Cincinnati & The Civil War: Why and How Cincinnatians Marched Off To War In 1861
Brevet Brigadier General Thomas Tinsley Heath Library of Congress
On Friday April 12, 1861 telegraph lines hummed with news of the firing on Ft. Sumter. The next day, stunned people across the nation read that the 106 day standoff in Charleston’s harbor had exploded into civil war. In Cincinnati the earliest telegraph dispatches about the attack were contradictory and dismissed by most as excited exaggeration. By the following day however, the Cincinnati Gazette reported the news dailies had “convinced all the first blow had been struck”. Crowds congregated throughout the day in front of newspaper offices, restlessly waiting for updates to be posted on bulletin boards and the next edition to roll off the presses. Newspapers typically printed multiple editions each day dictated by the newest headlines off the wire.
A premature report of Ft. Sumter’s surrender caused a cloud of gloom to descend upon Cincinnati early in the day, but when it was discovered that Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Ft. Sumter, had refused to surrender, the Republican leaning Commercial reported that cheering erupted from the crowd in front of its offices, but not it pointedly noted, from the group outside the more Democratic oriented Cincinnati Enquirer.
By the evening of April 14th the Gazette reported the “Star Spangled Banner” could be heard reverberating through downtown streets as flags appeared draping from windows and impromptu demonstrations of patriotism broke out on street corners. The cloud of gloom hanging over the city dissolved and streets echoed with the words “its war” spoken gravely but not without excitement as war fever spread across Cincinnati and the nation. The surrender of Ft. Sumter on Sunday April 14, forced the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to request militia troops from the states, prompting Ohio’s Governor William Dennison to make a call to arms , “Your patriotism points you to the path of duty in this crisis…the Constitution must be maintained, the Union must be preserved, and the laws must be enforced.” The response from Dennison’s fellow Buckeyes was spectacular. The War Department requested 10,153 troops from Ohio. More than 13,000 volunteered. Overnight it seemed, the ranks of existing militia units filled and new companies and even entirely new regiments were created. Lincoln’s plea for 75,000 volunteers from the states was for three months of service reflecting not only his naivete but the nation’s. Many in both North and South believed it would be a short conflict with some believing a political settlement could be reached with little bloodshed.
Across the state, militia units began to gather and train at a variety of camps and rendezvous points. In Hamilton County it was places like Camp Colerain to the northwest of Cincinnati, Camp Gurley in Cumminsville and Camp Harrison at the county fairgrounds in Carthage. These were part of a network of camps established across the state by Governor Dennison in 1861 and 1862 to train and equip Ohio troops, functions consolidated at Camp Dennison. The largest and most important of the facilities, Camp Dennison was turned over to the Federal government and remained in operation throughout the duration of the war with thousands of troops passing through its gates.
As the nation’s sixth largest city, Cincinnati and the network of camps spread throughout Hamilton County played a key role, in creating the massive Union army necessary to win the Civil War. By the conclusion of the War, Hamilton County and the surrounding areas of Greater Cincinnati are estimated to have provided twenty-nine infantry regiments, eight cavalry regiments and seven batteries of artillery, which does not include smaller independent companies and men from the Greater Cincinnati enrolled in camps in other parts of Ohio. Who were the men that marched off to war? Why did they volunteer? How were these regiments of largely untrained troops created ? It is beyond the scope of this blog to detail the creation of each of these regiments, but I propose instead, to examine the creation of Fifth Ohio Voluntary Cavalry as generally representative of the Cincinnati regiments created in the early months of the war, recognizing of course there were circumstances that unique to each regiment.
Drawn from Cincinnati and the small towns and the rural areas surrounding it, those who led and filled the ranks of Fifth Ohio Cavalry were a diverse lot. Though many were farmers there were also attorneys, shopkeepers and urban laborers, both immigrant and native born. Their opinions about the purpose of the war ranged from long time abolitionists like Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Tinsley Heath and Major Elbridge Ricker to those who saw abolitionism as a threat to the nation like Captain William Jessup. For all, the shots fired at Ft. Sumter rung out like the proverbial fire bell in the night Thomas Jefferson had predicted decades before. If there was one thing that united them, it was the belief the war was an unlawful rebellion and it was their duty to stop it.
THOMAS T. HEATH The news of Ft. Sumter had a startling effect on Thomas Heath. The 27- year old attorney’s wedding was only months away, but he closed his law practice in downtown Cincinnati and announced he intended to go to war, despite having no military training. He was of average height at best and wore his hair in a typical style of the day—parted to one side, long in the back but off his ear. His hair, along with a bushy beard that was almost wiry and a long drooping mustache framed a rather plain looking face. But over
the course of the next four years he would distinguish himself as a capable soldier and leader—eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General.
