On the evening of April 13, 1861, the city of Indianapolis is in an uproar. Businesses have prematurely closed for the day, and people have flooded the city streets with anticipation, excitement, and fear. Thousands of residents try to pack into the city courthouse for an urgent meeting, but the venue is too small. The impatient and angry crowd is quickly moved into the nearby Metropolitan Theater. It fills to capacity and people are moved into the Masonic Hall across the street. As the crowded mass gathers around the stage at the Metropolitan Theater they see a familiar figure step forward from the shadows.
Indiana Governor Oliver Morton has called this meeting to address the previous day’s attack on Ft. Sumter by southern confederate rebels. Word of the attack quickly made its way to Indianapolis, and the community is angry. Many residents saw the attack as unprovoked, but not altogether surprising. Sensing the impending Civil War, locally organized regiments offered their services to Governor Morton just weeks before the attack on Ft. Sumter. This new guard would include the famed 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
During the meeting Governor Morton and other community leaders work to organize more local forces, procure guns and ammunition, and collect resources for the Union effort to defeat the growing Confederate Army.
Just as the meeting is coming to an end, and the crowd is beginning to cool, an announcement is made that Ft. Sumter has fallen into rebel hands. The angry mob pours back onto the streets of Indianapolis, and is desperate to take any immediate action that will save the Union.
The following day, Sunday April 14, 1861, many churches canceled services. Instead of flocking to worship, many young Indianapolis men flocked to recruitment offices around the city. These new soldiers would soon find themselves on the front lines of one of America’s deadliest wars.
Over the next two years, war fever in the city of Indianapolis would subside. Many residents saw the conflict as something that was far away, and it had little bearing on daily life in the city. The occasional clothing drive helped citizens feel a little engaged in the war effort. Yes, the price of gold rises, and a small housing boom takes over the city, but these are seen as minor consequences of a conflict that will never rear its head in Indiana’s capital city. But not far away, in rural Kentucky, a confederate General is preparing for one of the war’s most daring offenses.
General John Hunt Morgan was a native of Alabama, a descendant of a Revolutionary War general, and a veteran of the Mexican-American War. Morgan was originally opposed to the secession movement. He wrote to his brother that the South should use caution and he expressed his reluctant support of the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln. But by the spring of 1861, Morgan raised a Kentucky militia and joined the Confederate States Army in Tennessee. The next year, Morgan was made colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. Young men came from as far away as Texas to join his newly formed regiment.
Morgan and his men would go on to fight in the infamous Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. In the months after, Morgan would lead his men through several raids of Kentucky towns. In December of 1862, John Morgan was promoted to Brigadier General, and over the next year he would successfully break up Union supply lines, much to the frustration of Union generals.
General Morgan’s biggest assignment came in the summer of 1863. In an effort to divert Union resources away from the impending battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, General Morgan was given orders to cross over the Ohio River and invade Indiana.
On July 9, 1863 Morgan and his men quietly entered Brandenburg, Kentucky and plotted their raid on Indiana. Morgan’s biggest challenge was figuring out how to safely get his men and supplies across the Ohio River to Indiana. His solution came in the form of two steamboats that were passing. First, Morgan set his sights on the Alice Dean. Morgan used the steamboat to ferry his men across the river. Reports put the size of Morgan’s invading force at around 4,000 men, and almost 5,000 horses, so the effort to move everyone, and everything, across the river took nearly an entire day. Soon after, the McCombs steamboat floated into view, and Morgan’s men found their way aboard. The rebel soldiers stole money and valuables from the boat’s crew and passengers. After the boat served its purpose, Morgan handed it back to its captain. The Alice Dean, however, met a different fate, as Morgan ordered it burned and sunk.
Corydon, Indiana was your average, Civil War era small town. Having lost what little notoriety it had by being the former state capital of Indiana, the sleepy town had slipped back into obscurity by 1863.
Word of Morgan’s advance had reached Corydon the day before his Brandenburg raid, and the town tried their best to prepare for the impending battle. 400 members of the Indiana Legion built a makeshift barricade along the southern road into town out of tree logs that were cut into sharp points.
The battle that took place outside of Corydon would be quick. Morgan and his men had no problem defeating the Indiana Legion. Only eleven of Morgan’s men died, and his forces entered Corydon with less than sober intentions. Upon entering the city, Morgan’s troops were greeted by gunfire from the distraught city commissioner. He was shot and killed in front of the courthouse. He would be the only civilian casualty in the battle of Corydon.
