The Ohio River Highway

Throughout the Civil War, the Ohio River was a major conduit of men, arms, and other materials of war to support Union military activities throughout the western theater. Connecting industrial centers such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Louisville with St. Louis and the Mississippi River network proved to be a tremendous advantage for the Union army in prosecuting the war in this theater.

I was a bit surprised (but perhaps should not have been) to recently learn that the Ohio River also served as a conduit for troops going into the eastern theater. I had thought that troop and supply traffic had generally gone east over the extensive railroad network in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but as is shown below, the Ohio River also transported units headed east.

This article features a pair accounts from Buckeye soldiers who headed for the seat of war on the Ohio River during the winter of 1862. The first account was written by Corporal William H. Ewing of Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery that documents his battery’s passage from Cincinnati, Ohio to Parkersburg, Virginia in January 1862. The second account was penned by Chaplain Abraham B. Poe of the 72nd Ohio who describes the regiment’s trip from Cincinnati to Paducah, Kentucky. Both accounts provide some interesting insights and incidents to river travel in 1862.
Cincinnati, Ohio with abundant steamboat traffic on the Ohio River. The river was a major avenue for shipping war materials both east and west during the Civil War. 

Corporal William H. Ewing, Battery H, 1st Ohio Volunteer Light Artillery:
          Contrary to all of our expectations, when our marching orders finally reached us at Camp Dennison, they were for Romney, Virginia instead of Kentucky as everything had previously indicated. These orders reached us January 20th in the morning and on Tuesday the 21st we started from Camp Dennison at 10 o’clock and reached Cincinnati by 3 p.m. We immediately commenced the task of embarking on the Jacob Strader, the largest and best steamer running on the Ohio River above Louisville. The two batteries, our own Battery H and Battery L led by Captain Lucius N. Robinson, filled the steamer full and our horses were so much crushed together that it was impossible to get at them to feed or water them until Thursday afternoon when we reached Portsmouth [Ohio] and chartered the Bostona, on which all of the men and horses of Battery L were transferred.

          Our trip up the Ohio River was a very pleasant and interesting one, rendered more so by the exceedingly high stage of water, the river being bank full which is 60 feet above the low water mark at Cincinnati. Everybody on each side of the river turned out as we passed, gave us hearty cheers and waving handkerchiefs. Once in a while some fair belle would fling the glorious old banner of stars and stripes out of the window and never failed to receive such a cheering as well repaid her for the patriotic display.
This fine photo of a motley collection of steamboats at the wharf at Vicksburg, Mississippi gives some idea of the variety of vessels that plied the western rivers. 

          In passing some of the small towns, the most ludicrous scenes were presented to our view. Inmates of many of the houses were driven out of the ground floor of their homes by the high water, and yet it seemed as if they out-cheered and out-waved their neighbors who were on the higher ground. One enthusiastic woman was standing on a stool in the front door with the water almost up to the top of the stool waving her handkerchief most furiously. How she got there or how she got off again is more than I know.

          I noticed particularly that the inhabitants on the Ohio side sent up one everlasting “hello” and “hurrah” while the Kentuckians gave their cheer in the more sensible “hurrah for the Union.” Once in a while we passed a house where the inhabitants folded their arms and allowed us to pass without giving us the least sign of welcome. One large house above Maysville, Kentucky had turned out the whole family and our boys began to cheer them, but as soon as our boat drew nearer, we could readily perceive that they had no cheers for us, and it was amusing to see how speedily the boys changed their tune from cheering to groaning, and I can assure you that we gave them a salute worthy of the occasion.

Chaplain Abraham B. Poe, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry:
          We left Camp Chase [Columbus, Ohio] on Wednesday February 19, 1862. The passage to Cincinnati was not marked with anything different from the usual experience of railway traveling except the arrest of a captain for intoxication. This amounted to nothing more than depriving him of his sword and command for a few days, but it showed that Colonel [Ralph] Buckland would not tolerate that kind of vice among his subordinate officers.

Our trip down the river was a very pleasant one, but nevertheless a little tedious. Opposite Madison, Indiana, some part of the machinery broke and detained us at that place several hours before we reached Louisville, Kentucky by the middle of the afternoon of the 20th. Here we had to disembark from the Telegraph No. 3, march three miles around the falls of the Ohio, and embark again on the Baltic. The Baltic was a good boat but did not have as obliging a set of officers as the Telegraph. While coaling at Cannelton, Indiana, some of us went ashore and took a ramble over the hills and under them, too, for we explored a coal mine. [The Cannel Coal Co. operated an extensive coal mine here which was used, among other things, to fuel steamboats on the Ohio River. Production in 1862 totaled roughly 900,000 bushels (36,000 tons) of coal.] Here I gathered some mistletoe that had already become famous in the song of the down going of the Confederacy.[i] In company with some others, I tried my hand at shooting the wild geese, of which there were a great many upon the river, but if the Secesh get off as well as the geese did, there will be no one hurt.
Captain Leroy Moore, Co. F, 72nd OVI

Paducah is a place of about 3,500 inhabitants. The inhabitants are mostly Union men now, but if a Rebel force was here they would be Rebels. They cannot be much of anything for there is nothing of them for, to use a country phrase, “they’re no account.” One of the most intelligent of the farmers that I met thought Canada joined Illinois and was astonished to learn that steamer ran upon the northern Great Lakes for he thought they were not more than three miles wide. Compared with our northern places of the same size, its business buildings are not so good. It has some better residences than many of them can boast of, but as a general thing the private dwellings are not so good. There seems to be a general want of those little conveniences that signalize our thrifty Yankees. Our camp is on the Benton road about a mile from town. It has Island Creek to the west, the Ohio River on the north, and the Tennessee on the east. You will see by this that the south is the only side accessible by the Secesh. Our boys have to submit to a little scaring if no real danger.
Paducah, Kentucky in 1862


Letter from Corporal William H. Ewing, Daily Toledo Blade, February 10, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from Chaplain Abraham B. Poe, Perrysburg Journal, March 27, 1862, pg. 3

[i] Poe is referencing the song “Aura Lea,” a popular song which was published in 1861 by Englishman George R. Poulton and Ohioan William W. Fosdick. The fourth verse of the song starts “when the mistletoe was green midst the winter’s snows,” hence Poe’s reference to mistletoe.


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