This is part one of a two-part Athens Messenger series that seeks to catalog Morgan’s raid through Athens County. Part two will include an accounting of the skirmish at Hockingport and The Athens Messenger’s coverage of the capture of Morgan at Salineville.
“Arrest Them,” read the headline of an order from the U.S. military in a July 23, 1863, special edition of The Athens Messenger.
“Col. Runkle’s order to the people in reference to the arrest of all strangers in any way suspected of being of Morgan’s gang, is in this paper, and should engage the earnest efforts of every loyal man,” the notice read.
Arresting strangers on sight might not be in vogue today, but in July 1863, it was a citizen’s patriotic duty to turn unknown men over to an Athens County military tribunal. The reason for such a drastic course would be Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s fated raid through Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, which caused thousands of dollars worth of damages to bridges, railroads, and entire stores.
Morgan’s Raid was the northernmost military excursion of any Confederate forces during the Civil War. The aim was to draw Union forces away from the frontlines at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
And on July 22, 1863, Morgan and his men entered Nelsonville where they found the canal town lacking in defenses.
The Messenger reported on the raid’s consequences on the county in quick order, with stunning color, offering the most authentic look into the immediate recollections of those who lived there.
The raid began in Kentucky and Indiana in early June, and crossed from Indiana over the Ohio River into Ohio, destroying railroads and government stores, according to Robert S. Vore’s 1977 booklet, “Morgan’s Raid Losers.” Morgan’s raid spread alarm across southern and central Ohio, and many speculated an assault on Cincinnati. But that attack never happened.
Morgan and his raiding party swept around the city, going through the hinterlands and raiding into Clermont County, Vore wrote. At this point in the raid, a July 7 Messenger article pulls a clipping from The Cincinnati Times to update the residents of Athens County as to the progress of Morgan’s raid.
From southwest Ohio, he proceeded toward Buffington Island, where he was able to cross into West Virginia. However, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, a Union leader who was pursuing Morgan, correctly guessed he would be headed there, and Morgan suffered a great defeat during the Battle of Buffington Island. From there, Morgan retreated back into Ohio, on course for Athens County. After the battle, his course was not of raiding, but a flight through Ohio. Most raiders escaped capture in battle, and proceeded through southeast Ohio, tailed the entire time by Union armies.
“Morgan is on a run for life rather than a raid of destruction,” The Messenger wrote in a special July 23, 1863 edition.
After leaving Meigs and Vinton Counties, Morgan’s men headed north, but avoided Athens, where several hundred Union soldiers were stationed to defend the town, according to “The Longest Raid of the Civil War,” a book by Lester Horwitz, which said the Athens County militia had heard rumors the town of Athens was Morgan’s next target and had rushed to defend the town.
“Blitzkrieg, 1863: Morgan’s Raid and Rout,” an academic paper by John Still published in a Civil War history journal, takes the anecdote to another level, claiming a panic struck the militiamen due to wild rumors.
“The citizens of the town of Athens, thirteen miles from Nelsonville, were allegedly frightened by a preposterous rumor making the rounds of the militia,” Still wrote. “It was reported that John Morgan had once been a student at Marietta College and had been jailed for some heinous offense. Now he had sworn revenge and had vowed not to leave one stone upon another in Marietta and, for some unfathomable reason, in Athens,” Raid and Route reads.
The Messenger, however, in the July 23 special, described the valor of regional militiamen.
“Here, (Lt. Long) called for ax-men and from every farm-house they came forth until the entire road swarmed with the hardy sons of toil,” The Messenger reported. “The fires of ‘76 were rekindled and the whole land was ablaze. Knowing every ford on the river for which Morgan was aiming for and every path leading thereto, Lt. Long hung about his front, and whenever the head of his columns emerged into a road the forest came crashing down in a confused and tangled mess that barred all progress.”
Morgan reached Nelsonville about 10 a.m. on July 22, 1863. At the time, Nelsonville was a small town, sustained economically by the Hocking Canal, which ran through much of Athens County at the time.
He and his raiders sacked Nelsonville — burning canal boats, and robbing civilians of food and goods, Vore’s report said.