Heath, not surprisingly came from a family with deep roots in America with both maternal and paternal ancestors having fought for independence during the Revolution. He also had a father known throughout the state of Ohio as an ardent abolitionist. The Reverend Uriah and Anne Heath, raised Thomas in Xenia, Ohio. During his childhood he developed a love of the outdoors, reveling and excelling in swimming, hunting, and riding. Experimenting with carpentry, blacksmithing and harness making, he seemed to have a high degree of curiosity and to thrive on challenges. He also absorbed the family’s commitment to abolitionism.
The Heaths placed a high value on learning and taught Thomas to read the Bible before the age of five. An outstanding student, the Reverend Heath saw to it that his son received an excellent education sending him to Ohio Wesleyan College. There he studied Hebrew, Latin and Greek and developed a keen interest in the study of law. His father had hoped he would become a man of the cloth but Thomas settled upon law instead and enrolled at the Cincinnati Law College from which he graduated in 1858. He spent the next year in Europe studying and observing the courts of London, Paris, Edinburgh and Dublin before returning to Cincinnati where he became a law partner of Thomas Ware.
By the time of the Ft. Sumter crisis, Heath was moving in a circle of prominent Cincinnatians. Though young and not a native of the city he had ties to Ware, the newly elected city solicitor and Bellamy Storer one of the city’s oldest and most respected judges for whom he clerked as a law student. As a consequence of these ties, he was made part of a committee sent to Washington D.C. to represent Cincinnati with the task of convincing authorities in the Department of War to accept three Cincinnati regiments into federal service.
By the end of May Heath was determined to play a direct role in the war and sought out William Henry Harrison Taylor to help him create a volunteer cavalry regiment. He wanted Taylor’s experience as a cavalry officer in the Virginia militia, even though it was minimal. Taylor was a Virginian by birth but had lived in Ohio since 1836 and was prominent enough in the Cincinnati area to attract recruits,at a time when there was intense competition among newly forming regiments in the recruitment of volunteers.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON TAYLOR
William Henry Harrison Taylor was a member of one of America’s most storied political families, among whom were a signer of the Declaration of Independence and two Presidents of the United States. He looked the part, with a lean aristocratic build often associated with one in command. He had a square jaw, a meticulously trimmed mustache which he squared at the corners of his mouth and hair which was still thick for someone near fifty which he wore half way over his ear. Now at age 48, Taylor, a farmer and the former Postmaster of Cincinnati, faced the daunting task of raising and training a regiment of volunteer cavalry destined to become the Fifth Ohio.
William Henry Harrison Taylor
Taylor was not a professional soldier. His only military experience had come with the peacetime militia that during the antebellum period was known more for their ability to
drill on the parade field than for true martial skills. There is little doubt that many believed his greatest qualification to command a cavalry regiment was kinship to General William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe and later President of the United States.
Taylor was born to Lucy Harrison Singleton III, Harrison’s niece, and Thomas Taylor on November 28, 1813 the second oldest of four children with his sister Lucy being the oldest and brother’s George and Richard ten and thirteen years his junior. He was raised in Virginia at Berkley, the sprawling ancestral plantation of generations of the Harrison family. On June 16, 1836 he married the General Harrison’s daughter, Anna Tuthill Harrison in North Bend, Ohio, a small village located about 15 miles west of Cincinnati. It had served as the General’s home since 1814. The young couple initially resided at Berkley but when Taylor was recruited to become a substitute Clerk of Courts in Cincinnati for General Harrison, who decided to run for the Presidency in 1836, they too settled in North Bend. The General’s defeat in the November election marked the beginning of his second campaign ultimately leading to his victory in 1840 and the appointment of the 27-year-old Taylor to the position of Postmaster of Cincinnati.
Harrison’s death only 31 days after his inauguration brought important changes for Taylor, though he would remain Postmaster until June of 1845 when the newly elected James K. Polk replaced him with one of his own Democratic supporters. Taylor and his wife Anna, moved into the General Harrison’s residence at North Bend to help care for Mrs. Harrison who was often ill, and unable to supervise the work on the family’s large land holdings. The spacious Harrison homestead was a clapboard building that stood 300 yards back from the Ohio River on a large hill occupying a bend with a sweeping view of the river. While the 16-room home could not be called stately, it was comfortable enough with its wainscoted walls, cavernous kitchen and living room to mark it as the residence of a gentleman. This could be misleading because even though General Harrison had been a prominent figure in the area for more than three decades he had been cash strapped in the later years of his life as the result of compounding family circumstances.
By 1844 Taylor had proven himself as a successful farmer and was selected to address the Hamilton County Agricultural Society, an organization his father-in-law had helped found. In 1858 disaster struck when the house burned to the ground leaving William Taylor and his family, which had grown to 10 children as well as the General’s widow, homeless, but for the kindness of Anna Taylor’s brother-in-law who took them into his home.
