Battle of Buffington Island

History Of Morgan's Cavalry
By Basil W. Duke

...In passing near Pomeroy, on the 18th, there was one continual fight, but, now, not with the militia only, for some regular troops made their appearance and took part in the programme. The road we were traveling runs for several miles at no great distance from the town of Poineroy, which is situated on the Ohio river. Many bye-roads run from the main one into the town, and at the mouths of these roads we always found the enemy. The road runs, also, for nearly five miles through a ravine, and steep hills upon each side of it. These jiills were occupied, at various points, by the enemy, and we had to run the gauntlet. Colonel Grigsby took the lead with the Sixth Kentucky, and dashed through at a gallop, halting when fired on, dismounting his men and dislodging the enemy, and again resuming his rapid march. Major Webber brought up the rear of the division and held back the enemy, who closed eagerly upon our track.

About 1 o'clock of that day we reached Chester and halted, for an hour and a half, to enable the column to close up, to breathe the horses, and also to obtain a guide, if possible (General Morgan declaring that he would no longer march without one). That halt proved disastrous - it brought us to Buffington ford after night had fallen, and delayed our attempt at crossing until the next morning.

Before quitting Ohio, it is but just to acknowledge the kind hospitality of these last two days. At every house that we approached, the dwellers thereof, themselves absent, perhaps unable to endure a meeting that would have been painful, had left warm pies, freshly baked, upon the tables. This touching attention to our tastes was appreciated. Some individuals were indelicate enough to hint that the pies were intended to propitiate us and prevent the plunder of the houses.

We reached Portland, a little village upon the bank of the river, and a short .distance above Buffington Island, about 8 P. M., and the night was one of solid darkness. General Morgan consulted one or two of his officers upon the propriety of at once attacking an earthwork, thrown up to guard the ford. From all the information he could gather, this work was manned with about three hundred infantry - regular troops - and two heavy guns were mounted in it. Our arrival at this place after dark had involved us in a dilemma. If we did not cross the river that night, there was every chance of our being attacked on the next day by heavy odds. The troops we had seen at Pomeroy were, we at once and correctly conjectured, a portion of the infantry which had been sent after us from Kentucky, and they had been brought by the river, which had risen several feet in the previous week, to intercept us. If transports could pass Pomeroy, the General knew that they could also run up to the bar at Buffington Island. The transports would certainly be accompanied by gun-boats, and our crossing could have been prevented by the latter alone, because our artillery ammunition was nearly exhausted - there was not more than three cartridges to the piece, and we could not have driven off gun-boats with small arms. Moreover, if it was necessary, the troops could march from Pomeroy to Buffington by an excellent road, and reach the latter place in the morning. This they did General Morgan fully appreciated these reasons for getting across the river that night, as did those with whom he advised, but there were, also, very strong reasons against attacking the work at night; and without the capture of the work, which commanded the ford, it would be impossible to cross. The night, as I have stated, was thoroughly dark. Attacks in the dark are always hazardous experiments - in this case it would have been doubly so. We know nothing of the ground, and could not procure guides. Our choice of the direction in which to move to the attack would have been purely guess work. The defenders of the work had only to lie still and fire with artillery and musketry directly to their front, but the assailants would have had a line to preserve, and would have had to exercise great care lest they should fall foul of each other in the obscurity. If this is a difficult business at all times, how much is the danger and trouble increased when it is attempted with broken-down and partially demoralized men?

General Morgan feared, too, that if the attacking party was repulsed, it would come back in. such. disorder and panic that the whole division would be seriously and injuriously affected. He determined, therefore, to take the work at early dawn and instantly commence the crossing, trusting that it would be effected rapidly and before the enemy arrived. By abandoning the long train of wagons which had been collected, the wounded men, and the artillery, a crossing might have been made, with little difficulty, higher up the river at deeper fords, which we could have readied by a rapid march before the enemy came near them. But General Morgan was determined (after having already hazarded so much) to save all if possible, at the risk of losing all. He ordered me to place two regiments of my brigade in position, as near the earthwork as I thought proper, and attack it at daybreak. I accordingly selected the Fifth and Sixth Kentucky, and formed them about four hundred yards from the work, or from the point where I judged it to be located. Lieutenant Lawrence was also directed to place his Parrots upon a tongue of land projecting northward from a range of hills running parallel with the river. It was intended that he should assist the attacking party, if, for any reason, artillery should be needed. Many efforts were made, during the night, to find other fords, but unsuccessfully.

