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The Battle of New Market Heights: the 5th USCT’s “Glory”

September 24th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

150 years ago this week, an important, but often overlooked, battle was fought in the American Civil War.  It was the Battle of New Market Heights, fought September 29, 1864, on the outskirts of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia.   It was important because it showcased a new strategy that Union General Ulysses S. Grant would employ successfully against Confederate General Robert E. Lee – a strategy that involved, in part, the use of African American soldiers.  With 180,000 African American soldiers joining the Union cause in the last two years of the war, this was a significant morale boost for the Union, and a bad omen for the Confederacy.  It was also an important battle for Ohio, as the victory was led by  Ohio’s first African American regiment, the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry.  And it was especially important to Oberlin, whose influence and presence pervaded the 5th USCT.

Langston-colors
John Mercer Langston presents the colors to the 5th USCT

That influence began with Oberlin’s  John Mercer Langston.  When Congress passed legislation in 1862 that allowed African Americans to serve in the United States army for the first time in decades, Langston volunteered to recruit an Ohio regiment.  But Ohio Governor David Tod told Langston that “to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service.”   Meanwhile black regiments were recruited in other states, and Langston and his Oberlin brother-in-law, Orindatus S. B. Wall, helped recruit the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which included 18 Oberlin men and would be immortalized in the 1989 movie “Glory”.  Finally, in June, 1863, Governor Tod gave Langston and Wall the go-ahead to recruit Ohio’s own black regiments.  They diligently set about recruiting African Americans from all over Ohio, including four more men from Oberlin.  These men enlisted in the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which eventually was renamed the 5th United States Colored Infantry. [1]

WallShurtleff

Although racial tabboo dictated that the regiment be led by white officers, Langston knew the perfect candidate for its  commander, “a young man of extraordinarily high personal and social character, of strictly Christian principles and habits, with recognized reputation and influence as an abolitionist and friend of the negro race”, Oberlin’s Giles W. Shurtleff.  Shurtleff had served earlier in the war as Captain of the “Monroe Rifles” (see A Fond Farewell and Oberlinians’ First Battle of the Civil War).  When informed of his nomination, Shurtleff wrote his future wife, “I do not seek the appointment but am willing to take it if I can be of service to the country and to the blacks.”  But Shurtleff was appointed assistant commander, with a commission as Lieutenant Colonel, instead.  Several other white Oberlinites would also secure officer’s positions in the regiment, including James B. T. Marsh (quartermaster, and former publisher of the abolitionist Lorain County News), Elliott Grabill (adjutant),  and John Patton (chaplain). [2]

The regiment was mustered into service in November, 1863 and attached to the “Army of the James”, operating in the James River watershed of eastern Virginia.  There they would see much more action than their sister Ohio regiment, the 27th USCT (see my Battle of the Crater post), due largely to the Army of the James’ controversial commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, who had become one of the army’s strongest advocates of the abilities of the black troops.  And so the 5th USCT immediately began launching raids in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, capturing guerillas, destroying Confederate supplies, and freeing slaves. [3]

In June, 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant launched the Army of the Potomac against the Confederate rail hub of Petersburg, just south of Richmond (see my  Battle of the Crater blog), the 5th USCT participated in the initial assault on its sparsely manned defenses.  Together with several other USCT regiments, they captured Confederate entrenchments, artillery positions and cannon.  With proper reinforcement they would have been in a prime position to capture Petersburg itself.  But the commanding general on the field hesitated, and to Shurtleff’s great frustration, “the next day there were confronting us instead of 2,200 of Wise’s Militia and convalescents of the previous evening, 10,000 veterans with bristling bayonets and a hundred cannon mouths all behind strong breastworks and formidable redans; and during the next three days 10,000 brave soldiers were sacrificed in fruitless assaults…”  Thus began a 9 month siege of the city of Petersburg. [4]

Nevertheless, the news of the success of the 5th USCT and their fellow African American regiments spread far and wide.  President Lincoln himself expressed “the greatest delight” with “how gallantly they behaved” and accepted General Grant’s invitation to review them a few days later.  According to Lieutenant Grabill, “the colored men lined both sides of the road and cheered”  as Lincoln and Grant rode by.  An aide to General Grant reported, “the President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken with emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulations with which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode.”  [5]

In fact, the accomplishment of Butler’s USCT regiments during the initial assault on Petersburg helped inspire General Ambrose Burnside’s decision to have his own USCT regiments spearhead the assault at the Battle of the Crater six weeks later.  Interestingly, the 5th USCT, now assigned to duty in the Petersburg trenches, would have a ringside seat for that battle, helplessly watching the “unspeakable stupidity” (in Shurtleff’s words) of the management of that battle, and suffering 14 casualties to friendly fire in the process.  [6]

The Battle of the Crater appears to have finally convinced Grant of two things: the futility of storming heavily manned entrenchments head-on (with or without the help of explosive-laden underground mineshafts), and the fighting mettle of the USCT soldiers.  So now he embarked on a new strategy in which the USCT regiments would play a crucial role.  In late August, the 5th USCT was pulled out of the Petersburg trenches and sent to the banks of the James River on the outskirts of Richmond, where they were to prepare for an upcoming offensive.  Grant was going to hit Lee with a one-two punch at both ends of his line simultaneously.

The Army of the James would attack the northern end of the Confederate line at the heavily fortified but lightly manned outskirts of Richmond.  Grant hoped that they could gain a foothold on the James peninsula and draw enough Confederate reinforcements away from Petersburg so his attack at the south end of the line could succeed as well.  Butler devised a strategy for a two-pronged attack against the Richmond defenses, with the western prong (comprised mostly of white soldiers) attacking Fort Harrison, and the eastern prong  (comprised of two white divisions and two black divisions) attacking a formidable position called New Market Heights.

