History of William Frances Corbin

History of William Frances Corbin


From A Short History of the Soldier-Life Capture and Death of William Francis Corbin
Captain Fourth Kentucky Cavalry C. S. A.

by John C Demoss published in 1897

The subject of this article, William Francis Corbin, was born on a farm in Campbell County, Kentucky, near the village of Carthage, in the year 1834 (the son of John Corbin and Lucinda M Nelson). It is not the purpose of the writer of this sketch, to deal with his private or citizen life, so much as with his life as a Confederate soldier; and in order that a better understanding may be had as to the incentives and motives which actuated and largely controlled him in casting his lot with the South in the Civil War, I will recite some incidents in his life with which I was connected and familiar, beginning with 1860.

In the summer of that year, I conceived the idea of raising an independent military company, which idea I put into execution soon afterward, by enlisting sixty young men from the eastern part of Campbell County.  These were of the best young men, and from some of the oldest families in the county.  The company was properly organized, and an election of officers duly held.  The writer of this sketch was elected captain, and Wm. F Corbin, first lieutenant.

A short time after the organization of the company, it was decided to make application to the state authorities at Frankfort, for arms and equipments and to be admitted, under the law, as a company of state guards. 

(Campbell County's Kentucky State Guard List)

Hon. Beriah Magoffin was governor at the time, and General Simon Bolivar Buckner was commander of the state forces. This application was granted, and in due time my commission as captain and Corbin's as lieutenant, were received, together with guns and equipments, and the necessary bonds for the use and return of the same to the state when called for, being executed, the company was recognized as a part of the state militia. The company proceeded to uniform itself in the regulation gray, and after a few months of drilling, made a very presentable appearance, and became a source of pride, not only to the boys themselves, but to the citizens generally.

In order to appreciate this, you must bear in mind, that in those ante-bellum days, military companies were very scarce, and were considered by the people to be very attractive, and hundreds were gathered on drill days, to watch the evolutionists in movement and the manual of arms. Thus matters went on for more than a year.   After the war, military companies were not so much of an attraction, and ceased to be paraded simply for display, for the stern -realities of war had wrought a wonderful change in the mind of the average citizen, and they preferred to gaze on scenes of a more peaceful nature, less remindful of the awful carnage resulting there from.

                Newspaper reference to Corbin from the Covington Journal August 9, 1862, page 3

Sometime during the summer of 1863, my company was called into camp, at Camp Garnett, near Cynthiana, for state drill, where, with other companies of the guards, a week was spent in military instruction.  At this time the state had assumed the attitude of "armed neutrality," i. e., that neither the Union army, nor the Confederate army should occupy her soil as battleground, nor for the purpose of quartering troops within her borders.   It is needless to say, at this time, that this position was of short duration, and that it was not respected by either of the contending armies, and when " Uncle Sam " found it necessary to come over and invade the sacred soil of tile "Blue Grass" state, he did so without asking permission.

It was during the encampment above referred to, that the chivalric spirit seemed to take hold of Corbin; in fact, it seemed to take possession of almost the entire camp, and there was no disguising the fact that the sympathies of the men were almost unanimously with the Southern cause, as the question of going directly from camp to join the Confederate army, was discussed freely, and several of the companies followed their inclinations.
I prevailed on my company to return and deliver their arms to the state authorities, and thus relieve me of the embarrassment of forfeiting my bond to the state, for the faithful execution of the law.

About this time, General Kirby Smith, of the Confederate army, made his appearance in the northern part of the state, and was approaching Covington and Newport with a formidable force, and to checkmate this movement, the commanding Federal general ordered all available men, both military and civilian, to report for duty, to work in the trenches, and throw up breastworks for the protection of those cities.

(For a more detailed article on the breastworks go to the Civil War in Campbell County)

By this time it became necessary for every one subject to military duty to show his colors, by either obeying this order or by following his convictions to join the Southern Cause.  Corbin, and about twenty five other men, chose the latter course, and made their way through the Federal lines to Paris, where on the 25th day of September, 1862, they were regularly sworn in as soldiers in the Confederate army, joining Captain Tom Moore's company, Fourth Kentucky Cavalry.

