Friday, October 29, 2010

Corydon - Going North

By Don Shelton

Gen. Robert E. Lee certainly understood the powerful psychology of what a Confederate victory North of Mason and Dixon's line could potentially do: demoralize the Northern populace, thus robbing Yankees of their will to wage war after seeing it in their own back yard, and also perhaps get England and France to get off the sidelines (England, certainly, would want to show support to the Confederacy if it became apparent they were winning—for economic reasons if nothing else). Such psychology was the driving force behind the Gettysburg campaign. While Lee had obviously invaded Maryland once already, taking the war into territory actually above the Mason-Dixon line was a powerfully tempting objective, and had happened on a small scale before Lee marched into Pennsylvania. In September of 1862 Gen. Albert G. Jenkins led his Confederate cavalry forces into southeastern Ohio on a two-day raid that is little-known today, but generated considerable excitement at the time. John Hunt Morgan was destined, of course, to make a somewhat more famous visit to Ohio, via Indiana. Morgan knew of Jenkins’ raid, and had displayed a mastery of the psychology of warfare many times himself. He was certainly observing with keen interest the reaction Lee was getting in Pennsylvania. Morgan wanted to prove that he, too, could use Northern panic and alarm to force the enemy to react to him. Lee wanted Meade to react by bringing his army out into the open where Lee could destroy it. Morgan wanted to draw troops away from Rosecrans, so that Gen. Braxton Bragg could make a similar attempt on Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland in the western theater.

Morgan’s Great Indiana-Ohio Raid left Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River at Brandenburg, and going into Harrison County, Indiana on July 8th, 1863. On July 3rd the fighting ended at Gettysburg, and news of Lee’s defeat, along with the surrender of Vicksburg a day later, somewhat diverted national attention from what Morgan was shortly to accomplish at Corydon; the largest engagement North of the Mason-Dixon won by the Confederates. Had Lee prevailed at Gettysburg, Morgan’s victory at Corydon and his seeming unstoppability in his travels through Indiana and Ohio would have overshadowed the fall of Vicksburg and given the instant appearance of a two-pronged—east and west—surge of Confederate fortunes. Even with the Confederate misfortunes in Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Morgan’s adventures on his Raid proved to be rather an alarming and electrifying poke into the psyche of the Northern citizenry; it takes little imagination to see the full potential effect of Morgan’s plan had Lee been successful.

By crossing into Indiana, Morgan was defying the orders of Bragg. According to Morgan’s brother-in-law Gen. Basil Duke in “A History of Morgan’s Cavalry”, Bragg gave Morgan “carte blanche” to do whatever he wanted in Kentucky, but “Bragg refused him permission to make the raid as he desired to make it and ordered him to operate in Kentucky.” Bragg’s plan was for Morgan to cover the retreat of the Army of Tennessee across the Tennessee River, with the intention of fighting near Chattanooga (which indeed occurred with the battle at Chickamauga). Bragg also wanted Morgan to attempt the capture of Louisville if possible, thus drawing Union troops away from Rosecrans for that decisive battle. Morgan argued that capturing Louisville was unlikely, but by going into Indiana and Ohio “the scare and clamor in the states he proposed to invade would be so great, that the military leaders and the administration would be compelled to furnish the troops that would be called for.” Morgan told Duke shortly after his meeting with Bragg of the order confining him to Kentucky, and of his intention to disobey it. Ultimately Morgan’s plan was to join with Lee in Pennsylvania after his grand tour of Indiana and Ohio, putting a finishing touch on the invasion psychology.

The order confining Morgan to Kentucky is a singular example of Bragg’s command abilities; while his generalship did sometimes rise to competency, it never achieved the inspired brilliance required (or demonstrated repeatedly by Lee, Breckinridge, Jackson, Forrest, Morgan and others). Bragg failed to recognize the importance of psychology in warfare—on his own troops (whom he too often mistreated), on the enemy, and on the general populations of both sides. When Bragg invaded Kentucky in 1862, he did so tentatively, thinking that the mere presence of his army would cause Kentuckians to flock to the recruiters and swell the Confederate ranks enough to secure the state. True, Morgan had proclaimed to him often of Kentucky’s strong Confederate desires (helping Bragg’s overestimations), and while a good many Kentuckians did join the Confederate Cause, Bragg overlooked the simple need for many Kentuckians to see the ability and determination of the Confederates to fight the federal forces off from the state before committing; if the Confederates were just passing through in 1862, the families and property of Confederate Kentuckians would fall to the harshest retributions of Yankee occupations. If, instead of wandering aimlessly in 1862, Bragg had shown an inspired plan—such as laying siege to Cincinnati as Morgan urged him to do—the results could have been dramatically different, at least to Morgan’s thinking.

