Lambs Saved from the Slaughter: Memoir of a Cincinnati Emergency Defense Volunteer

    Henry Howe is best remembered today for his herculean efforts made in the 19th century to preserve the early history of the state of Ohio. Born October 11, 1816 in Connecticut, at an early age he exhibited a fascination with history, and was a voracious reader. As an adult, Howe toured all over Ohio interviewing pioneers and used these stories to construct his noteworthy Historical Collections of Ohio published in 1847. Howe settled in Cincinnati and continued his writing and historical work for the rest of his life. He took a second statewide tour at the age of 70 to update his original Historical Collections of Ohio title and gained much notice for his groundbreaking efforts to preserve the state’s history. 

    That said, Henry Howe was living in Cincinnati in September 1862 when news reached the city heralding the approach of a Confederate army under General Edmund Kirby Smith. Howe, so often a chronicler of history, had his chance to participate in making history and his memoir of the chaotic two weeks spent fortifying and defending the city from an invasion that never came is some of his finest work. This excerpt comes from his 1886 edition of the Historical Collections of Ohio.

"The lambs led forth to slaughter thus returned safely to their homes because the butcher hadn’t come." Henry Howe


The pontoon bridge over the Ohio River at Cincinnati saw the passage of thousands of hastily raised defense volunteers in the early days of September 1862. Defenses were erected across the river in Kentucky, but outside of some light skirmishing with Confederate cavalry, the threatened invasion never materialized. 

    On the morning the city was put under martial law, I found the streets full of armed police in army blue, and all, without respect to age, compelled to report at the headquarters of their respective districts for enrollment. An unwilling citizen, seeing the bayonet leveled at him, could but yield to the inexorable logic of military despotism. It was perilous to walk the streets without a pass. At every corner stood a sentinel.

The colored men were roughly handled by the Irish police. From hotels and barber shops, in the midst of their labors, these helpless people were pounced upon and often bareheaded and in shirtsleeves, seized, driven in squads at the point of the bayonet, and gathered in vacant yards and guarded. What rendered this act more than ordinarily atrocious was that they, through their head men, had at the first alarm been the earliest to volunteer their services to our mayor for the defense of our common homes. It was a sad sight to see human beings treated like reptiles.

Enrolled in companies, we were daily drilled. One of these in our ward was composed of old men termed ‘Silver Grays.’ Among its members was the venerable Judge Humphrey H. Leavitt of the Ohio Supreme Court [age 66] and other eminent citizens. Grandfathers were seen practicing the manual of arms and lifting alternate feet to the cadence of mark-time.

At this stage of affairs, the idea that our colored citizens possessed war-like qualities was a subject for scoffing; the scoffers forgetting that the race in ancestral Africa, including even the women, had been in war since the days of Ham. Strangely oblivious also to the fact that our foreign-born city police could only by furious onslaughts quell the frequent pugnacious outbreaks of the denizens of our own Bucktown. From this view, or more probably a delicate sentiment of tenderness, the negroes were consolidated into a peaceful brigade of workers in the trenches back of Newport under the philanthropic guidance of the Hon. William H. Dickson, instead of being armed and sent forth to the dangers of battle.

Henry Howe, noted historian and one of the Cincinnati residents that took part in the defense of the city in 1862. 

The daily morning march of the corps down Broadway to labor was a species of the mottled picturesque. At their head was the stalwart manly form of the landlord of the Dumas house, Colonel Harlan. Starting back on the honest, substantial coal-black foundation, all shades of color were exhibited degenerating through successive gradations to an ashy white, the index of Anglo-Saxon fatherhood of the chivalrous American type. Arrayed for dirty work in their oldest clothes, with every kind of cast-off, kicked-about, and faded-out garments, crownless and lop-eared hats, diverse boots, with shouldered pick, shovel and hoe, this merry, chattering, piebald, grotesque body shuffled along amid grins and jeers.

Tuesday night September 9, 1862 was starlit, the air soft and balmy. I was on guard at an improvised armory, the old American Express buildings on Third Street near Broadway. Three hours past midnight a rocket suddenly shot high from a signal tower three blocks east of us. Then the fire bell peeled an alarm, and then all was again quiet. Half an hour passed. Hurrying footsteps neared us. It was John D. Caldwell. “Kirby Smith,” he said quickly, “is advancing on the city. The militia are to muster on the landing and cross the river at sunrise.”

Six o’clock struck as I entered my own door to make preparations for my departure. The good woman was up. The four little innocents, two of a kind, were asleep in the bliss of ignorance, happy in quiet slumber. A few moments of hurried preparation and I was ready for the campaign. The provisions included a heavy blanket shawl, a few good cigars, a haversack loaded with eatables, and a black bottle of medicinal liquid- cherry bounce, very choice.