"By virtue of authority vested in me by the Confederate States of America, I authorize William F. Corbin to raise and muster into the service of the Confederate States. for my command, a company of mounted men, or a less number, to be attached to the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry, commanded by Col. Henry L Giltner. When such company numbers fifty-four, rank and tile, it may organize by the election of officers and afterwards be expanded to one hundred, rank and file.  When the muster roll of said company, properly signed and certified, is presented to me, I will cause the sum of fifty dollars $50) to be paid to each man as bounty money.  Over the signature of each man must appear a certificate that he is free from any disease of a Constitutional character and enters the service of the Confederate States for three years, or during the war. When this muster roll, properly signed and certified, is returned to the office of my adjutant general, the officers and men of the new company will be recognized, and not till then.       Signed, H. Marshall. Br. Gen. P. A. C. S. Official. Guerrant, A. A. G."

Corbin was immediately commissioned as captain, but without a command. He spent the winter of 1862-63 with Captain Moore's company, in the Mountains of Virginia.  During, this time but little worthy of note occurred, and early in March, 1863, Captain Corbin was detailed to return to Kentucky to raise a company, and after spending some weeks in Campbell and adjoining counties, and meeting with fairly good success, he started back to join his command with his recruits.

While on his way out, he was captured at the house of a man named Garrett Daniel, near Rouse's Mill, Route 10 and Wesley Chapel Road in Campbell county, on the night of April 8, 1863. There was with him at the time, a comrade, Jefferson McGraw by name, who had formerly lived in Campbell county, and who had come into the state with him.  He was also captured.  From a reliable source, I understand that the arrangement between Corbin and McGraw was, that they should meet at Daniel's house on the night of the capture, and that Corbin and his recruits arrived on time. After waiting some little while for McGraw, and fearing that something had happened to him, he started his men on, in the direction of Paris, preferring to wait alone. Simultaneous with McGraw's arrival, the soldiers appeared, and surrounding the the house, made the capture. Thus it appears that Captain Corbin, in the kindness of his heart, rather than desert a friend, took the chances of being captured and of suffering the penalty, whatever that might be.  (NOTE: In 1955 information came to light that a man named Dicken was also with them in the Daniel's house but escaped capture by climbing up into the chimney. This was stated by Mrs. Genevieve Hancock Shonert in a paper she read at the Christopher Gist Historical Society in Falmouth, Kentucky.  No source was given for this information.)

I take the following extract from the Cincinnati Commercial of April 13, 1863:
"Lieutenant Rickison, of the 118th Ohio Regiment, with a squad of thirteen men, captured Jefferson McGraw and another man, in the neighborhood of Rouse's Mill, on Wednesday evening last (which would be April 8). These men were sent under guard to DeMossville." 

It also appears from this article, that this squad of soldiers had been sent out from DeMossville, on the K. C. R. R., to reconnoiter the country around Gubser's Mill, with the view of capturing James Caldwell, a Confederate recruiting officer, who was supposed to be in that neighborhood.  While on this expedition, by some means unknown to the writer, they got on the track of Corbin and McGraw, and traced them to the Daniel's home.

From the time of the capture until the trial, the interests of the prisoners were in the hands of a number of staunch Union citizens, who were personally acquainted with them, and familiar with all the circumstances attending their war record, arrest and imprisonment. These gentlemen gave the assurance to the family and friend's that they would be treated as prisoners of war, and either imprisoned or exchanged, which was all that could be expected and which result was confidently anticipated. These friends were no doubt sincere in their assurances, but when on May 5th it was given out that W F Corbin and Jefferson McGraw had been tried by Court-martial and sentenced to be shot on Johnson's Island, ten days later, the startling announcement cast a gloom over the entire community, regardless of political or war differences, and the effect can better be imagined than described.  The matter had now assumed a more serious aspect, and had been taken out of the realm of speculation and become one of reality.

It was claimed at the time, that Corbin and McGraw-were subject to an order issued by General Burnside (then commander of the Union forces with headquarters at Cincinnati), known as Order No. 38.  There was a difference of opinion at the time, among those in position to judge, as to whether this order would apply to the cases of Corbin and McGraw, and this difference still exists, and in order that a more intelligent opinion may be arrived at by the reader, I insert a copy of the order.

Cincinnati, O., April 13, 1863   GENERAL ORDER No. 38.