Sept 29 offensive

The attack began at dawn on September 29, 1864.  While the western prong made solid gains against the defenses surrounding Fort Harrison, the eastern prong got off to an inauspicious start.  The consensus among military historians is that the generals commanding this prong fed their troops in piecemeal, negating their huge numerical advantage.  To make matters worse, the troops had to advance across extremely difficult terrain under fire from what one military historian called “among the best [infantry] in the Army of Northern Virginia.”  The 4th USCT and 6th USCT regiments spearheaded this assault.  In forty minutes of grueling fighting a few of these soldiers actually succeeded in breaching the Confederate entrenchments, but not enough to take the position.  Ultimately they were driven back with heavy casualties. [7]

At 8:00 AM the Union command made a second attempt, but again using the same piecemeal approach.  This time the 5th USCT, now under the command of Colonel Shurtleff, would lead the advance over the same terrain where the 4th and 6th USCT had just been so disastrously repulsed.  Exhorting his troops to erase the “stigma” of “cruel prejudice and oppression”, Shurtleff led them onto the battlefield.  The regiment had to ford a stream and slog their way through marshy bottomlands and over the bodies of their fallen comrades, during which time Shurtleff noted that enemy artillery “poured in upon us with incessant fury.”   One Confederate recounted that as the USCT troops advanced upon them, “they shouted remember ‘Fort Pillow’ & give the Rebels no quarter.  This stirred up our men and everybody seemed mad for the first time.”  Shurtleff observed that “the enemy’s infantry opened moderately upon us, and shouted in defiance and derision, ‘Come on, you smoked yankees, we want your guns’.”  [8]

But this was the easy part.  Climbing the slope out of the marshes, the troops encountered two lines of enemy obstructions called “abatis”.  At this point, Shurtleff noted, “our progress was arrested, and the most murderous fire that I witnessed during the war opened upon us.”  (Coming from a man who had witnessed first-hand the carnage of the Battle of the Crater and the Battle of Fredericksburg, this statement carries some weight.)  Shurtleff himself was struck by a rebel bullet in the hand, but receiving no order to retreat, he commanded his men “Forward, double quick”, at which time he “received a second wound in the thigh which rendered me insensible for perhaps 15 minutes.” [9]

chevausdefrise
Chevaux-de-frise” – one of the lines of “abatis” that the USCTs had to get past

Shurtleff was one of several 5th USCT officers taken out by enemy fire.  Four of the regiment’s ten companies suddenly found themselves without any officers to guide them.  In such circumstances, Civil War soldiers would often break into panicked retreat.  But four sergeants, all African American, now stepped up to take command of their leaderless companies and rally them forward.  However such grit and determination, against such galling fire, would likely have resulted only in scattering the bodies of more USCT heroes over the battlefield if it weren’t for another concurrent development.

At about the same time the 5th USCT began its advance, the Confederate commander, under heavy assault at Fort Harrison, requested reinforcements from the New Market Heights line.  So now, as rebel soldiers were systematically pulled out of the New Market Heights defenses, the amount of fire greeting the advancing USCT troops gradually diminished, until at some point it dwindled to a level where the sheer determination of the USCT troops was able to overcome it.  (There is considerable disagreement among military historians about the exact timing and scope of this. [10])  At that point, the 5th USCT, followed by two other USCT regiments, swarmed through the abatis and over the Confederate parapets.  And so it was that Colonel Shurtleff regained consciousness just in time to see his troops “chasing the rebels over a hill a quarter of a mile beyond the works they had captured.” [11]

Although a Confederate soldier would later write that “Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war”, the Rebels weren’t about to give up.  The Confederates had an “intermediate” line of entrenchments located about 4 miles in the rear.  This line was now manned by rebel soldiers who had been driven out of New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, which had been overrun by Butler’s western prong.  By the time the Union troops regrouped to attack these defenses, they were already being reinforced with troops sent from Richmond and Petersburg by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  The 5th USCT, already decimated at New Market Heights, would now be called on again to shed even more blood assaulting the lynchpin of these works at Fort Gilmer, but were unable to repeat their earlier success.   It became clear that the Army of the James had gone as far as it could and now would have to hunker down to hold the territory it had gained.  This it would do, despite the arrival of General Lee to personally direct Confederate attempts to retake that ground. [12]

The transfer of Confederate reinforcements from Petersburg to Richmond also aided in the success of the southern portion of Grant’s one-two punch.  Union troops there were able to capture territory up to two miles beyond the existing lines.  The Union gains at both ends of the line forced the Confederates to lengthen their own lines and spread their dwindling manpower even thinner.  Just three months later, Robert E. Lee would become so desperate for manpower that he would propose a “plan of gradual and general emancipation”, explaining that “we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies, and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves at the risk of the effects which may be produced upon our social institutions. My own opinion is that we should employ them without delay.”   And just three months after that, Lee’s thin lines would break completely and USCT troops would march into Richmond. [13]

But the New Market Heights victory didn’t come cheap.  The 5th USCT lost 236 men that day – killed, wounded, captured, and missing – out of the 540 they started with.   Among the killed were Oberlin’s Henderson Taborn and James Matthews, both of whom had to be left severely wounded on the battlefield (presumably at Fort Gilmer, where the Confederates retained control of the ground).  Taborn, a cabinet maker and father of five, was reported seen “after his death” by “comrades who were taken prisoner at the time of the assault.”   But nothing further was ever heard of Matthews, who, when recruited, had told Langston of “his desire to have his [pregnant] wife and also his child when born well provided and cared for” in his absence.  His military file states that he was captured and killed by the rebels, but this appears to be speculation. Although there were credible reports of Confederates killing black captives, the slaughter wasn’t nearly as widespread as it had been at the Battle of the Crater, and some wounded black prisoners were treated at Richmond hospitals and even survived the war.   But whether Matthews died of his battle wounds or something more sinister, the young man who had “expressed great tenderness” for his pregnant wife would never see his baby daughter. [14]

