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Morgan's Raid and the John T. McCombs

By Roger Applegate
With Research assistance from Ron Ciani

Milestones Vol 34 No. 3


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.