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Understanding the Battle of Olive Hill

Attack by Morgan’s Raiders more than a simple raid

By: Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

One of Carter County’s most well-known Civil War stories is that of Morgan’s Raiders, and the path of devastation they wrought as they retreated through Olive Hill; burning every home, barn, and haystack they passed along the way. The story made newspapers across the nation, partly because of the fascination the press had with John Hunt Morgan and his band of guerilla “raiders.” But also because it brought the war to Ohio’s doorstep.

Morgan’s raid on Olive Hill was so significant to the region and the state – with a Senator taken hostage and troops brought in from Portsmouth, Ohio – and involved so many fighting men that Dr. Gerald Dyson feels like it should be more properly termed a battle than a raid. His suggestions? The Battle of Tygart Creek, or the Battle of Olive Hill.

Dyson, who teaches history at KCU, discussed the Morgan raid and other aspects of Carter County’s involvement in the Civil War during a public presentation last Thursday by the Carter County Historical Society. The event, held in conjunction with the Olive Hill Historical Society at their space in the old Olive Hill High School auditorium, is the first in a series of presentations on local history the historical society plans to hold in various locations across the county associated with that history.

Morgan’s Raiders, he explained, came into Carter County ahead of another Morgan, the Union General George Morgan, who was retreating to Ohio. Though they never actually engaged in direct combat, the raiders obstructed the trail ahead of the retreating Union general, attacked them from cover, and employed other guerilla tactics.

Upon reaching the area around Grayson, near the end of September, J.H. Morgan tired of his toying with Gen. George Morgan, according to the Union general’s account. George Morgan continued to Greenup while J.H. Morgan and his raiders turned toward Grayson. Though they were said to “occupy Grayson” in some reports, Dyson said it seemed more likely that Morgan and his men, tired from their journey, simply sought respite and rest in the town.

When they were ready to leave, though, they decided to take their aggression out on Union sympathizers in the western end of the county – possibly in retaliation for the earlier arrest, by Carter County Home Guard, of secessionist sympathizers in Grayson who sought to rally recruits for the Confederacy.

Morgan burned 45 homes and farm buildings, plus haystacks and other outbuildings, and kidnapped Kentucky State Senator and Unionist William Grier, though Grier was later able to escape.
Morgan’s men, however, fell victim to the same kind of guerilla tactics he had employed against George Morgan. The Carter County Home Guard knew the land better, and they took shots at the retreating Morgan and his men from the surrounding hills as he left Olive Hill. The battle, which raged from Olive Hill through Garver’s Hill – in the vicinity of Flat Fork – could have involved as many as 1,000 men, Dyson said.

According to reports in the October 13, 1862, Louisville Daily Journal cited by Dyson, Carter County Home Guard troops killed about thirty of Morgan’s men before joining up with George Underwood as they approached the Rowan County line. Underwood and the Home Guard he fought with reportedly killed “another forty or fifty of their number,” forcing Morgan to “leave at double quick” time.  

According to some reports Morgan’s men had been seeking Sebastian Eifort, and plundered his home as they passed through Carter County. Eifort was at Portsmouth at the time, however, and returned with “seven companies of the 117 Ohio V. Regiment,” according to a letter from Eifort to Governor James Robinson. Eifort also described other Confederate raids in the area, and estimated he could raise “400 or 500 Home Guard” to “hold the road” between Catlettsburg and Owingsville against Lt. Col. H.A. Edmonson, of Virginia.

So, while Carter County was strongly Unionist, this played out in an environment where communities and families were sharply divided. Some of Carter County’s most esteemed citizens owned slaves, or otherwise supported the Confederacy, including prominent politicians. And even pro-Union individuals were divided, with those critical of Lincoln voting overwhelmingly for the Constitutional Union party instead, and others questioning possible “deception” in anti-Union votes. It’s a rich history, and Dyson’s presentation put the simple story of Morgan’s raid through Carter County in fabulous context while touching on other aspects of local history and the larger Civil War.

The presentation was livestreamed to Facebook, and is available to view at the Carter County Historical Society Facebook page. The group also plans to place recordings of this and future events on a YouTube channel they are establishing.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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