Matthews-Taborn-retouch
Matthews and Taborn: Oberlin Soldiers’ Monument

Several surviving soldiers of the 5th USCT, including Colonel Shurtleff, were awarded promotions for their heroism at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer.  Milton Holland, one of the African American sergeants who took command of his company on the field, was awarded a battlefield promotion to captain by General Butler, only to have it rescinded by the War Department on account of Holland’s race*.  So instead Butler awarded a newly issued medal to Holland and the three other 5th USCT sergeants who led their companies, along with 10 other black soldiers from his other regiments.  (Although none of these men were from Oberlin, Robert Pinn attended Oberlin College after the war).  This new medal was the “Medal of Honor”.   Little did anyone realize at the time how prestigious this medal would someday become, but I think the full prestige of this award today is well deserved by these men for their heroic struggle in two battles simultaneously – one against the Confederate army, and the other against the “cruel prejudice and oppression” that pervaded both armies. [15]

Milton Pinn Beaty Bronson

*NOTE: It was reported that Governor Tod advised Holland that his promotion could be reinstated if he would deny his African ancestry.  Holland refused. [16]  Two bills have recently been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 3364 and H.R. 3412) to posthumously reinstate the rank of captain to this Medal of Honor recipient.

In my next and final blog in this Civil War sesquicentennial mini-series, I’ll tell the story of Oberlin’s own recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.

 

Sources Consulted:

Versalle F. Washington, EAGLES ON THEIR BUTTONS: A BLACK INFANTRY REGIMENT IN THE CIVIL WAR

James S. Price, The Battle of New Market Heights

Giles W. Shurtleff, “Reminiscences of Army Life”, Oberlin College Archives, RG 30/032, Series 7, Subseries 1, Box 1, “Writings re the Civil War”

Catherine Durant Vorhees, The Colors of Dignity

Richard J. Sommers, Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg

Official Records of the Rebellion (abbrev. “O.R.” below), Series 1, 4

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

Oberlin College Archives (abbrev. “O.C.A.” below), RG 30/151, Series I, Subseries 1, “William E. Bigglestone Papers; Files Relating to They Stopped in Oberlin; Civil War Military Records”

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864

Charles Bracelen Flood, 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History

Connie Perdreau, A Biographical Sketch of Master Sergeant Milton Holland, Gen. Charles H. Grosvenor Civil War Round Table

“Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database”, National Park Service

General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

“Great Fighting about Richmond”, Lorain County News, October 5, 1864, p. 3

George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion

James M. Guthrie, Campfires of the Afro-American

 

Footnotes:

[1] Langston, p. 206; Washington, pp. 7-9; Bigglestone, p. 237

[2] Langston, p. 209; Voorhees, p. 102

[3] Washington, pp. 33-34

[4] Washington, pp. 42-43; Shurtleff, p. 13

[5] Vorhees, p. 129; Flood, pp. 155-156

[6] Shurtleff, pp. 31-34

[7] Sommers, p. 34

[8] Washington, p. 53; Shurtleff, pp. 37-38; Price, p. 71

[9] Shurtleff, pp. 38-39

[10] Sommers, p. 38; Price, pp. 69-70,77-78, 87-89; Washington, pp. 56-57

[11] Shurtleff, p. 41

[12] Price, p.86

[13] O.R., Series 4, Vol 3, Part 1, p. 1013

[14] Washington, pp. 53, 59, 60, 89-90; Bigglestone, pp. 147, 196, 238;  Affidavit (G. W. Shurtleff), “Taborn, Henderson” file, O.C.A., Bigglestone Papers, Box 3; Sommers, p. 35; Memorandum (Adjutant General’s Office, Nov 4, 1869), “Matthew, James” file, O.C.A., Bigglestone Papers, Box 2

[15] O.R., Series 1, Vol 42, Part 3, p. 168; General Catalogue, p. 771; Voorhees, p. 191

[16] Perdreau

Volunteering: A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

September 6th, 2014

by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS Museum Studies graduate student

What does it mean to be a volunteer? I used to ask myself that question a lot before I began working with the Oberlin Heritage Center. Previously I had done volunteer work but it was usually a one-day, one-time event. I had never had an on-going volunteer position. To me, a volunteer was the bottom of the totem pole grunt worker. You were basically the reserves that were called in to fill out space in a group. I was completely wrong. At the Oberlin Heritage Center, I have learned that a volunteer is a vital part of a team. You are the person that the staff relies on to complete projects that they cannot get to. You are the relief that can be called on when all other available docents are promised to other activities. Most importantly, you are a colleague that can be relied upon and you play a crucial role in the success of the museum.

I have been a volunteer at the OHC for a year now, and it is really hard for me to nail down just what we volunteers do here at the museum. Sometimes we are the tour guides that are greeting guests as they walk in for a tour. Other times we are the people out cleaning up leaves from walkways. We could also be the archivists working on preserving memories of times gone by. Essentially, we are flexible in roles and will do whatever is needed to further the museum’s mission. Most of my time has been spent preserving Oberlin’s history through the Oral History Project.

The Oberlin Oral History Project started in the late 1970s as a group effort to interview diverse people throughout Oberlin and to hear their personal stories. Most of the people interviewed were in their 80s, and could recollect what Oberlin was like in the 1890s and early 1900s. As time went on, more and more interviews were collected until there were eighty-one different interviews recorded, comprising approximately 170 hours of oral history. These interviews were conducted on cassette tapes, and while that media is fairly stable and it is unlikely that we will lose these memories anytime soon, it is still important to preserve them so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come. This is where I come in. IMG_0199 The volunteers (including me!) at the Oberlin Heritage Center have been spending countless hours recording, saving, and converting these cassette tapes into digital sound files. Through this process our hope is that we can not only preserve these memories moving forward, but we can also use them to provide our patrons new and exciting programs and online features in the future. This helps the museum with some of its preservation work, but volunteers such as myself learn a lot along the way too. I’d like to share some of the cool pieces of information I’ve learned about Oberlin history by working on this project.

