Produced and staffed by the same team that put together the Newport Gangster, Haunted Newport and Queen City Underground tours, the format is familiar: It’s an eight-block stroll through Over-the-Rhine peppered with tales both heroic and lurid. Mac Cooley, one of the organizers and tour guides, says he felt it was important to cross into this all-too-often-avoided neighborhood and expose some of Cincinnati’s hidden gems.
Though no Civil War battles were ever fought on Cincinnati soil, the Queen City played an important strategic role, Cooley says. Cincinnatians ran some of the most important industrial engines for the war and were active and foundational members of the Abolitionist movement, and Cincinnatians, both white and black, fought for the Union.
“Miss Stowe did not write Uncle Tom’s Cabin here, but she gathered many stories that she put into that book in her travels,” Cooley says. “In Maysville, Ky., she actually saw a slave auction. She was also friends with another gentleman here in town, Mr. Levi Coffin, who was the unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.
He brought hundreds of escaped slaves through this town and through these streets. A few blocks over next to the old Woodward High School, the old School for the Creative and Performing Arts now, he had a boarding house and he brought a lot of people through there.”
On Central Parkway’s grass median, Cooley provides a vivid description of soldiers stationed along the hillsides facing Kentucky. Hundreds of the city’s black regiments stood watch over the city along with thousands of other Union soldiers, effectively repelling a planned Confederate invasion. It’s a really moving portrait of the 19th Century struggle for civil rights and drew several passers-by to stop and hear the tales.
Race is a common theme throughout the tour. There were German and Irish regiments. It seems like everyone was segregated in some way or another. Names that are familiar to local residents are given form by the stories, too. Cooley says that William Lytle, the namesake of Downtown’s Lytle Park, was a poet and a Union brigadier general who was universally revered, even by Confederates.
“He was killed by a Confederate sniper,” Cooley says. “He was well known throughout the country, mostly for a poem entitled ‘Anthony and Cleopatra.’ When the Confederates discovered that they had killed William Lytle on the battlefield, enough Confederates knew who he was that they guarded the body through the night and they recited verses of his poetry over the top of him and protected his body until exchanges could be made the next day.”
The gripping storytelling is amplified by the architecture that participants can explore as part of the group. Stops in Memorial Hall, Old St. Mary’s Church and the Emery Theater are punctuated by experts on the histories of these buildings who share their wealth of knowledge. Additional extension tours are sometimes available. A behind-the-scenes look at Old St. Mary’s was offered free of charge at the conclusion of the tour I attended.
The Emery Theater, not built until the 20th Century, is a kind of Easter Egg on the excursion — a musty and stately sideline that’s a must-see. Built by the same Mary Emery who was responsible for Mariemont, the theater is an architectural marvel with acoustics comparable to Carnegie Hall and once host to musical luminaries like George Gershwin and John Philip Sousa.
Few locals know much about our home’s part in the war that nearly destroyed the United States. The tour, which lasts about 90 minutes (or longer if you linger), does much to bring this hidden history back to life and is as engaging as it is enlightening.
THE CINCINNATI CIVIL WAR TOUR runs Saturdays through Sept. 25. Find details and get tickets here.