On the heels of this family crisis came the news of a national crisis at Ft. Sumter and what must have been a crisis of conscience. He was faced with a decision which would be agonizing for a father of 10 children who also heard the call of duty as the great- grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Harrison III, and the nephew and son-in-law of a former President. The difficulty of the decision must have been compounded by the fact he was a son of the old South. Born to an old Virginia family he lived among the plantation aristocracy for the first 23 years of his life and now he faced going to war against that very society. It was a decision made even more anguishing by the fact his younger brothers George and Richard committed to defending that society and would become members of the 14th Virginia Infantry.
Under the circumstances, everything about William Henry Harrison Taylor, his heritage, his successful leadership skills, and his experience in the militia, limited as it was, marked him as a gentleman expected to lead troops whether he lived on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line at a time when both armies were growing beyond imagination and in desperate need of leaders.
HEATH AND TAYLOR'S FRUSTRATION
The partnership Heath and Taylor created to recruit a cavalry regiment was a gamble. Neither Governor Dennison of Ohio nor the War Department had authorized the regiment so there was no guarantee it would be accepted into federal service. Ohio in fact, had accepted 13,000 volunteers almost 3,000 more than the Federal government had requested, forcing officials to turn away thousands of others since the Federal government would not financially compensate the states for the excess troops.
The Lincoln Administration used a system employed in all previous American wars. Regiments would be organized and identified with the states from which they came and received a numeral based on the order of creation. Hence the 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was the first cavalry regiment authorized from Ohio. Most regiments arose entirely from one locality. The governor had the authority to appoint at least the highest-ranking officers, the colonels and lieutenant–colonels, but often the men of the regiment had elected these officers first, after which the governor awarded the official commission. At other times it was the prominent men who organized and recruited the regiments and were rewarded for their efforts with command. More often than not political considerations affected authorization to organize regiments.
Heath like Governor Dennison was a member of the Republican Party. However, the state of Ohio and the federal War Department rejected Heath’s and Taylor’s overtures not once or twice but three times. Heath angrily wrote to Major General Catharinus P. Buckingham, the Adjutant General of Ohio, explaining that after spending more than $1000 of their [Heath and Taylor] own money they did “not feel inclined to indulge [their] military proclivities any further,” adding should their “humble services be needed” in the future they would “draw [their] swords,” in defense of the Republic.
The rejection was related to the type of regiment Heath and Taylor was organizing, not their political ties. The War Department had decided to rely on the cavalry component of the Regular Army, a meager six regiments of less then 6,000 men, and a handful of volunteer regiments that had been forced into the army by political circumstances. Chief among the reasons the War Department did want to accept volunteer cavalry was the belief the war would be over long before horsemen could be properly trained for service. Across both the North and South many believed the war would be of very short duration.
The US Army expected to spend a minimum of one to three years of training to create a proficient cavalry trooper. This position on training was the result of the Army’s adoption of the European cavalry tradition. Cavalry had not been an important part of the American military until operations began against Native Americans on the wide-open plains of the West in the 1840s. In 1841 Philip Kearny and a group of colleagues were sent to the French Royal School of Cavalry and later adopted the French Cavalry manual with some variations, as that of the United States.
Other factors contributed to the War Department’s coolness toward cavalry. General Winfield Scott, the ranking officer in the United States Army in early 1861, expected the war to be focused on Virginia. He incorrectly believed the geography of Virginia was simply too cut up with fences and other obstacles to make operations with large bodies of cavalry practical. Equipping a cavalry regiment for the field was also expensive with a cost of an estimated $500,000 to $600,000, and a higher payroll for such specialized personnel as blacksmiths and saddlers. It was far cheaper to put an infantry regiment into the field.
The rejection of Heath’s and Taylor’s regiment then, at that point in the war typified the experience of many Northerners desiring to lead cavalry. After the third rejection they wrote General Buckingham of their disgust, which Governor Dennison answered with a telegram requesting they come to Columbus with their muster rolls to “consult” with him. Taylor and Heath wrote General Buckingham “we only wished a promise from him (Dennison) that, if ready in 10 days, we should be accepted.” The regiment, Heath noted, had already lost a number of men to “other organizations” presumably infantry regiments that had been or would be shortly accepted. While Governor Dennison seemed interested, he would only imply their services would someday be needed. Heath pressed Buckingham that if they truly would be needed, “why not let us fill a regiment.” He left little doubt about how desperate they were to serve, writing
“We are willing out of our own pockets to furnish funds for recruiting.” But, he made it clear they would not pay for the transportation and subsistence of their regiment, a practice not unheard of in the early months of the war. Still no acceptance came, and it seemed their dream of glory on the battlefield was at an end, until events unfolding in the East changed everything.
BULL RUN CHANGES EVERYTHING
A few days after the exchange of letters between Heath and the Governor, a mix of regulars and volunteers, a total of 35,00 under the command of Major General Irvin McDowell, departed their camps outside of Washington D.C. Largely untrained and commanded by inexperienced officers, they were taking part in the first attempt at capturing Richmond, Virginia the capital of the Confederacy. Many in the North were anxious to end the rebellion as quickly as possible and few anticipated the result.
