The Battle of Corydon, Indiana
Though the border state of Kentucky saw much fighting during the Civil War, the state of Indiana, its neighbor to the north across the Ohio River, was largely spared from military action on its soil. Largely, but not completely spared; the most notable exception was the July 1863 cavalry raid by Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan that swept across southern Indiana and Ohio.
By June of 1863, Morgan had a well established record as a successful commander of a cavalry division fighting in Tennessee and his home state of Kentucky. With Confederate forces under siege in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee on the march north to Pennsylvania, Morgan convinced General Braxton Bragg to allow him to conduct a raid into Kentucky against the key Union supply hub at Louisville. Besides capturing and or destroying valuable supplies and military equipment, the raid would force the Federals to divert large numbers of troops away from other areas. Bragg agreed to the plan with the understanding–and with orders– that Morgan would confine his operations to areas south of the Ohio River.
Morgan had no intention of doing that, and informed his subordinate commanders that the plan was to cross the river into Indiana and ride east across that state and through Ohio, conducting raids and destroying railroads and targets of military value. They would then cross the river again into either Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia, making their way back to Confederate lines in Virginia or some other point, possibly even linking up with Lee in Pennsylvania depending on that general’s success in his campaign.
Morgan, with about 2500 cavalrymen plus artillery support, began this bold, ambitious operation on June 30th, crossing the Cumberland River in Southern Kentucky, moving north and attacking Federal targets while trying to keep ahead of pursuing Union cavalry. On July 7th, lead elements of Morgan’s division reached Brandenburg, Kentucky, on the Ohio River across from Mauckport, Indiana, with the remainder of the force arriving on the morning of the 8th.
With Federal cavalry closing in, Morgan needed to cross the Ohio River in hurry. The Rebels commandeered two steamboats, the John T. McCombs and the Alice Dean, and began crossing the Ohio on July 8th. The crossing was not unopposed. Notified of Morgan’s presence across the river, 130 Indiana militia men and one artillery piece were deployed on the Indiana shore. The militia fired its cannon at the Confederates on the Kentucky side; the Confederates put their guns into position and returned fire; after some exchanges of fire, the Indianans pulled back and re-positioned back from the river bank. As the steamboats reached the Indiana side, the militia men opened up musket fire on the approaching Rebels. Confederate artillery shelled the Indianans, and after landing on shore, Morgan’s men advanced in line of battle. The militia men retreated inland toward Corydon. After several trips back and forth across the Ohio, the cavalrymen, horses, wagons, and cannons all made it safely into Indiana ahead of the pursuing Federals.
With Morgan’s cavalry on the way, citizens and militia prepared a defensive line of logs and fence poles that extended across three roads that converged on Corydon from the south. This line was manned by about 450 militia and civilians under the command of Colonel Lewis Jordan. Many were armed with shotguns, hunting rifles, or anything else that would shoot, but the Ellsworth Rifles , the militia company on the right flank, was armed with 15 shot Henry repeating rifles. It was the only location on the field were the Indianans held any kind of advantage. Morgan greatly outnumbered the mostly inexperienced Corydon defenders, and the Confederates were seasoned fighters. Still, Jordan and his men were determined to put up a fight; any delaying action would buy time for Union cavalry and infantry to close in on the Rebels.
Early in the afternoon of July 9th, the leading elements of Morgan’s cavalry reached the Corydon defensive line’s left flank. The militia at that position, known as the Spencer Guards, caught the Confederates by surprise, firing a volley and inflicting casualties. On the right flank, dismounted Rebels attempted an attack only to be stopped by the Ellsworth’s Henry rifles firepower. Colonel Basil Duke, Morgan’s second in command, recalled that the Indianans “resolutely defended their rail piles, killing and wounding several men”. But Morgan had plenty of men to hold the militia in place while sending others to go around both flanks. The Confederates also brought up their artillery and began shelling the Indianans. Overwhelmed, the militia and civilian defenders began to retreat into Corydon, and it soon became a rout. The artillery lobbed some shells into the streets of the town, convincing Jordan that the time had come to surrender.
While some of the militia men escaped, 345 were captured (and paroled), while four were killed or mortally wounded and one other was wounded. Morgan lost eight killed and 33 wounded. Morgan’s men took food, horses, and other supplies, as well as forcing the three flour mills in town to pay cash to be spared from the torch. While this was going on, Morgan was enjoying dinner at a local hotel–until he was handed a newspaper detailing the Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
Nonetheless, Morgan continued his raid through southern Indiana and into Ohio, inflicting damage, skirmishing with and eluding an ever increasing number of Union troops sent after him. Eventually, the Federals were able to keep most of the Confederate raiders from recrossing the Ohio River, trapping the bulk of Morgan’s men. Morgan surrendered with the remainder of his command at Salineville, Ohio, a few miles from the Pennsylvania border, on July 26th.
The captured Confederates were sent to numerous prisoner of war camps, while Morgan and his officers were confined to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. But on November 27th, Morgan and six officers escaped from prison and successfully made it back to the Confederacy Returning to duty after his escape, John Hunt Morgan was killed in action near Greenville, Tennessee on September 4th, 1864.
Today the Corydon Battle Park preserves five acres of the battlefield. Markers listing the casualties of both sides are at the site.
The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian by Shelby Foote
Corydon: the Forgotten Battle of the Civil War by W. Fred Conway
History of Morgan’s Cavalry by Basil Duke