Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Masterful Retreat

During the Civil War, several armies passed through Owsley County, among them the Union command of Gen. George W. Morgan as it retreated from Cumberland Gap to Greenup, Kentucky in 1862. Kentucky Historical Marker # 645, located on the courthouse lawn in Booneville, titled "A Masterful Retreat", reminds passers-by in a few simple words of one of the most extraordinary events of the Civil War.

During Bragg's massive invasion of Kentucky in late summer of 1862, General George W. Morgan and his 7th Division, Army of the Ohio, ran the gauntlet of 200+ miles from Cumberland Gap by way of Manchester, Booneville, and West Liberty, following in part the "Old Warrior Path", an old forgotten trail used by the Indians, to Greenup on the Ohio River. Morgan marched his men through the barren Eastern Kentucky Mountains with barely any food and water while being harassed in his front, rear and flanks by Confederate Cavalry under John Hunt Morgan and his famed Raiders. Obstructions were overcome and the enemy bravely met whenever he offered battle.

After evacuating the Gap during the night of September 17, 1862, George W. pressed his division on to Manchester, via Cumberland Ford and Flat Lick. On September 21, after allowing his men adequate rest, Morgan left camp at the Goose Creek Salt Works near Manchester and proceeded on his way to Proctor on the Kentucky River, at which point the road to Greenup and Maysville diverged. Reaching Morris' Farm, Morgan divided his troops into two columns - Spears' and DeCourcy's Brigades took the hill road directly to Proctor while Carter's and Baird's Brigades marched via Booneville to Proctor.
By 9 p.m., the last of Morgan's column had left Manchester.

The following morning, September 22, DeCourcy's and Spears' brigades were slowly marching toward Proctor until 10 a.m. and rested until 5 p.m., when their column was set in motion again. Sometime during the march, Confederate cavalry suddenly made its appearance in the rear, capturing 9 men from the 3rd TN Infantry who had straggled off in search of something to eat. When the Confederate cavalry came on again, they were successfully repulsed by the 42nd OVI, which was guarding the rear. The column marched until 10 p.m. when the men were finally allowed to camp for the night, about 19 miles from Manchester.

Meanwhile, Baird's Brigade, with Carter's lagging behind, had proceeded from Clark's before daylight. After marching all day, the troops finally went into camp on the Red Bird Fork of the Kentucky River, in an open field and orchard, near a farm house, which was occupied by Baird and his staff. Col. Coburn of the 33rd IND Infantry took a fence-corner as his bedchamber, which the 14th KY Infantry in less than an hour "turned out to graze" by simply relieving that corner, and many others, of its fence rails. Coburn told the Kentuckians not to take away the ground and went back to sleep...but he did not get to enjoy it for long. The old farmer had a lot of geese which soon were heard squalling and flying over the camp and making more noise than would have waked Rome. Alarmed by the noise, General Baird became nervous about a string of about 30 bee-hives which flanked the path from the house to the gate-way. He sent word to Coburn to have them guarded and a sentinel was posted but no rest was to be had that night.

Only minutes later, Coburn was ordered to take the 33rd Indiana to Booneville to prevent the local mill from being destroyed by the Confederates. Word had been received that none other than John Hunt Morgan had burned the steam mill at Proctor and destroyed all the provisions in town. During the day, Morgan had arrived at Irvine, 18 miles from Proctor, with orders from Kirby Smith to assume command of all the cavalry in that section and to destroy all mills and grain in the Manchester area. Realizing that he was too late to accomplish this particular objective, he set out for Proctor instead, laying waste to mill and forage that Federal Morgan and his men so desperately needed. The possibility that he would attempt to do the same at Booneville were better than great. No time was to be lost - the honey guard was taken off immediately and the men moved out. After a forced night march, the 33rd Indiana arrived in town during the early morning hours of September 23 - the old wheels of the mill were still rattling, making "merry music to the ears of the hungry".

Coburn's march undoubtedly saved the mill at Booneville. John Hunt Morgan appeared to be near town when the Federals arrived, as his dispatch to Kirby Smith reveals, informing his commander that "the forces from Cumberland Gap passed through Booneville." Morgan also reported that he had captured several prisoners of the command who informed their captors that George W. Morgan's column was attempting to reach Maysville.

Little did Confederate Morgan realize that he had been fooled by a well-conceived plan by Federal Morgan. Before leaving Manchester, Morgan had directed Captain George M. Adams, his Division Commissary, to send an officer with an escort of 2 or 3 of Mundy's Cavalry, toward Mount Sterling, with written authority to buy whatever supplies could be found, deceiving the Confederates about his true intentions. Fully aware that they might be captured, the men set out - and the plan worked.

Upon receiving John Hunt Morgan's dispatch, Kirby Smith ordered all his available troops to concentrate at Mt. Sterling, expecting Federal Morgan's troops to pass through town on their way to Maysville. He would use Morgan's Cavalry force to slow the Federal advance long enough to collect all his forces at Mt. Sterling in a timely manner to mount an attack on Morgan.

Back in Booneville, the remainder of Baird's brigade as well as Carter's, with the wagon train and the heavy artillery, had filed into town by four o'clock in the afternoon, "a small place, though it is the Co. seat of Owsley Co.", as one member of the 49th Indiana Infantry remarked.