By the 21st of July this Union force, the largest army ever assembled on American soil clashed with Confederate forces bent on shielding Richmond. During the days prior to this battle McDowell’s troops had moved sluggishly toward the Confederate capital, more a result of inexperience than cautious and conscientious planning. On the day of the battle, their pace had been made even slower by sightseers, including members of Congress who had come out to watch the spectacle of battle unfold. Some had gone as far as packing picnic lunches to pass the afternoon and enjoy, while watching the fighting.
The American public had little experience with war, the last occurring more than a decade earlier on Mexican soil, involving relatively few Americans. On the whole the nation was unprepared for the bloodletting that would take place at Manassas and northerners were shocked when McDowell’s army was sent reeling in retreat back to Washington. For some it was hard to imagine the nation’s capital in potential peril. The defeat sent a shockwave through the North affecting not only public opinion but also attitudes of the President, War Department and Congress, resulting in a quick reevaluation of the measures needed to crush the rebellion. The next day Lincoln asked the states for 500,000 volunteers.
After months of working to win the Governor’s approval and failing, Heath and Taylor decided on another approach. They took their case to Major General John C. Freemont, the commander of the Western Department headquartered in St. Louis. Freemont also had the authority to grant commissions and to authorize regiments. At the end of August Taylor made the journey to his headquarters and met with success. The disaster at Bull Run opened up the floodgates as regiment after regiment was authorized and mustered into service and it was to that debacle the Fifth Ohio owed its existence. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported in the August 25th edition, “We are glad to learn that the organization of this dashing regiment [Fifth Ohio] is rapidly progressing,” under its newly appointed Colonel, W.H.H. Taylor. Taylor the Enquirer noted, had cabled Captain J.G. Curtis, the regiment’s recruiter, from St. Loius, “The Camp is located in Cincinnati. Go on with recruiting as fast as possible.”
By the end of 1861 the Fifth Ohio was one of eighty-two cavalry regiments and hundreds of infantry regiments authorized and mustered into federal service. Competition for men and resources among the new regiments was intense. Charles Hayes was one of the first men mustered into service on the rolls of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry, and he appeared every inch the cavalry trooper. He was large in a sturdy sense, square shouldered, with a thick neatly trimmed mustache that extended into a full beard, looking like someone Hollywood would cast to lead a cavalry column. The 30-year-old Hayes was held in high regard by his neighbor and future commander William Henry Harrison Taylor, who offered him the rank of captain almost immediately after the regiment was authorized.
Taylor knew Hayes as a farmer from near-by Elizabethtown on the Ohio-Indiana border making the two practically neighbors. Born on March 5, 1831 he grew up on an Elizabethtown farm where he developed a reputation as a man of intelligence and solid character, the resourceful sort of person society would have characterized as very capable and the kind of man one might consider following into battle. He had no military experience and did not appear very worldly, neither of which seemed to be of great concern to the farmers of Western Hamilton County who would make up his command.
In September of 1861 he departed his home on a beautiful white horse for Camp Dick Corwin just east of Cincinnati, leaving behind Josephine his wife of three years and their young son, Charles. His recruiting and that of the rest of the officers must have continued at a harried pace as they also faced the pressures of training and equipping an all volunteer of more than a 1000 men, all new to the military life with no idea of what lay ahead. The new troops continued to arrive first at Camp Corwin and later Camp Dennison right up to the day they departed for the field at the end of February 1862. Assigned to command Company D, he primarily recruited from neighboring villages and townships on the Western side of Hamilton County. These were men who largely knew him as a friend, neighbor or relative. Relying upon the willingness of citizen soldiers to follow men from their community whom they respected and held in high esteem was a system the nation has relied upon since its inception. Now it was a pattern being repeated across Hamilton County and the entire country, both the North and South.
JOE SIX PACK - THE AVERAGE DUDE
In most cases, the average enlisted man left little or nothing behind in writing about their wartime experiences. Whatever their thoughts were about the great conflict were taken to the grave or faded away with each successive generation of their family. What remains are scraps of information found in records; often meaningless and dry when viewed as isolated details. These discreet facts collected in dusty leather bound volumes are of little interest to most people. But when these scraps are artfully blended together and given context, much the way a painting is matted and framed, what emerges is a compelling story to which the eye is drawn. Men like private Henry Runck, age 18 of Delhi Township, Company L and William Rybolt, age 23 of Green Township, Company B are colorless. However, when you consider that both the townships in which these young men resided, were rural farming communities, and that half of the Union troops were the sons of farmers who were on average 25 years old, and again on average stood 5’8” inches tall weighing in at a whopping 143 pounds they suddenly become more interesting.
