“Lorain on Fire!! War Spirit at Oberlin!!!” Oberlin Responds in the Wake of Sumter’s Fall
“Since our last the Southern rebels have fully inaugurated civil war,” The Lorain County News of Oberlin and Wellington editors wrote bleakly. (The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861)
A hundred and fifty years ago this week, Fort Sumter fell to a Confederate attack and the Civil War commenced. Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union—10,000 from Ohio.
“TREASON AND REBELLION ARE IN LEAGUE AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT,” the then Mayor of Oberlin, Samuel Hendry stated in a proclamation. He urged a mass meeting at First Church on Wednesday the 17th of April to address the “foul conspiracy,” which threatened “Liberty and the hope of man.”
At the meeting, Oberlin College Professors Henry Peck and James Fairchild, along with John Mercer Langston spoke moderately on the situation, and a “Vigilance Committee” was founded to take charge of decisions.
Meanwhile, Oberlin students met with the faculty stating their desire to enlist on Friday night, and a resolution passed to create a company. On Saturday, James Monroe, college professor and representative in the state senate, came to Oberlin with a proposition and papers to form at least two companies. That evening, a meeting was called to raise a company and the funds to support them; the church was filled to the brim and the atmosphere was of excitement. Lucien Warner, a student at Oberlin College, in a letter to his brother wrote of the events, “It is in the midst of the intense and most alarming excitement that I address you along these lines. WAR! And volunteers are the only topics of conversation or thought. The lessons today have been a mere form. I cannot study, I cannot sleep, and I don’t know as I can write.”
A sum of four thousand dollars was donated that evening—there were accounts of citizens giving $100, no small amount at that time. The roll opened up after speeches by Brigadier General Sheldon and James Monroe, among others. Forty-eight men signed the roll that evening—and by Monday evening, one company of men had formed, with another roll of fifty names for a second.
“They are mostly students, and the very flower of the College has been taken.” – The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861
Giles Shurtleff, Oberlin College teacher, was elected Captain of the first company, and virtually all of the rest were students of the College. J.F. Harmon, editor of The Lorain County News, also enlisted. Both companies spent the following days drilling on Tappan Square. Numbers were cut down to one hundred by a request from college faculty to keep those underage and in poor health in Oberlin.
Those who did not enlist supported the war effort in other ways. Five hundred women formed the “Florence Nightingale Association, charging themselves with preparing clothing for the soldiers; the Citizens Brass Band offered to serve as musicians; a woman begged to become a nurse for the companies; and a landlady offered to cancel debt to her boarders who enlisted.
On April 25, the volunteers departed from Oberlin to Camp Taylor in Cleveland, where they became Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry—affectionately dubbed the “Monroe Rifles” after James Monroe.
Sergeant E.B. Stiles, Oberlin College theology student and member of Company C, reflected in his journal from camp in Cleveland on the recent events:
“The last few days have been filled with excitement in the usually quite village of Oberlin. The drum has been beating to arms—great crowds assembling to listen to exciting speeches & enrol companies…Oberlin turned out en masse to us farewell. It was hard to leave those fine experiences…” (Quoted in Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 847-848)
The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861, p.2, c. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861, p.2, c. 1, 2, 3, 4; Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College: From Its Foundation through the Civil War, Vol. II., (Oberlin College: Oberlin, OH, 1943), 843-847.
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