Return to CCWRT Home Page


Serving Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Since 1956

Preservation Project Canister Newsletter About Us Future Speakers Research & Information Hamilton CWRT Contact Us
The Defense of Cincinnati: The Battle That Never Was

By David M. Smith

January 15, 1998

© 1998 David M. Smith and the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table

The pen of man does not suffice to describe the sudden shock that befell our people when they learned that Confederate forces were received with open arms in Kentucky's Blue Grass where their ranks were swelled by volunteers as regrouping was effected to move northward against Louisville and the Queen City of the West, Cincinnati. This dreadful war which had seemed so far from this area, suddenly gives promise of moving to our doorsteps.

Thus wrote a reporter of the Cincinnati Gazette in early September 1862, upon learning that Confederates had invaded Kentucky and were ready to capture the key cities of Lexington and Frankfort. To the residents of Cincinnati, it seemed just a logical jump to assume that Confederate hordes were poised to march to the Ohio River, and threaten to sack the Union City. That the Confederate forces that took Lexington numbered less than 10,000 did not matter, and as we will see, exaggerated reports of Rebel strength did nothing but increase the fears of the residents.

We know today, of course, that there never was a decisive battle of Cincinnati. That the eventual Confederate push towards the Ohio did not amount to much more than a token movement does not change the story we will tell tonight. Panic, whether real or imagined existed for the citizens of the city, and the correspondence between military and civilian authorities clearly details the concerns and fear that existed.

This presentation will come primarily from the perspective of the Federal effort to counter Kirby Smith's invasion of Kentucky. The uncertainty, under which the Union forces labored, both locally in Cincinnati and at the capital of Washington, tells of a belief that Cincinnati as well as Louisville was in extreme jeopardy. That Smith and Braxton Bragg did not do more in their invasion would be the subject of a discussion for another night. In the meantime, the story of the efforts to protect Cincinnati will fill our time adequately.

E. Kirby Smith
It is August of 1862, and the American Civil War is well into its second year of unprecedented bloodshed. This war, one that many felt would not last over thirty days, now showed no signs of ending. From the perspective of those from the North, it had also shown the entrance of a new Confederate leader in the east -- Robert E. Lee. During the month of June, he had led the rebels to victories at the Seven Days and Cedar Mountain. Now, his victorious legions were confronting the hastily thrown together army of John Pope. President Abraham Lincoln was in a serious quandary, as he attempted to formulate a plan that would wrest the initiative back from the Confederates.

In the western theater, 1862 had not been particularly good for the Confederacy. An unknown Union general named U.S. Grant had won decisive victories in February and April at Forts Donelson/Henry as well as at Shiloh. Confederate forces had been pushed out of Tennessee into northern Mississippi. Union troops were moving on the strategic railroad hub of Chattanooga.

But in the midst of these trying times, Confederate efforts received a major boost by the launching of a counter-offensive in August of 1862. Tentatively agreeing that they would cooperate, Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith concluded that their two respective departments would work together in attempting to wrest the initiative away from the Federals under the command of Major General Don Carlos Buell. Bragg's goal would be the army of Buell, while Smith harbored dreams of sweeping into Kentucky and liberating tens of thousands of Bluegrass natives that he believed were merely waiting for a sign from the Confederates to join the Cause.

Braxton Bragg
But first, Smith had to counter, in some way, the Federals under General George W. Morgan, who was holding Cumberland Gap. The solution was simple; Kirby Smith chose to bypass Morgan and move into Kentucky, leaving the Federals cut off and in his rear. On August 13 he left Carter Stevenson's division in front of Morgan, and moved his 9,000 troops under Henry Heth, Thomas J. Churchill, and Pat Cleburne north.

Crossing the Cumberland Mountains at Roger's Gap, it was a difficult march for the troops. Sweltering in the August heat, with water in short supply, the troops actually out-marched their supply wagons, and were forced to live off what little they could forage from the area. The citizens of the area were distinctly pro-Union, and one local described the Southerners as "ragged, greasy and dirty, and some barefoot and looked more like the bipeds of pandemonium than beings of this earth."

