LIMA — In September 1862, Confederate and Union forces continued to battle in the second year of the American Civil War. Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith led the Confederate forces to capture Lexington and sent Confederate Brigadier General Henry Heth to capture Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati.
Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, commander of the Union forces in Kentucky, ordered Union Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace to prepare to defend Covington and Cincinnati against Confederate invaders. Wallace declared martial law and seized 16 steamboats and had them armed. Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch ordered all businesses to be closed.
Ohio Gov. David Tod sent from Columbus the following call for Ohio civilians who would bring their own weapons and form an armed volunteer militia: “Our southern border is threatened with invasion. I therefore recommend that all the loyal men of your counties at once form themselves into military companies. Gather up all the arms in the county and furnish yourselves with ammunition for the same.”
The Squirrel Hunters — 15,766 civilian men from 65 Ohio counties — answered the call and reported for duty in Cincinnati.
The Squirrel Hunters traveled on foot, by train and by horse from the backwoods, the Great Lakes region, farms and small towns all over Ohio. Some were family men; others were drifters. They carried an assortment of weapons, including old flintlocks or muskets, powder horns, fowling pieces and squirrel rifles. The Squirrel Hunters wore homemade clothing, including buckskin and coonskin caps. This varied group of volunteers included men of all ages.
According to news reports, “James B. Daniels was only 14 years old when the mobilization in Cincinnati took place. He went to see the citizen soldiers mustered in, and the officers, learning that he could play a drum, compelled him to enlist as a drummer boy. He was sworn in in the old Mercantile Library building, and taken to the Mechanics’ Institute, where he spent the night with a number of other recruits.”
“David Baker was a typical Shelby County volunteer Squirrel Hunter. He was 35 years old and a Salem Township farmer in 1862. Unmarried, he immediately left his crops in the field and traveled to the Queen City.”
A Confederate scout doing reconnaissance returned and reported to his commander that “They call them Squirrel shooters, farm boys that never had to shoot at the same squirrel twice.”
Maj. Malcolm McDowell, an Army paymaster, is credited with giving the volunteers their nickname. The name stuck and even Gov. Tod was calling them Squirrel Hunters in official correspondence with Secretary of War Stanton.
After the arrival of the Squirrel Hunters in Cincinnati, a news story reports that “The Patriotism of the Rural Districts has been fanned to a flame. In the villages merchants closed their stores; in the fields farmers deserted their plows and grasping their rifles, sprang forward to aid in the defense of Cincinnati.”
For two weeks, members of the military tried to teach this group how to be soldiers. Cincinnati churches, meeting halls and warehouses served as barracks. The Squirrel Hunters came prepared to fight, but they saw no real action against the enemy, instead helping to build trenches and other fortifications and preparing defensive tactics for Cincinnati communities.
When the Confederate troops retreated and the threat from the rebels had passed, many Squirrel Hunters left and returned home to their farms. Some sought to continue to serve in a more official military capacity.
Some, like William S. Heacock, of Cardington, Ohio, moved on to other callings. Heacock was 31 when he heeded Gov. Tod’s call and joined the ranks of the Squirrel Hunters to help defend Cincinnati. Heacock later was admitted to the bar in 1873 in Columbus and practiced law at the Morrow and Marion county courts for years, according to news reports.
Some Squirrel Hunters stayed in Cincinnati, however, being in a festive mood and taking advantage of the government’s free meals. There is no official date of disbandment for the group.
Brig. Gen. A.J. Smith sent a letter Sept. 17, 1862, to Gen. Wallace stating, “Reports from the front state that the enemy is in full retreat. Cannot I get rid of the Squirrel Hunters? They are under no control.”
Despite the possibility that some Squirrel Hunters might have lingered a bit too long in Cincinnati after their service was concluded, becoming an occasional nuisance for other members of the military, these men answered the state’s plea for help.
The Squirrel Hunters’ quick response to that call, their presence and willingness to defend Cincinnati helped repel the Confederate troops’ advance within two days.
To thank the Squirrel Hunters, the Ohio legislature, in 1863, authorized funds for Gov. Tod to print discharges for these men from military duty. The discharges thanked the men for their patriotism and their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the defense of Ohio. According to records at the Ohio Historical Society, 15,766 Squirrel Hunters received official discharges.
As further recognition, in 1908, the Ohio General Assembly passed a resolution to pay each Squirrel Hunter who yet survived $13 for their services, which was equal to one month’s pay for an Ohio militiaman in 1862.