The Commanding General publishes for the information of all concerned, that hereafter all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of enemies of our country, will be tried as spies or traitors, and if convicted will suffer death.  This order includes the following class of persons:
Carriers of secret mails.
Writers of letters sent by secret mails.
Secret recruiting officers within our lines.
Persons who have entered into an agreement to pass our lines for the purpose
of joining the enemy.
Persons found concealed within our lives belonging to the service of the enemy, and in fact all persons found improperly within our lines who could give information to the enemy.
All persons within our lines who harbor, protect, conceal, feed, clothe or in any way aid the enemies of our country. The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will no longer be tolerated in this department; persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with n view to being tried as above stated, or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends.
It must be distinctly understood that treason expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department. All officers and soldiers are strictly charged with the execution of this order. By command of Major General A E BURNSIDE. LEWIS RICHMOND, Asst Adj't General.
Official. D K LARNED, Capt. and A. A. G.

It appears from these dates that this order was issued April 13, and the men were captured April 9, four days previous to the date of the order. It is not the disposition of the writer to criticize at this late day, nor to enter into any discussion cm the question of the legality of this order, but he is clearly of the opinion that Corbin and McGraw should have been treated as prisoners of war and subject to exchange or imprisonment, and this opinion is supported by the fact that no other prisoners were executed under this order, although a number had been sentenced.  If the order was not abrogated, its enforcement was certainly suspended.  After an example had been made of these men and the news had been borne to the Confederacy, I am reliably informed by a gentleman who served as captain in the Confederate army, that a like number of Union prisoners were shot in retaliation and that correspondence was entered into between the two governments, looking to cessation of these acts and to establish the understanding that the war be conducted on a more humane basis, which correspondence, as my informant stated, resulted in accomplishing this end.

The proceedings of a Military Commission were held at Cincinnati at 10 o'clock am on Wednesday April 21, 1863.  The Commission found William Corbin guilty and sentenced him "To be shot unto death, at such time and place as the Commanding General shall direct."  McGraw's trial resulted in his being sentenced to death with Corbin. 

"The proceedings, findings and sentence in the foregoing case are approved and confirmed. The prisoner, William F Corbin, now, or late, of the so-called Confederacy army, will he sent in irons by the proper officer and delivered into the custody of the commanding officer on Johnson's Island, depot of prisoners, of war, near Sandusky, Ohio.  The commanding officer at that post will see that the sentence is duly executed at that post, between the hours of 12 o'clock noon and 3 o'clock p. m., of Friday, May 15, 1863.  Subject to the approval of the President of the United States.  A. E. Burnside, Major General.
The foregoing sentence approved: May 4, 1863, A  Lincoln."

When the startling result of this court-martial became known to his friends, steps were taken to bring an influence to hear on General Burnside, as well as President Lincoln, to have this sentence commuted from the death penalty to imprisonment for life, or a shorter term, as might he most agreeable to them.  All who knew Captain Corbin, knew him only to love and respect him, however much they may have differed on the questions involved in the war. They knew him to be a brave, noble, and generous young man, enjoying a reputation for good morals and good citizenship equal to the best.

After a hurried consultation of the family and friends, it was decided that Miss Melissa Corbin, sister of Captain Corbin, should go to Cincinnati and appear before General Burnside and make a personal plea.  Accompanied by the writer, she arrived in Cincinnati and called on the Hon. R M Bishop, ex-mayor of the city and explained her mission.   The went to see Mr. Nicholas Patterson, who also became interested in her cause and agreed to help her.  It was decided that she should make a personal appeal to General Burnside.  They bore with them a petition signed by numerous leading Union citizens acquainted with the prisoners, addressed to the President, urging him to exercise clemency toward them.

Miss Corbin pleased for the life of her brother before General Burnside.  The General's only reply was that he had determined to make an example of these men and that the matter was out of his hands, and only the President had the power to give the relief asked for.  In answer to the question, "would he recommend to the President that the sentence be commuted to life imprisonment" he said that he "would forward the petition to the President, without recommendation."

