In the Civil War, the character of the United States was changed, and blood was shed for political principles. Though no major battles took place in southwestern Ohio, more than 50,000 recruits were trained near Indian Hill in Camp Dennison between 1861 and 1865.
Ohio contributed more men to the Union Army than any other Northern state except New York. Hamilton County residents who rallied to recruiting calls were organized into Ohio Volunteer Infantry regiments, along with some men from southwestern Indiana.
Camp Dennison, named for Governor William Dennison, a Cincinnati native, was one of three major training sites for Ohio soldiers. Gov. Dennison, lacking military experience himself, persuaded retired officer George McClellan to command the entire Ohio militia. McClellan (who later went on to command the Army of the Potomac) and his wife found to their surprise that Cincinnati residents were “really quite Eastern and quite civilized”. McClellan’s task was to create an army out of nothing. Every hamlet in Ohio, seized with anti-secessionist fervor, had established companies which drilled on local grounds. It was necessary to bring these widely scattered troops to a central location and prepare them for battle.
George McClellan chose a tract of land on the outskirts of Cincinnati as the proper location for this task. The site was level, had railroad access, water nearby (Little Miami River), a turnpike to Cincinnati (now St. Rt. 126 & 50), and also was close enough to protect Cincinnati should Kentucky join the Confederacy. Nimrod Price and Alfred Buckingham, an Indian Hill resident, leased the land to the government at very lucrative rates–about $12 to $20 an acre per month.
Early volunteers in spring of 1861 were housed in huts built with lumber shipped from Cincinnati. The first month that Camp Dennison was activated, 1500 recruits lived in unfloored pine 12-man barracks, 18 by 12 feet. Each company had a street, 3 or 4 barracks, and a separate hut for officers. The parade grounds were on the eastern side, with Indian Hill above the recruits to the west. Soon Camp Dennison was overpopulated, and enlistees were housed in tents. Later, the smaller barracks were replaced with buildings 100 by 22 feet with three-tiered bunks on each side. Each barracks housed an entire company and had a kitchen and two stoves–a great improvement over the earlier huts.
In November, 1861, the first cavalry regiments to train at Camp Dennison arrived (including the 4th, 5th, and 12th cavalries). The 12th was famous for its regimental band mounted on snow white horses. Indian Hill residents loyal to the Union often took outings to Camp Dennison to watch the men in uniform drill and to bring food and clothes.
Early companies who trained at Camp Dennison had different backgrounds. The all-German 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, known as “Die Neuner”, used German as their language in drills. The Irish regiment, the 10th Volunteer Infantry, commanded by William Lytle, was nicknamed the “Bloody Tinth”. Uniforms were not available at the beginning of the war, and most regiments used their civilian clothes. However, some pre-war militia companies had distinctive parade uniforms with red flannel shirts and black pants.
Each unit was responsible for its own food and laundry. Pay was $13 a month in greenbacks, but the sutler of the camp provided tokens in exchange for the large paper bills. Staples of the camp diet were rice, potatoes, bacon, and coffee, but occasionally chicken (perhaps from an Indian Hill farmer) was available. Often a company hired a cook or laundress; and officers frequently brought to camp their own domestic help, some of whom remained after the war as residents of the area. With as many as 12,000 men at Camp Dennison at one time, tension existed and clashes occurred. Letters home described the constant “rane” (sic), and called the site “Mud Lake.” There was a rivalry between the German 9th and the Irish 10th and dissatisfaction among recruits on a 3-month enlistment who felt those serving 3 years were given preferential treatment. Sometimes, to get away from the Camp, soldiers walked up Indian Hill to get a bird’s eye view of their encampment. Despite the overcrowded conditions, coarse diet, and infighting, Camp Dennison managed to train thousands of recruits. The command of this difficult post changed frequently, with 18 commandants during the four years of the war.
After the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), many wounded were transported to Camp Dennison for treatment. There had been a hospital barracks in Camp Dennison all along, with Dr. Alfred Buckingham in charge, treating various complaints and illnesses–the most serious of which was measles. Common medicines were calomel, quinine, or whiskey. As men injured in battle returned to the camp, more surgeons were engaged.
Camp Dennison served as a camp and a hospital for the rest of the Civil War. The soldiers who had drilled there returned to be mustered out. Their ranks were thinned, but the Union was restored; and in September, 1865, Camp Dennison was deactivated.
At least one of the houses on the hillside overlooking Camp Dennison still remains and is in use today as an Indian Hill home. Also, materials from some of the camp structures that were razed after the Civil War went into Indian Hill farm homes and barns–remnants of a once booming military camp.