On August 18 they reached Barbourville, Kentucky. With the roads over which he had crossed the Cumberland Mountains in such bad shape, he determined that he must push on. On the 20th, he announced he was moving on to Lexington. On the 24th of August, Col. John Scott, commanding Smith's cavalry, ran into resistance at Big Hill, some ten miles or so south of Richmond. This was the first sign of enemy presence in Kentucky. On the 27th Smith was at London, and the following day Bragg started himself towards Kentucky, taking a western route opposite Smith.

On the 29th, Smith and his forces reached Big Hill, and it was evident that a battle was looming. The next day, the battle of Richmond was fought, and the results were disastrous for the Federals. 4,000 prisoners captured dwarfed approximately 1,000 killed and wounded Federal soldiers - all at a cost of about 450 killed and wounded Confederates. Ten thousand stands of arms, nine guns, and the Federal supply train were captured. Federal strength in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky was effectively wiped out. Lexington, and the capital of Frankfort, lay scant miles ahead. The important cities of Cincinnati and Louisville appeared wide open to Confederate attack.

In addition, this repulse came at the same time General John Pope was being driven back to the defenses of Washington City by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Momentum, at this point in the war, favored the Confederates.

Henry W. Halleck
The Federal response to these threats started before the fiasco occurred at Richmond. On August 19, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton announced the formation of the Department of the Ohio, which included the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky east of the Tennessee River, and included the forces at Cumberland Gap. Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright was assigned to the command. General Halleck fired off a dispatch to General Buell the next day, explaining that the formation of the department would in no way influence Buell's operations in Tennessee against Chattanooga. Of course, once Buell fell back into Kentucky, his action would create a significant conflict, but such actions were not contemplated at that point in August.

Graduating second in the West Point class of 1841, General Wright had shown himself to be an extremely capable engineer, but by August of 1862, there were questions about his field command abilities. He had served in South Carolina in the operation against Port Royal, and had led a division in the disaster at Secessionville. His handling of the crisis in Kentucky, however, would lead to the command of a division in the Army of the Potomac's VI Corps, and eventual corps command on the death of John Sedgwick. After the war, Wright commanded the Department of Texas for a year, and eventually was engaged in a number of engineering projects, including the completion of the Washington Monument. These future events, however, were a long way from the uncertainty facing him in August of 1862.

Horatio G. Wright
We know today that Confederate forces under Smith were not substantial, even in Civil War terms. On the 23d Wright telegraphed Gen. Lew Wallace at Lexington about reports that Smith, 15,000 strong, was at Burkesville. "I don't believe it", Wright wrote. "Stop your advance at Richmond till further orders; ascertain if possible in regard to enemy between Richmond and Cumberland Gap . . ." Consistently, however, Federal reports, both from military and civilian sources, over-estimated the numbers of Confederates that were entering the Commonwealth. General Morgan reported to Washington on the 24th that Sterling Price was prepared to invade Kentucky at the head of 60,000 men. Indeed, the Confederacy would have been pleased to find 60,000 men to put into action in the western theater.

Another pathetic and comical theme that enters the two week period from the entrance of Kirby Smith into Kentucky and the eventual realization that Cincinnati was safe is the lack of any understanding on the part of Lincoln and the Washington Administration as to exactly what was happening on the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. On the 24th, Halleck wired Wright, "I know so little of the enemy's present position in Kentucky that I cannot advise as to your movements. I, however, call your attention to the following . . . to mass your troops on some important points." Such sage advice could have done little to comfort Wright.

That the Administration in Washington was confused and uncertain is summarized in a telegram sent by Halleck to Wright the next day. Dissatisfaction with Buell was reaching a crescendo:

Don Carlos Buell
The Government, or rather I should say the President and Secretary of War, is greatly displeased with the slow movements of General Buell. Unless he does something very soon I think he will be removed. Indeed it would have been done before now if I had not begged to give him a little more time. There must be more energy and activity in Kentucky and Tennessee, and the one who first does something brilliant will get the entire command. I therefore hope to hear very soon of some success in your department. I can hardly describe to you the feeling of disappointment here in the want of activity in General Buell's large army.

