How Cincinnati’s “savior” saved the city from its darkest days

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What could have been Cincinnati’s darkest day didn’t turn out that way.

during Civil war, Cincinnati had a bit of a buffer from the South because Kentucky, a slave-holding border state, had not seceded from the Union. But in the late summer of 1862, Confederate forces found it easy to enter and capture Lexington and Frankfort. Cincinnatians feared it would be their turn next, and it did.

That Cincinnati has not fallen is due in large part to leadership Major General Lou Wallace, a Union general who had been plagued by controversy after the Battle of Shiloh a few months earlier. Maybe his defense of Cincinnati only happened because he was trying to prove himself after Shiloh.

Our history: What was it like to live in Cincinnati in the 1870s? Let’s travel back in time

Lou Wallace is called “The Man Who Saved Cincinnati.”

We don’t hear much about Wallace in Cincinnati. Author Peter Brunson, editorial page editor and former Enquirer columnist, may help change that with his new book, “The Man Who Saved Cincinnati.”

Bronson, a Civil War buff, learned of Wallace’s story in school Historic Shiloh Battlefield.

“When I found out about the Cincinnati connection, that was it. He just told me this is a great story,” Bronson said. “This is one of those treasures of history that people have lost and need to bring back into the light.”

As he did with “Forbidden Fruit,” his book about the days of mob corruption in NewportBronson writes, reads more like a historical film based on a true story with some characters added to help the reader get into the moment, such as Bronson’s great-grandfather, who fought with the nearby 12th Michigan at Corinth and possibly at Shiloh.

The book covers more than just Wallace’s service in the Civil War. Wallace later spent four years as governor of New Mexico Territory during the lawless Wild West period Billy the Kid arrested. As he wrote “Ben-Hur: The Story of Christ” The most popular novel of the nineteenth century.

“He was an amazing man to accomplish all of these things in one life,” Bronson said.

Wallace unfairly blamed the losses at Shiloh

Wallace’s experience at Shiloh is central to his understanding. The youngest Union general at 34 years old, he taught himself by reading books about military campaigns.

“He always had a little chip on his shoulder about it because people didn’t respect him unless he had the credentials that they had at West Point,” Bronson said.

On April 6, 1862, Confederate forces stormed Federal camps near the Shiloh Meeting House, a church in southwestern Tennessee. Major General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Wallace to bring his division to defend the Army forces. One of his aides wrote down his verbal order but the paper has been lost to history. Wallace swore that Grant had not decided which route to take—the improved Shunpike Road or the flooded river route. He took Shunpike, but Grant wanted him to take River Road.

Union General Lew Wallace was Shiloh's scapegoat but Cincinnati's savior during the Civil War.

Union General Lew Wallace was Shiloh’s scapegoat but Cincinnati’s savior during the Civil War.

Due to the confusion, Wallace did not arrive on the battlefield on the first day of fighting. The Union won the battle on April 7, but the failures and injuries from day one were blamed on Wallace, not Grant.

“History has judged Lou Wallace very unfairly,” Bronson said. “And as I looked into it deeper and deeper, I saw that this was actually a cover-up for Grant’s mistakes and that they needed someone to be a scapegoat. … Wallace spends the rest of his life trying to extricate himself from this unfair smear orchestrated by Grant’s senior staff.”

Defending Cincinnati from Confederate siege

A few months later, Wallace was in Cincinnati when the Queen City needed him most.

Confederate Major General E. Kirby Smith captured Richmond, Kentucky, on August 30, 1862. Three days later, 11,000 Confederate soldiers entered Lexington to the cheers of the crowd. Then Frankfurt fell. Kirby soon sent General Henry Heth with 9,000 men to capture Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the terrified citizens of Cincinnati prepared for siege. Wallace took command of Cincinnati, Newport, and Covington and declared martial law on September 1.

The next day, The Enquirer published his declaration: “It is only fair to inform the citizens that an active, bold, and powerful enemy threatens them with all the consequences of war; But the cities must be defended and their residents must help prepare. Patriotism, duty, honor, and self-preservation call them to action, and it must be done equally by all classes.

With no army to defend Cincinnati, the citizens would have to advance. No bridge had yet crossed the Ohio River, so barges were tied together to build a temporary pontoon bridge to reach Kentucky. He called armed volunteers from all over Ohio.

General Lew Wallace ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Ohio River into northern Kentucky to aid in the defense against the Siege of Cincinnati in September 1862.

General Lew Wallace ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Ohio River into northern Kentucky to aid in the defense against the Siege of Cincinnati in September 1862.

The Black Brigade is given the dignity of volunteering after racist abuse

Under the orders of Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch, black men were rounded up in the city for digging rifle pits, building fortifications, and clearing roads in northern Kentucky.

“Freed black men in Cincinnati were abused, bayoneted, forced into a mule corral, then dragged across the river into a slave-holding state where their freedom was now in complete danger and they were forced to dig ditches and rifle pits,” Bronson said, “and build roads for defense.” About Cincinnati, until Lou Wallace heard what Hatch was doing.”

Wallace ordered Black Brigade organization, with abolitionist Colonel William M. Dixon in command. 300 kidnapped black men were sent home and given the dignity of volunteer labor. The next day, 700 Black Brigade volunteers showed up.

“This was the first time black people were given a chance to fight for their freedom and contribute to the battle,” Bronson said.

Flag of the Cincinnati Black Brigade, which built fortifications in northern Kentucky in defense of the Siege of Cincinnati.  The brigade was the first group of black citizens to serve as an organized body in the United States Armed Forces.

Flag of the Cincinnati Black Brigade, which built fortifications in northern Kentucky in defense of the Siege of Cincinnati. The brigade was the first group of black citizens to serve as an organized body in the United States Armed Forces.

“The perfect person to save the city”

A force of about 70,000 troops—a mix of regular army and volunteers—rose to defend Cincinnati. This number includes 15,000 isolated fighters known as “squirrel hunters,” armed with pistols, rifles and sporting rifles.

When Confederate forces arrived, they found Cincinnati prepared to defend itself. Realizing that the invasion would not be easy, Heth and the Confederates withdrew on the night of September 11.

Wallace addressed the people of Cincinnati, saying, “In the future, strangers who see the works on the hills of Newport and Covington will ask, ‘Who built these ditches?’ You can answer, ‘We built them.’ If they say, ‘Who guarded them?’ You can answer, ‘We have helped thousands.’” If they inquire about the result, your answer will be: “The enemy came and looked at them and stole in the night.”

People called Wallace “the savior of Cincinnati.”

“He united the city in an inspiring way,” Bronson said. “Doctors and ditch-diggers side by side. Lawyers and workers. All these people who were banding together, and just in those weeks they put aside all their hostility and divisions about class and religion and race and everything else. All of those things disappeared for a while.”

Wallace was the right man in the right place at the right time for Cincinnati, at a time when it needed it most. Even if it was because of the injustice done to him.

“In many ways, I don’t think he would have done what he did in Cincinnati if he hadn’t gone through that at Shiloh,” Bronson added. “He was very eager to show that he could do what needed to be done in a difficult situation. … This guy in Cincinnati turned out to be the perfect person to come here and save the city.”

This article originally appeared on the Cincinnati Enquirer website: How this man saved Cincinnati from Confederate forces during the Civil War

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