Richard McCormick Interview
Braxton Bragg / Kirby Smith / Shelby Foote
We are proud to bring you the Richard McCormick interview. He is well-known and respected for his contributions to the study of the American Civil War and his commitment to the study of battles fought in Kentucky are particularly impressive.
Richard's 'obsession' with the conflict comes across in his writings and there is much to be found on his blogs that are dedicated to learning and education.
Please take a moment and enjoy Total Gettysburg's interview with Richard McCormick.
1) Hi Richard, thanks for joining us today. Please take this opportunity to briefly tell us about yourself, your blog at www.civilwarobsession.com, and anything else you'd like to mention.
RM: Hello Scott. Thanks for this opportunity. This is quite an honor. I am a bit unsure to say. I really enjoy studying the Civil War. I think that started when I was young and realized Abraham Lincoln was also from Kentucky. That naturally created an interest in the Civil War. One of my senior papers in high school was about the battle of Gettysburg. During college, I joined a group called the Society of the Civil War Ear. We mostly just gathered and discussed the war, but it also gave me an opportunity to volunteer at the 1992 re-enactment at Perryville. That was the first Civil War battlefield I had visited and I was extremely impressed. After graduating, I received Shelby Foote's 3 volume "The Civil War: A Narrative" as a gift and finally read it. I think reading those books is what turned my interest in the Civil War into what I now call an obsession.
Since then, I've tried to read as much about it as I can, and have collected a couple hundred books. I've also come to realize how many resources about the war are on the web. It's pretty amazing, but a couple of years ago I decided to add to it. I started a blog on a local newspaper site, but when I mentioned it to a friend, they mentioned blog sites like blogger.com and blog.com to me. I checked them out and decided to go with blogger.com, where my site, www.civilwwarobsession.com still exists. It has been quite fun trying to decide what to post, when to post it and how to design the site. It's cool to have control over content and design and not rely on a teacher to give you an assignment. My blog is not focused on any one particular aspect of the war, as many are, but, rather, on pretty much anything that catches my eye, either on the web, in magazines or other national news sources, or from my volunteer work. It also gives me the chance to review the books I read and I've found that knowing I"m going to publish a public review of a book helps me read them more closely and remember them better than I did in the past. I've also learned to look at different aspects of the war differently thanks to some of the other blogs I read. There are some really good, well-thought-out blogs out there. I may never be the professional historian that some of those bloggers are, but I certainly can learn from them and maybe apply some lessons to my own blog.
2) I understand you volunteer your time at the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum on the site of the Hooper Battery. Could you tell us about the site and it's role in the Defense of Cincinnati?
RM: Deciding to volunteer at the Ramage museum was one of the best decisions of my life. I saw an ad for a public archaeology dig in a newspaper in September 2006 and thought that sounded cool. It was to be on a Sunday, so I went out there the day before just to be sure I could find where it was, and I toured the museum. During the tour, they offered me a volunteer application and I thought it over that night and thought it sounded pretty cool. I was right. I have learned a lot about the war, especially locally, but even in general, during my time there and I have met a lot of fascinating people. I doubt I would have ever thought to start a blog had I not gotten involved with the museum. The story about Cincinnati during the war is pretty fascinating, even if not overly well-known. It was one of the 6 or 7 largest cities in the country at that time (depending on if you count Brooklyn as a separate city as they did at that time or as part of New York) and its location on the Ohio River made it a key trading point in the era of steamboats (and just before railroads fully emerged.)
At the end of August 1862, the Confederates routed a Union force in Richmond Kentucky, about 100 miles south of Cincinnati. These men under command of Kirby Smith were then to try to connect with the men of Braxton Bragg, who had invaded the state farther to the west. While waiting for this connection, Smith decided to send some men to threaten Cincinnati, which provided quite a bit of war material to the Union cause, especially tents and even pigs (why it was called "Porkopolis"). He sent Henry Heth with a group of about 6-8,000 men, but as reports of this group reached Cincinnati, some reports said there were 30,000 troops approaching the region. This created a bit of a panic and what became known as the "Siege of Cincinnati." The Union responded by putting General Lew Wallace in charge of troops in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. He declared martial law and shut down business in the region. Two pontoon bridges were quickly assembled, one crossing the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Kentucky to help hurry troops across, and another over the Licking River in Northern Kentucky. Calls for volunteers went out, especially in Ohio and Indianat. About 22,000 troops from US Grant's army were able to reach the region, and thousands of volunteer milita men - perhaps 50,000 volunteers - showed up with their homespun clothes and their own rifles. They helped build more entrenchments in the area (if you look at a map of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, you can see how the Ohio River bends, and these defenses were built from one side of the river on the west, all the way to the east, forming a ring on the hills in the area.)
These men completed these fortifications and helped man them. Among those who helped build them were African-Americans, known as the Black Brigade. African-Americans at first were not allowed to help, as they were told this was for "citizens only" but then Cincinnati police began rounding African-Americans off the streets against their. General Wallace soon put a stop to that and allowed these men to form their own unit under Judge William Dickson. They were called the "Black Brigade" and helped build the fortifications, while receiving the same pay as the white troops. These men, however, were not allowed to carry rifles, and the group dispersed after the siege ended. Some joined US Colored Troop Units to serve during the rest of the war, including Powhatan Beaty who won a Medal of Honor for his service at Chaffin's Farm Virginia.
Some of the white volunteers were also called "Squirrel Hunters" due to their proficiency with their rifles and Ohio Governor David Tod even provided "squirrel hunter" discharge certificates to these men.
