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Newburgh commemorates its Civil War history

Mareea Thomas


It’s a typical July day in Newburgh, a picturesque town on the Ohio River. It’s hot and humid with a slight breeze. It’s also dead silent.

A small group of southerners probably encountered similar conditions as they wrote perhaps the most notable chapter in the town’s history.

As a little kid, I remember hearing about a Civil War skirmish just a few miles down the street from where I grew up. Many residents know the story.

"Newburgh was the first municipality north of the Ohio captured by Confederate forces, July the eighteenth, 1862,” Newburgh Museum Board of Directors President Thomas Bodkin said.

“They came here, were here for about four or five hours, took guns and ammunitions and food and bayonets and pistols and all sorts of material back to Kentucky to arm soldiers for the South.”

This sounds like a typical Civil War skirmish, but this one’s a little different. And it’s this little quirk that makes it memorable.

Joshua Claybourn is dressed from head to toe in a blue union uniform with a gun slung over his shoulder, but if he were here 155 years ago, he wouldn’t need the gun.

"They tricked the town into thinking they were surrounded, had some fake cannons. It was about thirty Confederates,” he said. “They crossed the river. So they ended up laying down the arms in fear of basically the rebels shelling the town.”

Those fake cannons were a log and part of a stove, earning the man who led the guerilla soldiers the nickname General Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson.

Credit Mareea Thomas / WNIN

 The Newburgh Museum sponsors a weekend of events called Newburgh Remembers to commemorate the town’s role during the war.

And, of course, there’s a retelling of Johnson’s Raid, a story so unusual it becomes a drawing point for some residents like Brenna Kelley.

"I didn't grow up here. We just moved to Newburgh about three or four years ago, but went to the ghost tours and heard all of the stories so we know there wasn't really any shots fired here in Newburgh,” she said. “But it was kind of neat to see what's really happened or a reenactment of a skirmish"

With Kelley were two young children who were learning about Abraham Lincoln in school. She hoped by seeing a Lincoln impersonator and watching the reenactments, they would better understand that period in U.S. history.

The town provides many opportunities like this to learn about its past, but Bodkin says this wasn’t always the case.

"I moved here in 1975, probably 76-77 I would've heard the first thing about the raid,” he said. “Then there was no event like this to learn from when I first moved here."

And that is why Bodkin and other board members created Newburgh Remembers.

Credit Mareea Thomas / WNIN

 Claybourn considers himself an amateur historian, and now he’s able to share his passion for Civil War-era history with others by sporting union blue in the museum’s reenactments.

He said viscerally experiencing this era of history can encourage people to learn more about it.

"You can experience the sights the sounds, and really understand what it was like and maybe when they go back home, they take more time to pick up a book or get online and read more about it and learn more about this really rich history we have in the area," he said.

And that is why Claybourn, Bodkin, and others are outside during the hottest month of the year.