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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

The South Fairmount / Lick Run Project (Part 4)

John Sebastian Fries, private 5th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. A resident of Lick Run, Fries saw action at Shiloh and along with the rest of the 5th Ohio was assigned to William Tecumseh Sherman's columns as they conducted their march to the sea.

The only connection South Fairmount had to the Civil War were its men who marched off to join the ranks of Mr. Lincoln's army like thousands of others from Greater Cincinnati.By the War's end they were a small fraction of the 320,000 troops from Ohio who fought in the most deadly war in the nation's history. As a consequence Part 4 is short, with much of it providing context for Part 5 which examines post war changes in the valley.

In Cincinnati slavery was a volcanic issue. Sitting on the fault line between North and South there was no shortage of incidents between abolitionists and firebrand supporters of slavery. The city had a well deserved reputation as an important stop on the Underground Railroad but also as a flashpoint when abolitionist made their opinions too public. The city had prospered as a crossroads for Northern and Southern commerce and there were too many associated with commerce who would not abide by public behavior that might mar the city’s reputation in the South. As early as 1836 the public discussion of abolitionism turned violent in Cincinnati when the office of an abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist, was ransacked and the life of its editor James G. Birney threatened.[i] A week later the mob returned destroyed the press and went looking for Birney who fortunately they didn’t find. Yet, abolitionism was supported well enough for the Philanthropist to have more than 1,700 subscribers. At one point in 1842 another newspaper, the Anti-Abolitionist was printing a list of those in the Cincinnati area known to be abolitionists, and urging Southerners and those who were supporters of slavery to avoid doing business with them. Among those on the list were attorneys, ministers, grocers, printers, shoemakers, tanners and the famous like, Salmon P. Chase, and many who time would forget.

While most in Cincinnati and in the North in general opposed permitting slavery to spread into the Western territories and found the institution distasteful if not immoral, only a relatively small minority called for the abolition of slavery across the entire nation. The majority feared the consequences of a final showdown over slavery viewing abolitionists as radicals who placed the peace and prosperity of the nation at risk. Among this group were the German immigrants and the Catholic Church.

Germans had seen and experienced the consequences of sharp political division and rebellion in Western Europe in the late 1840’s and had no desire to contribute to the eruption of it in their newly adopted country. As early as 1837 Archbishop Purcell found slavery to be morally repugnant in addition to viewing it as inconsistent with the political ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.[ii]However, in his capacity as Archbishop of Cincinnati he hesitated to make his views on the subject too public in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Officially the Roman Catholic Church in the United States avoided taking a position on abolitionism recognizing the divisiveness of the issue. The Catholic Telegraph, the archdiocesan newspaper consistently made “peace and unity” the theme when slavery and abolition arose as topics of local public discourse, a position with which the bulk of Cincinnati’s 55,000 Catholics largely identified. Yet, one event after another pushed the North and South further apart as nasty incidents over the enforcement of fugitive slave laws were inflamed by the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. [iii]

The election of 1860 proved to be the trigger for secession and the resulting Civil War. Lincoln’s victory came with Republican electoral votes won only in Northern states and 40% of the popular votes. Most of Cincinnati’s Catholic vote was cast for Stephen Douglas, a Democrat representing the Northern wing of the party. The Republican Party was new on the political landscape. Born in 1854 around the singular issue of opposing the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, it was the new home of many of the nativists who had formally been associated with the American Party, which had all but disappeared by 1860. The Democratic Party had long been the home of the German and Irish immigrants for lack of a more friendly political party. When the Democratic Party split along regional lines in the months leading up to the general election Stephen Douglas was nominated by Northern Democrats, while Southern Democrats selected John Breckenridge. Southern Democrats were not willing to trust Douglas an Illinoisan, on slavery. They believed positions he had taken in an 1858 debate with Lincoln and events in the Kansas Territory revealed his true feeling about slavery. Both Democratic candidates ran against Lincoln and lost in the 1860 general election. Lincoln’s electoral tally included the state of Ohio though he lost the popular vote in Hamilton County to Douglas. Lincoln’s victory was the final straw for many Southerners who were drawn to the secessionist camp by a string of events that included anger over Northern resistance to aiding in the return of escaped slaves required by federal law, the bloody violence in Kansas over slavery and the attempt by John Brown to start a slave rebellion in 1859. The vitriolic campaign of 1860 convinced many Southerners that secession was the only means to save slavery as well as the economy and society built around it. Starting with South Carolina in December of 1860, 11 southern states seceded setting up the show down at Ft. Sumner in April 0f 1861.