With the situation in 1863, Bragg was correct (and Morgan recognized it) that he needed to retreat across the Tennessee River, and that a diversion was necessary to keep Rosecrans from full strength for the battle Bragg conceived taking place afterwards. However, Morgan obviously saw in Bragg once again the lack of vision for truly taking a calculated risk with great potential reward. Morgan had to feel that his plan in 1862 to lay siege to Cincinnati would have succeeded in drawing the federal army in Louisville northward, (at least more so than Bragg’s bumping into them on a search for water at Perryville, south of Louisville) allowing the Confederates relatively little resistance in occupying large swaths of the state for a longer period of time. Morgan was not going to let what he must have considered to be short-sighted orders get in the way this time. He knew that with only 2,500 men he could not take (and certainly could not hold for any length of time) Louisville or Cincinnati, nor would he make such a suicidal attempt, but there were much easier targets for creating havoc across the Midwest, and Morgan intended to do as much so as possible.

But before he could do any of that, Morgan had to cross the Ohio River at Brandenburg, and that was accomplished with some degree of excitement. Captain Thomas Henry Hines had already taken a liberal interpretation from some of Morgan’s orders and been in Indiana leading a detachment which had stirred the reactions of some militia. Hines rejoined Morgan in Brandenburg on July 7th, and Duke reported Morgan to be satisfied with Hines’ explanation (after all, Morgan was disobeying orders, Hines had merely stretched them).

However, just as Morgan’s command was beginning to cross the river with the clearing of the morning fog the next day, they were fired upon. Morgan had to wonder, at least to some degree, just how much Hines had aroused the militia.

We have the luxury of two personal accounts of the actions at the Brandenburg crossing and Corydon; one from Duke of course, but the other from Simeon K. Wolfe, editor of the Corydon Weekly Democrat, who also participated in the Battle of Corydon. Wolfe is much more prone to hyperbole and exaggeration than Duke, but he provides interesting and colorful contrast and more description of the battle itself. For instance, Duke matter-of-factly reports that the musketry from the opposite shore at Brandenburg produced no effect, and the artillery shelling injured a captain and scattered the party around him. Wolfe’s account (based on information from Col. Irvin of the Indiana Legion—or militia) says the shelling caused “the rascals to skedaddle to the rear of the town in fine style but before getting out of the way some thirty of them were killed and wounded.” Wolfe also estimated Morgan’s command at nearly twice its actual size.

When Morgan had Lt. Elias D. Lawrence fire his two Parrotts in answer by shelling upon the Indiana side of the river, the Hoosier contingent abandoned their position, and found themselves unable to remove their artillery piece. The 2nd Kentucky and 9th Tennessee were then immediately ferried across the river, with their horses left on the Kentucky side.

At that time, though, a Union river gunboat, Springfield, approached and fired at Morgan’s troops on both sides of the river. The 2nd Kentucky and 9th Tennessee were able to take a ridge sheltered from the gunboat's shells (the Hoosier militia had abandoned the area entirely and were apparently falling back to Corydon). An hour-long duel ensued between Morgan’s Parrotts and the Howitzers on the Springfield. This had to be a tense moment; Morgan had two regiments on the other side of the river, dismounted, and he could not know if Hines’ previous excitement had brought down a superior force to engage them, and the gunboat prevented any further assistance. Duke described Morgan during this time as exhibiting “an emotion he rarely permitted to be seen.”

After an hour of shelling which produced little if any damage on either side, the Springfield retired, and the ferrying continued at once, the first order being to bring horses to the men already across. The gunboat returned about 5 p.m., but artillery fire kept it from interfering with the crossing. Morgan’s 1st Brigade finished crossing about dark, and the 2nd Brigade took until nearly midnight to finish.

Duke commanded the 1st Brigade, and the camped about six miles north of the river that night. Duke reported the eerie scene of houses throughout the area abandoned at a moment’s notice: “they had left their houses with open doors...and had fled to the the houses at which I stopped, every thing was just in the condition in which the fugitive owners had left it, an hour or two before. A bright fire was blazing upon the kitchen hearth, bread half made up was in the tray, and many indications convinced us that we had interrupted preparations for supper.”

The next day, Wolfe reports that “about 11 1/2 o’clock...our scouts brought the report that the enemy was approaching in strong force up the Mauckport road toward Corydon”, which generated obvious alarm. Wolfe went on to report of Morgan’s trip through the county “their principal depredations being in horse stealing and robbing houses and citizens of everything valuable”. Of course, to steal a horse, a trooper had to leave his behind, and later in many cases the farmers in Indiana realized that instead of being stolen from, they were trading up to Kentucky thoroughbreds.

In his book “The Longest Raid of the Civil War”, Lester Horwitz describes the defensive position for the 450 or so home guards protecting Corydon under Col. Lewis Jordan as being a breastwork made of logs, stones and especially Wormwood rails, placed about a mile south of the town. Horwitz delineates the line of battle for the defenders as about 2,000 feet across, running from Amsterdam Road on the west to Laconia Road on the east.

to the east of Mauckport Road, upon which Morgan’s main force arrived at Corydon, to Laconia road Wolfe described the terrain as uneven and heavily wooded—not conducive to a cavalry charge, which was apparently thought to focus Morgan upon their front and right. There was, however, a severe problem with the position. A young Corydon defender, W. B. Ryan, described the failing; “Our position was unfortunate because the brow of the hill obscured our field of vision so that it was impossible to see the enemy until he was upon us.” Wolfe also complained about the visibility, saying that the defensive line was “at least fifty yards too far north”.

