The Last Battle Fought on Hoosier Soil: the Battle of Corydon
Only days after the fall of Vicksburg and General Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, an ambitious but delusional Confederate general in the Midwest pinned his hopes on sympathy for the South…but came up empty-handed at Corydon, Indiana.
A historic and prospering town in southern Indiana, Corydon’s fame came largely from its bustling industry along the Ohio River and its statewide fame as the second capital of Indiana (1816-1825), ushering in Indiana’s transition from territory to statehood. But its strategic position along a major waterway also made it vulnerable to the cavalry troops of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan.
After the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, General Morgan took approximately 2,000 men and plunged into Union territory to disrupt, disturb and defeat the Northern forces, largely by attacking the morale of citizens in Kentucky and Indiana.
His other objective carried more weight than scaring farming folk: Kentucky’s position in the North had been tenuous since the start of the Civil War. A large portion of the border state’s populace held strong sympathies with “the Cause”, (i.e. slavery). Like Maryland, Kentucky was a slave-holding Northern state. Morgan hoped his actions might frighten and anger the state’s population into joining the Confederacy and give the waning Confederate forces a boost in soldiers, supplies and strategic territory.
Today, Kentucky proudly advertises its historic lineage as the birthplace of Lincoln today, but sentiments toward the president weren’t so positive in 1863. The War had raged on for over two years, with a staggering cost in life, and now the horrors they had only read about in the newspapers were thundering up and down Kentucky’s city streets. In Lincoln’s words, Morgan had been “stampeding” through the state.
The intrusion, although largely symbolic, worried the president but thrilled General Morgan, who believed his troops would be welcome in the Bluegrass State. He believed men would stomp down the porches of their homes and join his ranks by the thousands.
As he pillaged and plundered Kentucky, news chittered up and down the telegraph wires into Indiana, where state militia troops began reinforcing cities all along the Kentucky border. Troops, citizens and even the governor were on the edge of panic, mostly because they believed Morgan’s forces numbered in the (gasp!) tens of thousands. In fact, Morgan had about 2,000 troops by the time he came within tactical range of Indiana. He had been using captured telegraph lines to send disinformation to Washington and Indiana officials, seemingly putting his troops everywhere and nowhere, sowing discord.
Although the Army of Northern Virginia receded from its high water mark at Gettysburg and the lost stronghold of Vicksburg in July of 1863, General John Hunt Morgan had been relatively successful. First, his forces had technically would reach the furthest north a Confederate Army ever traveled during the entirety of the Civil War, not counting spies and diplomats, at the Battle of Salineville in Ohio only a few weeks after the Battle of Corydon.
Second, he had captured thousands of Northern troops, freeing them after receiving their oath they would not fight again. His plundering had resupplied his own troops and he destroyed most of what they couldn’t use. But Kentucky only had value to the South if it was theirs, either voluntarily or forcibly.
He certainly did not find the Southern sympathizers he expected. Instead, he found a hostile and frightened population who saw his troops as invaders, not liberators. This surprised the naive General Morgan, who had been assured by Confederate propaganda that border states were prisons for the oppressed, waiting only for a noble leader to free them. That was not the case.
At this point, with his horses nibbling at the bluegrass of Kentucky hills, if General John Hunt Morgan had left well enough alone, his story might have turned out differently. But raiding generals like General Morgan or the more competent (and more monstrous) Nathan Bedford Forrest wanted to fight and attack and advance. Always. Confederate General Braxton Bragg had forbid Morgan to cross the Ohio River into Indiana, but Morgan decided to attack Corydon anyway, the former capital of the Hoosier state. He thought it would be a psychological coup and an attack on the “true” Union.
Corydon knew Morgan was coming. They could see his forces milling about only a few miles out of town. On the night of July 8th, 1863, the citizens of Corydon worked throughout the night to construct a crudely-effective defensive wall a half-mile long between the town’s one thousand inhabitants and Morgan’s two thousand men. The militia (known as the Indiana Legion) had over four hundred armed men, transforming Corydon from the piece of low-hanging fruit Morgan expected into something more dangerous.
After a handful of small skirmishes, the Battle of Corydon proper began just before lunch on July 9th. Corydon citizens stood frightened but defiant. The state militia held its own against Morgan’s experienced troops at first, beating back frontal and flanking moves several times. But, unlike Morgan’s men, the Indiana Legion were mostly inexperienced fighters who had never shot anyone, much less seen the carnage of war.
Corydon has also put too much faith into the crude barricade protecting the town from the Confederate raiders. In an pattern of history repeated centuries before and centuries after the Battle of Corydon, Morgan did what any competent general do would when facing fixed fortifications: he went around them. And then his troops poured into Corydon.
When Morgan’s forces breached the defenses of Corydon, the battle was all but over. The remaining Indiana Legion fighters (those who hadn’t dropped their rifles and run), were quickly flanked on both sides and then pinned down by fire from Morgan’s four sizable artillery pieces. Knowing further fighting would be suicidal, the Indiana Legion surrendered.
Only one hour has passed since the Battle of Corydon had begun.
General Morgan enjoyed his victory, his hubris leaving him blind to the thousands of Union calvary now tromping toward him, sent by commander of the Army of the Ohio, General Ambrose Burnside (another Hoosier). Instead, Morgan had a leisurely meal as his men collected supplies and money from the townsfolk, threatening to burn buildings if the demanded fee wasn’t paid.
All told, his forces profited about a half million in adjusted dollars from the battle, suffering approximately fifty casualties. Four Corydon citizens died during the battle, although almost the entirety of the Indiana Legion was captured (and immediately released) by Morgan.
During his pleasant lunch in a Corydon inn, Morgan finally learned of the dual losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The information must have been apocalyptic, since Confederate propaganda had prophesied both Robert E. Lee’s invincibility and the imperious walls of Vicksburg. Soon after, General Morgan left Corydon and continued his small raids on the southern edge of Indiana, eventually crossing into Ohio.
By late July, Burnside’s calvary had found him and his dashing Midwest invasion turned into a desperate scramble for escape. Lee’s army had long left Pennsylvania and the purpose behind General Bragg’s order–that he not cross the Ohio River–now seemed painfully obvious. On this side of the Ohio, General John Hunt Morgan would fight and flee and die entirely on his own. There was no help for him.
In one attempt to cross the Ohio, Morgan lost half of his 2,000 men, and by the time Union forces pinned him down at Salineville in Ohio, the weary Confederate general had only 800 remaining. He and his men attempted a last grand offensive against the Union forces, but it was no more effective than punching a brick wall. On July 26th, almost 400 of Morgan’s men were killed, wounded or captured and soon the broken general formally surrendered.
General John Hunt Morgan never recovered from the loss. After escaping a Union prison, the disgraced general made his way back to Tennessee and was given command of a tiny force of ragtag, undisciplined men (who were more mercenary then military) and charged with scrounging for supplies in Tennessee. His reputation ruined, he had become an impotent leader of bandits, not a decorated Confederate general. During one of these disorganized lootings, General John Hunt Morgan was shot and killed by Union forces as he fled the field.
Today, the Battle of Corydon lives on at the Battle of Corydon Memorial Park, which contains a portion of the preserved battlefield as well as the Corydon Civil War Museum. Established in the 1970s, these commemorate the last military conflict to occur in the Hoosier State.