Three Men, a Slave, and a Cemetery

Updated: Oct 2

As many of the readers of my posts have surmised, I enjoy visiting cemeteries in my area as part of my ongoing fascination with the veterans and their service. At times the cemeteries provide stories, or generate further research. This is one such example of a tiny cemetery that sparked a deeper look.

Tucked away on a ridge along River Road in southern Butler County, Ohio is the Richards-Gilbert Cemetery. This tiny plot of land is rarely visited because there is no parking area or pulloff, and the climb up the numerous uneven rock steps is daunting to those who do consider visiting the cemetery. But those who make the climb come to a quiet spot, with only three upright stones, and a memorial in the middle, made from a steel roller used to compress gravel roads. Yet three Civil War veterans, and one runaway slave, and perhaps twenty other family members, are buried in this small and mostly forgotten cemetery.

Location of the Richards-Gilbert Cemetery in southwestern Butler County indicated by blue oval

Alfred West Gilbert

Alfred West Gilbert

When I first visited the cemetery my purpose was mostly focused on one man, Alfred West Gilbert. Had you lived in Cincinnati in the mid-1800s you would known of him, however today he is but a street name, Gilbert Avenue that runs from northeast to southwest on the east side of the city. Yet Gilbert was involved in developing Findlay Market which still thrives today as an urban grocery location and Cincinnati icon.[1] He helped construct roads, served in the city sewerage department, and later served as city surveyor. Many water works projects were completed under his careful eye. During the Civil War he became Lieutenant Colonel of the Thirty-Ninth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment (after enlisting initially as a private, a rank he would hold for less than a day), and would serve at places like Boonville, Missouri, Island Number 10, and Corinth. While in the Corinth area Gilbert would write on September 9th, 1862, "Another arrival of contrabands by cars & they come in squads on foot & deliver themselves up to our pickets. What are we to do with these poor creatures?" His resignation, having been submitted in September, would be officially dated for October 1st, 1862. However, this timing did not prevent Gilbert from his duty, and being wounded on October 3rd during the Confederate attack on Corinth.


Returning to Cincinnati Gilbert would resume his engineering career, retiring in 1873 due to his failing health, living out his last years on the family estate known as Elland, of which only the family cemetery remains. He passed away in 1900.


Henry Richards

Henry Richards

Recently I came across two short tracts related to the Ninety-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry. One was a collection of letters written by Captain Henry Richards.[2] After reading the introduction, written by an A. W. G., a revelation struck me - this introduction was written by one Alfred West Gilbert, as Henry Richards was his brother-in-law. A quick check of the cemetery on Find a Grave confirmed that Richards was also buried in the same cemetery as Gilbert.


The other tract is a short history written by Alfred Demoret, who is buried just a mile as the crow flies from the Richards-Gilbert Cemetery.


Henry Richards, son of prominent Hamilton County citizen Giles Richards and his wife Eleanor, was the eldest child from that marriage, being born on September 5th, 1823. Richards had studied at Cary's Academy near Cincinnati, and was engaged in farming prior to the war.[3] He would enlist in the Union army on July 30th, 1862 as a second lieutenant and would go on to help recruit local men to form a company. On August 18th he would muster into service with the Ninety-Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Company F. He was thirty-nine years of age at the time of his enlistment. His brother-in-law would write that he had for Richards "....a feeling of respect and esteem for his manly virtues, self-devotion and true patriotism...." Gilbert would go on to add that Richards was "One of the most unselfish of men, he refused the promotion as captain of another company when offered him, feeling that he should stay with his company who were, at home, his neighbors and friends, and could not bear the idea of leaving them to be cared for by any other officer, and it was only when he found that he would serve most of his time on detached duty that he consented to be made captain of his own company."


Richards would serve with the Ninety-Third through most of their existence, one highlight being their participation in the attack on Brown's Ferry near Chattanooga, (see "A damned Yankee trick!" for Richards' accounting of the attack at Brown's Ferry) Richards would be discharged on December 27th, 1864, after battling a recurring respiratory illness that saw him spend time in the officer's hospital at Lookout Mountain. He would pass away on August 18th, 1865, most likely due to his hard service in the Civil War and the lasting effects of his illness.