The Government seems determined to apply the guillotine to all unsuccessful generals. It seems rather hard to do this where the general is not in fault, but perhaps with us now, as in the French Revolution, some harsh measures are required.

Halleck never really understood the military situation correctly. On the 30th, the day of the Battle of Richmond, he wired Wright that the "relief of General Morgan and the holding of Cumberland Gap are deemed of the first importance." Dutifully, Wright sent word to General Nelson of Halleck's orders, but it was indeed too late. On the 31st, Wright informed Washington of the disaster at Richmond. President Lincoln immediately asked as to the size of the forces the Federals engaged at Richmond. It didn't help that the Federal commander in Louisville, General Boyle, wired back to Washington that Lexington, as well as the entire state, was in danger. Confusion was running rampant.

A week later, as Kirby Smith was situated nicely at Lexington and Frankfort, and Generals Bragg and Buell were racing desperately for Louisville, the President asked of Wright, "Do you know to any certainty where General Bragg is? May he not be in Virginia?" Bragg's rapid rail transfer from Mississippi to Chattanooga had evidently spooked Washington. It wasn't until the 10th that Lincoln could be assured that Bragg was still in Kentucky, and not moving to fall on Washington while Lee held McClellan at bay in Maryland.

The one thing that General Wright did know, on the 24th of August, was that he did not have enough troops immediately available to counter the threat of Bragg and Smith. Those that were available were untried in combat, and a furious correspondence with the governors of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois ensued. These governors were doing everything they could to raise new regiments, but quickly ran into problems finding equipment and arms for the recruits. Governor Richard Yates of Illinois sounded this theme on the 24th as he noted that the 50,000 men the state had raised were without tents, blankets, uniforms, etc. The problem of equipping recruits would be a recurring theme throughout the next several weeks.

General Buell enters the discussion on the 25th, asking General Nelson at Lexington to return all of the troops he had to Nashville, Tennessee - a move that would have left the entire state of Kentucky uncovered. Nelson, however, had problems of his own, complaining to Wright two days later that his troops had no discipline, and that "straggling, marauding, and plundering is the rule, good conduct the exception." Of course, Nelson was under the orders of Wright at this time, not Buell, but the confusion within the Federal command is understandable.

The 27th and 28th saw Wright and Ohio governor David Tod exchanging telegrams complaining that the other was not providing adequate equipment for the new recruits. The issuance of arms was also a problem, with troops forwarded without any means to fight the enemy. Secretary of War Stanton ordered that standard practices for issuance of arms be followed, handicapping Wright in his ability to generate soldiers of fighting abilities.

"Kirby Smith's game is now clear. He will assail Buell in left and rear." stated General Nelson the day before discovering that Smith's game was to be generated in his direction, not Buell's. On the 30th, flurries of telegrams tried to assess the damage of the battle of Richmond. Upon learning of its significance, calls to the governors of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan to step up their forwarding troops to the threatened cities of Louisville and Cincinnati.

Before proceeding to what followed a few words about Cincinnati in the 1860s is in order.

It is often difficult to distinguish the Cincinnati of 1862 from the city we know today. The expansion of the city in all directions makes it seem to us that the suburbs of Northern Kentucky are nothing more than an extension of the city proper. But 135 years ago, the area to the south of Covington and Newport was nothing more than a series of dirt roads cut through the Kentucky wilderness.

There were significant differences in the Ohio River than the situation that exists today. The pool stage for the river in Cincinnati tended to average only 12 to 15 feet, as opposed to the current pool stage of approximately 28 feet. During the summer months, when rainfall was scarce, pool stage would fall to less than ten feet.

Thus, the Ohio River was significantly shallower and as importantly, not as wide as it is today. As we shall see, Federal troops easily placed a pontoon bridge across the span to facilitate the shuttling of troops to the Northern Kentucky defenses. In short, the Ohio was not the natural barrier that those we today would tend to view it.

Secondly, the political mix of Cincinnati contained a very serious undercurrent of Southern sympathy. Cincinnati in the 1850's and 1860's was a crossroads for western development. Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati were the developed cities that linked the eastern establishment with the frontier.

