Names from History: Wright, Mitchel and Thomas, namesakes of three NKY towns

All three were Union generals in the Civil War
Posted at 1:51 PM, Dec 19, 2016

CINCINNATI -- The Tri-State region's first military fortification was named for America's most famous general, George Washington. Other forts that followed bore the names Wright, Mitchel and Thomas. We all know the history of the Father of our Country, but who were these other three guys who lent their names to three Northern Kentucky cities?

Their names were Horatio Wright, Ormsby Mitchel and George Thomas. All were Union generals during the Civil War. The forts named after Wright and Mitchel were built hastily in September 1862 on Northern Kentucky hilltops to protect Cincinnati from possible invasion by 6,000 Confederate troops led by Gen. Henry Heth. Fort Thomas came much later, in 1894, after a series of floods forced the Army to abandon Newport Barracks and move to higher ground. Fort Thomas became a city in 1914.

It was tradition for the 19th-century Army to name forts after its leaders, and the following biographies spell out why Wright, Mitchel and Thomas deserved that honor.

Horatio Gouverneur Wright (1820-1899)

It is unknown whether Wright, who briefly served as head of the Department of the Ohio and the Army of Ohio during the early stages of the Civil War, ever walked the Kenton County land that decades later would become Fort Wright. A small earthen fort erected to repel a rebel attack that never happened bore his name -- which stuck and became an incorporated city in 1941-- but was devoured by development long ago.

His almost unblemished military record and the notoriety he gained as an Army engineer assigned to complete the Washington Monument and help build the Brooklyn Bridge likely qualified him to be in the pool of military heroes for whom American forts, and later towns, were named.

Born in Clinton, Connecticut, Wright entered the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vermont, at age 14 and received an appointment to West Point two years later. He graduated second in his class in 1841. During the next 20 years, Wright taught French and engineering at West Point and then was a top field engineer, rising to the rank of captain based in part on his infrastructure and fortification projects in St. Augustine and Key West, Florida.

Wright’s first Civil War assignment was to dismantle Navy ships and guns at Gosfort (later Norfolk) Navy Yard in Virginia before the Confederates could occupy it. It would be his only military failure and ended with his capture and release four days later. Wright returned to Washington and assisted in fortifying Washington.

Wright then was called into active duty, serving first as an engineer at the First Battle of Bull Run in April 1861, after which he was promoted to major general. The list of famous battles Wright participated in as a division leader in the VI Corps and 6th Army Corps is long, but three of them stand out.

During his brief service in Ohio in 1862, Wright's troops chased Gen. Braxton Braggs out of Kentucky. He commanded the VI Corps at Gettysburg, holding a support line that never engaged the enemy. Wright led a VI Corps charge through the lines of Gen. Robert E. Lee during the 292-day Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, which ended five weeks before the South surrendered in May 1865.

After the war, Wright commanded the Department of Texas for two years before he returned to his engineering career on the East Coast, where he worked on the monument and bridge projects. He served as the Army Chief of Engineers from 1879 until his retirement in 1884 at age 64. Wright was married to Louisa Bradford of Virginia for 57 years. They had two daughters. He is buried near other VI Corps veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gen. Ormsby Mitchel grew up in Lebanon, taught at Cincinnati College and founded the Cincinnati Observatory.

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1810-1862)

Of the three generals, Mitchel's impact on the region was the greatest. The crowning achievement of the West Point-schooled attorney, surveyor, lecturer, professor and avid astronomer was to walk door-to-door to raise funds to fund the first Cincinnati Observatory that was built on a four-acre plot atop Mount Ida (later Adams) donated by Nicholas Longworth. The observatory's so-called Cincinnati Telescope, which was the third largest in the world at the time and features a high-quality 11-inch lens, was discovered and purchased by Mitchel in Munich, Germany, in 1842 and still draws wows at its Mount Lookout location.

Former president John Quincy Adams’ final speech was delivered at the November 1843 dedication of the observatory.  Mitchel (the second 'l' was added to the city’s name for unknown reasons) became the first director of the so-called "Lighthouse of the Sky" and went on to publish the nation's first magazine dedicated to astronomy, The Sidereal Messenger.