George G. Richards

The third Civil War veteran in the Richards-Gilbert Cemetery is Henry's younger brother George G. Richards. George was eager to serve during the war, his curiosity causing him to chase after John H. Morgan during the latter's 1863 Indiana-Ohio Raid. Older brother Henry would write his father on July 21st, 1863, "I hope George was satisfied. He and Giles must have felt cheap. The idea of taking a horse and buggy to go on a scout after rebels shows a want of judgment which I would not have attributed to either of them, but it may prove a good lesson to both."


There is apparently much more to this story of George and cousin Giles in their eagerness to chase after Morgan and his men. The Venice Graphic of September 9th, 1887, reporting on the dedication of a nearby watering trough, had this to say about George's escapades:


It was on the glorious Fourth of July, in 1860, that the fountain was dedicated. Several years later Morgan’s raiders approached within half a dozen miles of this spot, and it fell to the lot of Giles Richards’ son George - at whose farm I spent my vacation - to turn them from their purpose. George Richards was a mere youth then - not much over sixteen. His cousin Giles, a member of the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was at home on sick leave at that time. The country road about was much excited just then over the story that Morgan’s band of marauders was nearing town. In the field of battle near where the Confederate Gen. Zollicoffer was killed, Will Gano captured a horse and sent him North after christening him after the dead rebel. These young fellows took it into their heads one day that they would go upon a scouting expedition and see if they could find some trace of the wily Morgan. So they hitched ‘Zollicoffer’ to a buggy and started out. Away up the pike they drove past Colerain, through Venice and some distance beyond that place. On they were going when they discovered three men in gray in the barnyard. They carried muskets, and in a moment their weapons were cocked.

"Halt!" cried one of them. The boys halted.

"Where are you going?" demanded one of the Johnny rebs.

"Oh, we are driving to see if we can find any of Morgan’s raiders," responded George Richards, with all the candor of youth.

"Keep right on," ordered the fellow grimly, "you’ll find `em!"

The three Rebs fell in behind and the boys drove on. Giles knew they were in a scrape but George didn’t realize the danger. Sure enough, they had not ridden very far before they ran into a body of at least a hundred of the Johnnies.

"Nice horse that!" remarked a big rawboned Kentuckian, as he thumped little ‘Zollicoffer’ in the ribs. "Git out here and help unhitch."

George got out and the Kentuckian rode away on Zollicoffer’s back. Even then he did not appreciate that they were in a bad scrape, but he hunted up the officer in command and said, "Captain, we’re in a pretty tough fix. We’re pretty far from home to be without any horse. Haven’t you got an old cripple you don’t want that you can let us have?"

The audacity of the request startled the Reb, and for a moment he stared at his questioner closely. He saw nothing but innocence there, and with a queer sort of smile he said to one of his men:

"Get this boy a horse!"

Then turning to George he told him, "Now you turn right around and go back for if you meet the rest of the army they’ll take this away from you. By the way any home guards up your way?"

"Yes, indeed!" responded young Richards, "two companies at Venice."

It was a fib, for there wasn’t a home guard in the town but the lie served its purpose. Morgan’s raiders gave Venice a wide berth. They turned down toward New Baltimore, burnt the bridge there that night and then passed back to the Colerain Pike, crossing at Franklin Wells a couple miles south of his place. As for young Richards, it was a cripple the Rebs gave him. It took three hours prodding with a hickory hoop-pole to get him home again. On the way they met several drunken Johnnies, and George, filled with the enthusiasm of youth, wanted to take a few prisoners, but his cousin told him to ‘say nothing and saw wood.’ He didn’t want his head blown off. They finally ran across one raider who had succumbed to water or something else. He was asleep on the road with two hams by his side.

The boys ‘sneaked’ the hams, and later on they were devoured with éclat at the Union Sanitary Commission picnic at Colerain. Every farmer they met declared they had heard the yarn often enough. The majority, however, gathered their horses together and drove them into the weeds that grew as high as a house in the Miami bottom.

Venice owes George Richards a debt of gratitude to this day.


