July 17, 1862 – Colonel John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate horsemen attacked a Federal garrison at the key railroad town of Cynthiana before successfully ending their Kentucky incursion.
Brigadier General Jeremiah Boyle, commanding Federals at Louisville, had initially panicked at the prospect of Morgan overrunning Kentucky. But by July 17, he had collected information from various sources and reported to Major General Don Carlos Buell, “I am persuaded Morgan has not over 1,000 men and two brass howitzers.”
Boyle believed that Kentucky secessionists had “lied for Morgan and magnified his forces,” and Morgan’s raid would only result in a “loss of individuals and destruction of property.” Boyle sent a spy posing as a Kentucky secessionist trying to join Morgan’s ranks. The spy assessed Morgan’s recruiting efforts and concluded that “only the low and evil will join him.”
As Morgan continued leading his Confederates through Kentucky, he initially targeted Lexington but learned that it was too strongly defended. So the troopers rode 30 miles northeast to Cynthiana on the Licking River. Morgan hoped to capture the Federal garrison there, but he also hoped to deceive the Federals into thinking he would continue moving north to threaten Cincinnati, Ohio.
Morgan’s troopers approached Cynthiana on the 17th. Federal Colonel John J. Landrum guarded the Kentucky Central Railroad at Cynthiana with 340 troops and a cannon. He did not know that Morgan was coming.
The Confederates attacked from three directions, crossing all three fords over the Licking River. Surprised, the Federals took refuge in town buildings and homes, firing from windows and getting off two artillery rounds that prompted Morgan to withdraw his horse artillery. However, Landrum soon realized that the three-pronged Confederate attack had virtually surrounded the town.
The Federals began running out of ammunition as Landrum tried regrouping them near the railroad depot. They fought off the advancing Confederates block by block. Landrum led about 30 men in trying to take one of the bridges, but the numerically superior Confederates forced them to retreat. Landrum fought his way through a small detachment and fled southeast, with the rest of Morgan’s troopers in pursuit. Landrum ordered his men to scatter; he and a few escaped while Morgan captured the rest.
The Federals lost about 70 killed or wounded, with another 230 or so captured. The Confederates also seized 300 badly needed horses while losing about 40 men. They left Cynthiana and headed southeast, reaching Paris by dark.
Cynthiana marked the northernmost point of Morgan’s incursion into Kentucky. The next morning, Morgan learned that about 1,800 Federal troopers under General Green Clay Smith were headed their way from Lexington, so he led his men farther south to Winchester.
The Confederates continued riding until they reached Richmond before dawn on the 19th. Many of the horses captured at Cynthiana died from being ridden so hard. Morgan hoped that Kentuckians would join his force at Richmond, but the pressure of advancing Federals forced him to stay on the move.
Morgan’s victory at Cynthiana panicked Boyle once more, as he called on Buell again for more men. Buell refused: “The condition of things here (in northern Alabama) requires the services of every soldier than can be mustered and perhaps more. No detachments should be sent from here except in case of the greatest necessity.”
Both Boyle and Smith estimated Morgan’s force to number at least 3,500 men when it really totaled less than 1,000. Boyle finally realized the true size of Morgan’s force on the 20th, reporting to Buell, “The rebel lies alarmed some of my commanding officers and produced consternation among the people,” including himself (though he would not admit it).
That same day, the Confederates arrived at Somerset, southwest of Richmond. They seized the telegraph office, where one of Morgan’s men intercepted Federal dispatches since July 10 and countermanded all of Boyle’s orders to pursue the raiders. The Confederates took all the supplies they could from Somerset and burned the rest before resuming their southward withdrawal. Their arrival at Livingston, Tennessee, ended both their raid and the Federal pursuit.
Morgan deemed the operation a success, reporting that in 24 days, his men had “traveled over a thousand miles, captured 17 towns, destroyed all the Government supplies and arms in them, dispersed about 1,500 Home Guards and paroled nearly 1,200 regular troops. I lost in killed, wounded and missing of the number that I carried into Kentucky about 90.”
Morgan also ended with more troops than he started with, having gained about 400 recruits. His men had advanced 250 miles into enemy-occupied territory, captured 3,000 stands of arms at Lebanon, and destroyed many bridges, railroad tracks, and other property whose estimated value was as high as $10 million. All this had put the residents of Cincinnati and other towns on the Ohio River into a state “bordering on frenzy.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 195-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 184, 186; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 430-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 237, 242-43; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 430; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24