Mitchel also is remembered for ordering a failed raid on a Confederate train in Georgia that inspired a 1926 silent film starring Buster Keaton called "The General" and the 1956 Disney film "The Great Locomotive Chase." And, like Wright, Mitchel had a long-gone earthen fort on Dixie Highway named after him. That name stuck when Fort Mitchell incorporated in 1910.

Mitchel was born in Union County, Kentucky, but grew up and attended school in Lebanon, Ohio, where his family moved following the death of his father. His focus was on Greek, Latin and mathematics. Mitchel's first, or "plebe," year roommate at the United States Military Academy was Robert E. Lee. Mitchel graduated 15th in his class in 1829, worked at West Point as an assistant professor, then moved to Cincinnati, where he passed the bar examination and became a lawyer.

His forte, however, was talking and teaching. He married Louisa Clark Trask in 1831 and joined the faculty at Cincinnati College in 1836 to teach math, philosophy and astronomy. In addition, he served as chief engineer of the first Cincinnati-based railroad, the Little Miami, and plotted its line north to Springfield. He traveled far and wide to lecture about astronomy as well.

In 1861, when Mitchel was 51 years old, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him brigadier general in charge of volunteers and the fortification of Northern Kentucky in defense of Cincinnati. The train raid he ordered resulted in the capture in Chatanooga and execution in Atlanta of Mitchel's co-conspirator, espionage agent James J. Andrews. Mitchel's biggest military success was to seize Huntsville, Alabama, without a shot being fired.

Mitchel, whom the Cincinnati Observatory's website describes as the "Carl Sagan of the 1880s," died of yellow fever at age 52 in Beaufort, South Carolina, and was buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

Gen. George Thomas helped win the pivotal Battle of Nashville in support of Sherman's March to the Sea.

George Henry Thomas (1816-1870)

Thomas is by far the most famous of the three generals, having served a short tier below Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. Not bad for a man who was born in Virginia, gave up his family ties and fought for the Union well enough to earn the nicknames "Rock of Chicamauga," "Hammer of Nashville" and "Pap Thomas."

Did Thomas ever pass through the Campbell County town that bears his name? It's probable, but his name is the biggest mark he left behind.

Thomas was born in Southampton County, Virginia. He was 13 when his father died in a farming accident and 15 when his family fled their home in the wake of the Nat Turner revolt. West Point snagged him in 1836, and he roomed with William Tecumseh Sherman as a first-year “plebe.” His early military assignments included the Seminole War (1841-1842) in Florida and the Mexican War (1847).

Thomas' specialties were teaching artillery and cavalry, which he did at West Point in the early 1850s, a time during which he married Frances Kellogg. While serving with Robert E. Lee in Texas in 1860, he was hit by a Comanche arrow and took a 12-month leave of absence on the East Coast. Then war broke out, and he faced a fateful decision: which side to take in the war. His Southern sisters avowed to disown him if he turned Yankee. Surely, the North was glad he did.

Thomas' positive impact on the Union cause was swift, and his rise through the ranks to brigadier general in August 1861 was meteoric. He led volunteer troops to their first victory in Kentucky at Mill Springs and went on to command under former classmate and fellow Seminole and Mexican wars veteran Gen. Don Carlos Buell in numerous victories, including the pivotal Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, in September 1861.

Later, Thomas had Sherman's back during the fearless general’s incendiary sweep through the South, defending Nashville, Tennessee, from a Confederate attack in December 1864 that could have bolstered the rebels' hopes of rebounding. For his courage and success, Thomas received a formal citation of thanks from Congress.

After he helped preserve the Union, Thomas commanded several military districts, including San Francisco, where he died of a stroke at age 53. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in his wife's hometown of Troy, New York. Visitors to Washington can visit an equestrian statue of Thomas at a circle in the northwest quadrant of the city where Vermont and Massachusetts avenues intersect with 14th and M streets.