Prison Break 1863

“Entry of Morgan’s Raiders into Washington, Ohio,” from Harper’s Weekly, August 15, 1863, via Ohio Memory.

An exciting chapter in Ohio history unfolded almost 150 years ago this past Wednesday when John Hunt Morgan (of Morgan’s Raid fame) escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus with six of his fellow Confederate soldiers, fleeing south and across the Ohio River.

Morgan’s Raid route through Ohio, from “History of Morgan’s Cavalry,” courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County via Ohio Memory

Morgan, a prominent Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War, had led a regiment of about 1,400 cavalrymen on a 13-day raid through southern and eastern Ohio in July of 1863, an effort which constituted the northernmost action of any Confederate unit during the Civil War. A standoff ensued at the Battle of Buffington Island between Union forces and the Confederate raiders, during which somewhere between 800 and 1,000 of Morgan’s men were captured and 300 escaped across the Ohio River. The battle was the only major Civil War engagement fought in the state of Ohio. Morgan and about 400 men breached the Union line, headed north and were eventually captured in Columbiana County, Ohio.

Carte de visite showing General Morgan around the time of his raid and escape, via Ohio Memory

The Union captors took Morgan and most of his men to Columbus, where enlisted men were confined in the Camp Chase Confederate prison camp, and Morgan and several of his officers were held at the Ohio Penitentiary. The Pen prisoners, led by Morgan, began to plot their escape immediately upon their arrival on October 1st.

Over the course of six weeks, they tunneled out of a cell into an airshaft, allegedly using only two small knives as tools. The men remained in their cells until the early moments of November 28th, when Morgan and six of his soldiers used the airshaft escape to reach the prison yard just after the guard passed by on midnight watch. They then fashioned a rope from their prison uniforms and scaled the wall, in classic prison-escape fashion. With money that his sister had smuggled into the prison inside a Bible, Morgan purchased a train ticket to Cincinnati, then made his escape across the Ohio River into Kentucky. His victory was not long-lived however–after reforming his group of raiders the following year, Morgan was shot by Union soldiers in Tennessee in September of 1864.

You can learn more about this series of historic events on Ohio Memory, including several letters from contemporary Ohioans, as well as a comprehensive history of Morgan’s cavalry and their exploits during the years of the Civil War.

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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