One hundred fifty years ago this week in the Civil War, scores, if not hundreds, of Trumbull boys were involved in an engagement with forces led by John Hunt Morgan, of Morgan's Raid fame, near Cynthiana, Ky. The Trumbull boys were all part of the 171st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a "100-days unit."
The concept of the 100-days regiment was the brainchild of Gov. John Brough of Ohio in early 1864. He theorized that if Union soldiers who were tied up in routine, noncombative assignments could be freed up to serve on the front lines, the war could be shortened. He also wanted to prevent another Confederate incursion onto Ohio soil like Morgan's famous raid of a year earlier.
Brough did propose and enlist the Ohio state militia for 100 days into federal service to provide short-term troops as guards, laborers and rear echelon soldiers, all of which would require little training. Brough also suggested that the governors of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Jersey follow suit.
Eventually, all the Northern states accepted the concept to some degree, albeit far less than Ohio, which federalized nearly 36,000 troops out of a total number of 81,000 throughout the entire Union.
The local unit so organized was the 171st OVI. It included the 51st battalion, Ohio National Guard from Trumbull County and like battalions from Portage, Lake and Geauga counties. It was organized at Sandusky on May, 7, 1864, and ordered to Johnson's Island for guard and fatigue duty.
The commander of the new unit was Col. Joel F. Asper, who had originally organized in 1861 from Trumbull County Company H of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, later to gain the epitaph of "The Bloody Seventh" due to its heavy losses.
Asper had been the captain of Company H. He served credibly and was wounded at the Battle of Winchester in 1862. Later that year, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. Due to the debilitating impact of wounds received, he mustered out of the service in 1863.
Prior to the war, he had been Trumbull's prosecuting attorney and in 1849 editor of the Western Reserve Chronicle.
Because of his exploits as a cavalry raider, John Hunt Morgan became legendary, ranking in the hearts of his countrymen then and to this day with Virginian JEB Stuart as the symbols of the "Lost Cause." Due to his raids, he earned a vote of thanks from the Confederate Congress.
But not all the Confederate generalship, particularly Braxton Bragg, viewed Morgan with acclaim. On his famous raid in 1863, Hunt may have struck fear into the hearts of some Hoosiers and Buckeyes, but he did nothing of strategic merit for the Confederate war effort. Indeed, he had frittered away the best light cavalry the Confederacy had.
Morgan was captured on July 26, 1863, at the Battle of Salinevillle in Columbiana County and incarcerated in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus insultingly as a common criminal.
Astoundingly, Morgan and his lieutenants escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary, evaded enemy lines and returned to service. However, he was no longer assigned the elite troopers he used to command. On the contrary, "The Confederate Thunderbolt" was given men that amounted to little more than unmilitary brigands or pillagers.
But again Morgan started yet another raid into Kentucky, moving farther and farther north toward the Ohio River. And should he cross it and start a terror campaign, Lincoln's bid for re-election could be compromised.
In response to the danger, the 171st was assigned to the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Hobson and left by train from Johnson's Island on June 4, 1864, to supposedly relieve the Union garrison in Covington, Ky. But Morgan's latest movement dictated the 171st be deployed as combat soldiers to blunt Morgan's progress.
At dawn on the 11th, Morgan attacked the garrison at Cynthiana, Ky., and within an hour, overwhelmed the Ohio 168th OVI and some home guard troops, about 300 total defenders.
Within 10 minutes of the fall of Cynthiana, the 171st was debarking from its train 1 1/2 miles to the north at a place called Kellar's Bridge. The Rebel Cavalry immediately engaged them. But the green Ohio troops put up stiff resistance.
Morgan surrounded them, but they repulsed attacks from every direction. Morgan twice sent flags of truce, but his demands of surrender went unheeded.
Finally, at 11:30 a.m., 5 1/2 hours after the fighting began on its front, the 171st became entrapped in a meander of the Licking River, ran out of ammunition and surrendered.The formalities of the surrender consumed another five hours of Morgan's time and allowed time for Union reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Stephen Gano Burbridge to approach the area.
For 10 hours, 750 men of the 171st had stymied 1,200 Rebel cavalrymen. The 171st lost 13 killed and 54 wounded.
That night, Morgan had about 1,300 prisoners of war camping with him in line of battle. At dawn on June 12th, Burbridge attacked Morgan with 2,400 men, a combined force of Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan mounted infantry and cavalry. Morgan was so pressed that he had to parole all his prisoners.
The Rebels were forced to flee back into town, where they were captured or killed. The elusive Morgan managed to escape. But, his freedom was short-lived. At dawn on Sept. 4, 1864, he was surprised by Union troopers as he was arising and shot.
Union and Confederate reports of the incident are totally conflicting and will likely never be resolved. Had he not been killed, he was slated to have been sacked. His death preserved his legend.
The paroled 171st prisoners made their way to Augusta, whence they were taken on boats to Covington, Ky. The regiment was rejoined at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, from where it was moved back to Johnson's Island. There it remained until the expiration of its term on Aug. 20, 1864, when it was mustered out.
In 1864, Joel Asper moved from Warren to Chillicothe, Mo., where he was a U.S. congressman for one term and founded a newspaper called The Spectator.
Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren's Sutliff Museum.