Men like John Sebastin Fries were typical of those filling the ranks of the 5th Ohio. The illiterate 22-year old son of German immigrants, followed his brother into the ranks of the rapidly expanding Union army. Tall by the standards of the day at 5'10" with sandy colored hair, gray eyes and a light complexion he came from a family that farmed the hills and valleys of a small rural hamlet on the outskirts of Cincinnati called Petersburg. While he did not leave anything behind clearly indicating why he volunteered, we can speculate why he went to war based on the attitudes of the city’s German community. German immigrants had started to arrive in Cincinnati at the beginning of the 19th century and constituted 28% of the city’s population by 1840. In the late 1840’s a new wave of German immigrants were coming to the area fleeing the instability and violence of revolutions that rocked the Austrian Empire in 1848. They deeply appreciated the stability and freedom of their new nation and were very disturbed by the increasing tensions between North and South now threatening to shatter the tranquility and prosperity of Cincinnati. At the same time they generally despised slavery and when war finally did come, they answered Lincoln’s call to arms in surprisingly large numbers. Their motive has been largely described as an act of gratitude or loyalty to their adopted nation but they had no difficulty striking a blow against the hated institution of slavery which they had accepted as a fact of life in America, that is, until 1861.
John Sebastian Fries ( Great Great Grandpa Fries)
Other members of the 5th Ohio made their reasons for volunteering quite clear, like William Jessup, a student at Miami University who joined the regiment on the 26th of August 1861. At age 20, Jessup left his family’s farm in Harrison Township to fight in the Union army for the next 3 ½ years. In a series of letters to his family, Jessup implied he volunteered out of a sense of duty to the nation, not he indicated to abolish slavery, a factor that became important later in the war.
Some were more pragmatic about their reasons for serving such as Thomas W. Fanning. Fanning wrote of himself “doing a confectionary business here in Cincinnati I found, would not be as productive in the winter as was necessary to a person of family, and being anxious to do something for my country, I was induced to join the 5th Ohio Cavalry”. T.W. Fanning as he styled himself, penned this in a little known book about his experiences with the 5th Ohio, The Adventures of a Volunteer, by a Non-Commissioned Officer. The book, though poorly written, sheds some light on the attitudes and experiences of enlisted men during the year and a half he was with the regiment from September 1861 through December of 1863 when he was medically discharge from the army.
With communities like Cincinnati and the surrounding rural areas rallying to the Union cause as they did, it was not unusual for regiments to contain multiple members of the same family; brothers, cousins, uncles, father-son combinations like Colonel Taylor and Lieutenant John T. Taylor, his son though the younger Taylor who would later leave the regiment to serve as aid to on the staff of General William Tecumseh Sherman. The most notable example of a family’s service in the Fifth Cavalry was that of the sprawling Hayes family that spilled across Whitewater and Harrison Townships and over the state border into Indiana. Ten members of the extended Hayes family were on the muster rolls of the regiment, not to mention numerous relatives of different sur names like Guard and Miller.
The Hayes family had come to the western side of the county in the 1790’s and by the time of the Civil War could be found farming rich bottom lands along the Ohio and Great Miami Rivers. By the time the War began in early 1861 more than 60 years had passed and several generations of the family had been born since their arrival in Hamilton County. They ranged in age from 39 to 18 though the younger members did not join the regiment until 1865. Their lives were tied to countless others in the regiment by marriage or friendship like Isaac Scott. The 19-year-old Scott enlisted with friends Silas and Joseph Hayes, also 19, on September 11 and would serve with them until their enlistments were up in late 1864, regularly writing home to another friend, 15 year old Van Hayes.
Their lives were not only bound by family but in all the ways communities are bound together. The man that treated their maladies and delivered their children, Dr. Charles Thorton, now would tend to their wounds on the battlefield as the regimental surgeon. Sam Wamsley, shoed their horses and made their farm implements as their blacksmith back at home, now he would lead them as a second lieutenant in company D, commanded by Charles Hayes, a neighbor. Sam Cooper and Christopher Riehle sold them groceries, now they would ride side by side with their customers into some of the most decisive battles of the Civil War. This was the American way of making war. A community of its own free will, was making the ultimate commitment in support of a cause, pledging their very lives in support of it.
They worshiped in the same Presbyterian and evangelical congregations that dotted the landscape on the western side of the county. Many were probably baptized or married by men like the Rev. Christopher Flinchpaugh who traveled a circuit on horseback, that was almost 400 miles in length and which required him to preach thirty two times every four weeks. He baptized them in the waters of the Great Miami River and the numerous creeks that cut through the area like Rapid Run, Muddy and Taylor Creeks, and shaped their ideas about right and wrong and the moral dilemmas of the day. He preached to both English and German congregations, which is an indication of the heavy German influence present throughout the Greater Cincinnati area.
There was also a growing Catholic presence due to the influx of German and Irish immigrants, but it tended to be concentrated within the city itself. Those Catholics that lived in the outlying townships like Delhi were served by missionaries until 1841 by priests like the Rev. John Martin Henni from the Over-the-Rhine, who ministered to the 150 mostly German Catholics who would constitute the parish of Our Lady of Victory. With each passing decade more and more German immigrants would push out of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and migrate to the County’s rural areas.