As I stepped out on the pavement, my neighbor did the same. He, too, was off for the war. At each of our adjoining chamber windows stood a solitary female. Neither could see the other though not ten feet apart, a house dividing wall intervening. Sadness and merriment were personified. Tears bedewed and apprehension elongated the face of the one; laughter dimpled and shortened the face of the other. The one thought of her protector as going forth to encounter the terrors of battle with visions of wounds and death before her. The other thought of hers with only a prospect of a little season of rural refreshment on the Kentucky hills, to return in safety with an appetite ravenous as a wolf’s for freshly dug pink-eyes and Beresford’s choice cuts.

We joined our regiment at the landing. This expanse of acres was crowded with armed citizens in companies and regiments. Two or three of our frail, egg-shell river steamers had been converted to gunboats and were receiving bales of hay for bulwarks. The pontoon bridge was a moving panorama of newly-made warriors and wagons of munitions hastening southward. Back of the plain of Covington and Newport rose the softly rounded hills and beyond those lay our bloodthirsty foe. Our officers tired to maneuver our regiment but they were too ignorant to maneuver themselves; it was like handling a rope of sand. But in my absence they had somehow managed to get the long line of men arranged into platoons.

Fort Mitchel in Kentucky

Then as I took my place the drums beat, fifes squeaked, and we crossed the pontoon. The people of Covington filled their doorways and windows to gaze at the passing pageant. To my fancy they looked scowlingly. No cheers or smiles greeted us. It was a staring silence as the Rebel army had been largely recruited from the town. March, march march! We struck the hills. The way up seemed interminable. The boiling September sun poured upon us like a furnace. The road was as an ash heap. Clouds of limestone dust whitened us like millers, filling our nostrils and throats with impalpable powder. The cry went up for water, but little or none was to be had. The unusual excitement and exertion told upon me. Years before, I had performed pedestrian tours of thousands of miles, having twice walked across New York from the Hudson to the lake and in the hottest of summer had footed it from Richmond to Lynchburg. No forty or fifty miles a day had ever wilted me like this march of only four miles. But my muscles had been relaxed by years of continuous office labor, and I had been on my feet on guard duty all night.

Near the top of the hills some 500 feet above the Ohio River, our regiment halted and our officers galloped ahead. We broke ranks and lay down under the wayside fence. Five minutes elapsed when back cantered the cortege. “Fall into line! Fall into line! Quick men!” was the cry. As they rode among us, our colonel exclaimed “You are now going into battle! The enemy are advancing! You will receive 60 rounds of cartridges. Do your duty men, do your duty!” I fancied it a ruse to test our courage and so experienced a sense of shame. I looked upon the men around me. Not a word was spoken and no one smiled. No visible emotion of any kind appeared, only weary faces, dirty, sweaty, and blowsy with the burning heat.

I dropped my cartridges into my haversack along with my food. Our captain, in his musical pleasant voice, gave us instructions though he had never studied war. “Gentlemen, these cartridges are peculiar. You put the ball in first and the powder on top.” Someone whispered in his ear, then he said, “Gentlemen,” with a significant scowl and shake of his head, “I was mistaken, you must put the powder in first then the ball on top!” We did so. We had elected Billy captain for he was genial and of a good family.

We again shuffled upward. Suddenly, as the drawing of a curtain, a fine, open, rolling country with undulating ravines burst upon us. Two or three farm mansions with half-concealing foliage and cornfields appeared in the distance; beyond, a mile away, the fringed line of a forest and above a cloudless sky and noonday sun. The road we were on penetrated these woods and in these were concealed the unknown thousands of our war-experienced foe.

On the summit of the hills we had so laboriously gained, defending the approach by the road, ran our line of earthworks. On our right was Fort Mitchell and to our left was hundreds of yards of rifle pits. The fort and pits were filled with armed citizens and a regiment or two of green soldiers in their new suits. Vociferous cheers greeted our appearing. “How are you, Henry?” struck my attention. It was the cheerful voice of a tall, slender gentleman who did my legal business, John W. Herron.

Turning off to the left into the fields in front of the rifle pits and away beyond, we halted an hour or so in line of battle, the nearest regiment to the enemy. We waited in expectation of an attack, too exhausted to fight or even perhaps to run. Thence we moved back into an orchard, behind a rail fence on rather low ground, our left being the extreme left of all our forces rested on a farmhouse. Our pioneers went to work strengthening our permanent position, cutting down brush and small trees and piling them against the fence. Here we were in plain view, a mile in front of the ominous forest. When night came on, in caution, our campfires were extinguished. We slept on hay in the open air with our loaded muskets by our sides and our guards and pickets doubled.

Thomas Buchanan Read served as a volunteer aide to General Lew Wallace and also penned a memoir of his experiences during the emergency. 

