The Indiana Legion: A Civil War Militia
by John P. Etter
131 pages, published 2006
ISBN: 0-9787167-1-X
Price: $14.78

The Story

       Oliver Perry Morton had been in office as Indiana governor for just eleven weeks when word came that war had begun. Although Morton had long thought that war was inevitable, when it finally came on April 12, 1861, no one, not even Morton, could claim that they were ready for the conflict. The surrender of Fort Sumter had dropped a wagonload of issues on to the governor’s desk, a desk that would remain busy for the next six years with the affairs of state safety, Republican politics, and civil war.

The Indiana Legion
       Morton’s first priority in the few days following the outbreak of the war was to support Lincoln’s attempts to quickly suppress the rapidly growing rebellion. Within three days of Sumter’s fall Morton had offered Lincoln ten thousand Indiana volunteers for Federal service - ten thousand volunteers that Morton didn’t have at the moment, but was sure he could get with the application of some effort. This offer would not be the last time that Morton would be leading events. A close second in Morton’s mind was the protection of his own state from the southern forces of secession. Second only because Morton had the relative good fortune to be bounded east and west by supportive Unionist states. But slaveholding Kentucky was a question mark.
       Kentucky had proclaimed its neutrality in the early phases of the war and through the spring both sides in the conflict respected the state’s position. However, there could be no doubt that Kentucky was playing an untenable game. Loyal to the federal government, yet not supportive of its call to arms; a slaveholding state where the vast majority of its citizens held no slaves; and a border state committed to peace, yet firmly in the crosshairs of both armies. Morton knew that Indiana’s southern border could soon be at risk of attack. Moreover, the entire southern tier of Indiana had strong familial and political roots in Kentucky.
       In addition to the problems that Kentucky could cause for him, Morton needed a way to keep on top of events throughout his own state. He needed to be made aware of the sources of opposition to the war in order to stamp out smoldering discontent before problems became unmanageable. He needed an intelligence gathering mechanism with the muscle to act when necessary. He needed a military presence within his own borders to stand as a warning to those who would endanger state sovereignty in any way, and to act as standing insurance should the day for action come. He needed the Indiana Legion.
       For someone from this distance the formation of some sort of state security force would seem to be a non-partisan issue in the face of civil war. But Indiana had been ruled by the Democratic Party (or a version of it) for decades. The newly appointed governor and newly elected legislative majority were from a political party, the Republican Party, that was only six years old. At this moment in history Indiana was a political divide.
       When the legislative session for 1861 opened in April an act was passed which raised and funded six regiments of Indiana volunteers for federal service. That was the easy part. Debate then turned to the formation of the Indiana militia, to be called the Indiana Legion. For Morton, the issue now and always was control. If he could get personal control of the Legion he could use it in ways, foreseeable and unforeseeable, that would agree with his purposes. Without control the Legion would be one more thing that Morton would need to spend political resources on in an effort to manage it toward his ends. After much debate, and with some minor concessions, Morton got his wish. The ranks of captain and below would be elected by the company volunteers and those above captain would be appointed by Morton. The governor had control of the Legion.
       Even before the militia legislation passed on May 11, 1861, groups across Indiana began to form themselves into home guard companies. The legislative details of how to form and constitute a home guard company were pretty loose. The companies needed at least 46 members and typically had no more than 100, they had to submit $2 to the state as a filing fee, volunteers had to take the oath prescribed by the enabling legislation, the company had to file articles of constitution and a pledge to uniform themselves with the state auditor, and they had to hold elections for officers (the date for elections could be determined by the company). Important elements such as what would be in the company articles of constitution and what the uniforms would look like were all left up to each individual company. It is very likely that no two companies in the entire state had the same rules of operation or were uniformed in quite the same way.
       More than anything else home guardsmen wanted guns and wanted them immediately. There were, however, several serious hurdles to obtaining them. First was the problem of availability. When war finally erupted all state governors scrambled simultaneously to boost state defenses. Morton sent representatives to New England, Canada, and even Europe looking for guns to outfit both Federal and Home Guard units. The worldwide supply of guns suddenly became expensive and scarce. Second, Federal units had first call on all weapons. In many cases it would be four, five, or six months before Home Guard units got their weapons from the state, and the guns they did get were of the worst quality. Third, and perhaps most significantly, no Legion unit was supplied any guns without first depositing a substantial sum as security with county commissioners. Coming up with a deposit of several hundred dollars was no easy task for mid-19th century rural farmers.
       Although a few Legion companies saw minor action from time to time (see more on the July 18, 1862, rebel raid on Newburgh, Indiana) the most noteworthy military challenge to the Indiana Legion was the July 1863 invasion by several thousand rebel cavalrymen under the command of CSA General John Hunt Morgan. On July 8, 1863, Morgan’s Raiders crossed the Ohio River onto Indiana soil near Corydon. The next day Indiana Legion companies engaged in the most severe firefight any Indiana home guard units would see in the Civil War. Pitched against the offensive charge of Morgan’s 2nd Brigade commander, the ubiquitous Colonel Stovepipe Johnson, several Corydon Home Guard units crouched behind hastily assembled defensive positions. At first they held off several rebel charges and inflicted enemy casualties, but once Morgan’s artillery was unleashed the Indiana defenders had no ready answer and a route ensued.
       Now that Morgan’s men were in Indiana, and had defeated Legion units at Corydon, speculation developed regarding his ultimate intentions. Governor Morton did not wait to divine Morgan’s thoughts. The same day as the Corydon battle Morton put out a call for “all able-bodied white male citizens” to organize themselves into companies to defeat the rebel horde.
       Morgan and his Raiders loped along eastward in Indiana, looting and stealing horses as they went. In the end, just the thought of thousands of armed citizens assembling to oppose him made Morgan hesitant to push into the heart of Indiana. In fact, the mere presence of a defensive force, more so than its effectiveness, may have been the most important Legion asset. Though relatively ineffective as a fighting unit when tested, as a sizable, silent deterrent it served its purpose.

