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The McGraw Story, or Monuments Are Not Always Factual

On a drive to Augusta, Kentucky I decided to stop at Flagg Springs Cemetery, which is on Highway 10 in Campbell County, a stone's throw from the AA Highway. In doing research on the Augusta engagement I came across a story about two men, William F. Corbin and T. Jefferson McGraw, who had been executed for recruiting for the Confederacy in northern Kentucky.

This story focuses on McGraw, although Corbin is buried just three miles away in a family cemetery along Old Washington Trace. During Edmund K. Smith's invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1862, McGraw and other Campbell County men enlisted in the Confederate army on September 25th, joining the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, upon which McGraw, a member of one of the oldest and most respected families in the area, was made lieutenant. After spending time with the Fourth Kentucky, McGraw (and Corbin, who had been made captain) were sent to recruit more men in northern Kentucky. On the night of April 8th, 1863, they were to meet at a local home (near the Wesley Chapel on Highway 10), and march from there to Paris, Kentucky with their new recruits. McGraw was late arriving, so Corbin sent his new men on their way while he waited for McGraw. Unfortunately for both men, shortly after McGraw arrived, a group of Federal soldiers appeared, causing Corbin and McGraw to flee into a nearby woods. When the Federals threatened to burn the home, the two men surrendered to save the house. Ironically the Federals (from the 118th Ohio Infantry) were looking for another Confederate recruiting in the area when they came upon rumors and Corbin's and McGraw's activities. In Cincinnati on April 21st the two men were tried by court martial, found guilty, and upon President Lincoln's approval of the sentence, were sent to Johnson's Island on Lake Erie to be shot on May 15th. Although appeals were made to both Burnside and Lincoln by Corbin and McGraw family members, including Corbin's sister and McGraw's widowed mother, Lincoln would not overturn the decision to execute these men who had been recruiting within Federal lines. On the afternoon of May 15th, the two men were bound with their arms behind them, blindfolded, and sat on their coffins, and were summarily executed by the firing squad that was positioned twelve paces away. One of the men detailed to the firing squad feinted. McGraw and Corbin were knocked off their feet, landing in the coffins that had been placed behind them. McGraw gave one gasp and died. Corbin died silently. The bodies of both men were carried by steamboat back to California, Kentucky, where a memorial service was held at the Corbin home. Some of the neighbors stated that the two received what they had coming to them. A sad ending for these two officers.

McGraw's stone after cleaning

After locating the cemetery and then finding the monument behind the old church, I immediately noticed that my Cynthiana friend Stephen G. Burbridge is mentioned on the stone, inferring that McGraw was executed under his order. But that did not make sense to me as Ambrose Burnside was in command in Cincinnati, and it was his General Order Number 38 under which McGraw was most likely found guilty and thus executed. An excerpt from that order stated "That hereafter all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country, will be tried as spies or traitors, and, if convicted, will suffer death." Ironically the order would not be issued until five days after McGraw's and Corbin's arrest.

The text tells the story, or does it? Top view of the stone before cleaning and replacing the incorrect flag.

Another reason why Burbridge's name appearing on this stone seemed odd to me - at the time of the execution Burbridge was leading the 1st Brigade, Tenth Division, XIII Corps during the Vicksburg campaign and was seven hundred miles away from northern Kentucky. Was Burbridge hated so much in Kentucky after the war that consciously or sub-consciously he is the commander mistakenly listed as issuing the general order that would lead McGraw's death? Or was this naming of "Butcher" Burbridge intentional, either by the ladies of the Mrs. Basil Duke Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the monument maker? Upon seeing the completed stone before installation, the ladies of the chapter had to notice any error, and surely would have asked for a corrected replacement. Or perhaps it was indeed intentional. The hatred for Burbridge is so strong by some Kentuckians that to this day they continue to make statements, mostly incorrect, about the man. Even Burbridge's own brother was murdered in western Kentucky after the war for simply being the Butcher's kin. Regardless, the incorrectness of the stone's text is a good indication of how Kentuckians felt after the war about the Butcher. It is also a case that monuments are not always accurate, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

For those of you who believe that Burbridge was a butcher, I would suggest reading Brad Asher's recent title The Most Hated Man in Kentucky - The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge.

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