Though there were woods to the east, and poor visibility in the center, the west—Union right—had superb visibility near the Amsterdam Road with a complete view of the approaching Confederate by 12:30 p.m. The Ellsworth Rifle company (including Simeon Wolfe) was posted on this federal right flank, and they were equipped with Henry repeating rifles, which would prove a somewhat difficult obstacle. There was, however, a problem with this position also in that the Ellsworth company had virtually no cover. They opened fire as soon as Morgan’s troops came within range, checking the Confederate advance for the moment.

Morgan’s superior numbers allowed him to keep fire on the center while commencing with flanking movements. On the Confederate left, Col. W.W. Ward’s 9th Tennessee moved around the Ellsworth rifles, and on the Confederate right Major T. B. Webber led the 2nd Kentucky in a similar flank.

Elements of Col Richard Morgan’s recently formed 14th Kentucky Cavalry then charged the breastworks. Col. Morgan was Gen. Morgan’s brother, and had been Assistant Adjutant General on Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s staff, but according to Duke wanted a “less monotonous life in the cavalry”. He was about to get his wish.

The defender’s barricade was too high for many of the horses to jump, and some fell headlong into a “violent melee”. Lt. Leland Hathaway and some others displaced the top rail to open a more manageable hurdle for a second charge.

However, the Ellsworth company, with their Henry repeating rifles, were able to hold Morgan’s men off for fifteen minutes more, under ever-increasing pressure of the flanking movements by the 2nd Kentucky 9th Tennessee.

Col. Adam R. “Stovepipe” Johnson ordered Lt. Lawrence to fire his Parrotts, which greatly unnerved the Yankee militia. Wolfe described it: “making the shells sing the ugly kind of music over our heads”. Federal commander Col. Jordan wrote, “When the enemy opened with three pieces of artillery, with shell and shot, and they appearing in such overwhelming number, seeing my forces could no longer successfully contend against such odds, I gave the order to fall back to Corydon.”

The retreat turned into a rout, with the Yankees racing down the hill, across Big Indian Creek and toward town. Wolfe conceded, “This was done, not with the best of order it is true, for our forces were mostly undrilled, but with excellent speed”. Having taken the field, the Confederates planted their battery on the hill south of town and fired two shells into it. Both struck near the center of town, one exploded but did no damage. Seeing it was hopeless, Col. Jordan “wisely” surrendered the town. While a few cavalry and mounted citizens were able to get away, Morgan paroled three hundred and forty-five men. Wolfe then records that about 5 o’clock, “the King of American Freebooters left, moving north on the Salem road”, and Wolfe records a long list of businesses in town which he claimed were imposed upon to support the Southern Cause.

Duke only records one paragraph about the battle at Corydon, saying “(Col. Morgan) charged them, but they resolutely defended their rail piles, killing and wounding several men...A demonstration was made upon the flank of the enemy...and Col. Morgan again advanced upon their front, when, not understanding such a fashion of fighting upon two or three sides at once, the militia broke and ran, with great rapidity, into the town, their progress accelerated (as they got fairly into the streets) by a shot dropped among them from one of the pieces.”

In all, the battle and retreat lasted about half an hour, with nearly 3,000 combatants engaged. Certainly not a battle to be compared in any scale to what Lee was attempting in Pennsylvania, and an event quickly put to the back of the ever more wearying minds of Morgan and his men over the following days of the Raid, so it is understandable that the Corydon battle was not thought of at the time as so significant (except to the terrified citizens of southern Indiana, and its impact was further negated with Morgan’s failure to escape the raid successfully into western Virginia. The Confederates needed a much larger victory on Northern soil to sufficiently meet Lee’s goal of impacting the psychology of the war, but nonetheless, it was Kentucky’s John Hunt Morgan who gave the South her largest victory north of the Mason-Dixon.

Official records (Northern, so possibly high numbers) state that Morgan lost eight killed and 40 wounded at Brandenburg and Corydon. Known dead are Pvt. Albert Womack, Pvt. John Dunn, & Pvt. Greene Bottomer.

Yankee casualties list eight dead, including one man who died of a heart attack in the running retreat. Cordon residents also try to include two ladies in the list of casualties, stating both deaths were due to related hardship, stress and exhaustion from the battle.


Today a portion of the battle site is preserved as five-acre Corydon Battle Park, a county park, on Business Route 135. There is a monument to the Confederate dead at the park. There is also a reenactment held nearby; this year it will be July 9th & 10th at the Hayswood Nature Reserve in Corydon. For more information about the park, go to

Originally published in the Spring, 2005 The Lost Cause

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