Executed as spies
Confederate recruiters captured, tried, convicted and faced firing squad

Two young Campbell County men sat on the edge of their open coffins in the wind-swept field.

Blindfolded with their hands bound behind their backs, the two knew it would take a miracle to spare them from death.

William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw had long known their duties as Confederate officers carried dangerous consequences.

But they thought the worst that might befall them would be a prisoner of war camp.

Instead, in scarcely more than a month since their capture, the two had been tried, convicted, sentenced to die and now faced a Union firing squad.

The end for Corbin and McGraw began on a dangerous mission in the bloody Civil War on April 8, 1863 near the Pendleton and Campbell county border and not far from their respective homes.

By all accounts the Union patrols that evening were not even looking for the two but instead for another young Campbell County man named Jim Caldwell. Caldwell was the leader of a band of Confederate irregulars, who harassed Union troops on hit-and-run raids. No sooner would they strike than they would meld back into the populace, making it difficult for Union troops to halt or capture them.

Intelligence reports put Caldwell in the Peach Grove area along the border between Pendleton and Campbell counties. Based on the tips, Union troops had been dispatched to Rouse's Mill and to Demossville to look for the raiders.

Fate would have it that Corbin and McGraw were nearby on their recruiting mission for the confederacy.

Corbin was a Confederate captain born in the Carthage area of southern Campbell County and McGraw was a lieutenant born near Flagg Springs. The two were in Northern Kentucky to enlist men for the cause of the South.

But the Union troops had picked up on the movement of men in the area and traced them to the home of Garrett Daniels where Corbin had gone with several recruits.

When McGraw was slow to return, Corbin ordered his new recruits to move out toward Confederate troops mustered to the south. Then Corbin waited for McGraw.

McGraw finally arrived at the Daniels farm, but Union troops were close behind.

The two Rebels ran and hid in the woods but surrendered after the Union commander threatened to burn down the house if they did not give up.

The Cincinnati Commercial newspaper told of the capture of the two on April 18, 1863, reporting that federal troops had been searching for the "notorious Jim Caldwell -- who had a habit of visiting a place called Morris Mill'' when they got wind of the recruiters, Corbin and McGraw. The newspaper reported that Caldwell's lieutenant, M. D. Daniels, had been shot and killed, as well.

Leading the Union contingent was Lt. S. A. Nickerson of the 118th Ohio Volunteers.

When they surrendered, Corbin and McGraw had expected to be taken to a prisoner of war camp. Instead, they were sent to be tried under a new military order that considered recruiters to be spies and subject to execution. Even though that directive had not been issued until after their arrests, it was to be carried out in the case of Corbin and McGraw.

The two were taken to Cincinnati and put on trial on April 21, 1863. Corbin faced trial first.

Several Union officers testified. They told how they came upon the recruiters on the edge of Pendleton County, on the Washington Trace, near Ellis Cross Road and Rouse's Mill. They said Corbin had been armed with a Colt revolver and a large butcher knife.

Further testimony established that Corbin was a Confederate recruiter. In short order, Corbin was found guilty. A subsequent trial found McGraw guilty as well.

Both were ordered to be executed by Gen. A.E. Burnside, the Union general probably best known for his long distinctive facial hair that became known as sideburns. Burnside wanted an example to be made and Corbin and McGraw were going to be it.

The execution order was passed on to President Lincoln, who on May 4, 1863 approved it despite an attempted intervention by Corbin's sister.

The execution was set for May 15 at Johnson Island on Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio.

On the day they faced the firing squad, Corbin and McGraw were reported to be calmer and under more control than their friends and relatives as they sat on the edge of their coffins so that force of the gunfire would push the men backwards into their coffins and save others from lifting their bodies.

Pray as they would, the miracle family members had hoped for did not occur as the firing squad carried out the execution as scheduled.

McGraw's body was taken to Flagg Springs Baptist Church for burial. Corbin's body also was returned to Campbell County for burial in a family cemetery in Carthage.

In August 1914 the United Daughters of the Confederacy announced plans to erect a monument over the grave of McGraw in Flagg Springs.

In October the ceremony took place. In its report The Kentucky Times-Star termed the story of McGraw and Corbin one of heroism and the monument a fitting tribute.

The study of Northern Kentucky history is an avocation of staff writer Jim Reis, who covers suburban Kenton County for The Kentucky Post.