As soon as the day dawned, the Fifth and Sixth Kentucky were moved against the work, but found it unoccupied. It had been evacuated during the night. Had our scouts, posted to observe it, been vigilant, and had this evacuation, which occurred about two P. M., been discovered and reported, we could have gotten almost the entire division across before the troops coming from Pomeroy arrived. The guns in the work had been dismounted and rolled over the bluff. I immediately sent Gen. Morgan information of the evacuation of the work, and instructed Colonel Smith to take command of the two regiments and move some four or five hundred yards further on the Pomeroy road, by which I supposed that the garrison had retreated. In a few minutes I heard the rattle of musketry in the direction that the regiments had moved, and riding forward to ascertain what occasioned it, found that Colonel Smith had unexpectedly come upon a Federal force advancing upon this road. He attacked and dispersed it, taking forty or fifty prisoners and a piece of artillery, and killing and wounding several. This force turned out to be General Judah's advance guard, and his command was reported to be eight or ten thousand strong, and not far off. Among the wounded was one of his staff, and his Adjutant- General was captured. I instructed Colonel Smith to bring the men back to the ground where they had been formed to attack the work, and rode myself to consult General Morgan and receive his orders. He instructed me to hold the enemy in check, and call for such troops as I might need for that purpose. This valley which we had entered the night before, and had bivouacked in, was about a mile long, and perhaps eight hundred yards wide at the southern extremity (the river runs here nearly due north and south), and gradually narrows toward the other end, until the ridge, which is its western boundary, runs to the water's edge. This ridge is parallel with the river at the southern end of the valley, but a few hundred yards further to the northward both river and ridge incline toward each other. About half way of the valley (equi-distant from either end) the road, by which we had marched from Chester, comes in.

Colonel Smith had posted his men, in accordance with directions given him, at the southern extremity of the valley, with the ridge upon his right flank. At this point the ridge, I should also state, bends almost at right angles to the westward. As I returned from consultation with General Morgan, I found both of the regiments under Colonel Smith in full retreat. When the main body of the enemy (which was now close upon us) appeared, an order had been issued by some one to "rally to horses." While doing this, the line was charged by the enemy's cavalry, of which they had three regiments, two of them, the Seventh and Eighth Michigan, were very fine ones. A detachment of the Fifth Indiana (led by a very gallant officer, Lieutenant O'Neil) headed this charge. The men rallied and turned, as soon as called on to do so, and had no difficulty in driving back the cavalry, but a portion of the Fifth Kentucky was cut off by this charge, and did not take part in the fight which succeeded. These two regiments were not more than two hundred and fifty strong each, and they were dismounted again, and formed across the valley. The Parrot guns had been captured, and, although our line was formed close to them, they were not again in our possession. I sent several couriers to General Morgan, asking for the Second Kentucky, a portion of which I wished to post upon the ridge, and I desired to strengthen the thin, weak line with the remainder. Colonel's Johnson's rear videttes (still kept during the night upon the Chester road) had a short time previously been driven in, and he had formed his brigade to receive the enemy coming from that direction. Colonel Johnson offered me a detachment of his own brigade with which to occupy the part of the ridge immediately upon my right - the necessity of holding it was immediately apparent to him. Believing that the Second Kentucky would soon arrive, I declined his offer.

