For most of us who were born and raised in southern Ohio, we take the Ohio River for granted. Although some use it for pleasure – whether riding jet skis, boating, fishing or enjoying the view while picnicking – many don’t really pay any attention until floods approach the city gates. It has, however, become part of a major transportation system in the country as the barges that pass through our area supply much needed natural resources and products to the rest of the world.
Between 1861 and 1865, however, the Ohio River served a different purpose. Although Kentucky stood third in total population among the slave states, it did not vote to succeed from the Union. It remained neutral. Its 650 mile border with its northern neighbors was the Ohio River, which literally created a sizeable obstacle for the Confederate army if it ever wished to advance into the north. Gunboats patrolled the river daily during the Civil War and every available steamboat that hauled passengers, mail and mercantile items was converted to hauling Union troops throughout the region.
Neither the Union nor Confederate army wished any kind of major advance into Kentucky for fear of being met by the enemy and provoking a major battle. A major conflict would have brought Kentucky into the fray, forcing it to take sides – neither side wanting to take the chance that it would choose the other side. Those with northern sympathies organized detachments called Union Home Guards. These groups were organized to counter the sixty-some companies of official state militia called the State Guards, who were largely pro-Confederate. One of the outstanding State Guard companies was “The Lexington Rifles” led by John Hunt Morgan. In 1861 and 1862, Kentucky saw a number of small battles and skirmishes. After the Union forces were victorious in the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862 (southwestern Tennessee), Confederate enthusiasm was waning in the Western Theater. However soon-to-be Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan aroused Confederate hopes by leaving Tennessee and making the first of his lightning raids into Kentucky on July 9th. After capturing several cities within a week, he returned to Tennessee with 300 more soldiers than when he started.
Morgan’s cavalry again entered Kentucky in late August and arrived just south of Lexington on September 3. When they entered the capitol the next day, they received a hero’s welcome from the throngs of both cheering Lexingtonians and people who had poured into town from the surrounding pro-Confederate countryside. Morgan was then ordered west toward Louisville. Most of Morgan’s Raiders did proceed to the port city, but part of his regiment under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Basil L. Duke (Morgan’s trusted leader and brother-in-law) began to drift north toward the Ohio River.
This is all a backdrop for what occurred in September, 1862 – 150 years ago. Stragglers from a division of Morgan’s Raiders entered into the Vanceburg, Kentucky area causing much concern for both Vanceburg and Ohio. The headlines in the Portsmouth Times reported ‘Alarms on the Border’ and the West Union Democratic Union headline was ‘The Panic’. I will share these stories with you over the next few weeks.