Accompanying Baird's and Carter's troops were about 120 men of the 4th East TN Cavalry who, upon their arrival at Booneville, paid a visit to Huram Evans and his family. Evans owned a fine horse which was promptly requisitioned. A voucher for the animal, worth $100, was issued to Evans by Maj. Luther M. Blackman, quartermaster of the unit.

While in town, the men rested up, collected supplies, and ate supper. By 9 p.m. the column resumed its march to Proctor. Soon the waning daylight made it too difficult and dangerous to proceed any further over the rough road and steep hills and orders were given to halt, with Carter's Brigade bivouacking within three miles of Proctor.

While Carter and Baird had reached Booneville, DeCourcy's Brigade had passed Burning Spring in the morning and after a march of 9 miles halted at Big Spring. Here the last rations were issued, consisting of a pound or two each of flour, sugar, and coffee for each mess. The soldiers baked some bread and cooked up some coffee before they started again at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. The column slowly wound its way to Proctor on the Kentucky River, a distance of 16 miles, having yet another encounter with Morgan's Cavalry which successfully managed to capture a small herd of beef cattle that had been driven in the rear of the column. Morgan then by-passed the Federal column and proceeded to Proctor, coolly awaiting the Federals' arrival. Finally, DeCourcy filed into town at 8 o'clock at night, nearly famished for water. John Hunt Morgan fell back to Irvine.

The following day, September 24, Morgan's two columns finally united at Proctor. Finding the mill burned by J. H. Morgan and all supplies destroyed, the command remained in town only for a few hours. Fully expecting to be attacked at this point, General Morgan threw a brigade and a battery across the KY River and carefully pondered his next move.

A decision was made quickly. Instead of turning toward Mt. Sterling, he chose to proceed on the more difficult path - through the mountains and on to Hazel Green. Once again, the Division was divided. DeCourcy and Spears were to move on the Ridge Road, which was then completely destitute of water. Carter and Baird, as well as Capt. Patterson with his sappers and miners from the Engineers Corps, plus the wagon trains and heaviest artillery, were to march on the North Fork Road, which had water but which had been greatly damaged and in parts destroyed from the torrents of the previous year. The two columns were to meet at Hazel Green, a distance of 25 miles from Proctor.

At 10 a.m., DeCourcy's brigade was the first to leave Proctor and by 3 p.m. the last of Morgan's troops filed out of town. After marching 1 1/2 miles, Carter's men came up with the train of Baird's Brigade and found the narrow road so blocked by it that he was compelled to camp there for the night.

Soon after George W. Morgan's departure for Hazel Green, John Hunt Morgan once again returned to Proctor with his cavalry to renew his pursuit of the Federal column.

Passing through Compton in the early afternoon on September 25, DeCourcy's and Spears' brigades reached Hazel Green late in the evening and camped in a meadow above the town, near the future Hazel Green Academy and set about to collect and obtain forage for the hungry soldiers.

Meanwhile, Carter's and Baird's brigades struggled on their way down the North Fork Road. Water could be found, but only in stagnant pools or climbing down 100 foot cliffs.
Due to the broken country and rough road which was considered impassable by the inhabitants of the area, the trains caused much delay. Finally, after a 10 mile march, Carter and Baird had reached the North Fork of the KY River in the late afternoon and went into camp.

The following morning, September 26, Carter and Baird were faced with more problems. Part of the road had been washed away and a new one needed to be constructed to allow safe passage. Successfully accomplishing this task, the brigades began ascending a mountain with the trains and batteries. Regiments were required to stack arms and lift wagons and guns over the more difficult parts of the ascent.

To add to the difficulties, John Hunt Morgan's Cavalry had swung around the Federals and commenced blockading every suitable point of the road in their front with felled trees and rocks. But Morgan's Raiders were no match to Patterson's Pioneers. A number of wagons were loaded with axes and shovels which were distributed among the regiments and in just a short time the obstructions were removed. Slowly, but steadily, Carter's and Baird's Brigades wound their way through the mountains and on to Hazel Green which was reached at midnight. Exhausted, the men went into bivouac.

Morgan's march to the Ohio River continued for another seven days. Passing through West Liberty and Sandy Hook, his division finally reached Grayson on October 1, despite blockaded roads and attacks by John Hunt Morgan's cavalry, as well as shortness of food stuffs - even the paw-paws had been exhausted. When the famished soldiers discovered some oak trees, the bitter acorns were picked up and devoured like delicacies.

At Grayson, a disappointed John Hunt Morgan finally gave up his pursuit, remarking, "Tis no use trying to stop that damned Yankee Morgan, for he can march over fallen trees faster than I can in good roads, and can take artillery where the devil can't go".

Finally, on October 3, Greenup and the Ohio River began looming up in the distance. The 42nd OVI unfurled their two beautiful banners and Morgan's column, the "lost Division", marched with firm and steady step into town, welcomed by hearty cheers, families lining the street, women offering food and drink to the footsore, faint and hungry men.

Thus ended one of the most daring and spectacular military actions of the Civil War to take place in Kentucky. 28 pieces of artillery were brought through the mountains, including a siege battery, plus 120 army wagons. The fact that General Morgan had accomplished this task with only a loss of 80 men, 4 wagons and none of his artillery pieces, is a credit to his abilities as a General but even more so a high tribute to the perseverance of the 10,000 men who served under his command and the ten women who participated on this march.

© 2003 by Marlitta H. Perkins

Originally published in 2003 in the South Fork Country News, newsletter of the Owsley County Historical Society, Kentucky.

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