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Our Rich History: Cincinnati German beer baron in Civil War; Christian Moerlein and Siege of Cincinnati

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann
Special to NKyTribune

In September 1862, the Siege of Cincinnati took place, and to help in its defense militia units were formed. Christian Moerlein (1818-97), who was then 44, joined one such unit, the 8th Regiment, Ohio Infantry Militia. What was the historical context, and what role did this Cincinnati German beer baron play in it?

When the Civil War broke out, Kentucky was opposed to secession but remained neutral. It did have its share of Confederate sympathizers, and only one percent of the state had voted for Lincoln. The Confederacy definitely wanted to bring Kentucky into its camp and tried to do so by means of several military actions.

In December 1861, the Battle of Rowlett’s Station took place in south central Kentucky. Confederate forces were defeated there by the 32nd Indiana Infantry Regiment, a German unit that had two companies of Germans from Cincinnati.

Christian Moerlein (Courtesy of Don Heinrich Tolzmann

Not to be discouraged, Confederate forces came back a month later and fought Union troops at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. This involved the 9th Ohio Regiment, a German unit from Cincinnati. It played a decisive role in winning that battle by means of a close-combat bayonet charge. Then in July 1862, Confederate General John Hunt Morgan made a successful raid into Kentucky, letting the region know it was not out of harm’s way.

In late August 1862, Confederate General Kirby Smith followed up on these three military operations by marching into Kentucky with 15,000 troops. They took possession of Lexington, Frankfort, and Maysville. Smith then sent General Henry Heth north with 8,000 troops towards Northern Kentucky, thereby threatening the Greater Cincinnati area.

Occupying Cincinnati would have been difficult, as it had a population of 160,000, but its supplies and warehouses could have been raided and infrastructure destroyed. This would have struck a blow at the Union, as many supplies came from Cincinnati. Bakeries, for example, supplied bread for the Union Army.

Heth’s troops moved north on 6 September, and on the 10th got to a point near Fort Mitchell. In the meantime, the area had prepared itself Due to the threat, Union General Lew Wallace was placed in command of the area. He put Cincinnati, Covington, and Newport under martial law, and issued an order on 2 September that militia companies consisting of 100 men should be organized.

As a result, three regiments were formed in Cincinnati; the 6th, 8th, and the 11th. Both the 6th and the 8th were German units drawn from the Over-the-Rhine district.

Such militia regiments were under the command of the governor, as they were not federal troops. Moerlein was a member of Company A of the 8th regiment. A future brewer also belonged to that company: Heinrich Muhlhauser. After the war, he and his brother joined Conrad Windisch to establish the Windisch-Muhlhauser Brewery.

Militia units were stationed alongside federal troops in Northern Kentucky. The Black Brigade assisted by clearing the land and digging trenches. Then troops and artillery were placed in a ten-mile stretch of fortifications in the form of a semi-circle surrounding the area. A flotilla of armed vessels was behind them on the Ohio River. On 10 September, the 8th crossed the pontoon bridge over the Ohio River and took a position at a point near Fort Mitchell.

On the same day, Heth and his troops got to that point, and a battle seemed imminent. However, after taking stock of the fortifications, Heth withdrew on the 12th. There were 25,000 Union troops, including a German unit from Cincinnati, the 106th Ohio Infantry Regiment under the command of Gustav Tafel. Additionally, there were the militia troops (45,000), and the so-called Squirrel Hunters (15,000).

With Heth’s troops now gone, the 8th Militia Regiment returned to Cincinnati, where it was garrisoned and spend this rest of the month performing guard duty for the city until it was discharged on 4 October 1862. So Christian Moerlein, the brewer, had done his patriotic duty and served for one month.

The Squirrel Hunters also returned to Cincinnati, where they celebrated for several days, and soon wore out their welcome. So, townsfolk were glad when they finally left, and it was probably good that the militia served out the month to make sure there was no civil disorder in town.

A much bigger celebration took place at the end of the war and lasted several days. It was the only time in Cincinnati history when all of the breweries were drunk dry. So brewing got a big boost at the end of the war, and this did have an impact on brewing history. It showed there was money to be had in the brewing industry.

A year after the end of the war, Conrad Windisch sold out his share of the Moerlein Brewery and went into business with the two Muhlhauser brothers. And Moerlein signed a 5-year lease for Mecklenburg Gardens. It ran from 1867 through 1871. It was was one of several places he operated to sell his beer.

In July 1866, Congress approved payment to militia groups, including the 8th Regiment, for one month’s pay. So on 6 November, they had to muster in and get registered for this payment. Their service was dated from 3 September to 4 October 1862. Later on in the Civil War, the militia regiments were re-named National Guard units, a name which they have retained to this day.

It might be noted that militia regiments were also formed in Northern Kentucky. For example, Amos Shinkle (1818-92) was appointed Colonel of the Kentucky Home Guard. He was a member of the board of the Covington & Cincinnati Bridge Company and served as its president from 1866-92. He was the great-grandson of Philip Carl Schenkel, a German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania. There were no doubt others of German descent in other militia regiments as well.

The service of the militia regiments was brief, but important when the threat of the Siege came about. Their service has been overlooked but is certainly worth taking note of. That three regiments were formed in Cincinnati certainly makes a statement about the patriotism of its citizenry. If you add the 6th and 8th militia regiments to the other six German Union regiments formed in Cincinnati, you come up with a total of eight German regiments from Cincinnati in the Civil War.

Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine honors those who served in wars since the American Revolution. Unfortunately, there is no monument honoring the service of the Germans of the Greater Cincinnati area who served the Union cause in the Civil War. Hopefully, there might be one someday, as it is long overdue.

For further information, see: Gustav Tafel, The Cincinnati Germans in the Civil War. Translated and edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann, With Supplements on Germans from Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana in the Civil War (Little Miami Publishing Company, 2010). Tolzmann is a noted historian of German-American History and a regular contributor to this column.

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