Even after his supposed encounter with Morgan's men, George was still a curious young man, and when the midwestern governors organized what would be known as One Hundred Days regiments, twenty year-old George would join the 138th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 2nd, 1864 as a corporal. Brother Henry would again write their father the following in a letter dated May 3rd:


"I see by the papers that the militia of Ohio are called out for 100 days, which I suppose will give brother George a chance of soldiering. He should take nothing but what he can carry on a march, though I suppose they will not have much of that to do. One blanket, one extra pair socks, one extra shirt, haversack, canteen and rubber blanket, with half of a shelter tent is all he should take. The pants he wears will last him. A tin plate, knife and fork and spoon, tin-cup and very small tin bucket, with cover, that will hold about a quart, to make coffee in, a little sack for coffee, one for sugar and one for salt, just large enough to hold three days' rations, and a small frying pan completes the outfit. He will find when he carries all these with gun, cartridge-box, with forty rounds ammunition, he will have a pretty good load. Nothing is better than Government shoes for the march, and they should be one size larger than he wears at home."


Whether or not George followed the advice of his veteran older brother is not known.


In a July 14th letter to his sister Elizabeth (Alfred's wife), Henry would write again of George in the service, "I received a letter from brother George a few days ago, and am not surprised to learn that he would be glad to be home again, and I think a hundred days will effectually cure him of soldiering, and do hope he may pass safely through. The greatest danger is in the first battles, as he will not know how to take advantage of positions and screen himself, but it is more than probable that he will not get into a fight." A few days later Henry would mention to his father, "I received a letter from brother George. I judge one hundred days will cure him of soldiering. It is just long enough for him to become heartily disgusted. A longer term he would become more reconciled and like it better."


The 138th OVI would muster out of service on September 1st, 1864 at Camp Dennison. Not much else is known of George's life, and he passed away on January 24th, 1912.


Rachel

As if these stories from this collection of men were not enough for one very small cemetery, also buried at Richards-Gilbert is Rachel, a former slave. Born sometime around 1848, she was held in bondage in Mississippi near the Mississippi River. During the war, she was freed when the Union army came through her master's lands near Corinth, Mississippi. She was then brought to Ohio in late 1862 to aid Colonel Gilbert in his recovery. Gilbert would write, "On the 20th of October I left Corinth in the morning train accompanied by my wife. Col. Sprague of the 63rd also came along on his way to Ohio. My wife before leaving went out to the Negro Corral & obtained a specimen contraband in the shape of a bright little colored girl, about 14 years old. Chaplain Alexander, who has charge of the Camp, was very kind & assisted her all he could."


Rachel lived with the Gilberts as a free woman for the rest of her life and was "faithful and willing" in her service to the family. She was treated kindly by the Gilberts and was given an education. Her last name unfortunately has been lost to time.

 

NOTES:

[1] From the historical marker at Findlay Market: Ohio's oldest surviving municipal market house, Findlay Market was designed under the direction of City Civil Engineer Alfred West Gilbert (1816-1900). It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The structure was among the first market houses in the United States to use iron frame construction technology. Originally an open pavilion, much of the market was erected in 1852, but disputes with contractors delayed its opening until 1855. The center masonry tower was built in 1902. Soon after, public health concerns prompted enclosure of the market stalls and the addition of plumbing and refrigeration. Until then, vendors found cool storage in deep cellars beneath nearby breweries. The tower bell was brought from Cincinnati's Pearl Street Market in 1934. Findlay Market was renovated in 1973-74 and again in 2002-03.


[2] The Henry Richards Civil War letters, as well as the Ninety-Third's regimental history, can be found online in pdf format.


[3] Cary's Academy would later become Farmer's College, then Belmont College, then its final designation was the Ohio Military Institute, which closed in 1958. Cary's Academy would be considered the leading private school west of the Allegheny Mountains, with some 1,200 students having passed through its doors. The general location for all these permutations was the aptly named Cincinnati suburb of College Hill.

 

SOURCES:

Demoret, Alfred - The Ninety-Third O. V. I.: Recollections of a Private. Ross, Ohio, unknown.


Richards, Henry - Letters of Captain Henry Richards, of the Ninety-Third Ohio Infantry. Cincinnati, 1883.


Smith, William E. and Ophia D., editors - Colonel A. W. Gilbert: Citizen-Soldier of Cincinnati. Cincinnati, 1934.

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