were pulled back and were greeted by the command: "Take your damned heads in there or we will shoot 'em off." The heads went inside.

Two men, severely wounded, at the battle of Buffington (their wounds had received no attention and were in bad condition) were left with Union families at Mineral Wells, one at the home of Mrs. Sally Sams, and her daughter, Ann, afterwards Mrs. Joe Cooper, dressed his wound. The other was left with Mr. James Leach. They were kindly cared for by these good people until they were able to be taken to Parkersburg and delivered to the military authorities as prisoners of war.

Leaving Burning Springs, the retreating Confederates headed right through the Federal country, by way of the upper valley of the Little Kanawha, up Steer Creek and into the town of Sutton. The few Federals hastily left that village and the march continued by Birch River and Cranberry River over the mountains to Frankford and Lewisburg. A few days later the town of Union, Monroe County, proved a welcome haven, and from there by Salt Sulphur Springs on over into "Old" Virginia. Morgan himself was captured, sent to the Ohio pentitentiary but prison walls held no fear for him. In November, 1863, with six officers, he "talked out" through a tunnel and made his way back to Richmond.

The "raid" of John Hunt Morgan will ever be a topic of fireside talk along the river Ohio and the West Virginia shores. He defied all known laws of war. They never knew where to find him. It took 100,000 men to corner him in Ohio, and a single reference to a contemporary newspaper will show the "fright" he gave the North.

Today all is peaceful near Buffington's Island, and the gentle little town of Ravenswood pursues its daily inclinations by the "side of an inland river," with no fear of the "navy" sending hissing, shrieking shells from "one brother against another."

Civil War

West Virginia Archives and History