On Friday April 12, 1861 telegraph lines hummed with news of the firing on Ft. Sumter. The next day, stunned people across the North read that the long tense standoff in Charleston’s harbor had exploded into civil war. In Cincinnati the earliest dispatches about the attack were contradictory and dismissed as excited exaggeration. By the following day however, the Cincinnati Gazette reported the news dailies had “convinced all the first blow had been struck”. Throughout the day crowds congregated on the city’s streets in front of newspaper offices, restlessly waiting for updates to be posted on bulletin boards and anxiously waiting for the next edition to roll off the presses. “The newspaper offices were thronged as we never seen them thronged”, noted the Gazette.1 Early in the day, a premature report of Ft. Sumter’s surrender caused a cloud of gloom to descend upon the city, but, when it was discovered that Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Ft. Sumter, had refused to surrender, the Republican leaning Times reported that cheering erupted from the crowd in front of its offices, but not from the group outside the Democratic leaning Cincinnati Enquirer. By evening, the “Star Spangled Banner” reverberated through downtown streets, and flags appeared draped from windows, as impromptu demonstrations of patriotism broke out on street corners. The cloud of gloom had dissolved, and the streets echoed with the words “its war” spoken gravely but not without excitement. War fever now spread across the city and nation.2

The surrender of Ft. Sumter on Sunday April 14, and a call for volunteers by the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln, prompted Ohio’s Governor William Dennison, a Cincinnatian, to alert the citizens of his state. “Your patriotism points to you the path of duty in this crisis. “ You need no appeal from me to testify your loyalty to the General Government (Federal Government). The Constitution must be maintained, the Union must be preserved, and the laws must be enforced.” The response was spectacular. Overnight it seemed the ranks of existing militia units filled as new companies and even entire regiments were created.3

Across the valley men responded to the call to arms. Any pretense of neutrality among the German population disappeared as they came to the defense of their newly adopted nation. Some like John Fries were sons of the early German immigrants while others were recently arrived from Europe themselves. Half of those entering Mr. Lincoln’s army were the sons of farmers who on average were 25 years old stood 5’8” inches tall weighing in at a whopping 143 pounds. The 20 year old Fries joined the Fifth Ohio Cavalry on February 22, 1862. The second of Joseph and Mary’s Fries' children followed older brother George into the rapidly expanding Union army. At 5’10” with sandy colored hair, gray eyes, and a light complexion he was a bit younger than the typical farmer entering the Union army . Though familiar with horses from his farm work, he was not a cavalry trooper, which would take months if not years of training.

The Lincoln Administration used a system employed in all previous American wars. Regiments were organized and identified with the states from which they came and received a numeral based on the order of creation. Hence the 5th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was theoretically the fifth cavalry regiment authorized from Ohio. Most regiments arose entirely from one locality like the 5th Ohio which was largely recruited from communities around Greater Cincinnati. Several of its companies consisted of farmers like Fries, from townships on the western side of Hamilton County. Ohio’s governor had the authority to appoint the highest-ranking officers - the colonels and lieutenant–colonels, but often the men of the regiment elected these officers first, after which the governor awarded the official commission. At other times it was the prominent men of a locality who organized and recruited the regiments and were rewarded for their efforts with command. This was the case with the 5th Ohio Cavalry with Colonel William Henry Harrison Taylor, a son-in-law of President William Henry Harrison from North Bend and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas T. Heath a young well connected Cincinnati attorney, made the commander and executive officer of the


Col. William Henry Harrison

Fries joined the Fifth Ohio just in time to sail down the Ohio into the heart of Dixie bound for a spot on the banks of the Tennessee River known as Pittsburg Landing. There the Fifth Ohio Cavalry took part in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest clashes of the war. Over the next three years it participated in battles across the western theater including Lookout Mountain, the Atlanta campaign and Sherman’s March to The Sea.

