Spent the holiday weekend in Ohio and took a day to head east on 52 away from Cincinnati. The road follows the Ohio River and is dotted with wonderful old river towns, some of which are the earliest European settlements in the region. Long before Europeans the Ohio, a Seneca word, and its tributaries were the center of a number of native societies. Goods, people and ideas were transported on the river whose waters offered abundant resources in themselves. Mounds and earthworks were once ubiquitous along the river and those that flow into it. Now only a few remain. We saw a small Adena conical mound near Edgington, a bit further down the route from where we ended are the great Portsmouth Works whose design spans the river.
The Ohio River was the way into the west once the Appalachians were crossed and for many years was the border between North and South; slave and free. It is the Mason Dixon line here. Everywhere along the river are palimpsests of that division. The Rankin Home, near Ripley, was long a stop on the way north to freedom for escaping slaves and is just one of many places with underground railroad connections along the river. While I am happy to see abolitionists recognized, one would think that Ohio was just one big anti-slavery camp. It’s a wonder there were any slaves left to fight about if all of the stories of white folks helping slaves to freedom were true. In fact, Southern Ohio was pretty butternut and Copperheads were a real force in Ohio throughout the war.
Cincinnati had racist pogroms and very contradictory loyalties during the war; folks with strong business ties to the south and those with strong business ties to the east. Cincinnati had a large population of newly arrived German catholic immigrants, the natural base of the Democratic Party, along with a population whetted to the free labor ethos of those pushing west. The city has had one foot firmly in the South since it was founded and has a history of unofficial Jim Crowism that has yet to fully die to this day. Ohio certainly did have a proud history of abolitionism, especially in the northeast, and conspirators of liberty were active throughout the state with the river, the border, being a central focus. The fact that militant abolitionists were organizing in the area brought plenty of slave-catchers before the war and raids during the war. Oberlin, Ohio was famous for resisting slave catchers and providing John Brown, a sometime Ohio resident, with recruits for the Harper’s Ferry raid.
We stopped at Grant’s birth place near Point Pleasant, the son of a tanner would become General of all the Union Armies and victor in the Civil War only to be remembered as a failed president. To me he remains endlessly fascinating and his memoirs are certainly the best of any US President or General. On a personal level he is a very hard man to like as well as a very hard man not to like. Never even hinting at greatness until tried by the greatest event in the life of the nation he should have stuck with his promise and his inclination to avoid politics. He would have forever been the American Cincinnatus instead of the corrupt drunkard who squandered his glory. Truth be told he was neither of those things. Other Generals were greater than Grant, including ones he took credit for, neither was he personally corrupt. Grant will only be refashioned in the eyes of history when the nation fully absorbs Reconstruction; which will take another revolution to put in perspective.
We crossed the Ohio at Maysville and returned to the city on the Kentucky side. We climbed to the top of Cemetery Hill in Augusta, Kentucky where in 1862 the Confederates took over the heights to bombard the town below (still home to the Clooney Clan of George Clooney fame). The Confederate guns on the ridge drove back the Union gunboats leaving the town to be defended by a heavily outnumbered local militia. In house-to-house fighting which saw much of the town razed the locals defeated the Confederate assault at great cost. I don’t know of many engagements of this size in the area and had never heard of this battle, though Kentucky and even Cincinnati were a sought after Confederate gain. The forces that fought over Augusta were all mainly from Kentucky, further proof that in Kentucky as in Tennessee, the war was truly a civil war. When we saw graves of Kentucky volunteers in the cemetery we weren’t sure if they fought for the North or the South. Both are buried here on the ridge were they fought.
Those Confederate hopes of winning the border states were dashed when the their northern push in the fall of 1862 was blunted at Antietam, Maryland and Perryville, Kentucky to the south of Augusta. Perryville is one of the forgotten battles of the war. Sloppily fought it ended the possibility of Kentucky joining the south. The battle also saw the rise to prominence of the Union general George Henry Thomas, who went on to be the best Union Army commander of the war in my opinion. This southerner and child of slave-owners was the only Northern leader of an Army to use black troops as leading elements. Those black troops performed to great effect as at Nashville near the end of the war destroying Hood’s Army of Tennessee. General Thomas’ record in the war remains one of the best and least known. You can blame the image makers of Grant and others for that.
The road back through the hills of Kentucky was just as nice. Kentucky definitely deserves further meanderings. Hopefully during Christmas we’ll do a jaunt. If you’re ever in the region pull out your map and plan your own route 52 excursion. Look for a ferry to cross the river and get lost if you can. You never know what you mighty find.