Miss Corbin obtained strong letters of endorsement to the President, urging that he give her a hearing, and armed with these letters, was advised to go to Washington and make a personal appeal to the President.  On arrival at Washington, one Dr. Bangs opened his house to her.  She was introduced to U.S. Marshal Lammon, who stood closer to the President than any man in Washington, who presented her case to President Lincoln.  He refused to see her.  Lammon advised Miss Corbin to write a personal letter to the President, which he then tried to give to him at the White House.  The President stated that he "must decline to read the letter; that these men were bridge burners and bad men and should be punished. and I will not interfer with General Burnside's order."   It was evident that his mind had been strongly influenced by the testimony of one witness at the trial, who testified concerning the connection of the accused with certain bridge burning.  Subsequent investigation proved, beyond a doubt, that Corbin was not in the neighborhood of the locality where the bridge was burned, at the time of the burning, and so far as I have been able to ascertain, he had not fired a gun, nor committed any overt act against the United States government, other than enlisting in the Confederate army and returning within Federal lines for the purpose of recruiting.  Miss Corbin then returned to Cincinnati.

On arrival at Cincinnati and reporting the result of her interview with the President,  also to General Burnside, it was decided that I proceed at once to Johnson's Island.  As the day set for the execution was but two days off, it was necessary to go on the first train.  General Burnside gave me a permit to bring the bodies home after the execution, also a letter to the commanding officer, to extend to me the privileges of the island and to show me every courtesy.

I arrived at the island on the day before the execution and presented my passport and letter to Major Peirson, commanding officer, who at once ordered a guard to show me the cell where Corbin and McGraw were confined.  The prison was a common soldiers' canvas tent; the furnishings consisted of straw and blankets for a bed, and camp stools to sit on. The men were chained to a ball which would weigh about twenty pounds, the chain being riveted around one ankle. The guard remained during the interview between the prisoners and myself, which, of course, prevented that freedom of speech which otherwise might have been indulged in.

I explained to Corbin the efforts that had been made in his behalf; told him of the pleadings of his sister before General Burnside; of her trip to Washington to see the President, and her treatment at his hands; of all the influences that had been brought to bear on the powers that be, and how they had all come to naught.  Nothing but failure had marked every effort, and the only shadow of hope remaining was that the President might delay the execution, or might show clemency in some degree.  But 1 gave him no assurance.

He said he was not disappointed, that he felt from the hurried manner in which the court-martial was conducted, that he was to be made an example of, and that he was resigned to his fate.  After about a half an hour of conversation I left them, with the understanding that I would see them again the next morning.  I returned to Sandusky for the night and went over to the island early the next morning.  I called on the Major and had quite an extended talk with him, explaining, the history of the prisoners, the circumstances of their capture, etc.  He said that "their behavior while there had completely won his respect and sympathy, that there were political prisoners there, under short sentences, whom he would rather see shot than these men, and that he still hoped to hear from Washington some word relieving him of the unpleasant duty before him.

He said that he would not execute the order until the last moment. The earnestness manifested in his kindly expressions, satisfied me that he was sincere in all he said. Continuing, he said that there would be two firing squads of twelve men each, one empty gun in each squad, this simply that each soldier might feel that he held that gun; each gun was to be loaded with twelve buckshot and one minnie ball. He said that the soldiers had all formed a friendship for the prisoners and their sympathies were strongly with them, and he feared that they might aim to miss, rather than kill, but that he had instructed the soldiers to take deadly aim at the heart. He did this as a matter of mercy to the prisoners, for if they only wounded them it would be merely to reload and fire again, thus continuing the torture of the men, and besides, any of them found shrinking from duty, would be punished.

There was a small chapel standing at the northern extremity of the court, where the prisoners were permitted to meet and engage in religious worship, one hour every day, at ten o'clock. On this day a number of prisoners, among them Corbin and McGraw, assembled in the chapel. There were also present several officers and their wives. The service was led by Captain Corbin. It consisted of Scripture reading, short talks, singing and prayers. Many of those present took part, but the leader occupied most of the time. He had been accustomed to do this before he joined the army, he being an elder in the Christian church at California, a little town in his native county. That scene and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory. Although more than thirty-four years have passed since then, yet, as I write these words, all the scenes enacted on that eventful day, are as fresh in my mind as though they had occurred but yesterday.

After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that " life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what lie had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future." He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promise of Christ and his religion.

To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears. After the service the Major asked me to dine with him, which invitation I accepted. While the meal was sumptuous, and the service elegant, but little of the food was consumed. The host and hostess, as well as the guest, were too full of solemn thoughts suggested by the events of the day. Mrs. Pierson was so much affected by the thoughts of the scene soon to be enacted, that she seemed to be overcome with sorrowful emotions. She said that Mr. Corbin's conduct since he had been there, had been such as to win her full sympathy and respect, and she could not bear the thought of his being shut and prayed that he might yet be spared so sad a fate.

