Newburgh, Indiana, is a fine town. With a thriving historic district and proximity to the business and industry of Evansville, fortune has transformed the town into a popular and peaceful residential community with top-rated schools and some of the best 19th century architecture in the entire state.
That said, yes, Newburgh did surrender to a bunch of painted logs.
With the border state of Kentucky acting as a buffer, Hoosier soil saw little of America’s deadliest war. Primarily, it became a target for raids, with several thriving cities along the Ohio River. For a Southern raiding party, these cities were ripe for plunder in an effort to supply Confederate forces.
This was the thinking of Confederate raider Adam Johnson, who collected a motley bunch of enthusiastic civilians, gave himself the rank of Brigadier General, and started a one-man campaign of guerrilla warfare, a relatively fresh concept at the time.
In 1862, no significant Union force defended the Indiana, with cities depending on local militias for protection. In the days when news took days or even weeks to travel hundreds of miles, the Civil War still seemed something distant to Hoosiers. That ended with Johnson and the Newburgh Raid.
Inspired by his time scouting for Nathan Bedford Forrest, Johnson had sharpened his ability to bluff and bluster his way to victory. Spying undefended warehouses and a makeshift hospital across the Ohio River in Newburgh, Johnson decided to raid the city with a force of only thirty-five men, some of which were unarmed.
Johnson crossed the Ohio River with his men and, with no force to slow his progress, marched straight into a local hotel and makeshift hospital, where the leader of the city’s militia was dining. Ignoring the threatening looks and cocked weapons, Johnson explained that the entire city was surrounded and if Newburgh did not immediately surrender, Johnson would “shell this town to the ground” with the two pieces of devastating artillery perched across the river.
Sure enough, Newburgh citizens looked out and saw the two guns, pointed directly at them. Requests from help from forces in nearby Evansville went unanswered; the telegraph lines needed repair. Fearing annihilation, the town gave into Johnson’s demands and surrendered.
Johnson wasted no time. His men hurriedly raided the warehouses and hospitals, retrieving medical supplies, arms and provisions for hundreds of soldiers and then scooted back across the Ohio River on flatboats.
Graciously, Johnson paroled the captured town before leaving and soon disappeared back into Kentucky.
Strangely, he left his two pieces of artillery behind.
Members of the Indiana Legion crossed the river to examine the guns which had prompted their instant surrender. Logs, charred black and painted with blobs of tar, were topped with lengths of stovepipe and cradled between broken wagon wheels. A firm kick and both collapsed. Used as props in previous battles, these counterfeit artillery pieces were known as “Quaker guns“, referencing the Quaker tradition of pacifism.
A Union soldier and historian would later call the Newburgh Raid “the most reckless, and yet most successful, military masterstroke achieved by any commander of high or low authority, in either army during the war.”