Morgan then set out to cause as much havoc in the small southern Indiana town as possible. First, he opened the city jail and freed the prisoners. Next, he ordered his troops to destroy the railroad tracks in and around the city. This would play a big role in delaying Union forces from sending vital resources to the front lines. While Morgan was basking in the ashes of Corydon he received word of Union victories in Gettysburg and Vicksburg. These were crushing defeats for the Confederacy, and Morgan was left to plot his next move.
As he held court at a local tavern in Corydon, General Morgan considered his options. He thought about moving his forces to New Albany, Indiana and raiding Union supply depots. But General Morgan was dealt a small blow when no Union soldiers from the battle of Corydon defected to join his regiment. He genuinely thought Corydon citizens or members of the Indiana Legion would take up arms and fight with him. Morgan also knew that Colonel Ludwig Lewis Jordan was hot on his heels with a growing Union force. The rebels had to leave Corydon, and soon.
On July 9, 1863 Morgan sent a telegraph that was intended for his Confederate superiors. In the telegraph, Morgan gives notice that he is headed for Indianapolis, and his intention was to free the thousands of Confederate prisoners of war who were being held at Camp Morton. The telegraph was interception by Union forces, and all hell broke loose in Indy.
Two days later, July 11, 1863, while General Morgan and his troops capture the southern Indiana town of Salem, Indiana Governor Oliver Morton was in full panic mode. Immediately after hearing of General Morgan’s impending visit, Morton sounded the city alarm bells, ordered all businesses closed by 3pm, and he wrote to Major General Ambrose Burnside, asking him to return two Indiana regiments back to Indianapolis to protect the city. Burnside refused the request.
After Burnside’s rejection, Governor Morton set out to assemble local forces to protect the city. A crowd of citizens gathered at Bates House to listen to the governor’s impassioned plea to defend the city. Almost immediately, three brigades were formed. This was easy to do, as nearly 60,000 men flooded Indianapolis, ready to fight back the rebels.
The three brigades began to drill and quarter on University Square, in the center of the city. Almost overnight, the quiet five acre park transformed into a bustling symphony of soldiers, campfires, and horses. As regiments go, these were mostly inexperienced troops, but they were determined to defend the city from the impending rebel invasion. At any moment, alarm bells could sound, signaling the approach of General Morgan and his men.
Elsewhere in the city, most banks, hearing stories of how General Morgan was robbing towns of all valuables, collected their money and had it sent north for safe keeping. The military took control of local railroads and telegraph lines. Communication and transportation in and out of Indianapolis was strictly monitored. There were legitimate fears that the city was crawling with rebel spies.
On the morning of Monday July 13, 1863 Indianapolis was quiet. The entire city was on edge and ready for a deadly fight with General Morgan and his men. All businesses were closed. On the lawn of the Indiana State House, a regiment of men were sleeping on a makeshift campground. Suddenly, alarm bells rang out across the city.
Union soldiers took up their arms and reported to their assigned stations. Only fifteen minutes after the bells sounded, all men had reported and were ready for battle. At a local railroad depot, soldiers were boarding trains to meet the approaching force just south of town. At University Square, thousands of men were lined up, guns drawn, and prepared to die defending Indianapolis.
But the rebels never came. For some unknown reason, the alarm bells rang out in error. It was a false alarm. The city could temporarily exhale, as battle would have to wait a bit longer.
This scenario payed out two more times over the next two days. The alarm bell rings, soldiers report, and General Morgan doesn’t show. In fact, General Morgan and his men never did advance on Indianapolis. He never intended to invade the city. The telegraph he sent was a diversion. General Morgan and his rebels took a sharp eastward turn in southern Indiana and advanced on western Ohio instead.
Indianapolis was safe. The only casualties from the fiasco were three Union soldiers from the 12th Michigan ammunition regiment. On July 12th, 1863 they were transporting a caisson of ammunition along Indiana Avenue, and it unintentionally exploded.
On July 13, 1863 the Indiana Sentinel reported, “The painful suspense is at last broken.” The city escaped the hard fight that so many other cities were forced into during the Civil War. Years later, many Union soldiers would lightheartedly joke about surviving Morgan’s raid on Indianapolis.
That week in 1863 was the most stressful week in Indianapolis history. Overnight, residents had to consider the possibility of the Civil War coming to their doorsteps.
Today, we can visit Monument Circle and look at Lady Victory on the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The direction she faces is not a coincidence. She is keeping a watchful eye on the south, just in case General Morgan and the Confederacy decide to come back to Indianapolis.