More importantly, Cincinnati served as almost a border city with the South. As the Allegheny Mountains cut off the Tidewater areas of southern states such as Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and eastern Georgia from the "western" states of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, Cincinnati served as a vital link for eastern production and supply for these states. The road network leading south to cities such as Knoxville, Lexington, Nashville, and Atlanta made Cincinnati a commercial hub for trade with the South.

Cincinnati also served as an educational center for many of the children of the southern states. Miami University, in particular, pulled almost half of its antebellum students from south of the Ohio River.

Politically, southern Ohio was as conservative back then as it is today. In Ohio, the center of liberal political thought was in the more industrial northeast of Cleveland -- much as it is today. Southern Ohio, primarily rural and agricultural, tended to conservatism. Many believed the Federal government did not have the right to impose its beliefs on individual states -- and therefore did not have the right to impose its will on the South -- whether this concerned reestablishment of the Union or the abolition of slavery.

The city of Cincinnati had a strong German ethnic background. Politically, this provided a stable background for the Republicans, for the Germans tended to center with the radicals. What is now Central Parkway was once a major canal, and the Germans who lived in the area dubbed their section of the city "Over the Rhine". The area still goes by this name.

Lew Wallace
On the 1st of September, Wright, who had proceeded to Lexington, ordered Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace to remain in Cincinnati and take command of the troops arriving in the Queen City. Wallace would remain in charge in Cincinnati until the crisis was over.

Lew Wallace, a political general, future author of the novel Ben Hur, and as veteran of the war with Mexico as well as the battles for Forts Henry and Donelson, and the battle of Shiloh, his performance at Shiloh had relegated him to an administrative post of little significance. Recruiting in his native state of Indiana when Kirby Smith struck Kentucky, he was quickly asked by General Wright to step in and help out in the emergency. He later in the war led a hastily thrown together command that was routed by Confederate General Jubal Early at the battle of Monocacy. Some, however would credit the time Wallace bought in his defeat with saving the capital at Washington, as the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac now had time to reach Washington and protect it against Early.

But such events were far away in the future, for now, Cincinnati was in a veritable panic. "The undersigned, by order of Maj. Gen. H. G. Wright, assumes command of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. It is fair to inform the citizens that an active, daring, and powerful enemy threatens them with every consequence of war; yet these cities must be defended and their inhabitants must assist in the preparation. Patriotism, duty, honor, and self preservation call for them to labor, and it must be done equally by all classes." This proclamation was given to the citizens of Cincinnati upon Wallace's assumption of command.

He went on to suspend all businesses and ordered that all citizens, within an hour of the suspension of business, should assemble in convenient public places, and be ready to carry out orders. The mayor of Cincinnati, George Hatch, further noted in a bulletin, that all persons, employees and employers, assemble in their respective voting wards, and then and there organize themselves in such a manner as may be deemed best for the defense of the city. Every man of every age, be he citizen or alien, who lives under the protection of our laws is expected to take part in this organization.

On the 2d, Kirby Smith took Lexington, and on the 3d, Confederate cavalry took Frankfort. General Heth, with four brigades, fanned north to cover the approaches to Cincinnati. Confederate infantry was moving to take Falmouth and Williamstown, the two major approaches to Cincinnati. Farmers were hurrying livestock north towards the Ohio River. Smith's optimism was high. "25,000 Kentucky troops in a few days will be added to my command", he wrote Bragg on the 3d. On the 5th, "Kentucky is rising en masse."

In its lead editorial, the Cincinnati Gazette declared: "TO ARMS! TO ARMS! The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is fast approaching our city. Kentucky has already been invaded and our cities for the first time since the rebellion are seriously threatened . . . Let us prepare to resist an army of 100,000 men bent on our destruction."

General Ormsby Mitchel (himself a former professor of astronomy at the University of Cincinnati) soon joined generals Wallace and Wright and Colonel Charles Wittlesey of the Engineering Corps, and they soon set out to install a series of forts, gun emplacements, and rifle pits in the hills of Northern Kentucky. The line of defense stretched from the Ohio River at Bromley, north following the present day Sleepy Hollow Road, across a series of ridges that is now the Kyles Lane exit on 1-75, and to the area then known as the Highlands, and now known as Ft. Thomas.

