The Corbin & McGraw Saga
1863 Firing Squad Takes the Lives of Two Campbell Countians
On Memorial Day, 1931, folk in the vicinity of Flagg Spring, a quaint farming village in the eastern section of Campbell County, honored the memory of two of their dead.
They were Capt. William Frances Corbin and Lieut. T. Jefferson McGraw, two of the community's gallant pioneer residents, who died “because they fought for a principle they thought was right, and acted on their own convictions.”
They were Confederate soldiers and dared to invade the lines of the Union forces during the Civil War to recruit Confederate soldiers - an act punishable by death.
They were captured and convicted before a court-martial, and both paid the extreme penalty-shot down simultaneously by a firing squad.
The two soldiers, however, live in the memory of the community, not as rebels, but as men of noble character - they are remembered as they were before the war.
Both Lieut. McGraw and Capt. Corbin were born of parents who were among the oldest and most prominent in the county. They were influential in the community. Capt. Corbin was an elder in the California Christian Church, while his comrade was an active worker in the congregation.
The relatives of Capt. Corbin and their relatives visited the graves of the two rebels - some brought floral tributes, while others offered a silent prayer.
Capt. Corbin is buried on a small plot of ground atop a hill overlooking the Washington Trace Road. The plot has served as the Corbin family burial ground and is located but a short distance from the two-room log cabin in which Corbin lived with his parents before joining the Confederate army. The log cabin has been remodeled and T. W. Corbin, a nephew of the decedent, makes it his home. Another nephew, William M. Corbin, resides on the Flagg Spring Road. A small, weathered limestone monument marks the grave.
Lieut. McGraw is buried in the Flagg Spring Baptist Cemetery on the Flagg Spring Pike. The cemetery is one of the oldest in the country and long served as a public burial ground for the community. His grave is marked by a stone erected recently by the Mrs. Basil Duke Chapter, United Daughters of the Confederacy, of Lexington. The inscription of the stone tells the fateful career of Lieut. McGraw: “Lieut. T. J. McGraw, C. S. A., Shot at Johnson Island [Wikipedia], May 15, 1863, by General Burnside's Order for Recruiting in Kentucky. Erected by the Mrs. Basil Duke Chapter, U.D.C.”
It was in the summer of 1860 the J. C. Demoss, a widely known resident of Flagg Spring, conceived the idea of raising an independent military company. He enlisted 60 young men from the eastern part of the county. The company was organized and DeMoss was elected captain and Corbin Lieutenant. Later, the company made application to the state and was equipped with arms and was admitted, under the law, as a company of state guards. The company was recognized as a part of the state militia after the necessary bonds for the use and return of the arms and military equipment were executed.
The company was uniformed in the regulation gray and soon became the pride of the community. Some time in the summer of 1862 the company was called to Camp Garnett, near Cynthiana, Kentucky for state drill, where, with the other companies of guards, a week was spent in military maneuvers.
At this time Kentucky had assumed an attitude of "armed neutrality" that neither the Union nor Confederate troops should invade it as a battleground for quartering troops. This position was of short duration, as neither of the two forces respected the edict and both invaded the state.
It was during the encampment that the chivalric spirit enveloped the guards and Corbin and McGraw. The guards were virtually unanimous in their sympathy with the southern cause, and many of the company went directly from camp to join the Confederate forces. The Campbell County company, however, returned its arms and equipment to the state before joining with the Confederates.
At this time Gen. Kirby Smith was marching toward northern Kentucky with a formidable force of Confederates. Federal officials ordered all available men to throw up breastworks for the protection of northern Kentucky cities. Every one was required tro show his colors, by either obeying the federal order, or joining the south.
Corbin and McGraw and about 25 members of the Campbell Co. Company chose the Southern cause and made their way through the Federal lines at Paris, where on Sept. 25, 1862, they joined Capt. Thomas Moore's Company, Fourth Kentucky Cavalry. Corbin was commissioned a captain, and McGraw a lieutenant. After spending some time with the company in the mountains of Virginia, Corbin and McGraw were detailed to Kentucky to recruit Confederate soldiers.
Spending several weeks in Campbell and Kenton counties, Corbin and McGraw recruited several score. On the night of April 8, 1863, they were to meet at the home of Garret Daniel, near Wesley Chapel on the Pendleton County line. They were to march from here to Paris with their recruits. When McGraw failed to appear at the appointed time, Corbin sent his recruits on their journey while he waiting for his comrade, fearing something had happened to him.
With the arrival of McGraw at the farm, a number of Union soldiers appeared. Corbin and McGraw fled into a woods, while the soldiers searched the Daniel property. When the soldiers threatened to burn Daniel's home and barn if he would not surrender the two rebels, Corbin and McGraw emerged from their hiding place and surrendered rather than see their friend's home destroyed. It was learned later the Union soldiers were searching for another Confederate recruiting officer and came upon the trail of Corbin and McGraw through an accident.
Corbin and McGraw became prisoners of war, and on April 21, 1863, they were tried before a court-martial in Cincinnati and found guilty of recruiting Confederates within the lines of Union forces, and for being carriers of mail against the government. They were sentenced to death by Maj. Gen A. E. Burnside, in command of the Cincinnati encampment. The sentence was approved May 4, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln and they were transferred to Johnson's Island, near Sandusky, Ohio, to be shot on May 15.
When the result of the court-martial became known, relatives and friends of the two doomed men tried to bring influence on Gen. Burnside and President Lincoln. The mother of McGraw, a widow, appeared before both Gen. Burnside and President Lincoln, as did Melissa C. Corbin, a sister, and other relatives and friends.
The fate of the nation was in the balance and Confederate cannons were thundering at the gates of Washington. The life of the republic as well as the lives of the great armies, were in President Lincoln's keeping. The chief executive would not agree to the appeals for he lives of the two Confederates.
On the eve of their execution, Corbin conducted church services among the soldiers and other prisoners. The services were attended by Union army authorities and their wives and children. In his sermon, Corbin declared, "Life is just as sweet to me as to any man, but if it is necessary for me to die in order to vindicate my cause, I am ready for die, for I do not fear death. I have done nothing to be ashamed of, as I acted upon my own convictions. I fought for a principal which I believed to be right in the sight of God."
DeMoss, who organized the guard company in which Corbin and McGraw received their initial military training, was permitted to see the two doomed men and witness their execution.
On the morning of May 15, McGraw and Corbin were marched from their cell. They carried the ball and chain, which were shackled to their ankles. They were blindfolded, their hands tied behind them, and they were seated on their coffins, facing the firing squad 12 paces away.
“One, two, three, fire,” and a thunder of rifle shots echoed. Corbin and McGraw had paid with their lives, for deeds that they conscientiously believed to be right. Funeral services for the two dead comrades were conducted later on the lawn of the Corbin home and they were buried.
In a letter to his mother, sister and brother, on the day before his execution, Corbin wrote:
“This is the last writing I ever expect to do in this world, therefore, I address it to you all. I know you are praying for me, but when you receive this I will be no more. I hope to be with the blessed, with my dear brother, and all who have gone before me. Do not weep for me. O, Ma, we will meet in heaven, where we will sorrow no more. God will in no wise cast off those who put their trust in Him. I have thrown myself upon His mercy. Give my dying love to all, and tell them to meet me in my Father's house.”
This piece is by William Hagedorn, from 1931. The Campbell County Historical Society has published a small booklet on McGraw & Corbin that you can get for $3.50. Go here for details.