A Taste of War
This month, as the only Confederate trek into Ohio turns 150, tourists can connect with the stories behind this bit of state history through a newly dedicated driving trail and a few surprising finds at a local museum
Smoke rose from the south. Women and children, their men off at war, watched the plumes of gray rise in the sky, fearful this signal foreshadowed violence to befall their small town in a matter of hours.
Villagers waved a white flag as Confederate Brigadier Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry rode into town. Grimy, shoddily uniformed soldiers rifled through mail and stole horses and food, locking down the town for hours until Union forces caught up to them.
When they did, bullets flew from both sides, piercing houses, breaking windows. Even as gunfire increased, it couldn’t drown out the cries of women and children scrambling to find shelter in cellars.
“It sounds like something in Virginia, not Ohio,” says Dave Mowery, author of “Morgan’s Great Raid,” a book that recounts the story of this 1,000-mile raid through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, including the July 24, 1863, skirmish in Old Washington, just 80 miles east of Columbus.
After two weeks pillaging Ohio towns, much of Morgan’s nearly 2,000-man cavalry had been captured or killed days before during the only Civil War battle fought on Ohio soil at Buffington Island. This failed attempt to cross the Ohio River—and back into friendlier territory—had been thwarted by Union gunboats. The scuffle in Old Washington pushed the dwindling band of Confederates back north, Mowery says, and left them with few supplies.
Finally forced to surrender on July 26, Morgan was remanded to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.
It was the first time most Ohio civilians had seen Confederate troops—and the fact that these enemy combatants were on federal ground stealing food, taking horses and destroying railways and bridges made it even more jarring. War was no longer something that happened hundreds of miles away.
While the events dominated the headlines of local newspapers, the only major Confederate journey into Ohio gets lost in local history lessons. Why? Poor timing, says Groveport native Wayne Motts, CEO of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“It’s sandwiched between the battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863) and Vicksburg (surrendered July 4, 1863),” explains Motts of the battles considered major turning points in the war. Morgan’s diversionary tactic, meant to draw Union troops north, was more successful in scaring locals and getting Confederate soldiers killed than putting a dent in northern forces.
This month, as Morgan’s Raid turns 150, tourists can reconnect with this bit of Ohio history through the newly dedicated John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail—a driving trek 10 years in the making by the Ohio Historical Society, Ohio Civil War Trail Commission and Ohio Department of Transportation.
Following Morgan’s path as closely as possible, the trail runs a scenic 557 miles from Harrison, just north of Cincinnati, to West Point, south of Youngstown. Along the trail are 56 interpretive and 640 directional signs to guide visitors along without the need of a map. The markers recount the story of what happened at each site, along with artwork that depicts the scene.
“It’s not just about Morgan but about the Union soldiers and civilians,” says Mowery, a member of the Ohio Civil War Trail Commission who mapped the route and wrote the sign text. So, in addition to battle stories, there are quotes from civilian witnesses and even a few surprising tales of ingenuity.
For example, sign No. 7 in Deer Park shares the story of the large, white Schenck family home still standing today. On the morning of July 14, 1863, Confederate troops came here looking for horses and food. There were only old work horses in the barn, Gen. Morgan’s soldiers were told. They could offer the cavalry food, but they couldn’t eat in the house, because a child with smallpox was quarantined in the parlor, evidenced by white linens draping the downstairs windows. Well-fed, the Confederates were soon on their way.
“The whole time, the Schencks’ two prized stallions were inside,” Mowery says. Stories like this dot the entire trail. “We try to bring that forward—some flavor of each place.”
With more history than could be recounted on the markers, Mowery also co-authored a book, “The Morgan Heritage Trail Guidebook,” to be released by the Ohio Historical Society, offering an in-depth look at spots along the trail, directional maps and corresponding side trips. All proceeds from the guidebook go toward trail maintenance.
Of course, none of these stories would exist had Morgan followed orders, Motts says. He was given specific instructions not to cross the Ohio River. But Morgan saw the raid as a chance to disrupt Union operations and to bring the war home to northern civilians. In this respect, the raid succeeded, Motts explains.
But the story of the flamboyant Gen. Morgan, who loved writing, drinking and chasing women, didn’t stop with his capture.
In November 1863, Morgan tunneled out of his jail cell at the Ohio Penitentiary and into an air shaft that led to the prison courtyard, Motts says. Morgan tied strips of clothing and bedding into a crude rope, anchored it with a piece of iron turned into a hook and scaled the prison wall. From there, he hopped a train to Cincinnati and returned to the South, only to be killed in action in 1864 before having an opportunity to recount personal stories of the raid. It’s the main reason why little is known about the general.