1. Transportation now is a lot different than it used to be:

I started teaching then in Huntington, and father Sunday night would take me down to Brewster’s Corners because there was a streetcar line that went from Elyria down through Oberlin and then to Wellington, and I would get that car about 4:00 and get to Wellington, then there would be a bus in Wellington that would go down to Ashland that would take me to the center of Huntington and I would then do to Luke Chapman’s. And, so I stayed with Luke and Alta Chapman through the week, and then when Friday night came, why I could catch the bus and go to Wellington, then get the car from Wellington, to Brewster’s Corners and walk home.”—Mabel Brown, April 17, 1984

speaker-clip-art1 Click here to listen to Mabel tell her story

 

2. Matadors aren’t the only people who anger bulls:

I remember one time I was watching a herd. I had on a red sweater and whatever I did I agitated a bull. I got up into a tree, but it was a real scary adventure. But they had a ring in his nose and the guys got to him and they managed to get a hold of that and get him back up into the herd.”—Delores Carter, January 24, 1987

speaker-clip-art1 Click here to listen to Delores tell her story

 

3. Even the Oberlin elderly had a party line:

When asked about how older people spent their leisure time, “Oh, they didn’t have a whole lot. But what they did—they had no radio and no television, and the telephone was on the wall, and they’d crank up one or crank two, and everybody on the line was listening and so forth, but the people entertained themselves.”— Maynard Gott, June 23, 1986

speaker-clip-art1 Click here to listen to Maynard’s story

These stories are just snippets from some of the wonderful history of Oberlin that I have been fortunate to listen in on. Other volunteers and authors have been able to use oral histories to write books. One good example of this is the book Bonnets to Boardrooms: Women’s Stories from a Historic College Town which was edited by Eugenia Poporad Vanek. She wrote this book after compiling oral history information from the same oral history materials that I’ve been working on! (If you’re interested, this book is available online or at the Oberlin Heritage Center’s museum shop).

To end this post, I believe that my volunteering has been a mutually beneficial experience. Sure, the Oberlin Heritage Center benefits from getting their tape collection digitized, but I think I benefit so much more. I get to listen to stories that bring to life Oberlin’s history. Now I can walk down the road and know that there used to be a bakery where Subway now is, or I can picture what Tappan Square was like before automobiles drove around it. Ultimately, that is the reward you get from being a volunteer, you learn to appreciate what is around you and you know you have completed meaningful work in the process.

 

Words of Wisdom for the Incoming Class

August 28th, 2014

by Jen Graham, 2013-2014 Local History Corps AmeriCorps Member

I work in a basement. Don’t worry, though! It’s not nearly as dismal as it sounds. There is plenty of light, and I’m surrounded by objects and photographs older than my grandparents. But when you’re in a basement, surrounded by so much history, it can be difficult to keep up with what’s going on in the present. That’s why, yesterday, as I was leading a walking tour through Oberlin, I was shocked to be overtaken by what seemed like thousands of new faces.

My penchant for exaggerating numbers aside, the fact remains that summer is ending. Whether we like to admit it or not, it’s time for a new school year. A new school year means new college freshman and parents wandering aimlessly and asking questions. I’ve heard some complaints, but I love it. When you live somewhere full-time, it can be easy to take it for granted. Oberlin is a beautiful city and full of a rich, dynamic history.  Seeing the excitement of the new students and their families as they take in the sights and sounds of Oberlin reminds me that I’m pretty lucky to live here.

I wanted to give the new students some words of encouragement, but felt unqualified. After all, less than a decade ago, I was one of them. I wore a lanyard; I forgot my umbrella; I asked where the Conservatory was while standing inside the Conservatory… But! If the two years since my graduation have given me anything, they’ve given me unrestricted access to some of Oberlin College’s early documents. So, naturally, I turned to history to find the words.

In the Oberlin Heritage Center resource library, we have a small, yellow book. In crimson text, it reads: Students’ Handbook, Oberlin College, 1929-1930. The information inside is charming, if mostly irrelevant to today’s college experience. If you do not find it helpful, I hope you will at least find it funny, because, if I learned anything in college, it was the value of a shared laugh.

Without further ado, I present: College Advice from the Thirties.

They even included a helpful, fold-out map in the back!

They even included a helpful, fold-out map in the back!

“To the Class of 1933:

You will graduate in the very year in which Oberlin is to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. That puts it up to us to give you the benefit of a hundred years of teaching experience; and it puts it up to you to prove worthy of a rich opportunity.

Oberlin is recognized nationally as one of the great colleges of the country: we count on you, giving as well as getting, to help us to maintain its high standard.

The best of luck to you, and, more than that, the best of planned and earned success!

Ernest H. Wilkins
President.”

“Whether or not you will be happy in your freshman year, and the years to follow, depends on the way in which you handle yourself. At the risk of seeming to give unrequested advice the following constructive suggestions are made:

  • Keep well physically; get plenty of sleep and enjoyable physical recreation; eat regularly and sanely.

  • Cultivate cheerful acquaintances; develop a few true friendships.

  • Be active in group social affairs; develop buoyant liking for people. Live in the world of people; learn to adapt yourself to people rather than avoid them.

  • Be thoughtful of other people, rather than thinking about yourself and your possible troubles. Project your thoughts outward—concerning other people and other situations—rather than inward, concerning yourself and your worries.

  • Live in the world of reality; face facts as they are rather than build pleasant air castles which will later bring you unhappiness…

  • Cultivate confidence in yourself without developing self-conceit.

  • Exercise your mind; stretch it for all you are worth. Hard work will not injure your mind.

  • Think for yourself; have your own opinions, but avoid obstinacy.

  • Remember…the upperclassmen will have greater respect for you if you act like grown men and women…People old enough for college are too old for childish antics.”