Dinner over, I went to make my last call on Corbin and McGraw. During this interview, Corbin sent messages of love to his mother, brothers, sister and friends in Kentucky, requesting that they be reconciled and bear up under the weight of sorrow, with Christian fortitude and courage. He handed me a well-worn pair of gloves, saying, " This is all I have to give. Take them to remember me by." McGraw gave me the same charges to be delivered to his old mother and friends and handed me a handkerchief, with the request that I keep it in remembrance of him. The interview ended, I bade them a last goodbye and left them to their own silent meditations.

Two hours after our interview, Will Corbin and Jeff McGraw, as we familiarly called them, marched out of their cell, bearing their own ball and chains, each surrounded by a squad of twelve Soldiers, to the shore of the island, where the blue waters of Sandusky Bay washed the green sward on the shore-a place suggestive of more pleasant scenes. The men were blindfolded, hands tied behind them, and seated on their coffins, facing the firing party standing twelve paces away. Before leaving them in the cell, they requested me to stay with them until the last, which l promised to do. Standing about one hundred feet from them, I could distinctly hear the command, "one, two, three fire !" and the deed was done. Corbin and McGraw had paid the penalty, with their lives, for deeds which they conscientiously believed to be performed for the right.

The strain was so intense on the nerves of the firing party, that one of them, hearing the last word of command, fainted, and had to be carried from the scene. When the writer pauses and recalls the awful memories of that scene, he does not wonder that this man fainted.  Neither tongue nor pen can describe the feelings of one witnessing his lifelong friends shot to death, and far less, under the existing circumstances. Corbin and McGraw appeared to be less nervous than the writer or any of the other spectators. Seated on the heads of their coffins, erect and steady, not a murmur was heard, nor muscle moved.  I do not think they suffered. Death was instantaneous, and they fell hack as gently as though assisted by some loving hand.

The execution took place May 15, 1863. Afterward the bodies were properly cared for by the soldiers detailed for that purpose, placed in coffins, and forwarded by express, to their homes in Kentucky, the government furnishing transportation.

Alas! how different were the scenes at the Corbin home now, from those of one short year before, when, in the full vigor of young manhood, and flushed with visions of military achievements and fame to be won on the fields of battle, he bade his old mother, his brother and sister, good-bye. Now the same form was before them, cold in death, On arrival at his old home, and considering the strained relations between some of the citizens, it was not thought advisable to hold regular funeral services, but it was decided to send for old Unc1e George Fisher, as he was familiarly called, he being one of the pioneers of the Christian reformation, a man full of faith, noted for his purity and godly walk, to conduct a short prayer and song service. This was accordingly done, and the last sad rites over the remains of Corbin and McGraw were performed, and all that was mortal of them was consigned to their narrow graves. McGraw was buried in the old Flagg Spring Churchyard.

Corbin was laid to rest in the Corbin family graveyard, in sight of the home where he was born and spent the earlier part of his life. A simple slab of granite marks the grave, which serves only to perpetuate in the bosom of his friends sad memories of a sadder fate. His old mother, already bent by the weight of years, did not long survive this severe ordeal.

One brother, John H Corbin, a veteran of the Mexican War, still lives at the old homestead; also a sister, Miss Melissa Chalfant Corbin, compose the members of the family now living. Miss Corbin is the Principal of the Kentucky Female Orphan School, at Midway, Woodford County Kentucky, which position she has filled for thirteen years, having previously taught six years in the same school. Thus, it will be seen, that the best years of her life have been devoted to this noble work, and the high standard of the school may well be pointed to as evidence of her superior fitness for the position.

The name of W F Corbin now forms a part of the history of the "Lost Cause".  Honorable mention is made of his name in a book, entitled "Veterans Associations of Kentucky".  The association is incorporated under the laws of Kentucky and numerous Confederate camps have been organized.  These camps bear the name of some comrade who either fell in battle, or has died since the close of the war.  One of these camps has been organized in Newport and bears the name of
William F Corbin Camp, No. 683.

It has been the desire of the writer of this article to be unprejudiced and non-partisan in his expressions and trusts that he has succeeded.

Signed J(ohn) C(alvin) Demoss

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