The Ohio Factor
“Ohio is one of the most important states in the Civil War, and I think very few people realize it,” says Wayne Motts, CEO of the National Civil War Museum. Of the 2 million Union soldiers who fought in the war, three states—New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio—supplied 1.4 million of them. “You don’t have a Union effort without Ohio,” he continues, adding many of the major Union commanders also hailed from Ohio.
This escapist tale is recounted at the Motts Military Museum, where founder Warren Motts (Wayne’s father) points to a pile of small boulders built up around an imposing iron door. It would be easy to miss the exhibit in the breezeway of this Groveport museum—a visitor’s attention could understandably be diverted by the military vehicles parked in the rear yard. But it’s worth stopping to look at this modest display of rubble.
“That would have been the actual wall he went under,” Warren says. “He was a pretty daring character.” The door, while not from Morgan’s actual cell, is from the cell block—and it’s a spot-on, 800-pound iron representation of the bars Morgan stood behind.
And if you want to know what it was like inside Morgan’s cell, just ask Warren. He stood in the dank, roughly 15-foot-square room there before the prison was torn down in 1998.
It was a tough, fortified place, Warren says. Morgan was held here, rather than in the war prison in Chicago where his men were taken, most likely to sever the leader from his troops.
“I think also they thought he wouldn’t be able to get out of this penitentiary,” Warren chuckles, turning the conversation back to the general’s legendary prison break. “I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s a great story.”
A Telling Story
There’s a story behind every item in Warren Motts’ garden center turned military museum. The exhaustively documented collection, covering warfare from the 19th century to the present day, fills carefully organized cases.
“To look at an object and not have a story means nothing,” says Wayne Motts, Warren’s son and the CEO of the National Civil War Museum, whose 65,000-square-foot space in Pennsylvania boasts more than 25,000 items related to the war. Each one has a story—this is a valuable lesson he learned from his father.
As a child, Wayne was read stories from the journal of Aaron McNaughten, a Civil War soldier from Lancaster who was killed in 1863 during a storming of Fort Wagner in South Carolina (the same fort depicted in the film “Glory”). The fighting was so fierce that his body was never recovered. McNaughten’s diary was given to Warren when he was 14 with one condition: Never sell it.
“That made the story come alive to me,” Wayne recalls.
So moved by McNaughten’s story was Wayne that, in 1999, he located the cemetery where the soldier’s father and grandfather were buried and got permission to place a government-sanctioned memorial marker, Warren says. He estimates that 400 people, relatives of McNaughten included, came to the Masonic funeral (per the soldier’s wishes in his journal) held that year to honor the fallen.
Pieces of History
“We’ve got a lot of things that are valuable, but it’s the story that really makes them,” says Warren Motts, founder of the Motts Military Museum in Groveport. Inside the vast Civil War collection are slave irons, bullets in 350 calibers, bayonets, artillery shells, surgical kits, bunting from the casket in which Lincoln laid in state at the Statehouse and, supposedly, a lock of Lincoln’s hair. A few other interesting Civil War items to spot:
• A life mask of Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1860. “He had two of those made in his lifetime. That actually is his face. It’s extremely rare,” Warren says.
• The cavalry saber Warren bought for $1, starting his extensive collection
• A 150-year-old piece of hardtack
• A newspaper from Vicksburg, Mississippi, printed on the back of wallpaper. “In Vicksburg, they ran out of food, water and paper to print on,” Warren says. “They ran sheets of wallpaper through the printing press so people inside Vicksburg would know what [was] going on.”
• The journal of Civil War soldier Aaron McNaughten, whose stories inspired Warren and Wayne Motts’ passion for
the Civil War
• A flag from Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg in1863
On the Trail
A journey along the trail could easily take three to four days. National Civil War Museum CEO and Groveport native Wayne Motts suggests tackling the trail a little at a time for the best and most immersive experience. For more on the trail and dedications and events running throughout the summer, visit ohiocivilwar150.org/morgans-raid.
Motts Military Museum founder Warren Motts has made it his mission to preserve pieces of military history, including a cell door and pieces of wall from the Ohio Penitentiary.
(top) A covered bridge along the heritage trail in Portland, Ohio. (bottom) The Schenck family home, in which they hid their prized horses from rebels, still stands in Deer Park.