“Customs and Traditions:

  • Chapel services are held in Finney Chapel from 12:00 noon to 12:20 week days, except Monday and Saturday…It is traditional that the student body rise as the President enters and remain seated until he has left the platform. These meetings serve as a most effective means of achieving college unity. One carries away genuine inspiration and a sense of peace and quiet.

  • All freshman men count it a privilege to be graced with the traditional Frosh cap. Buy one early, for it must be worn every day except Sunday until spring.

  • An excellent chance is afforded first-year men to settle any minor differences with their 1932 superiors in the Annual Frosh-Soph Scrap early in the fall. Ropes are provided all men and after thrilling cat-calls from opposite sides of the football field, the men rush towards one another. The object is to tie their antagonists’ hands and feet and carry them off. Wear old clothes!

  • Early each fall freshman and sophomore women vie with one another in a good-natured “scrap” or contest to determine whether the Frosh women shall wear their distinctions until Thanksgiving or Christmas.

  • Beware of the fireplace in Peters Hall! Only juniors and seniors may stand on its sacred tiles…

  • Rallies or “pep meetings” are held before important football games. The speeches are rare and the singing boisterous.

  • Masculine vitality runs free and numerous stags given at the M.B. [Men’s Building]. Donuts and coffee, worked off by boxing and wrestling, make one sleep blissfully.

  • Senior distinctions and caps and gowns appear after spring vacation. From then on the Seniors rule the Campus with their dignity.

  • Since no autos are used by students, bicycles and roller skates have become a common means of travel.”

The Battle of the Crater: 150 years ago

July 25th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

The party was such a success that it would make the local paper.  Fifty guests crowded into the house on South Water Street (present day Park Street) – among them the Mayor of Oberlin, Civil War veterans, and a pastor of Rust Methodist Episcopal Church – and now they called for a speech.  They would not be disappointed.  Their host, Perry Carter, would captivate them for the next half hour with tales of his escape from slavery to Oberlin, his service in the Union Army, and his roles in the Republican Party and the Rust M. E. Church.  And while most of these stories have been lost to history, we do have a good deal of information about one of the most fascinating episodes of Perry Carter’s life: the Battle of the Crater,  one of the most dramatic and horrendous battles of the Civil War, fought 26 years before Carter’s party and 150 years ago this week. [1]

Perry Carter came “directly to Oberlin” in the late 1850s, in his early 20s, after having escaped from slavery in Kentucky. He was working as a drayman when many of Oberlin’s citizens went off to fight the Civil War in 1861.  But the vast majority of those soldiers were white, as the racial attitudes of the day barred blacks from serving legally.  That would change, however, and towards the end of 1863 Ohio began to recruit its own African American regiments: the 5th and 27th United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry.  The USCT was a segregated branch of the Union Army to be led in combat by white officers.  Several of Oberlin’s black residents would enlist in these regiments.  Carter was mustered into the 27th USCT in January, 1864. [2]

After completing basic training, the 27th USCT was attached to the Army of the Potomac, led by Generals George Meade and Ulysses S. Grant.  The Army of the Potomac would spend the Spring of 1864 locked in a death grip with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee.  As the two armies slugged it out across northern Virginia, closing in on the Confederate capitol of Richmond, much of the combat developed into grueling trench warfare, ultimately culminating at the city of Petersburg, where Lee’s troops dug in once again.

AOPspring1864

Up to this point virtually all the fighting had been done by white troops.  Many Union officers didn’t trust black troops in combat.  Others were concerned about Confederate threats to enslave captured black soldiers or execute them for “servile insurrection”.   Events at Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April seemed to confirm these threats, with reports of hundreds of black soldiers being executed by Confederates after they surrendered.  And so Private Carter and the black troops of the Army of the Potomac were assigned to guarding wagon trains behind the lines.

But now General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, had two novel ideas to break the stalemate.  He would dig a mine beneath the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg, load it with tons of  black powder, and ignite it, blasting an opening in the Rebel lines.  And instead of sending his weary, shell-shocked white troops to exploit the breach, he would send his black troops, whose fighting qualities he believed in, and who were “wrought up to a fever heat of zeal” to prove themselves in battle and avenge Fort Pillow. [3]

Burnside
Major General Ambrose Burnside

The section of the Confederate entrenchments to be blown up was on the side of a hill only a few hundred feet west of the Union lines.  General Burnside’s lead USCT troops repeatedly rehearsed an “imaginary advance” through the breach created by the explosion to stake a position at the crest of the hill, giving them a commanding position on the battlefield that the white troops could then come in and widen.  But at the last minute this part of Burnside’s plan was changed by Generals Meade and Grant, who felt that putting untested black troops into such a potentially precarious position could have political ramifications. Instead the lead role was given to a white division led by General James Ledlie, reputed to be incompetent and a battlefield drunkard.  Two other white divisions would follow his, and the black division, which included the 27th USCT, would bring up the rear.  The attack was scheduled to start before daybreak the following day, July 30, 1864. [4]

[Warning - the remaining text contains graphic violence and racist language in its original, historic context]

Perry Carter and the men of the USCT were awakened at 2:00 on the morning of the 30th and lined up behind the three white divisions that would lead the assault. The 27th USCT lined up with three black regiments ahead of it, about 350 yards from where the mine was expected to explode.  When the mine finally blew at 4:44 A.M., one of the USCT officers described it as follows:

“the explosion… was preceded by one or two slight motions of the earth, something like a heavy swell at sea, a dull rumbling sound (not loud) like distant thunder, then the uplifting of earth like an island which seemed suspended in the air and held as by invisible hands, supported as it were by gigantic columns of smoke and flame; all this but for a moment, then like the vomiting of a volcano, it burst into innumerable fragments and fell a confused inextricable mass of earth, muskets, cannon, men; an awful debris.” [5]

After a brief delay, Ledlie’s men started moving across an open expanse of land called “no man’s land”, towards the Rebel lines that had just been destroyed.  Here they found an enormous crater,  about 120 by 50 feet, and 25 feet deep.  Operating under the orders of General Ledlie (who remained behind the lines at a bombproof shelter throughout the action), the men clambered into the crater.