The key to the defense line was Ft. Mitchel. Situated on a piece of high ground overlooking the Lexington Pike (present day Dixie Highway), it protected the approaches the Confederates could take from the city of Lexington. The area, nothing more than a few houses situated among the wooded ravines of the area, became built up after the war and incorporated as Ft. Mitchell with two "l"s; obviously someone quickly forgot the quirks in spelling that General Mitchel with one "l" carried with him.

With the race between Buell and Bragg well underway, the understaffed General Wright now added the defense of the city of Louisville to his list of burdens. Disposed governor of Kentucky James Robinson began calling for massive efforts to save Louisville, which, of course in his estimation, was the proper place to consolidate. Ohio governor David Tod, however, saw things a bit differently, assuming that Cincinnati was the place to send the bulk of reinforcements. On the 2d, for example Wright was informed that some eight regiments of troops - most of them newly raised - would be in Cincinnati within two days.

General Wallace was cautioned not to give up territory between Lexington and Covington, but it is doubtful he could have stopped Kirby Smith had the entire Confederate force set out for Cincinnati. In the meantime, Governor Tod was assuring Washington that all was being done to meet the emergency. ". . . matters are so confused that I cannot give you any definite information. . . Fearing an invasion at all points on the Ohio I have called on the loyal men in the surrounding counties to organize themselves into companies and regiments."

Below Cincinnati, events were just as confused in the field. Col. Ben Runkle of the 45th Ohio forwarded to Governor Tod from Boyd, Kentucky (about 15 miles from Cynthiana) on the 2d that the 99th and 95th Ohio infantry had brought word that the Rebels were at Cynthiana in such force to cause him to fall back. He doubted, however, the accuracy of the reports, and was prepared to move back in the direction of the enemy. "I believe I am deceived . . . Such discipline is terrible".

On the 3rd, President Lincoln received a telegram from concerned citizens from Louisville. "The panic still prevails", they wrote. "Lexington and Frankfort in hands of the rebels. Unless the State is reinforced with veteran troops Kentucky will be overrun."

On the 4th, Col. Langworthy of the 99th Ohio (one of the regiments held in so low esteem by Col. Runkle of the 45th OVI) was ordered to move forward from Butler, Kentucky to Falmouth. The orders from General Wright were tinged with a note of foreboding, "Don't be stampeded."

Governor Robinson of Kentucky, a governor without a capital, continued to aggravate Wright. Suggesting that the forces available be thrown forward on the Covington and Lexington Railroad as far as possible, he urged this "under all the responsibilities of my official position. Answer quick." An exasperated Wright wrote back, "Let us first get ready a force adequate to meet the enemy and then attack and drive him from the country. Yield to impatience and move with inferior forces against our disciplined foe and we are again defeated." Wright must have been feeling that a command anywhere but over the department he headed had to be an easier job.

In the meantime, Cincinnati continued to consolidate anyone it could find to man the trenches. One of the more original incidents points up the fact that in 1862, this area was not that far removed from the days of Daniel Boone and the great wilderness. The famed "squirrel hunters" poured forth from the outlying areas to help man the trenches. These men, in their homespun clothing and carrying their antiquated squirrel guns, came in from the woods to volunteer their services. While it is most likely very fortunate for the both the Union defenders and the squirrel hunters themselves that no serious action developed, their enthusiasm and support greatly aided Federal efforts during a trying time.

Indeed, by the 5th, General Wright ordered Governor Tod to accept no more unarmed volunteers for the protection of Cincinnati. The organizations of volunteers would be kept up, but the masses of volunteers milling about had to be controlled. In addition, General Wallace was ordered the "resumption of all lawful business in this city except the sale of liquor . . ." At 4:00 p.m., however, military organizations were still required to assemble for drill.

