Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


January 1861: Secession and Speculation


The opening month of 1861 was one of growing tension and conjecture throughout the country and, certainly, in Oberlin. As five states (Mississippi on the 9th; Florida on the 10th; Alabama on the 11th; Georgia on the 19th; and Louisiana on the 26th) joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union, both the North and South speculated on the fragility of a perhaps irreconcilably broken America and, not so much if, but when, the country would descend into civil war.

In its first weekly installment of the year, The Lorain County News, Oberlin and Wellington’s local paper at the time, hesitantly asked, “Should not the North Arm Itself?” in response to news of Southern efforts to drill soldiers. By the middle of the month, the News was already soberly writing of “The War Begun”:

“However much we may regret that the fair fabric, which our noble fathers erected, is to be divided against itself, the fact that civil war has begun, and the permanent division has begun to be, cannot be overlooked.” (The Lorain County News, 16 Jan. 1861, p.2, c. 1.)

Oberlin residents were saddened by the likelihood of an American civil war, but they also believed that the “domineering spirit of slavery” was one that could not ever be reconciled, and that war was, in fact, the best and only opportunity for a solution to the “irrepressible conflict” of interests in the country.

On January 12, Oberlin’s own James Monroe (a Ohio State Senator from 1860 to 1862) in his address to the Ohio Senate opened with this remark in regard to the state of the Union: “A fine old author says, ‘Agree with your friends when you can; differ from them when you must.'”

And so war seemed unavoidable, even necessary; but as Monroe later in that same speech passionately spoke of, the notion of an impending Civil War was utterly heartbreaking to most Americans:

“We may be Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Radicals, but we are all Americans…Is there a heart in these bosoms that does not thrill at the words, home, country, native land? Which of you desires to see a single star blotted from the dear old flag? Or to see that flag trailing in the dust, soiled and dishonored? Whose blood does not run at the thought of such a calamity? …Not one, sir. These hearts are American hearts.” (The Lorain County News, 30 Jan.   1861, p. 1, c. 3, 4.)

And yet, the inevitability of civil war was encroaching on all the hearts and minds of Americans this month, 150 years ago.

Questions? Comments?

Please email Karyn at cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Sources Consulted:

Hansen, Henry. The Civil War: A History. New York: Signet Classics, 2010; The Lorain County News. 2  Jan. 1861, p. 2, c. 1.; The Lorain County News. 16 Jan. 1861, p. 2, c. 1.; The Lorain County News. 30 Jan. 1861, p. 1, c. 3, 4.

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