RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. -- With no coastline and no ocean ports, West Virginia seems an unlikely locale for a battle involving the U.S. Navy.
But 150 years ago today, a few miles upstream from this Ohio River town, artillery fire from a pair of Navy gunboats in West Virginia waters played a key role in bringing an abrupt end to a daring Confederate cavalry raid that swept through Indiana and Ohio.
The events that led to what would be known as the Battle of Buffington Island began in June 1863, when Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of Confederate forces in Tennessee, ordered Gen. John Hunt Morgan to lead a force of about 2,000 cavalrymen on a raid through neighboring Kentucky. The idea was to divert federal troops from what was shaping up to be a Union assault on Chattanooga, Tenn.
The headstrong Morgan spent only one week in Kentucky before deciding -- against orders to the contrary by Bragg -- to cross the Ohio River just west of Louisville on July 8, and enter Indiana, bringing the sting of war to the north.
Morgan's Raiders spent five days in Indiana, "requisitioning" horses, food and supplies from farmers and storekeepers, damaging railroad bridges and freight offices, and occasionally skirmishing with Union home guard troops. On July 13, the Confederate cavalrymen crossed into Ohio and continued their raid, passing near the outskirts of Cincinnati before pressing eastward.
Meanwhile, on the Ohio River, a fleet of six U.S. Navy gunboats was in hot pursuit of the Confederate raiders. Known as "tinclads" due to the light layer of armor they were rigged with, the gunboats were part of the Navy's Mississippi Squadron, charged with disrupting Confederate river traffic on the Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland and Ohio rivers.
By the time Morgan and his men were within a day's ride of Ohio's border with the month-old state of West Virginia, they had looted farms and businesses in 12 Ohio counties, prompting nearly 4,400 Ohioans to later file claims for compensation from the raids.
Morgan did not believe that the Ohio River was deep enough at mid-summer to allow the Union gunboats to pursue him upstream of Pomeroy, Ohio, about 30 miles downstream from Ravenswood, so he made for a well-known fording spot off the tip of Buffington Island, just north of the Jackson county town. But heavy rains in Pennsylvania a few days earlier had brought the river level up from about 30 inches to nearly five feet, making upriver gunboat travel possible and a mass river-fording by cavalrymen treacherous.
By the night of July 18, most of the Navy gunboats had made it to Ravenswood, where they moored at the mouth of Sandy Creek.
The flagship of the federal squadron was the newly built USS Moose, which displaced nearly 190 tons, was 154.5 feet long, and came equipped with six 25-pound cannons. Since the river depth of five feet barely equaled the minimum operating level needed by the gunboat, its captain, Lt. Cmdr. LeRoy Fitch, ordered the dispatch boat Imperial to tow the Moose, under the cover of darkness, through a set of shoals to Morgan's expected fording spot at Buffington Island.
Morgan's force had arrived on the Ohio side of the ford during the afternoon and evening of July 18. While unopposed during most of their raid through Ohio, Morgan's cavalrymen now found themselves under pursuit by a Union force of 3,000 cavalry and infantry troops, including soldiers from the 23rd Ohio Infantry, pulled off garrison duty at Camp White in Charleston. Among them were two future U.S. presidents -- Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Capt. William McKinley.
As the Union troops closed in on the Confederates by land, the Moose and the Imperial arrived about 2 a.m. in the narrow channel separating Buffington Island from the Ohio shore, undetected by nearby encamped Confederates. A short time later, the makeshift gunboat Allegheny Belle, a sternwheeler rigged with three artillery pieces from a Michigan battery, slid into position behind the Moose and Imperial.
At daybreak on July 19, 110 men from the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, a part of Morgan's raiding party, paddled across the Ohio on a flatboat and a collection of rowboats to set up a perimeter around the fording point's West Virginia shore.
A short time after that, on the Ohio shore, dense patches of morning fog began to break up, giving Union soldiers under Gen. H.M. Judah's command their first close look at a group of Morgan's Raiders. Small arms fire broke out from both sides.
Upon hearing the sound of gunfire, Fitch ordered the Moose, Allegheny Belle and Imperial to move up the narrow channel separating Buffington Island from the Ohio shore, toward the fighting. Partway up 1.5-mile long passageway, the Moose stopped along the Ohio shoreline to pick up Capt. John Grafton, Gen. Judah's aide-de-camp, who had narrowly escaped capture in the foggy encounter with Morgan's troops.
As the Moose passed the north end of Buffington Island, its crew could see Morgan's cavalrymen beginning to ford the river, protected by two artillery pieces, which had yet to be loaded or brought to bear on the approaching gunboats.
"I at once engaged him, drove him from the banks, and captured two pieces of his artillery, a portion of his baggage train, horses, small arms, etc.," Fitch wrote in an after-action report. The Allegheny Belle added her cannons to the barrage when she cleared the channel and had room to move abeam of the Moose.