But uneasiness over the situation still prevailed. As typical of situations such as this, reporters flocked to Cincinnati hoping for a dramatic story. Typical of the stories that came out at this time was the following, filed by a reporter from his downtown hotel room:

From the security of my hotel room, high in Cincinnati's Burnet House, (3rd and Vine Street), I have a full view of the battle area. I can observe the battle zones in the Kentucky hills right before me, and the atmosphere is intense. The Ohio River has been spanned with a large pontoon bridge, and the Licking River as well, over which pass, night and day, Union forces and volunteers from many northern sections of the Union. The Kentucky hills of Kenton and Campbell counties are bristling with cannon fortifications and rifle pits, awaiting an enemy, which is reported to be, but 20 miles south. Federal pickets report encounters with Rebel scouts probing for weakness in the lines of defense. Union General Lew Wallace has directed his officers to caution the defenders against an oft used ruse of the Rebels to lure unseasoned warriors out from behind their fortifications, to do battle in the open. "Stay behind your breastworks and they'll never get through" was the directive. In Covington and Newport, as well as Cincinnati, all stores are closed and business suspended, with the military along occupying the streets and roads.

The main Union fort over there is Ft. Mitchel, five miles from the river, from which it can direct blistering fire along the Lexington turn-pike and adjacent roads. Price Hill and Mt. Adams have been fortified with gun power to protect against movements by water. Also many patrol boats with cannon batteries move up and down the stream and investigate every craft afloat. Tension continues to mount as these brave sons of the farms, clerks, lawyers, doctors and businessmen peer southward from where the seasoned Confederates are known to be reading signs and debating upon the point to make the attack. TIME ALONE WILL TELL, will the Confederates be restrained, or will they carry this dreadful war north of the Ohio River?"

General Wallace was disturbed at the length of time it was taking for the ferrying of troops across the river. There existed no completed bridges at the time -- the Roebling Suspension Bridge - which still stands today -- had been started, but halted when that esteemed engineer went into the Army. Wallace consulted with Cincinnati architect Wesley Cameron regarding the feasibility of placing a pontoon bridge across the Ohio River. Cameron immediately fashioned a bridge that was made of empty coal barges lashed side-by-side, and anchored securely to both shores. The fact that it was late summer, the river was low, and no immediate rainfall was expected certainly helped the construction.

In the space of two days, Cameron had the pontoon bridge in place. It was on the pontoon bridge that the term "Squirrel" hunters was born, as those backwoods farmers began practicing their sharpshooting while crossing the bridge, picking off squirrels in trees on the Kentucky shore - or so legend has it.

Confusion still prevailed. Citizens reported that 30,000 Confederate troops were at Paris on the 5th, and yet another brigade of troops was at Georgetown. Another report of the same day had 60,000 soldiers on the road from Paris to Maysville. A rebel were everywhere, and although Wright began to feel better about the military situation, calm was far from being restored.

On the 6th, General Wallace was ordered out of Cincinnati and to report to head the defense forces assembling in Covington. Support was on the way, as brigadier generals George Crook and A.J. Smith were ordered to the department to help bring some seasoned officers to the area.

Governor Morton of Indiana began making demands on General Wright. Responding to Morton's fears of an attack across the Ohio River into Indiana, Wright asked Wallace to have one of the gunboats patrolling the river to venture as far west as Vevay. One can only suspect that General Wright wished he could do without these pesky governors.

Wright began to feel good enough about the situation to suggest to Wallace that he limit the numbers of volunteers needed on the Kentucky side of the river to an absolute minimum. Schools were allowed to stay open for their normal hours, likely causing relief for the teachers who had turned soldiers, and dismay for the children who again faced a full day's school schedule. The defense line, thanks to the efforts of the local citizenry as well as the slaves from the northern Kentucky area, had made the line strong enough that a sizeable force would be needed to approach Cincinnati.

Henry Heth
Cautiously, the Confederates had pushed a minimal amount of their forces northward. Splitting his forces such that he was unable to accomplish much at all, Kirby Smith had Henry Heth push forward from Georgetown towards Cincinnati with the greater portion of a division of troops. Heth, in his memoirs, claims to have started north on September 6 with approximately 6,000 troops.

