By Josh Shepherd, News writer
Although the second Battle of Cynthiana in 1864 was not significant in the context of the Civil War, it marked a turning point in the military career of General John Hunt Morgan, according to local historian Bill Penn.
After Union soldiers under the command of General Edward Hobson surrendered to Confederate troops at Keller’s Bridge midway into the second battle, Morgan would never enjoy another victory, Penn commented.
Furthermore, in less than 24 hours, Morgan would suffer overall defeat to Union hands led by General Stephen Burbridge. Morgan would continue to suffer successive defeats afterward until his death by a bullet wound in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Penn’s book, “Rattling Spurs and Broad-Brimmed Hats: The Civil War in Cynthiana and Harrison County, Kentucky,” details the events of Morgan’s two raids on Cynthiana in 1862 and 1864.
During this weekend’s celebration of the Battles of Cynthiana, the 150th anniversary of the second battle of Cynthiana will be observed by battle reenactors.
Among the battle reenactments, and dozens of other events scheduled from Friday - Sunday, June 13 - 15, Penn will present a history of the second battle, including a character profile of General Morgan, its key historic figure.
The presentation will take place at the Elk’s Farm shelter house.
Though Penn refers to the Civil War engagements as “battles,” Morgan is primarily known in the Civil War for carrying out daring raids from behind the main battle lines of the Civil War.
Describing the ultimate nature of Morgan’s raids, Penn referred to the book “Rebel Raider: The Life of John Hunt Morgan” by James Ramage.
“Ramage characterized Morgan’s raids as guerilla warfare. The goal for such raids was to distract Union military brigades from the main body of the Confederate army. In Kentucky, the raiders also disrupted communications and destroyed railroads to slow down supply lines. The railroad in Cynthiana was a main line to transport Union troops from Ohio,” Penn said.
Having been promoted to the rank of General in recognition of his successes, Morgan acquired a reputation for bold moves that ran counter to the orders he would receive from the Confederate command.
“Morgan and his men were supposed to be guarding salt works in western Virginia. Instead he took off for Kentucky, arguing that he was accomplishing the same task by drawing Union troops away from the salt works,” Penn said.
Cynthiana in Flames
By the time Morgan arrived in Cynthiana, he was being actively pursued by Gen. Burbridge’s troops, Penn said.
Morgan had evaded capture and performed several raids of towns nearby. Reports were that among the victims of this recent run through Kentucky was the city of Mount Sterling. The town had been pillaged and local residents beaten and harassed by Confederate troops gathering food and supplies before Burbridge’s army arrived to chase the confederacy away.
“The raiders had disgraced themselves by pillaging stores and robbing the bank of $72,000 before taking flight upon the Union army’s arrival,” Penn wrote.
By the time Morgan’s Raiders arrived in Cynthiana, Burbridge’s troops were only a day’s march behind, Penn explained, setting the stage for a showdown between the two forces.
The second Battle of Cynthiana is generally broken down into three separate skirmishes that happened over the course of two days, June 11-12, Penn said.
In the initial skirmish, Morgan attacked the handful of Union troops and home guard in downtown Cynthiana. Beginning at the covered bridge over the South Fork of the Licking River.
Confederate troops crossed the bridge and forced Union forces back toward the railroad depot on what is now known as Bridge Street.
Fighting moved to the center of Pike Street. Local soldiers took cover in downtown buildings along Pike Street and in the Harrison County Courthouse.
In order to force the Union troops into the open, the raiders set fire to the buildings.
“The fire spread until it involved about 37 downtown businesses,” Penn said.
A drug store caught fire, adding a few chemical explosions to the mix.
“Imagine the fire, the smoke billowing upwards, and the soldiers battling in the streets. A quiet summer day turned into sheer chaos,” Penn said.
Soon after the remaining Union soldiers surrendered in the city, Morgan got word that a troop train was unloading a Union regiment of 600 men out at Keller’s Bridge.
The troops, led by Edward Hobson, were traveling south from Cincinnati as part of a coordinated plan with General Burbridge to capture Morgan.
“These were brand new troops. Most of the soldiers had not seen battle yet,” Penn said.
The timing could not have been perfect for Gen. Morgan. His men had just finished with the battle downtown and Confederate soldiers were immediately sent to attack Hobson’s men.
Forced to immediately defend themselves, Hobson drew his men back into a clearing against the South Fork of the Licking River. Though Hobson was in a good position to fend off advances with his store of arms and ammunition, he could not advance. He was pinned in.
Recognizing that his regiment was hemmed in on all sides by Morgan’s troops, Hobson was given no choice but to negotiate terms of surrender.
The battlefield where this event occurred, which is on the grounds of the Switzer Farm, Penn said, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
For Morgan, Hobson’s defeat was a sweet bit of vengeance, Penn said. Hobson had previously captured Morgan in 1863 during an Ohio-Indiana Raid.
But Penn and other historians have shown that the two victories on that day may have gone to Morgan’s head.
Defeat at Battlegrove
Instead of gathering supplies and clearing out of Cynthiana, which is usually the way in which Confederate raiders operated, Penn said that Morgan decided to face Burbridge’s forces head on in Harrison County.
Morgan’s officers argued against such a move. The troops were low on ammunition and several of the soldiers, instead of taking the Union weaponry and ammunition from the Keller’s Bridge skirmish, chose instead to burn the guns and keep their own.
“Morgan’s officers told him it was ‘madness to stay and fight.’ There is no explanation for his decision. Historians think Morgan’s success in battle must have made him overconfident,” Penn explained.
“We can whip them without ammunition,” is what Morgan reportedly declared.
Setting up his troops around the area that is known today as Battlegrove Cemetery, with a smaller contingent stationed around where the softball fields are located at Harrison County High School, Morgan pitted his 1,200 men against General Burbridge’s 2,400 soldiers.
The result, Penn said, was a disaster for Morgan. Several of the soldiers were killed at the location of the Confederate Memorial in the cemetery. The remaining members of Morgan’s men ran out of ammunition quickly and tried to flee across the river.
Morgan managed to escape capture, Penn said, by heading up Claysville Pike toward Bracken County.
At the end of the Civil War, owners of the buildings that Morgan destroyed in Cynthiana filed war claims on their losses. In 1865, Cynthiana’s losses were estimated at $230,000, Penn said.
“Today, that loss would be in the millions,” he said.
Faced with overwhelming debt from the Civil War, the federal government never paid on any of those claims, Penn said