The Confederates soon realized the area was highly defended and returned to central Kentucky after only some light skirmishing in Northern Kentucky.
3) What does the museum offer today?
RM: The museum tells the story of the Siege of Cincinnati with various artifacts and displays, including a diary that a Union soldier kept, starting when he was stationed in the region. We have displays concerning the various fortifications that were built in the area, including Battery Hooper, which once stood on the same land where the museum is now located, and a large wall map that shows the locations of the defensive positions. The other main story we describe is the GAR, which held multiple national encampments in Cincinnati. We focus on the 1898 event, when over 200,000 veterans and family members attended. (I've seen the total listed as high as 300,000.) In 1930, only about 2,000 people were able to attend. We have some items from these encampments as well as from other GAR encampments. We have several GAR items, as well as other general Civil War relics and displays.
We do have one room dedicated to the history of the city of Fort Wright, which owns the museum. (The city was named for a fort built during the siege. The fort was named for Major General Horatio G. Wright, commander of the Department of the Ohio during late 1862.) We also have the kitchen that was used by Fern Storer when she lived in the house, from 1941 through her death in 2002. She was a food editor at a local newspaper for 25 years and tested her recipes in this kitchen. When she passed away, she left the land to Northern Kentucky University, asking that it be used for educational purposes. We preserve the kitchen as a "thank you" for her decision to preserve this historic land. Its location may have been quite interesting to developers, but she kept it from them.
4) The largest battle in Kentucky during the Civil War took place at Perryville. What does this battle mean to you considering your roots in Kentucky?
RM: First of all the battlefield is so beautiful and so neat. It's a great place to walk and look and contemplate. The state deserves high praise for preserving it, and the Civil War Trust has also played a key role in preserving it and acquiring more land. They currently have a campaign taking place to try to save even more of the battlefield. I encourage readers to consider contributing to it.
As for the battle itself, it took place in October 1862, just weeks after the panic here in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. Both were part of Bragg's Kentucky Invasion, an attempt to have Kentuckians, or maybe the state itself, join the Confederate cause. The men under Heath who approached Cincinnati actually did not meet up with Bragg in time to take part in the battle, but Perryville was the next big thing to happen after the threat to Cincinnati.
It is a bit humbling to walk across those fields and realize that thousands of men were killed and wounded on that land. At some times, it's a bit disappointing not to have a famous battlefield closer to me, but then I realize all the suffering that such a battle caused and I realize it's a good thing that the people in the Cincinnati region helped prevent such a fight.
I have to admit that anytime I see a new book about the war, I often look at the table of contents and/or index to see if it mentions Perryville. I think people know about it, but sometimes thinks it gets neglected a bit since the Battle of Antietam had taken place in the east a few weeks earlier and Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation. There was really hard, severe fighting at what has been called "the Confederate high-water mark of the west." It was a major battle and when Bragg realized he could not win Kentucky, he left the state, setting the state for Stone's River, another major fight in what was the western theater,which seemed to move further east after Perryville (at least the major actions, until Franklin and Nashville.)
5) You also have a blog on Union Civil War headstones in Kentucky. What sparked your interest in covering this aspect of the Civil War?
RM: When I started My Civil War Obsession, I wanted to find material to write, and a local newspaper index online seemed like a good place to start. I eventually found a story about the last Civil War soldier to die in Campbell County (where I've lived my whole life) and when I went to the cemetery to take a picture of his headstone, I found several other Civil War headstones there, much to my surprise. I took pictures of them and did not think of them much, until I was researching another soldier, buried in a different cemetery. When I went to find his headstone, I could not find it, but did come across a couple dozen more Civil War headstones. With so many more veterans buried around here than I had expected, I decided to do more research about their stories, and eventually figured that a separate blog, called Civil War Headstones (www.civilwarheadstones.com) might provide a good place to present these stories. I also know members of the local Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War group and have forwarded much of my findings to them. I still need to star listing these on www.findagrave.com, but I also have some more local cemeteries to search. It is fun to find another headstone. It can be tough doing all that walking, especially on a couple of hilly sites, and some of the headstones can be tough to read, but it still is a rewarding feeling to find another one to record that man's name and unit, or to figure it out by using some online tools. I do want to add some research about Confederate soldiers buried locally too, but have not yet gathered much information to share yet.
6) Thanks Richard for taking the time to speak with us and we'd like to wrap it up with one more question. How does it make you feel to find out you had a great-great-great grandfather who served in the Civil War?
RM: It felt quite good. I really like the Civil War and I also like genealogy, so I was disappointed when I did not find any ancestors who had fought. Then a cousin, whose genealogy work is incredible, pointed out Nimrod McIntosh had joined the 7th Kentucky Infantry and served for a few months before becoming sick and joining the Veteran's Reserve Corps. She even copied his pension file for me, which has hundreds of pages, including his widow's pension file. I've since found out Nimrod's brother Richard also fought for the Union, and another g-g-g-grandfather, Henderson Turner, has a Civil War headstone, but no mention we have found in any Civil War records. Family lore says he was discharged at Newport Barracks, just across the river from Cincinnati, then walked home to Breathitt County, Kentucky, a walk of several hundred miles. He may have been too young when he joined the war (he may have gone into camp with older brothers) but somehow was given a veteran's headstone.
There is also one possible relative who fought for the Confederates, but I have not yet been able to place him definitively in my family tree. I don't want to live vicariously through my ancestors, but I must admit it does feel good that my interest in the Civil War and my interest in family history can have this connection.
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