Henry Heth is an interesting individual in Civil War folklore. Shortly after the Kentucky invasion ended, he was promoted to Major General and sent east to join Robert E. Lee's famed Army of Northern Virginia. While commanding a division in A.P. Hill's corps, Heth set out with his division on the first of July, 1863 from Cashtown, Pennsylvania towards a small town that was significant in that it was a cross-roads for some six roads bisecting southern Pennsylvania. Henry Heth set out looking for shoes, and the town was called Gettysburg.

By the time he reached Walton, Kentucky, some eighteen miles south of Cincinnati, Heth went into camp. Passing through Cynthiana, one of his mountain howitzers became disabled and was left behind. That gun is now on display at the Hamilton County Memorial building on Elm Street, one building south of Music Hall. One of his first acts was to dispatch scouts to pick up intelligence concerning the defenses of the city. These scouts returned to tell Heth that locals, sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy, said that Cincinnati residents impressed into the trenches would flee at the first sign of attack.

One of the hoped-for aspects of Kirby Smith's and Braxton Bragg's invasions of Kentucky was that the predominantly Pro-Southern Bluegrass Region would come forth and help fill thinning Confederate ranks. For this purpose, Bragg brought some 20,000 additional rifles with which to equip these volunteers. Regretfully for Bragg, very few volunteers came forward. As Bragg himself noted, when it came time to step forward, it seemed the residents of the area were more concerned with their fat pigs and fertile fields than the cause of the Confederacy.

So by the 10th of September, the situation finally began to emerge. Scouts brought word that Morgan had between 2,000 and 6,000 men at Florence - and although they had the wrong commander, as well as over-estimates of troop strength, they were at least in the ball park. Somehow, Governor Morton of Indiana forwarded that 10,000 rebels were at Zion, just south of Florence. Crittenden had been occupied, and several roads approaching Covington from the south had been captured. Another report, received in the evening, reported 12,000 troops in the area, with local secessionist residents flocking to the Confederate standards.

General Halleck in Washington, as the final events concerning the defense of Cincinnati were unfolding, received an imperial demand from Governor Robinson of Kentucky, who protested "against the withdrawal of any of the forces from this place for Cincinnati . . . There are defenses at Cincinnati, natural and artificial, also an ample force; and there are none here and none ordered . . . Please communicate with the commanding general of this department in regard to this matter."

General J.T. Boyle, an alarmist in his own right, further muddied the waters by telegraphing President Lincoln directly: "General Wright's withdrawing the troops from this place and sending them to Cincinnati is creating a panic and will ruin the State. I pray God that Buell may soon be here to save the state." An exasperated Wright found himself firing off telegrams trying to placate both the governor of Kentucky, as well as the administration in Washington. States rights, indeed.

Abraham Lincoln
And through it all, President Lincoln maintained his sense of humor. Responding to General Boyle, he queried the harassed brigadier, "Where is the enemy you dread in Louisville? How near to you? . . . With all possible respect for you I must think General Wright's military opinion is the better. . . but for us to here to control him there on the ground would be a Babel of confusion which would be utterly ruinous. Where do you understand Buell to be and what is he doing?" On the date of this telegraph, the 12th of September, Bragg and Buell were only approaching Kentucky at this point.

And finally, on the 12th, the crisis was over. "Captain Worthington, commanding a company of scouts, has just returned from beyond Florence. He reports the rear guard of the rebels at 2 o'clock to-day to be 4 miles beyond Florence. The roads are strewn with guns, knapsacks, camp equipage, etc." General Wallace put the exclamation point on the situation, reporting "The skedaddle is complete; every sign of a rout. If you say so I will organize a column of 20,000 men to pursue to-night."

Heth, in his writings, made light of the forces that faced him in front of Cincinnati. The initial skirmishing near Florence convinced Heth that the Federal forces in his front were nothing more than militia. If one takes Heth at face value in his writings, the Confederates were formed in line of battle, ready to sweep all resistance aside and march across the Ohio, when a dispatch came from Kirby Smith "positively ordering that no attack be made on Cincinnati."

Heth, a strong supporter of Kirby Smith, blamed the failures of the Kentucky campaign on Braxton Bragg. Upon reaching Richmond, Virginia after the campaign was over, Heth met with President Davis and told him of Bragg's reputed incompetency. "There was no man in either of the contending armies who was General Bragg's superior as an organizer and a disciplinarian, but when he was in the presence of an enemy he lost his head." wrote Heth.

