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During the Civil War, bold cavalry raids
by the Confederacy were the stuff of legend, but none was more
daring than John Hunt Morgan's raid deep into Ohio which was unwittingly
assisted by a river boat built right here in Freedom. The John
T. McCombs was a 209 ton sternwheeler built in 1860 for the Pittsburgh
Wheeling trade and was named after a wholesale grocer from
Pittsburgh. By 1862, she was working the Louisville - Henderson
route between Kentucky and Indiana where she was forced to play
an important but unintended role in Morgan's great Ohio raid.
On July 7, 1863, the point element of Morgan's
Confederate cavalry arrived at the small river town of Brandenburg,
Kentucky with the object of securing a crossing of the Ohio River
for the main Confederate force. The problem was how to ferry the
nearly 2,000 troops and horses across the river to Indiana. The
Confederates knew that the steamer John T. McCombs was due in
that afternoon and lay in wait to capture the boat. As she steamed
up river, slowed her engines and turned into the dock, a sudden
rush of forty heavily armed rebels stormed from their hiding places
onto her deck capturing the captain, crew and fifty passengers.
Minutes later, a small packet, the Alice Dean steamed into sight
and the McCombs was ordered to intercept her in mid-river. The
two boats met and an irresistible flood of rebel soldiers poured
aboard the unsuspecting Alice Dean and quickly subdued her without
firing a single shot.
Cannons were loaded on each boat and the
bulwarks were lined with cotton bales to stop any bullets from
the Indiana militia that had suddenly appeared to oppose the crossing.
The vanguard of the Confederate force was quickly loaded and sent
toward the opposite side of the river. With cannon fire and shot
blazing from their bows, the boats charged across the river and
swiftly scattered the frightened militia. The landing proceeded
unopposed and by midnight the two steamers had made numerous trips
ferrying troops and horses across the river until the last of
Morgan's men were finally ashore on the Indiana side.
With the crossing completed, General Morgan
gave orders for both boats to be burned so that the pursuing Union
troops could not cross behind them. The Alice Dean was fired and
began burning brightly, but the John T. McCombs was spared by
Colonel Basil Duke, Morgan's second in command who was an old
family friend of the owner of the McCombs. Her pilot, Captain
Ballard gave his word that he would take the boat back to Louisville,
Kentucky rather than face having his steamer burned like the Alice
Dean. She pulled out into the river and began her journey back
to Louisville just as the pursuing Union troops appeared on the
Kentucky shore. They could only watch helplessly as she floated
by; their pursuit halted until other boats could be brought to
the scene to allow them to cross.
Thanks to his capture of the John T. McCombs, Morgan was able to continue his raid, marching more than 700 miles in 25 days while in constant contact with Union forces.
He and the remnants of his command were finally captured outside of New Lisbon, Ohio, not far from Beaver County and were imprisoned in the Ohio Penitentiary. The result of his raid was the destruction of 34 bridges, the disruption of numerous railroads, hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damages and the capture of over 6,000 union troops. As for the John T. McCombs, she escaped destruction that fateful day in July and is only remembered by history as a minor footnote to one of the longest and most spectacular cavalry raids in Civil War history.