Making Game of the Butternut Gentry: Squirrel Hunters at Cincinnati

Updated: Oct 5



Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky on August 30, 1862, the defeated remnants of General William “Bull” Nelson’s Federal army streamed north past Lexington and retreated towards the city of Louisville. Confederate forces followed in close pursuit and as they entered northern Kentucky, alarm spread quickly throughout the state of Ohio. “On September 1st, General Kirby Smith entered Lexington in triumph and two days later he dispatched General Henry Heth with 5,000-6,000 men against Covington and Cincinnati,” wrote Whitelaw Reid. “So swift was the Rebel push upon Kentucky and the Ohio border, and so sudden the revolution in the aspect of the war in the Southwest.”

“News of the disaster at Richmond was not received [in Cincinnati] till a late hour Saturday night [August 30]. It produced great excitement, but the full extent of its consequences was not realized. Monday afternoon rumors began to fly about that the troops were in no condition to make any sufficient opposition, that Lexington and Frankfort might have to be abandoned. Great crowds flocked about the newspaper offices and army headquarters to ask the particulars. By dusk, it was known that instead of falling back on Cincinnati, the troops were retreating through Frankfort to Louisville, that between Kirby Smith’s flushed regiments and the banks and warehouses of the Queen City stood no obstacle more formidable than a few unmanned siege guns back of Covington and the easily crossed Ohio River. The shock was profound.”

By September 1862, Cincinnati had become a major hub of supply for the western armies. Besides being the headquarters of the Department of Ohio, the city was home to dozens of foundries, factories, shipyards, and warehouses which directly supported the Union war effort. The Cincinnati Depot, a large complex of structures some of which was located where present-day Great American Ballpark sits, performed inspection duties for army supplies, and distributed hundreds of thousands of canteens, shell jackets, sack coats, and other clothing for Federal troops. Gunpowder and ammunition was produced in the nearby Peters Fire Mill. Countless shiploads of grain, beef, pork, provisions, and equipment left Cincinnati’s docks for shipment down the Ohio River and eventual delivery in Louisville, Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis. Cincinnati was a rich prize indeed for General Kirby Smith’s troops.

In this crisis, Major General Lew Wallace from Indiana arrived in the city to take command of its defenses. Governor David Tod put out the call for volunteers to help defend the city and more than 15,000 men, known as “Squirrel Hunters,” rapidly responded to the call. Within days they arrived in Cincinnati, forming “the most picturesque and inspiring sight ever seen in Cincinnati. From morning till night the street resounded with the tramp of armed men marching to the defense of the city. From every quarter of the state they came, in every form of organization, with every species of arms. The Squirrel Hunters in their homespun with powder horn and buckskin pouch, some in uniform and some without, all poured out from the railroad depots and down towards the pontoon bridge,” wrote Whitelaw Reid. Crossing the Ohio on that pontoon bridge, the Squirrel Hunters marched into the defenses outside of Covington, Kentucky where they took their places in the ranks alongside newly raised regiments from Ohio.


This account, written by Second Lieutenant Ralph Robinson of Co. B of the 1st Ohio Rifles, one of the rapidly organized regiments of Squirrel Hunters, was published in the September 19, 1862 issue of the Bucyrus Journal.

Fort Mitchel, 3 ½ miles west of Covington, Kentucky,

September 12, 1862

Dear Journal:

Thousands of the riflemen of Ohio have invaded the scared soil of Kentucky and are now stationed on the many hilltops in the vicinity of the river. As I write, the gray of the morning barely gives light enough to see, and far and near are heard the sounds of citizen soldiers while in the camps all about us are seen the preparations for an early breakfast. The reports from headquarters have reached us that the Rebels, learning that the old forces have been withdrawn to the right and left wings, leaving the new regiments and squirrel hunters in the center, are again advancing and intend to attack us during the day and night. Such a cleaning up of “old Betsies” and “old Nances” and the rifles, muskets, and shotguns of the last century seldom was seen, and the Squirrel Hunters are ready to make game of the butternut gentry.


The position now occupied by the Crawford County detachments is directly under the guns of Fort Wright. The fort is situated on one of the highest of the many hilltops in the vicinity, embracing about three acres, with trenches running entirely around it. In the center is the fort proper, out of which are seen the mouths of several huge “bull dogs of war.” How many guns in the forts and how many men are in them and a further description might be deemed contraband, and of course cannot be given. Suffice it to say that such is the disposition and number of the forces that the coming of the Rebels (reputedly 40,000 strong) is only not dreaded, but is looked for with pleasure and ardently prayed for. Should the fun come today, the rifles of Ohio will be used for a different purpose than shooting the sprightly squirrel.


But perhaps I better begin at the commencement and tell you that after traveling all night, we arrived in Cincinnati at 5 o’clock on Thursday morning [September 4] in company with an almost innumerable number of others who had come to defend the soil of the Buckeye State. After being sent to the Clifton House for breakfast, we reported ourselves at Headquarters and were attached to a squad from Plymouth [Huron Co.] and one from Massillon [Stark Co.] The three squads formed a company of some 80 men and was organized with J.W McLaughlin as captain, Dr. A. Metz as first lieutenant, and myself as second lieutenant.


We were then marched to the foot of Race Street to await further orders, and we did wait from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and were then ordered to quarters. Then came the first night of soldiering, as our beds consisted of the soft side of a board, and the whole thing was made the more sleepable by the singing, talking, and laughing of some 80 men in a 40-square foot room. Morning came at last and about 9 o’clock we were put into line and some 1,600 men started for Kentucky. After a march of some three miles, we reached Camp Wright where we remained one night, and then moved to our present location. The men, almost without exception, enjoy camp life hugely and the hardtack and salt bacon are relished with an avidity that would do credit to an old campaigner.

Lest we forget it, we wish to say a word for the people of Cincinnati. Nothing seemed too much for them to do for the men who had come to protect their city. The market places were filled with provisions, and ladies played the part of hostesses. On the streets the men were furnished with hot coffee, warm biscuits, cigars, tobacco, apples, peaches, and almost everything else ‘without money and without price.’ During the rain of Thursday afternoon, the doors of the residences were thrown open and the men slept on the parlor carpets. All honor to the kind citizens of Cincinnati- they will long be remembered by the squirrel hunters.

We have visited the camps of the 45th Ohio and 101st Ohio and one or two others in which are Crawford County men. Without exception, all are well enough to be about. The companies of Captain Bedan B. McDonald and Captain Parsons have seen much active service already and are winning golden opinions of the officers and men of the regiment. Our regiment is designated the 1st Ohio Rifles and Colonel Cassel and Major Wortz are the only regimental officers yet appointed. We will be at home when the crisis is past and if the battle takes place you will hear of us soon. As we will be in rifle pits during the action, the friends of those here need have no anxiety for their safety.

Second Lieutenant Ralph Robinson, Co. B, 1st Ohio Rifles

A few small-scale skirmishes took place as the Confederates probed the defenses of Covington, but the full-scale attack so feared never was seriously contemplated and by middle September, the danger had past, and the Squirrel Hunters returned to their homes. Governor Tod thanked the Squirrel Hunters for their prompt response to the danger, and stated that their actions had “won additional renown for the people of Ohio.” The following March, the state legislature passed a resolution that authorized Governor Tod to pay “for printing and lithographing discharges for the patriotic men of the state who responded to the call of the Governor, and went to the southern border to repel the invader and who will be known in history as the Squirrel Hunters.”

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