Just as the members of a unit went to war united by common experiences and relationships at home, they also brought with them political and social animosities that could prove to be divisive during the war. By the mid 1840’s religion, immigration and the slavery had become the sources of growing political tensions across the United States. The growing number of Catholic immigrants was enough to inflame old prejudices and fears among native-born Protestants against the new arrivals. The fear being, that Catholics would have greater loyalty to their church hierarchy than to their new nation. The specter of papal power led to the formation of secret clubs along the eastern seaboard popularly called the Know-Nothings, who claimed Catholic votes were controlled by their priests. In an unconnected set of circumstances, the Whig Party one of the two major political organizations in the nation, was beginning to unravel over the expansion of slavery and by the middle of the 1850’s was disintegrating after the party’s informal division into a northern and southern wing. The void was filled by the Know-Nothings who formally organized as the American Party which was more closely tied to anti-immigrant feelings and less so to anti-Catholic rhetoric.
Cincinnati was not immune to “Know-Nothingism” which caused tensions that finally erupted into a riot on the day city elections were held in November 1855. The German population of the city barricaded themselves into the Over-the–Rhine and returned fire on the armed, torched lit crowd of Know-Nothings that came to “clean out little Germany”. The morning after the riot the barricades were gone and the influence of Know-Nothingism began to fade away, the riot being the high water mark of the local movement. Nationally the influence of the American Party was also beginning to wane though it had never been recognized as a major party, meaning a near equal of the rival Democrats.
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
Nationally in the mean- time, another political party was born in 1854 around the issue of opposing slavery’s expansion into the western territories, the Republican Party. Slavery was the issue that caused the most serious division in and around Cincinnati for decades, making the nativism of the Know-Nothings appear as a mere distraction. It had been explosive enough to destroy one political party, the Whigs, powerful enough to create another, the Republicans, and poisonous enough to eventually divide the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings. It also caused political fissures in some northern communities like Hamilton County, fissures that did not grow into the deadly fault the Mason-Dixon Line became, but fissures that did not just disappear with the coming of the war. Nationally, the election of 1860 made the growing chasm between North and South unbridgeable.
From the time of his election in November of 1860 through the opening days of hostilities in April of 1861 Lincoln made clear his position on slavery. In his inaugural address he vowed not to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” he declared. He also questioned the political will of the states remaining in the Union to carry on a war to destroy the “peculiar institution”. Lincoln understood he might potentially drive the four remaining slave states that had not seceded, directly into the Confederacy. Essentially, he believed if the war were made a crusade to end slavery, it would undermine any mandate he had from the Northern public to forcibly end the rebellion.
First and foremost in the weeks and months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, Lincoln made it solely a war to preserve the Union, thereby assuring widespread support. Abolitionists of course were disappointed and continued to push the Lincoln Administration on the issue. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a Cincinnatian, did so within the cabinet.
ELBRIDGE G. RICKER
Locally men like Elbridge G. Ricker had been committed to ending slavery for years. Ricker was almost Lincolnesqe in appearance, with a long angular face that was thin -almost raw-boned. His hair was dark and he wore a short beard that extended from his sideburns in the style of the Amish with no mustache. His uniform seemed to hang on his slender frame. As the newly appointed commander of the Third Battalion of the 5th Ohio Cavalry he wore the rank of major on his shoulder boards. At 43 he was one of the older members of the regiment having been promoted early on from the rank of captain, commanding Company A which he had helped recruit from Clermont County just east of Cincinnati. In fact, he had helped recruit and organize a sizable contingent from Clermont County making up much of companies A, L and M.
Like other senior officers in the regiment Ricker had been a successful farmer who had gained prominence in local politics having been elected to the state legislature in 1855 as the Republican candidate. Ricker had long been involved with the abolitionist movement as well as the local temperance effort and the Township Board of Education. As many leading abolitionists of the day, he was of old New England stock and could trace his lineage back to the Mayflower. In 1814 his grandparents left Maine and settled in Clermont County and it was there that he was born in 1828. His parents sent him to the “best schools in Southern Ohio” but he made farming his career establishing a noteworthy reputation for growing grapes and berries.
Ricker’s active involvement in the Methodist Episcopal Church since 1833 and his commitment to several important social reform movements marked him as a very serious and intensely upright figure among his neighbors. It was however, his desire to see slavery abolished that seemed the most significant of his interests. When the Republican Party was founded in Rippon, Wisconsin in 1854 around opposing the expansion of slavery, Elbridge Ricker was one of the founding figures of the Party in Ohio. Not all would be pleased with his commitment to abolitionism at home in Clermont County or within the ranks of the 5th Ohio.
