PORTLAND, Ohio -- After more than a week of scouring the hot southern Ohio soil and finding a trail of bullets and artifacts, Dr. G. Michael Pratt pointed to a tangle of trees, rocks, and steep cliffside.
It's the spot where he believes one of the Civil War's boldest campaigns gasped its last breath."Imagine . . . just imagine you're a Confederate soldier -- hot, tired, outnumbered and trapped . . . and this is what you see," said Pratt, a Heidelberg College archaeologist.
Pratt has put together a team to unlock the mysteries of Ohio's only Civil War battle, the running fight at Buffington Island, where Gen. John Hunt Morgan's Confederates were trapped and beaten on July 19, 1863, after a lightning chase across the state. Heidelberg is undertaking the project on a $40,000 grant from the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program.
Pratt walked into a dark tunnel formed by leafy trees, a dramatic change from bare, sun-baked fields his team had been searching. Once, the lane was a wagon road between farms. Here, Morgan's desperate men and exhausted horses fought across fields to reach a deep ravine.
"Imagine you're Morgan himself, and you know it's the only way out," said Pratt, director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg in Tiffin, Ohio.
On July 19, 1863, it was the only escape for Morgan and his raiders. Morgan had led about 2,800 men across the Ohio River into Indiana. His raiders plundered and stole their way to the Ohio line, with Union forces in pursuit.
They crossed into Ohio at Harrison and moved past Cincinnati. On Morgan's 1,000-mile raid, he captured 6,000 federal soldiers, then paroled them. The rebels destroyed 34 bridges and $10 million worth of railroad. A growing northern Army was close behind as Morgan made for the southeastern corner of the state where he hoped to cross the river at Buffington Island. Finally, on July 18, the tired raiders reached the river, planning to cross in the morning to West Virginia and then onto Confederate territory.
But there, Union forces caught them. Fighting raged between the river and steep wooded hillsides. More than 100 raiders were killed and 700 captured. Morgan escaped with about 1,000 men.
Pratt's crew has spent two weeks searching for the ghosts of Morgan's raiders. They have been searching for artifacts and tracing the ebb and flow of the battle here in Meigs County. Team members ranging from college students to retirees scoured bean, corn, and alfalfa fields, looking for the litter of the Civil War. With metal detectors and shovels, they have found bullets, musket and pistol balls, brass cartridges, uniform buttons, buckles, belt plates, buckshot, fuses, artillery fragments, scraps of broken weapons and at least one 1857-minted coin from a soldier's pocket.
The aim: to reconstruct the battle, which ranged across fields, homesteads, up steep slopes and down steeper ravines. Large scattering of cartridges, musket balls, and bullets indicate where skirmishes took place. Each find was marked and the location pinpointed exactly, via satellite, by the team's Global Positioning System experts.
"By 1863, there were more than 550 calibers of gun in use," said GPS operator Rich Green. "Some were unique to the Union, some unique to the Confederacy. We know Spencer carbines were Union guns, so when we find Spencer bullets we know where Union soldiers were shooting."
A finished map overlay of artifact concentration will show the ebb and flow, the chase and escape, of Ohio's only engagement in the war between the states. For now, Pratt, a storyteller at heart, can speculate on how Morgan and about 1,000 of his men managed to flee the valley.
"He had a guide, who must have told him this twisty road through the ravine was the only way," Pratt said.
The archaeologist believes, from what artifacts seem to reveal, that the narrow, dangerous path is where Morgan made his escape.
"This is the place where daring turned to sheer desperation," said Jamie Abel, Heidelberg director of college relations.
Pratt's theory of Morgan's escape confirms some memoirs of the rebels plunging into a deep ravine at the north end of the valley. By then, accounts say, the Confederates were pursued by two Michigan regiments armed with Spencer repeating rifles. The Heidelberg team found Spencer 54 and 56-caliber cartridges in nearby cornfields.
Col. Basil Duke, Morgan's brother-in-law, was holding them back. Eventually, Duke and 700 men were captured. Morgan and hundreds of rebels rode toward the ravine.
"He pushed men, baggage wagons and a stolen hearse down the road," Pratt said.
The archaeologist believes the first wagon to hit the sharp turn at the top of the ravine may have plunged off the edge or crashed, blocking the trail.
"The first guy must have had an 'Oh, shucks!' experience when he saw the whopping big ravine and the road hanging on the cliff," Pratt said. "They lost cannons and probably all baggage wagons. It would have been a huge mess, wagons piling on top of one another."
At the bottom, the raiders probably crossed and scaled the other side to break out.
"History has suggested that happened but now we know (from artifacts) that Union forces were right here, which means some close combat went on where the road is," Pratt said.
Moments later, as if to confirm that, worker Keith Bailey dug and recovered a 136-year-old pistol ball. After climbing out on that 1863 morning, Morgan led his men north, south, then north again, seeking a place to cross the Ohio.
Captured six days later, he was tried as a horse thief and sent to the Ohio Penitentiary. After only a few months, he tunneled out and escaped with six of his officers. Morgan commanded another Confederate regiment but within a year was run down in Tennessee and murdered while attempting to surrender.
His Ohio raid had been meant to distract Union forces and gain active support from Copperheads -- Southern sympathizers. He created panic and diverted Northern units but found little support among the Ohio citizenry that he plundered and robbed without distinction.
"I don't think the raid would have mattered much in any event," said William Longton, University of Toledo history professor. "How much Copperhead sympathy was around is questionable. There was a lot of anti-war sentiment but I doubt Morgan would have got much support from Ohioans in any event."
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