The walls of the crater were very steep, and the men soon learned that getting in was a whole lot easier than getting out – especially when the Confederates recovered enough to begin firing at them.   Some of the men began an attempt to break out to the north and south, where the crater adjoined the existing Confederate trenches, but the going was made rough by the upheaved terrain, the confused labyrinth of Confederate entrenchments, and the resistance of those Rebel soldiers who had survived the blast. And none of this was moving towards the true objective, which was the crest of the hill to the west of the crater.

Crater-resized

The Crater (pictured shortly after the war)

While the troops within the crater struggled to get out, more and more troops were sent in  to join them, where according to one General, they were “without any organization; just one mass of human beings seeking shelter.”   To make matters worse, the Confederates had known about the mining and had planned for just such an occurrence.  The result being that the Union soldiers were now trapped in the crater and a few dozen yards of Confederate entrenchments on either side of it, while Confederate artillery fire rained upon them and Confederate infantry to their west blocked any attempts to seize the crest of the hill. [6]

In the midst of this chaos, General Meade, out of touch with battlefield conditions, ordered General Burnside to send in his black troops as well, adding their numbers to the chaos and confusion.  And even though officers on the field tried desperately to revoke the order and send them back, the black troops “went in cheering as though they didn’t mind it.” [7]

Crater27th

Yet now, remarkably, something actually went right for the Union side.  Perry Carter and his comrades were exposed to “a most deadly cross-fire from both flanks” as they made their way through no-man’s land.  Reaching the crater, Colonel Seymour Hall “realized that to pass through the crater as ordered would be impossible.”   So they bypassed the crater on the right, maneuvered their way around the chunks of earth and immobilized white troops, and scrambled through the Confederate trenches.  Under the inspired leadership of Colonel Hall and Colonel Delavan Bates, the lead USCT regiments attacked Confederate entrenchments north of the crater with “a determination to do or die.” [8]

Literally.  Remembering Fort Pillow, they were “not expecting any quarter, nor intending to give any.”   The hand-to-hand combat in the trenches was among the most brutal in the Civil War, where “men would drive the bayonet into one man, pull it out, turn the butt and knock the brains out of another.”  The acrimony between the Confederate and black soldiers made it especially savage, with Colonel Bates attesting “it was the only battle I was ever in where it appeared to be just pure enjoyment to kill an opponent.”  Some Confederates yelled, “Kill the damn niggers!” as the black soldiers “charged as though they were going to eat us up alive, yelling ‘no quarters [sic], remember Fort Pillow.’”  One USCT officer reported intervening to save a “batch” of Rebel prisoners from a “group of men of my own company, who in two minutes would have bayoneted the last poor devil of them.”  Another white soldier reported seeing a black soldier bayonet a Rebel prisoner to death “in an agony of frenzy.” [9]

But in the end, the lead USCT regiments took about 200 Rebel prisoners and captured about 200 yards of enemy entrenchments.  The trailing USCT regiments faced a different situation, however, having been cut off from the lead regiments during the advance around the crater.  So although Perry Carter and the 27th USCT missed the hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, they were left “very much exposed to the fire of the enemy [for] at least an hour.” [10]

Yet finally, four hours into the battle, a serious effort was made to advance to the crest of the hill.  A great deal of heroism was displayed as the USCT officers rallied and reorganized their lead troops for the advance, all the while under heavy fire.  The men “formed properly.  There was no flinching on their part.  They came to the shoulder touch like true soldiers, as ready to face the enemy and meet death on the field as the bravest and best soldiers that ever lived.”  [11]

But it was too late.  Had it been done at the beginning of the battle as originally planned, it might have succeeded.  Four hours into the battle, however, the Confederates had succeeded in bringing in reinforcements from up to two miles away.   One after another USCT officer was gunned down as he rallied his men and tried to form a battle line, and now a line of fresh Rebel troops rose out of the ravine ahead with bayonets fixed and advanced on the leaderless USCT troops.  With that the USCT troops did what virtually all rookie Civil War troops did when their command broke down and they were faced by an enemy onslaught – in the words of one of Ledlie’s staff officers, “they ran like sheep.” [12]

Some of them fled as far as the crater and took cover there.  Others fled all the way back to the Union lines.  White soldiers fled too, and now the 27th USCT found itself in an untenable situation, “exposed to a terrific flank fire, losing in numbers rapidly and in danger of being cut off.”  And so its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Wright, gave the order “to retire through the ravine on the right”.   The withdrawal of the 27th was no cakewalk, however.  “While on retreat under fire of the Rebel Artillery, Perry Carter was struck on his left shoulder by some missile, knocking him down and making an ugly wound.  His comrades assisted him off the field.”  Among those comrades was Oberlin’s Simpson Younger.  [13]

Meanwhile, back at the front lines, the situation was atrocious.  Union soldiers had been driven back into the crater where they were “about as much use there as so many men at the bottom of a well.”  Hundreds of men crammed in a small area, under the scorching sun on a 100+ degree day, among dead bodies and body parts and pools of blood, wounded men screaming and moaning, the stench intolerable, water virtually unavailable, and Confederate shells falling among them.  The white soldiers who had been fighting all morning were beyond the limits of endurance; most now “sat down, facing inwards, and neither threats nor entreaties could get them up into line again.”  According to Lieutenant Bowley of the 30th USCT, “from noon until the capture of the Crater, two hours later, the firing was kept up almost wholly by the colored troops.” [14]

When Confederate troops finally broke into the crater, there was nothing for the Union troops to do but surrender.  But that didn’t stop the carnage.  Many black troops who tried to surrender were told by their captives, “No quarter this morning, no quarter now.”  Confederate Major John Haskell explained later that “our men, who were always made wild by having negroes sent against them… were utterly frenzied with rage.  Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed.  No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.”  Most shamefully of all, some white Union soldiers participated in the slaughter of their black comrades-in-arms, both on account of their own racial hatred and to curry favor with their Confederate captors. [15]