An interesting side issue associated with the defense of Cincinnati occurred on the 12th of September. General Wright wired General Halleck that "We have no good generals here and are badly in want of them. Sheridan is worth his weight in gold. Will you not try and have him made a brigadier at once? He will put us in good shape." The next day Halleck reported that the appointment had been made. Wright, of course, served as corps commander of the VI Corps in 1864, and forged a relationship with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Such was the respect of Sheridan for Wright that he asked for Wright's corps specifically, instead of Warren's V Corps, for the maneuvers that led to the battle of Five Forks in March of 1865.

As the Confederates retreated, General Wright began to order a cautious advance, although not to the tune of 20,000 men making a vigorous pursuit as General Wallace suggested. Even so, President Lincoln, his eyes firmly on eastern Tennessee as always, asked "Can you not pursue the retreating enemy and relieve Cumberland Gap?" Considering the green nature of most of the troops, and the continuing uncertainty of the situation in the middle section of Kentucky, such caution on Wright's part is well understandable.

Public activities were restored, although, interestingly enough, circulars had to be issued in Cincinnati to the press regarding the printing of articles "of a seditious and treasonable character", and the city's journalists were requested "to exercise great caution in the publication of articles calculated unnecessarily to disturb the public mind." The Squirrel Hunters were dismissed, with the public thanks of Governor Tod.

In Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Gazette summed up the situation on September 14:

"Thanks to the promptitude of Generals Wright and Wallace, and the patriotism, courage and valor of the people, the Rebel movement toward Cincinnati has been frustrated and rolled back. In a remarkably brief space of time our cities, which were practically defenseless, became bastions of military might as our whole male population arose enmasse. The patience that they endured, the severe labor of trenches and tented fields for many days in succession presented a remarkable instance of how quickly a citizen can be converted into a soldier. Assisted by loyalists from other areas, we had an army in less than a week that was a proud example of what the West can do to meet invasion. Cincinnati is a large and wealthy city, attractive as a prize to the enemy. Hereafter, it must not be undefended as hitherto; we must have troops for home defense."

And so the scene shifted towards the western part of the state, as the cat and mouse games of Buell and Bragg began to unfold. On the 14th, even as Cincinnati was breathing more freely, and Wright was considering a pursuit, elements of Bragg's army approached Munfordville, in southern Kentucky. Kirby Smith settled into the Lexington and Frankfort areas, waiting to see how Bragg would play out his strategy. He never again seriously threatened either Cincinnati or Louisville.

The saga that was the Confederacy's only major invasion of Kentucky during the Civil War was to continue for almost another month, and culminated in the largest battle fought in the state of Kentucky. On October 8, near a small town named Perryville some thirty miles southeast of Lexington, the armies of Generals Buell and Bragg blundered into each other and initiated a bloody battle. Tactically, the Confederates got the better of their Northern counterparts, but General Bragg, realizing he was outnumbered, and continuing to face a numerically superior foe, determined it was time to retreat. Kentucky had not risen en masse to join the cause of its liberators.

Marching by way of the Cumberland Gap, Bragg retreated all the way to Chattanooga, and went into winter camp at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. 1862 would see yet another bloody encounter at Stones River outside of Murfreesboro fought on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. By this time General Buell was out of the war for the north, and it would be another eleven months before General Bragg would be relieved from active field command. And the war went on.

Could the Confederates have taken Cincinnati? Was the reaction merely an over-reaction on the part of its citizens and the administration in Washington?

The fear was very real. I believe we often lose sight of how uncertain the Administration in Washington was regarding the situation in the West at any given point of time. But the simple answer, in my opinion, is "no" -- the Confederates could not have taken Cincinnati -- at least as the campaign was laid out in August of 1862. But the month or so that followed the entrance of Kirby Smith's ragged band of 10,000 Confederates into the Bluegrass region of Kentucky was one of great excitement for Cincinnati, as well as the rest of the Union.

Return to Top