Lt. Col. Thomas T. Heath

Several “German regiments” were formed including the 9th, 28th and 106th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiments, with many Lick Run farmers joining the 106th Ohio Infantry. The origins of this regiment lie with a request from Governor Tod of Ohio to Gustavus Tafel in the summer of 1862 to raise a new infantry regiment in the southwestern corner of Ohio.[iv] At the time the 32 year old Tafel was a Lieutenant in the 9th Ohio Infantry Regiment recovering at home in Cincinnati from a battlefield wound. Prior to the war Tafel had established a reputation as a promising young attorney and was known among the German community as a writer for the German news daily the Volksblatt. He already had experience helping to form the 9th Ohio, making him the perfect candidate to lead the formation a new German regiment as the manpower needs of the Union continued to multiple.

Commanded by Gustav Tafel, later elected the mayor of Cincinnati, the 106th Ohio Infantry had members of the Bauer, Groh, Isler, Metz, Sperber, and Weiler families - all from the valley serving in its ranks. Organized in August of 1862 for three years of service it was quickly pushed into the field in September of the same year to help defend Cincinnati from a Confederate thrust through central Kentucky by General Kirby Smith. As the threat to the city subsided, the regiment was sent to Tennessee as part of an expedition to stop General John Hunt Morgan. On December 7th, 1863 the 106th suffered a disaster when it was ambushed by Morgan and suffered 21 killed, 41 wounded and 429 captured. In January those held prisoner were released as part of a prisoner exchange and the regiment was reorganized before returning to Tennessee in March of 1863. It spent the remainder of the war conducting anti-guerrilla operations and protecting key railroad facilities in the Volunteer state. More than a dozen other regiments were created in and around Cincinnati with men from the valley spread across them. By the time the war ended in 1865 2% of the US population (625,000 ) had died as a consequence of the war. For the sake of context, that would be the equivalent of 6 million deaths today. Financially the war ended up costing the the Federal government $6 billion dollars or the equivalent of $79 billion in today's dollars which doesn't include the damage to private property, the cost of which would be incalculable. These costs added to the fact four million people gained their freedom and the nucleus for a second industrial revolution was put into place supports an argument the Civil War is the most important event in the history of the United States. It was the catalyst for a tremendous wave of political, economic and social change that would wash over the nation at the dawn of a new century.

[i]Birney, a native of Danville, Kentucky, later went on to help found the Liberty Party, a party dedicated to the abolition of slavery, running as its presidential candidate in the election of 1844. [ii]Endres, David J. , Rectifying the Fatal Contrast: Archbishop John Purcell and the Slavery Controversy Among Catholics in Civil War Cincinnati, Ohio Valley History 2, p.23-33. [iii]Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 as a magazine serial, it was turned into a novel and later produced as a play. Stowe had live in Cincinnati and witnessed the brutality of slavery which was legal just across the river in Kentucky. 1 Cincinnati Daily Gazette, April 15, 1861. 2Robert Wimberg, Cincinnati And The Civil War (Cincinnati: Ohio Bookstore, 1992), 4-5. 3Cincinnati Daily Commercial, April 15, 1861. [iv]Reid, Whitelaw, Ohio In The Civil War: Her Statesman, Her Generals and Soldiers, Moore, Wilstach and Baldwin, 1868, p. 573.

photo acknowledgements

William Henry Harrison -- Courtesy of US Military History Institute

Thomas T. Heath -- Courtesy of The Library of Congress

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May 12, 2022

Once again, great research. I'm curious to what led you to research specifically John S Fries? He is the Gr gr gr Grandfather to my 3 children, two who are Army officers, one serving in an Ohio Cavalry unit! I have several 5th Ohio Cavalry items, as well as the 106th OVI Regiment. I also have some historical documents relating to Lick Run.

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