The Battle of the Crater was a disaster for the Union.  General Grant called it “the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war,” and confessed that if they had gone in with the “colored division in front”, he believed “it would have been a success.”   But instead it was a sad initiation into combat for the 27th USCT.  Mismanagement by the Union high command led them to be “rushed into the jaws of death with no prospect of success.”   Four of its officers were killed or mortally wounded, and Lieutenant Colonel Wright was hit twice.  Untold number of other soldiers were also injured, including four Oberlinites. [16]

For Perry Carter it was a long, painful road to recovery.  His wound was sewed up and treated with adhesive plaster, but it would be two months before he could return to active duty.  That he did though, and served honorably to see the surrender of Confederate forces in 1865.  In September, 1865 he was recommended for promotion to Corporal, but his regiment was mustered out of service before the promotion could go through. [17]

Carter returned to Oberlin where he remained under medical treatment for his injury for the rest of his life.  Unable to lift his arm above his head or lift anything heavy, he was no longer able to work as a drayman.  Instead he was “compelled to do such manual labor as I was able to do to support my family, chiefly teaming and lighter kinds.”  But none of that stopped him from playing an active role in local Republican politics and the Rust M.E. Church, or from being a popular community member and party host. [18]

Perry Carter died in 1892, just two years after his big party, and was buried in the Soldier’s Rest section of Westwood Cemetery.  (Oberlinites William Broadwell, Richard Evans and Thomas Hartwell, who were also injured at the battle, are buried at Westwood as well.) [19]

PerryCartergrave-resized

(In my next blog, we’ll see how the 5th USCT had a much more successful baptism under fire, but with tragic results for Oberlin.)

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Earl J. Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg

Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864

Oberlin College Archives (abbrev. “O.C.A.” below), RG 30/151, Series I, Subseries 1, “William E. Bigglestone Papers; Files Relating to They Stopped in Oberlin; Civil War Military Records”

George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion

James M. Guthrie, Campfires of the Afro-American

“A Social Event”, Oberlin Weekly News, September 18, 1890, p. 3

H. Seymour Hall, “Mine Run to Petersburg”, War Talks in Kansas

Delevan Bates, “A Day with the Colored Troops”, The National Tribune, January 30, 1908, p. 6

Official Records of the Rebellion (abbrev. “O.R.” below), Series 1, vol 40, Part 1 (Richmond, Petersburg)

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

Ulysses S. Grant, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: November 16, 1864-February 20, 1865

John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History

Oberlin News, July 7, 1892, p. 5

Grace Hammond, Elizabeth Harrison and Jennifer Ni, “Rust United Methodist Church: A Brief History”

Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War on the Attack on Petersburg, on the 30th Day of July, 1864

“Westwood Cemetery Inventory”, Oberlin Heritage Center

“Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database”, National Park Service

George S. Bernard, War Talks of Confederate Veterans

Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, The 48th in the War

Andrew Carroll, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars

Jefferson Davis, “Proclamation by the Confederate President”,  GENERAL ORDERS, No. 111. , December 24, 1862

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Oberlin News; “A Social Event”

[2] Oberlin News; Civil War Military Records (“Carter, Perry” file), O.C.A.

[3] Hess, p. 55

[4] Hess, p. 55; Slotkin, pp. 96-100

[5] Hall, p. 235

[6] Guthrie, p. 523

[7] Guthrie, p. 529

[8] Hall, p. 223; Slotkin, p. 236

[9] Hess, pp. 128-129, 161; Bates; Slotkin, p. 236; Hall, p. 238

[10] O.R., pp. 596-597

[11] Hess, p. 141

[12] Hess, p. 217

[13] O.R., pp. 596-597; Affidavit (Simpson Younger, June 5, 1886), “Carter, Perry” file, O.C.A.

[14] Hess, pp. 185, 181; Slotkin, p. 277

[15] Slotkin, pp. 290-291

[16] O.R. p.17; Grant, p. 142; Guthrie, p. 529; Schmutz, pp. 221, 362

[17] Civil War Military Records (“Carter, Perry” file), O.C.A.

[18] Affidavit (Perry Carter, Dec. 10, 1881), “Carter, Perry” file, O.C.A.; Hammond

[19] Civil War Military Records (“Broadwell, William”, “Evans, Richard”, “Hartwell, Thomas” files), O.C.A.; “Westwood Cemetery”

New and Old faces

July 5th, 2014

Greetings history enthusiasts and arbitrary visitors alike! My name is Austin Spenzer and this summer I am interning with the Oberlin Heritage Center through an organization called Leadership Lorain County. This upcoming fall semester I will be a senior at Miami University of Ohio. I grew up near the shores of Lake Erie in the quaint city of Avon Lake. Currently I am working towards two majors: French and Political Science. The Oberlin Heritage Center appealed to me because it deals strongly with the concepts of freedom, social change coupled with political struggle, and equality. By working with the Oberlin Heritage Center, I will be better able to contextualize the current political scene through the understanding of past predicaments and precedents that led to its unfolding. Also, Oberlin in itself is very interesting to analyze and study considering its immense breadth of history! I feel my work here at the Oberlin Heritage Center greatly compliments my own studies by giving me more perspective into History, but also practically I will learn about the inner workings of a small friendly museum organization.

Austin Spenzer: Intern

Austin Spenzer:
Intern

For my first project at the Oberlin Heritage Center, we decided to redo the exhibits in the hallway of the Vineway Building at 82 S. Main. Upon inspecting the area to decide what it was exactly I wanted to display, it came to my attention there was an abundance of trash around the showcase. This made me think: Frances Jewett would likely not approve of this discarded waste!