The force advancing upon the Chester road was General Hobson's, which our late delays had permitted to overtake us. Neither Judah nor Hobson was aware of the other's vicinity, until apprised of it by the sound of their respective guns. We could not have defeated either alone, for Judah was several thousand strong, and Hobson three thousand. We were scarcely nineteen hundred strong, and our ammunition was nearly exhausted - either shot away or worn out in the pouches or cartridge-boxes. The men, had on an average, not more than five rounds in their boxes. If, however, either Judah or Hobson had attacked us singly, we could have made good our retreat, in order, and with little loss, [sic]

The attack commenced from both directions, almost simultaneously, and at the same time the gun-boats steamed up and commenced shelling us without fear or favor. I heartily wished that their fierce ardor, the result of a feeling of perfect security, could have been subjected to the test of two or three shots through their hulls. They were working, as well as I could judge, five or six guns, Hobson two, and Judah five or six. The shells coming thus from three different directions, seemed to fill the air with their fragments. Colonel Johnson's line, confronting Hobson, was formed at right angles to mine, and upon the level and unsheltered surface of the valley, each was equally exposed to shots aimed at the other. In addition to the infantry deployed in front of my line, the ridge upon the right of it was soon occupied by one of the Michigan regiments, dismounted and deployed as skirmishers. The peculiar formation we were forced to adopt, exposed our entire force engaged to a severe cross fire of musketry. The Second Kentucky and Ninth Tennessee, of the first brigade, were not engaged at all - nor the Eight and Eleventh Kentucky, of the second brigade. These regiments, however, were as completely under fire, in the commencement of the action, as were the others which were protecting the retreat.

The scene in the rear of the lines engaged, was one of indescribable confusion. While the bulk of the regiments, which General Morgan was drawing off, were moving from the field in perfect order, there were many stragglers from each, who were circling about the valley in a delirium of fright, clinging instinctively, in all their terror, to bolts of calico and holding on to led horses, but changing the direction in which they galloped, with every shell which whizzed or burst near them. The long train of wagons and ambulances dashed wildly in the only direction which promised escape, and becoming locked and entangled with each other in their flight, many were upset, and terrified horses broke lose from them and plunged wildly through the mass. Some of them in striving to make their way out of the valley, at the northern end, ran foul of the section of howitzers attached to the second brigade, and guns and wagons were rolled headlong into the steep ravine. Occasionally a solid shot or shell would strike one and bowl it over like a tumbled ten-pin. All this shelling did little damage, and only some twenty-odd men were killed by the musketry - the enemy lost quite as many - but the display of force against us, the cross fire, and our lack of ammunition, seriously disheartened the men, already partially demoralized by the great and unremitted fatigue.

The left flank of my line, between which and the river there was an interval of at least three hundred yards, was completely turned, and the Sixth Kentucky was almost surrounded. This regiment (under the command of Major William Bullitt, an officer of the calmest and most perfect bravery), behaved nobly. It stood the heavy attack of the enemy like a bastion. At length seeing that General Morgan had gotten out of the valley with the rest of the division, Colonel Johnson and myself, upon consultation, determined to withdraw simultaneously. We had checked this superior force for more than half an hour - which, as much as our assailants boasted of their victory, was quite as good as an equal number of the best of them could have done against such odds.

The men wore remounted without confusion, and retreated in column of fours from right of companies, and for quite a mile in perfect order. The Sixth Kentucky formed to the "rear into line" three times, and with empty guns, kept the pursuing cavalry at bay. But when we neared the other end of the valley and saw that there were but two avenues of escape from it - the men broke ranks and rushed for them. In a moment, each was blocked. The gun-boats sought to rake these roads with grape - and although they aimed too high to inflict much injury, the hiss of the dreaded missiles increased the panic. The Seventh Michigan soon came up and dashed pell-mell into the crowd of fugitives. Colonel Smith, Captain Campbell, Captain Thorpe, and myself, and some fifty other officers and men, were forced by the charge of this regiment into a ravine on the left of the road and soon afterward captured. Captain Thorpe saved me from capture at an earlier date, only to ultimately share my fate. He had acted as Adjutant General of the First Brigade, since the detachment of Captain Davis, and had performed all of his duties with untiring assiduity and perfect efficiency. On this day, there was allowed opportunity for the display of courage only, and for that he was ever distinguished.

About seven hundred prisoners were taken from us in this fight[.] Among the officers captured were Colonels Ward and Morgan, Lieutenant Colonel Huffman, who was also severely wounded, and Majors Bullock and Bullitt.

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