CINCINNATI AND THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
Up and down the Ohio River slavery divided many communities from which the 5th Ohio was drawn. In Cincinnati slavery had been a volcanic issue throughout the Antebellum Period. The city had a well-deserved reputation as an important stop on the Underground Railroad but also as a flash point when abolitionists made their opinions too public. The city had prospered as crossroads for Northern and Southern commerce and there were too many associated with commerce that would not abide by public behavior that might mar the city’s reputation in the South. By 1836 the public discussion of abolitionism in and around Cincinnati had become a sensitive issue. In the spring of that year an abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist, went into print in Cincinnati. In a matter of months the pressroom had been ransacked and the editor James G. Birney threatened. A week later a mob destroyed the office throwing the press into the street. Fortunately, Birney, who would later go to run for presidency on the Liberty Party ticket, was not home when the mob came to his residence. Lest one thinks this indicates there just was not any support for abolitionism at the time, it was reported the Philanthropist had 1,700 subscribers. At one point in 1842 another newspaper, Anti-Abolitionist, was printing a list of those in the Cincinnati area known to be abolitionist, and urging Southerners and those who were supporters of slavery to avoid business with them. Among the abolitionist on the list were attorneys, ministers, grocers, printers, shoemakers, tanners, and the famous like Salmon P. Chase, and many who time would forget.
Even places on the outskirts of Cincinnati in places like the tiny village of Cleves bordering the North Bend home of Colonel Taylor, abolition was divisive. In the spring of 1843 the Liberty Party of Hamilton County, a nationally organized though small abolition party, called for a meeting to freely discuss abolition at the village’s Presbyterian church. Thomas Morris, Samuel Lewis and Jonathan Blanchard, all distinguished members of the abolitionist movement in Southern Ohio were to come from Cincinnati to address the meeting. To ensure this would not offend the congregation they had sought and received permission to have the meeting from the trustees and elders of the church, after which the planned meeting became public knowledge.
On March 7, the day the convention was scheduled, Mr. Lewis, Blanchard and Morris accompanied by students from Lane Seminary, an institution with strong anti-slavery leanings, arrived in Cleves only to be confronted by a mob. At the front of the crowd were relatives of the late President William Henry Harrison; his Son-in-laws Judge Short, Dr. McHugh Thorton, as well as John Scott Harrison, the son of the former President and a prosperous farmer. (W.H.H. Taylor the youngest of President Harrison’s son-in-laws and later the commanding officer of the 5th Ohio was not present) John Scott Harrison explained that he was there on “behalf of a committee appointed by a meeting of citizens of Miami Township,” which encompassed both Cleves and North Bend. He made it clear they “ took umbrage at the project of an anti-slavery meeting so near their homes and expressed in the strongest terms against the sitting of the convention.” After threats by less prominent members of the mob, a debate ensued between Harrison and Samuel Lewis who had developed a reputation for being such a fierce critic of slavery that he had been kicked out of the Democratic Party.
The debate might best be described as over free speech more so than slavery. Harrison insisted that only 1 out of every 7 citizens in Miami Township favored “ their incendiary doctrines” and on those grounds “did not wish their peace disturbed.” He inferred that he could not be responsible for the crowd’s actions if the planned church meeting were to take place. Lewis answered that threats of physical violence made no difference and lamented that an open discussion could not take place in America just because he and his companions apparently held unpopular opinions. With tensions high at this point, Reverend Jonathan Blanchard, a Presbyterian minister, proposed a simple vote of all those present to determine whether the meeting would take place. Those in support of the meeting were requested to step to the right and those against to the left. To the chagrin of Harrison more stepped to the right at which point he left remarking he had done his duty leaving behind in the words of Lewis a rather “forlorn looking set” armed mostly with clubs and an old rusty musket. Lewis noted that an elderly woman who had sided with the abolitionists remarked, she “heard tell of the separation of the sheep from the goats, but [I] never expected to live to see it.” His description of those who had shown up to disrupt the meeting was less than complimentary calling them mostly boys and half men, and inferring they were from a less admirable class of people than Harrison.
To prevent violence the Presbyterian minister of a church in Berea invited the speakers to hold the convention in his church, about a mile from Cleves and for the next two days the abolitionists met at the Berea church. Later under the cover of darkness a pro-slavery mob smashed the windows of the church, and not being satisfied with that “mobbed the house of the pastor, and threw his buggy in the canal.”
The discord over slavery in Southwest Ohio was inevitable, a consequence of geography, patterns of migration and the arrival of overseas immigrants. In the early days of Ohio’s settlement many of the first residents had crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky and Virginia both slave states, giving the Southwest corner of the state a decidedly pro-slavery perspective though the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery itself. By the mid 1800’s Cincinnati had accumulated a considerable German population and was the recipient of an appreciable migration of families from the Northeast, neither of which were particularly friendly toward slavery. The result was a complicated mix of attitudes with respect to slavery which the simple labels of pro-slavery and abolitionist were not adequate. It would be easy to assume John Scott Harrison was pro-slavery based on the incident in Cleves but he was not. Harrison served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1853-1857 where he became widely respected for his anti-slavery views, opposing all measures that would have permitted the extension of slavery and denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in his only speech on the floor of the House. His behavior in the two decades before the Civil War was representative of the ambiguity and complexity of attitudes found throughout Hamilton County with respect to slavery.