The paper, however, was only able to offer readers a cursory view of the raid’s effect on Nelsonville in the day-after special edition.
The Messenger, which was only two pages compared to the typical four, quipped at the abridged nature of the paper, as several of the newspaper production team members were also called to serve in the militia in defense of Athens.
“John Morgan has robbed our paper of half its size this week, and we have militiously (sic) turned out — men and devils — to prevent his taking the other half,” the paper read.
The raid into Nelsonville was the most substantial of the assaults in Athens County.
A July 30 edition of The Messenger, the paper was able to offer a more clear picture of the raid’s effect on Nelsonville. In an article simply titled “Morgan’s raid on Nelsonville,” a submitted letter from H.P Clark describes Morgan’s assault on the town.
“Others again were greatly alarmed — men, women, and children running about the streets in wild confusion,” The Clark said. “But we had very little time to get ourselves composed. We heard of their crossing of the river bridge, then they came pouring in from all directions, and had spread out across the town in no time.”
Clark recalled when Morgan’s raiders were helping themselves to the Nelsonville residents’ food, clothes, ammunition and horses.
The passage painted the “robber chief” (as the paper called him) as a brigand and raider. It also estimated he had between 600 and 800 of his original 2,000 men by the time he fell on Nelsonville.
“There were enough of them, however, to pay each house a more than welcome visit,” the author recalled. “And you may depend on it that a meal was never given more begrudgingly, (although this is contrary to the previous opinion that the people of Nelsonville are noted for their hospitality).”
After Morgan’s raiders had finished plundering Nelsonville resident’s belongings, The Messenger said they helped themselves to the stores and saloons. After, when the federal government was repaying property owners for stolen goods, a Nelsonville saloon was not compensated for its stolen liquor, which by the Vore report, amounted to 48 canteens of whiskey.
Clark also described the raiders.
“As a general thing they behaved very civilly while we were handing out our provision, which was more than expected, for they were the hardest looking set of people we ever looked upon; it was enough to send terror into the stoniest heart,” Clark wrote. “They were dirty, ragged, and their dress was all different, of every possible description.”
The author of the letter said the robbers were about to leave town when the raid’s real damage was inflicted on the town — Morgan ordered the canal boats and a mill burned.
“Just then, the cry of ‘fire’ went out when, when all was confusion again,” The Messenger article said. “We thought the final doom of the town was sealed; but they have spared us to feed them when they come through here again, which we are daily expecting.”
“They fired at the river bridge which they crossed on, and all the boats that were in port — 12 in number — turning families out on the banks without saving a thing but clothes on their backs.”
There were 10 boats docked at Nelsonville at the time, the Forest Rose, Swan, Comstock, Hibernia, Ontario, Fame, Eureka, Quebec, Valley, and Virginia. They were all put to light — except one, Vore said.
The rebel heeded the pleas of one canal boat owner, who convinced them his canal boat, “The Custer,” was a houseboat and not a coal or freight boat like the others they had set fire to, Vore said in his report.
After leaving Nelsonville, Morgan fled north, pursued at the heels by the Union army, led by Gen. James M. Shackleford.
While passing through Athens County, the troops chasing Morgan were greeted less “begrudgingly” than the raiders were.
“When Gen. Shackleford’s Union troops got into Nelsonville about 5 p.m., they found a goodly feast spread for them on the town’s Public Square,” Vore wrote. “This bountiful repast prepared for them by the good women of the town naturally delayed them from pursuing the Rebels.”
An Aug. 6, 1863 edition of The Messenger contains a complete tally of meals and provisions provided by the “patriotic” residents of the county.
“The provisions were supplied for the first two or three days by the citizens of Athens,” The Messenger report read. “After that — the war committee furnishing bacon and coffee — abundant supplies of bread, biscuits, pies, cake, etc., poured in from the country around — four wagon loads coming from the patriotic town of Nelsonville alone.”
After Morgan fled from Nelsonville, he tracked through Athens County, including a small skirmish at Hockingport.
The Union army eventually captured Morgan in battle at Salineville, in Carroll County, on July 26, 1863, bringing a momentous conflict in American history to an end.