The Book

       As a practical matter this one is an easy call. There are so few sources on the Indiana Legion that this book may very well be in a league of one. If you want to know the basics behind the Indiana Legion you must start with this book. Now, a look at the contents of the book.
       I guess I’m old fashioned in some ways. When I want to learn about a subject, say the Indiana Legion, I want someone to tell me a story about it and I want the story told in a general chronological order. Start with the beginning and end with the end. If you look at the table of contents for this book you’ll think this is what you are about to get - a more or less chronological history of the Legion. However, I don’t think this book could be called a “story” about the Indiana Legion, at least not in the traditional sense (or not that I could understand). Rather, it is a collection of thoughts on subjects pertaining to the Indiana Legion. For example, on page 3 the author begins discussing the tension between anti-war Democrats and Republicans of the time. On page 5 we get a snippet from an 1864 Harper’s article about secret anti-war societies, then on page 6 we get a discussion about an 1863 recruiting incident, then on page 7 a short discussion about Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin’s positioning of Kentucky as a neutral state in the beginning of the war - the progress of events seeming to move backwards. The absence of a general, if not strict, chronology to the book makes it difficult for me come away with anything more than a few random facts and concepts about the Legion. As we move through the book references continue to jump forward and back in time as subjects are raised, discussed with a few paragraphs, then left behind. I could never quite grasp the arc, or the history, of the Legion as it is presented here. That could very well be my problem, not the author’s problem.
       Having stated that the book isn’t quite a chronological history of the Legion (to me), it isn’t really arranged as a reference work either. Although there are plenty of precious nuggets in the book, you’ll have to remember where you read them if you want to find them again. There is no index and no bibliography. There are endnotes.
       The book has good in that almost every page contains something about the Indiana Legion that you probably didn’t know. There are several scans of actual Civil War era documents included, a list of Indiana Legion companies by county (but not all counties are listed), discussions on General John Love, General John Mansfield, and others worthy of note, the cost to uniform yourself as a Legionnaire, a section on Camp Morton, a section on the Newburgh raid, and a section on Morgan’s raid. All the bases are covered somewhere in the book.
       In summation, if you don’t know much about the Indiana Legion in the Civil War you’ll need to read this book. Period. However, if you are expecting the “story” of the Indiana Legion you may be disappointed. The frustrating thing about John Etter’s book is that the story of the Legion is inside the covers of this book, but some re-assembly would be required to present it. But maybe I just want something that Mr. Etter never intended and the problem is all mine.