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November 2004
Old Washington, Ohio

    When driving I-70 in eastern Ohio—just east of Cambridge and the I-77 interchange—you encounter an exit for Old Washington. That would be exit #186. You have to wonder about a town named Old Washington. Was it ever New Washington? Or was this town old when it began?  

    First of all, Old Washington is, in fact, old. It’s the oldest permanent settlement in Guernsey County, but when the town was first laid out in 1805, it was new. And so the name was, “New Washington.” The town wasn’t incorporated, though, for another 24 years, and when it did gain official status, I guess the place didn’t seem so fresh anymore. By then, the name was just, “Washington.”

    You might think that would have done it. Washington, Ohio is a fine name for a town. But no: enter the US Post Office. The post office asked Washington to change its name to avoid confusion with an Ohio town called, “Washington Court House.” The populace obliged, and from then until the present, this town has been known as Old Washington.

    Let’s move on a few years to the Civil War. A big event occurred here: Old Washington was the site of the northernmost battle between Union and Confederate troops. It’s also about the most exciting thing that happened for folks in that generation in Guernsey County—just about everybody who was alive then claimed to have been there.

    It began when a Confederate Cavalry unit led by General John Hunt Morgan entered  Indiana and then southern Ohio. General Morgan had gained a reputation for his destructive raids into Union territory and his wily tactics—a new practice he brought to this war was to intercept telegraph lines and send deceptive messages over the wires. John Morgan  became known as the “Rebel Raider & The Thunderbolt of the Confederacy," and so when his regiment crossed the border from Indiana into Ohio, the populace was aroused. General Morgan added to the confusion by getting out word that he had 10,000 troops at his command, when the actual number was more like a fifth of that. “Morgan’s Raiders,” they were called and wild rumors spread about them killing defenseless men, women, and children, plundering villages, laying waste to everything in their path.   

    Morgan and his cavalry tore through southern Ohio, torching fields and bridges along the way. Then he attempted to go back into Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River in southeastern Ohio. But the river crossings were guarded by Union troops and after a fierce battle in which many of his troops were killed or captured, Morgan and his remaining raiders turned north and headed in the direction of Old Washington.

    They entered Guernsey County near Cumberland at the southwest corner and headed northeast. By this time, the feared raiders were mostly a ragtag band of tired, homesick soldiers who wanted nothing more than to get out of Ohio and return south. Their plundering now consisted mostly of stealing fresh horses, food and clothing, and burning bridges behind them.    

    Morgan’s raiders reached Old Washington on a July morning at 10:00 a.m. There they rested and demanded to be fed. At about 2:00 in the afternoon, they heard shots as the Union troops approached. The Confederates jumped on their horses and headed out of town. Some returned fire; three were killed and several captured. The rest got away and headed north. Thus, the “Battle of Washington,” the northernmost exchange of fire between Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.

    General Morgan and his troops lasted two more days until they surrendered in Columbiana County, Ohio—about 100 miles northeast of  Old Washington. The surrendering Confederate troops were a worn out and discouraged lot. A few wore tattered grey Confederate uniforms, but most were clothed in items they had taken during their spree in Indiana and Ohio. Their looting had been haphazard and sometimes puzzling, such as, the soldier who stole a birdcage with three canaries in it and kept them alive during subsequent days of travel. Another was seen with seven pairs of ice skates flung around his neck, even though it was the middle of July. A favorite prize was a bolt of calico cloth, presumably a gift for a wife or girlfriend back home. General Morgan, himself, was quite nattily dressed when he was captured: in a linen coat, black pants, white shirt and a light felt hat.

    But the story doesn’t end just yet.

    General Morgan and several of his officers were sent to the Ohio Penitentiary, the most important prisoners that institution had ever held. But after a four-month stay, Morgan and six of his officers escaped. With knives taken from the prison dining hall, they cut through nine inches of concrete wall and nine inches of brickwork into a passageway that led them into the prison yard. With ropes made of towels and bedding, they scaled the wall and were free.

    The escapees walked to a nearby railway station, bought tickets with money that had been smuggled into prison for them, and boarded a train bound for Cincinnati. Upon entering the train, General Morgan walked down the aisle and sat next to a Union officer. Soon the train passed the Ohio Penitentiary. The Union officer turned to his seatmate and remarked, "Over there is where Morgan is now spending his leisure time." "That's what I understand," Morgan replied, "and he ought to be kept there until the end of the war." This started a pleasant conversation, the Union officer never suspecting who he was sitting next to.

    Morgan stayed on the train until it neared Cincinnati when he jumped off, made for the Ohio River, and paid a boy with a skiff $2 to row them across. He was back home in Kentucky.    

    Meanwhile back in Ohio, there was considerable embarrassment and shame. A newspaper, the Ohio State Journal, said, "The escape of John H. Morgan with six of his captains from the Ohio Penitentiary Friday night is the most humiliating circumstance that has ever occurred in the state of Ohio."         

For more about Old Washington and its surrounding communities, see the CD for
I-70 West: Wheeling, WV to Columbus, OH or
I-70 East: Columbus, OH to Wheeling, WV

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