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Our Rich History: ‘Squirrel Hunters’ answer the call to save Cincinnati and NKY from the Confederacy

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By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

In 1862, Cincinnati seemed well-insulated from the destruction and violence of the American Civil War. The Queen City was a bustling port city that supplied the Union forces in the Western Theater. Despite rationing and the loss of many able-bodied men to the war effort, spirits were high, and the war seemed a million miles away. All that would change in August of 1862.

The summer 0f 1862 found a Confederate Army, led by General Kirby Smith, marching north into border-state Kentucky. The Confederacy was hoping to capture Frankfort, install a pro-confederate governor, and swell their ranks with Kentucky recruits. A similar military expedition was being undertaken in the East by Robert E. Lee. The objective was to prove Southern legitimacy to European powers, in hopes of their official recognition separate from the North and for an honorable truce.

Re-enactment of Squirrel Hunters. (Photo by Steve Preston.)

Southern forces in the West were well on their way, achieving victory over a small force of Union soldiers near Lexington. Cincinnati and the state of Ohio were squarely in the sights of the Southern Army. General Smith dispatched a smaller force, led by General Henry Heth, to capture Covington, Kentucky, and if possible, Cincinnati.

Ohio governor, David Tod, and Union Major General, Horatio Wright, were horrified to learn that the only Union force protecting Ohio from invasion was overrun in Lexington.

General Lew Wallace was ordered to prepare defensive positions in and around Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. Wallace declared martial law in the cities of Cincinnati, Covington, and Newport. All businesses were closed. All able-bodied men were expected to turn out for construction labor.

Governor Tod left the Ohio state capital and came to Cincinnati. Ohio counties offered to send men to assist. Tod gladly accepted their services, on behalf of Wallace. He asked only for armed men, and promised that their train tickets to Cincinnati would be covered by the state.

The result of this request was that nearly 16,000 men from 65 counties and Indiana arrived in Cincinnati within days. These were the “Squirrel Hunters.” The men who answered the call may have been poorly equipped with antiquated firearms, untrained militarily, and dressed as farmers, but what they lacked by army standards was offset with a genuine desire to save Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati from the clutches of the Confederacy. An army paymaster gave them their nickname and it stuck.

The addition of the “Squirrel Hunters” swelled the number of Cincinnati defenders to 72,000. The turnout was so large that Governor Tod requested that no more men be sent to Cincinnati.

Squirrel Hunters crossed the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio to Covington via a pontoon bridge. Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 6, 1862.

The Fifth Street Market House in Cincinnati served as the dining facilities for the group. Available churches, meeting halls and other vacant buildings furnished housing. The Squirrel Hunters weren’t much for military drill or manual labor, but their fighting spirit and pleasant attitudes still made them a welcome addition to the defenses of the city. On September 6th, the Squirrel Hunters fanned out to take their places among the trenches, gun emplacements, and fortifications in Northern Kentucky.

As they marched, they sang “John Brown’s Body.”

Confederate scouts reported back to General Heth about the ten miles of Union defensive works in Northern Kentucky, manned by a force ten times the size of the Confederate Army sent to Cincinnati. No assault would occur against the formidable defense that was thrown up in a matter of days. Aside from some small skirmishes in Northern Kentucky, no engagements were reported. Over the next several days, the Confederate force withdrew, and the Squirrel Hunters were never battle tested.

Discharge papers for a Squirrel Hunter. Courtesy of Google Images.

A victory parade back across the river into Cincinnati on September 12th would prove to be the high-water mark of the Squirrel Hunters and their popularity among the officers in the army. Union General Smith in Fort Mitchell stated, “Cannot I get rid of the Squirrel Hunters? They are under no control.” As late as the 17th of September, many Squirrel Hunters were reveling in Cincinnati. Some took advantage of a pleasant situation in a relieved and joyous Cincinnati. Others joined the organized military effort, while most simply melted back into farm and frontier life.

In March of 1863, the Ohio State Government voted to pay for an official discharge certificate to be issued to individual Squirrel Hunters in appreciation of their service. Some 15,766 discharges were printed. As late as 1908, the Squirrel Hunters were given $13.00 by the State of Ohio for their service. This was equivalent to the pay of an 1862 militiaman.

And so the Squirrel Hunters, who helped to save Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky from a Confederate invasion, entered into the annals of our rich history.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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