At 4 o’clock, reveille sounded and we were up in line. I then enjoyed what I had not seen in years- the first coming on of morning in the country. Most of the day we were in line of battle behind the fence. Regiments to the right of us and more in the rifle pits father on, a mile beyond it seemed, and the artillerists in Fort Mitchell also stood waiting for the enemy on the hills above us. Constant picket firing was going on in front. The Rebels were feeling our lines. Pop! Pop! Pop! One, two, three, then half a dozen in quick succession, followed by a lull with intervals of three or four minutes, broken perhaps by a solitary pop. Again continuous pops then another lull, and so on through the long hours. Some of our men were wounded and others were killed. With the naked eye we caught occasional glimpses of the skirmishers in a cornfield near the woods. With a glass a man by my side said he saw the butternut-colored garments of the foe.

Toward evening, a furious thunderstorm drove us to our tents of blankets and brushwood bowers. It wet us through and destroyed the cartridges in our cotton haversacks. Just as the storm was closing, a tremendous fusillade on our right prompted the cries from our officers, “The enemy are upon us! Turn out! Turn out!” We went to the fence again and feared that the Rebels had surprised us and would be dashing down in a moment with their cavalry. Several of our company fired off their muskets in that direction and to the manifest danger of our own line of sentinels. It was a false alarm, and arose in the 110th Ohio camped on the hill to our right. 

You may ask what my sensations were as I thus stood, back to the fence with uplifted musket in expectant attitude? To be honest, my teeth chattered uncontrollably. I never boasted of courage. Drenched to the marrow by the cold rain, I was shivering before the alarm and so I reasoned in this way: our men are all raw, and our officers are in the same doughy condition. We are armed with an old, condemned Belgian rifle. Not one in ten can be discharged. All my reading in history has ground the fact into me that militia situated like us are worthless when attacked by veterans. A hundred experienced cavalrymen dashing down with drawn sabers and secesh yells will scatter us in a twinkling. When the others run, and I know they will, I won’t. I will drop beside this fence, simulate death, and open an eye to the culminating circumstances. I was not aching for a fight. Ambitious youths going in on their muscles are apt to come out on their backs. To pit my valuable life against one of these low Southern whites, half animals, fierce as hyenas, degraded as serfs, appeared a manifest incongruity. It never seemed so plain before. It was tackling the beast in the only point where he was strong.

Some things were revealed to me by this soldier life. The alarming rumors current, the restraints upon one’s liberty imprisoned within the lines of the regiment. The sensation of being ordered around by small men in high places and not admirable in any. The waste of war, the piles of bread water soaked by rain into worthless pulp. The vacuity of mind from the want of business for continuous thought. The picturesque attitudes of scores of men sleeping on heaps of straw seen by the uncertain light of the night. The importance of an officer’s horse beyond that of a common soldier, shown by the refusal of hat on which to sleep on the night of our arrival because the colonel’s beast wanted it. Didn’t our good mother earth furnish a bed?

We had some odd characters. Our fifer was a short, spare-built, wan-faced man who had served in the British army and seen service in Afghanistan on the other side of the globe. Another, a German lieutenant, had experienced war in our country at Shiloh. He was imaginative and I talked with him in the night. To my query of the probability of a night attack, he replied, “Yes, the secesh always attack in that way.” Past midnight as he was going the rounds of the pickets as officer of the guard, he said he saw crouching in the shadow of a ravine a large body of Rebels. He ran to headquarters and aroused our colonel and staff but when they arrived at the seeing point, the foe had vanished. A fat, gray-headed captain with a protruding abdomen came to me soon after our arrival and with an impressive countenance discoursed of the perils of our position. In this I quite agreed with him. Then putting his hand to his stomach and his head a turn to one side, after the usual manner of invalids in detailing their woes, he uttered “I am very sick. The march over has been too much for me. I fear a severe attack of my old attack, cholera morbus, coming on.” After this I missed him; he had got a permit from the surgeon and returned home to be nursed. Our surgeon was Virginia born and I suspected him of secesh sympathies. This confirmed my suspicion- he wished to get the fighting men out of the way!

Saturday afternoon the 13th we began our return march. The militia was no longer needed as the rebels had fallen back and thousands of our regular soldiers had poured into the city and spread over the Kentucky hills. Our return was an ovation. The landing was black with men, women, and children. We recrossed the pontoon amid cheers and the boom of cannon. Here, on the safe side of the river, the sick captain, now recovered, joined his regiment. With freshly shaven face, spotless collar, and bright uniform, he appeared like a bandbox soldier amongst dust-covered warriors. Escaping our perils, he shared our glories as, with drawn sword, he strutted through street after street amid cheers of the multitude, smiles of admiring women, and the waving of handkerchiefs. Weary and dirt-begrimed, we were in a tedious circuitous march, duly shown off by our officers to all their lady acquaintances until night came to our relief, kindly covered us with her mantle, and stopped the tomfoolery. The lambs led forth to slaughter thus returned safely to their homes because the butcher hadn’t come.


Howe, Henry. Historical Collections of Ohio. Volume I. Cincinnati: C.J. Krehbiel & Co., 1888, pgs. 774-777


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