July 1863 was a rather tumultuous month for most of America, but that summer month was especially hectic in central Ohio. America was in the midst of what President Abraham Lincoln would later call "a great civil war" in which about a third of its people had tried to leave the Union while the other two thirds tried to keep them in it. States, cities and even whole families were divided and often found themselves in bitter battle one with another.
The war had not been going especially well for the Union. The region with the most people, resources and arms had simply not fared well against opponents who defended their homeland with determination and skill. While the North had had some successes, the South persistently resisted.
But the leaders of the South knew that the longer the war dragged on, the more likely a victory by the North would take place. To win the war, the South needed support from European countries like Great Britain and France who relied on cotton from the South. To get that support, the South had to clearly demonstrate its military superiority. In September 1862, a southern army had struck north into Maryland and collided with Union forces at a place called Antietam or Sharpsburg -- depending upon which side you were on. The battle was a draw.
Now in late June 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were moving north again. Crossing through Maryland, Lee swept into Pennsylvania pursued by Gen. George Gordon Meade and his Army of the Potomac. Neither side intended to meet for a climactic clash at a little town few of them had ever heard of -- a town called Gettysburg.
For three days in July, America waited while the two armies clashed in one the largest and deadliest battles in American history. Then at 10 a.m. on July 4, 1863, a bulletin was telegraphed across America from Washington, D.C.
"The President announces to the country that the news from the Army of the Potomac to ten p.m., of the third, is such as to cover the army with the highest honors and promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all the many gallant fallen; and that for this he especially desires on this day that He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, should be everywhere remembered and reverenced with the profoundest gratitude."
The news of the Union victory at Gettysburg was greeted with joy and relief by many if not most of the residents of the city. On July 8, the local Ohio State Journal reported more good news. "While yet in the midst of rejoicing and congratulations over the achievements of the Army of the Potomac under Meade on the Fourth of July, we are now thrilled with new joy over the success that has crowned the efforts of the Army of the Mississippi, under Grant, on the same hallowed day. Vicksburg was on that thrice glorious day surrendered to the Union army, and the bright and brave old flag of the Union was on that day unfurled once more over the conquered ramparts of that rebel city."
To celebrate the victories, "In the evening a great bonfire was built at the corner of Town and Third Streets, over which an effigy of [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis was hung in effigy from a gallows. In various other places in the city, Confederate effigies were burned; the scenes of popular joy and enthusiasm, both day and evening were unprecedented in Columbus."
They were also short lived.
On the very next day, July 9, 1863, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan crossed the Ohio River at Louisville into Indiana with 2,460 cavalry men behind him.
Demonstrating that the South was far from defeated, Morgan swept through southern Indiana and crossed into Ohio on July 12. The raid caused in the words of one local paper, "a wild state of consternation and confusion." As Morgan's men raided across southern Ohio, Gov. John Brough called out every militia man in the state to assist regular Union army soldiers in the pursuit of Morgan's men. In the end, more than 50,000 men turned out but, as one later account put it, more than half of them never "got within three score miles of Morgan."
But the other half did. Pursued by thousands of mount-ed men, Morgan turned south and tried to cross the Ohio River at Buffington Island. In the only battle of the Civil War fought in Ohio, Morgan was checked and forced to turn back north. By July 26, he and 900 of his men were surrounded and captured in Columbiana County.
Most of his men were placed in the Camp Chase confederate prison camp in Columbus. Morgan and several of his officers were placed in the "escape proof" Ohio Penitentiary.
It had been an exciting month. Morgan would later show how "escape proof" the penitentiary really was. But that is another story for another day.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.