It is important to note that Frances Gulick Jewett was a former prominent resident of Oberlin and lived in the Jewett House on S. Professor Street (hence the name Jewett house). She was born on the island of Ponape in the Caroline Islands, Micronesia. Her parents were Christian missionaries who were there to spread the gospel and their God’s message. After spending most of her early years in the islands of Hawaii, she attended Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. It was at the time an all girl school, but has since become a coeducational college. She then spent a year in Europe, thence traveling to Japan where she met her husband, Frank Jewett. They came to Oberlin and later moved into the Jewett house in 1884. Frances Jewett was an author and wrote extensively about health and hygiene. She thought it would be in the best interest of the community to compile the information she learned about health and hygiene into a series of elementary text books designed to enlighten youngsters.

I decided to read up on some of these elementary books and I started my analysis with her book titled, Town and City (copyright: 1906)Jewett starts in chapter one with commentary about the growth of cities. She compares tribal living conditions to that of urban landscapes, and how someone like an “Indian may also be more vigorous and able to run faster, but as a rule he cannot in a single day do so much as the city man, either for himself or for his neighbor.” What she means by this is that when individuals organize into communities, they simultaneously are able to provide more goods and services to one another. Jewett bluntly states, “indeed, that is the one great advantage of our cities: people are close enough together to help each other at the shortest notice and in the best way.”

She goes on to describe the development of towns into cities, using New York City as an example. She elaborates on how initially it was far less densely populated and the spacing between buildings allowed for vegetation. However, with time these gaps between buildings closed, populations rose, and vegetation disappeared. Consequently, as a city develops, there is potential for overcrowding to reach a point where, “everything suffers. Careless people using dark halls, cellars, and bath rooms are not neat in disposing of their rubbish, their garbage, and their soiled clothes. They act as if they thought the darkness were going to save them from disease as well as from disgrace.” Thus, not only do landscapes suffer, but the individual becomes unhealthy from trash abundance and lack of open space.

Frances Gulick Jewett

Frances Gulick Jewett

Although Oberlin is vastly different in comparison to New York City, there exist some similarities, such as population growth. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2013, Oberlin had a population of 8,390 persons with a three year population growth rate of 1.6 percent (or about a growth of 104 people between the years of 2010 to 2013). Despite the fact Oberlin seems to be growing at a negligible rate, it is nevertheless growing. If the population growth rate follows that particular three year trend, being 104 people every three years, by 2064 the population will grow by an amount of about 1733 people. This will mean a definite increase in trash. Consider this: the E.P.A records that the average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash a day, meaning in a 365 day year, roughly 1642.5 pounds of trash. Therefore, just the additional population of 1733 people to Oberlin in 2064 could generate nearly 2,846,452.5 pounds of trash in that year alone. One must remember that is only the theoretical additional population, not the preexisting population…

From the perspective of Frances Jewett, in order to keep the people, buildings and landscape of Oberlin in optimum condition, it is necessary to reinforce the civic duty of cleanliness. One must thwart the urge of individuals to discard their trash in places other than waste receptacles, especially as the population grows and the levels of trash increase. She states simply that, “There are two reasons, then, why every part of a city should be kept in healthful condition:

1. Because cities need men and women with strong bodies.

2. Because cities need men and women with strong characters.”

From these readings, I realized I could make two interesting exhibits in 82. S. Main that would provide information about Frances, or colloquially know as “Fannie”, Jewett and simultaneously provoke spectator’s minds to be cleaner. To do this, I decided that I will create two scenes, both of which will be miniature cities. The first scene would display what would be a seemingly utopian city of cleanliness. It would have clean streets, happy people and bountiful waste receptacles; it would be the ideal city that I was promoting. However, the other scene would be known as, “The City of Flies”. This city would be utterly decrepit and would essentially be controlled by a legion of flies. My idea for this came from the novel Town and City, for it says, “Why do we carry on an endless fight against them? For the simple reason that flies never wash or wipe their  feet” and “This danger from the fly is very real and because of it every house, every town, and every city should carry on a constant crusade in behalf of cleanliness.” Considering flies in Fannie Jewett’s eyes were the epitome of squalor, the fly became the impetus for the juxtaposition to the utopian city. The scene will depict giant flies swarming over heaps of discarded trash, crumbling streets, and unhappy people. In both scenes, I will include quotations from Mrs. Jewett’s text books, likely in the form of street signs and advertisements.

Through these model cities, I hope to covey to the onlooker how necessary it is for one to be clean, and exercise to ensure their health. Perhaps after viewing these cities and the various facts that will be posted around them, people will become more conscious of cleaning up after themselves in common places such as the area around the showcase. I feel these showcases can be effective considering their proximity to The Bridge, which is a technology center for children and the community. If kids look at these cases and read the signs, perhaps it will inspire them to be clean and healthy, similarly to how Mrs. Jewett sought to achieve this goal with her elementary text books.  I am sure Frances Jewett would be pleased. I plan to finish these showcases near mid July so swing on by and take a look!

The following poem, which can be found in Town and City, portrays the sentiment behind the showcases quintessentially…

town and city 2

 

NEIGHBOR MINE

There are barrels in the hallways,

Neighbor mine;

Pray be mindful of them always,

Neighbor mine.

If you’re not devoid of feeling,

Quickly to those barrels stealing,

Throw in each banana peeling,

Neighbor mine!

Do not drop the fruit you’re eating,

Neighbor mine,

On the sidewalks, sewer, or grating,

Neighbor mine.

But lest you and I should quarrel,

Listen to my little carol;

Go and toss it in the barrel,

Neighbor mine!

Look! whene’er you drop a paper,

Neighbor mine,

In the wind it cuts a caper,

Neighbor mine

Down the street in madly courses,

And should fill you with remorses

When you see it scare the horses,

Neighbor mine!

Paper-cans were made for papers,

Neighbor mine;

Let’s not have this fact escape us,

Neighbor mine.

And if you lend a hand,

Soon our city dear shall stand

As the cleanest in the land,

Neighbor mine.