Further up river to the east of Cincinnati in Clermont and Brown counties, near the home of Major Ricker, an even more volatile situation existed. In the small Ohio River towns like Ripley, Ohio, very active and at times aggressive Underground Railroad networks had been developing led by men like the Reverend John Rankin. By the mid 1830’s the situation in Brown county was described as “nothing less than a war” replete with mob violence, arson, posses, lawsuits and stories of great escapes.
By 1847 Levi Coffin had moved to Cincinnati and become so effective in helping African-Americans escape slavery, he was renowned as the President of the Underground Railroad making Cincinnati even more important to the abolitionist movement. He was among the many well-known abolitionists facing physical and economic peril as a result of their beliefs. Many others worked with complete anonymity, especially African –Americans who faced particularly grave risks helping others to escape.
With the area so divided on slavery many who actively involved in the Underground Railroad kept their activities secret for legal, economic and safety reasons. A successful operator on the Railroad was in part one who succeeded in keeping their activities secret, especially in areas where anti-abolitionist sentiments were high making of documenting involvement difficult, if not impossible in some cases. This might explain the dearth of identified Underground Railroad sites along the Ohio River in the western half of Hamilton County if indeed only 1 out of 7 people in the area were in favor of abolitionism as Harrison insisted. While local lore and circumstantial evidence suggests the involvement of various individuals and sites such as the Warder family, though it has not been proven. Ann Warder and her husband Dr. John Aston Warder lived a few miles east of the Cleves Presbyterian Church on a North Bend farm overlooking the Ohio River. The location of their home on a substantial farm above the river, the fact Warders were Quakers and that Ann Warder made frequent carriage trips between Springfield and Richmond, Indiana, both known as active stations on the railroad certainly creates a strong circumstantial case for their involvement. Another possibility worth noting was the existence of a Shaker community to the northwest of Cleves known as Whitewater Village. The Shakers were a religious group that had splintered from Quaker orthodoxy over theological issues. They like the Quakers often worked to end the moral injustice of slavery. The Whitewater community totaled almost 150 in number by 1850 and was economically successful, but because their ideas were viewed as too radical they were disliked by neighboring farmers and at times faced outright persecution. The size of the community, its social isolation and the fact they were already viewed unfavorably again creates a circumstantial case for involvement with the Underground Railroad.
The diversity of attitudes with regard to slavery and abolition that had developed up and down the river to either side of Cincinnati during the Antebellum Era did not disappear with the outbreak of war. Men like Major Ricker and Lieutenant Colonel Heath found themselves bound by the common ideals of the Republican Party. Both men had been tied to the abolitionist movement long before the birth of the Party and believed the struggle should transcend the battle to end slavery to also include winning better treatment and rights for African Americans. In time it would become apparent that not everyone in the regiment approved their position and that some were openly offended by them. Among those who had no sympathy for abolitionism was young Lieutenant William Jessup who was not alone in his dislike for abolitionist. Many in the 5th Ohio and Union army in general blamed the war on them.
Jessup and many others did not have any affection for slavery. In the years before the war they did not approve of the institution but at the same time they disapproved of efforts to destroy it. They saw abolitionists as malcontents -- troublemakers bent on creating disorder and chaos. They viewed their writings and conventions as dangerous inflammatory actions that were tearing the nation apart and dividing communities. When war finally came, they blamed the abolitionist as well as the pro-slavery firebrands of the South whom they believed had been baited into secession. Now they bitterly believed, it was up to them to clean up the mess the irresponsible abolitionist and Southern fire-eaters had created by restoring the Union. In this they supported Lincoln, a fact that was not lost upon the President, and they eagerly volunteered out of loyalty to that Union to fight to restore it. Men like Jessup fought valiantly for 4 years to achieve that goal, but they did it while cursing their Republican leaders. Within the Fifth Ohio these sentiments were not limited to Jessup.
Men like Ricker and Heath were committed to saving the Union but also to the higher purpose of destroying a moral blight that had plagued their nation since its inception. At the same time Jessup and other Democrats in the Fifth Ohio were committed to Union and nothing else and while they vehemently disagreed with Lincoln they did as good soldiers are expected. The Fifth Ohio was not unique among the 34 regiments Greater Cincinnati sent to war. The regiments were all made up of volunteers from every walk of life who went to war for a variety of reasons. They took their orders from the duly elected government of the people and fought with distinction to the end of the war, for they realized what the common soldier on the victorious side has known from time immemorial, the surest way home was victory. So as the members of the Fifth Ohio and every other regiment from Greater Cincinnati arrived at Camp Dennison united in their resolve to restore the Union, they also brought attitudes reflective of the ideals that divided their communities.
(An annotated version is available upon request)