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Archive for the ‘Abolition’ Category

Juneteenth – the “extinction” of legalized slavery in America

Friday, June 12th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher and trustee

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865 – a day which has come to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.  Since Juneteenth is such an important day in modern Oberlin, and the fight against slavery was such an important part of Oberlin’s early history, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a blog describing how American slavery ended, how Oberlin reacted to it, and why Juneteenth has been chosen as the day to celebrate it.  None of it was as straightforward as one might think.

Most people are aware that  American slavery was ended by the Civil War, and that specifically President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had something to do with it.   But the actual demise of slavery was in fact a complicated process, as might be expected of an institution that had become so deeply ingrained in the American social, political and economic landscape throughout the first “four score and 7 years” of this nation’s existence.

When President Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven slaveholding states had already declared themselves seceded from the Union and were in the process of arming themselves for potential war.   “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” Lincoln said in his inaugural address, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”   And he meant it.  Three months earlier, when slaveholding states began to call for secession conventions in response to Lincoln’s election, President-elect Lincoln told a colleague in a private dispatch: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery… Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”   But while Lincoln always maintained that stopping the expansion of slavery would put it on “the course of ultimate extinction”, he also reassured slaveholders in that same inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” [1]

Most abolitionists and Oberlinites concurred.  Initially, that is.  But surely, they thought, when the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, President Lincoln would use the opportunity to eradicate slavery forever.   After all, former President John Quincy Adams, who as a Constitutional lawyer successfully argued the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court, had told Congress twenty years earlier that “under a state of actual invasion and of actual war… not only the President of the United States but the commander of the army has power to order the universal emancipation of the slaves.”  But even as Lincoln called up troops to put down the rebellion, he held fast to both his promises – he would not compromise on the extension of slavery into new territory, but he also would not interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  In fact as combat operations began, he censured those military commanders who took it upon themselves to emancipate the slaves in their jurisdiction, and supported military commanders who returned escaped slaves to their owners.  More than a year into the war, Lincoln would still insist that his “paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”, and that although his “personal wish” remained “that all men every where could be free”, he would use his war powers to free the slaves only insofar as he believed it would “save the Union”. [2]

Perplexed on how to proceed, the citizens of Oberlin called a series of public meetings during commencement week, in August, 1861, to discuss the situation.  The meetings drew not only local dignitaries, but such nationally recognized figures as the renowned abolitionist Reverend Edward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) from Massachusetts, and U.S. Representative James Ashley from Toledo.   (Ashley was himself a former Underground Railroad conductor who was portrayed, not altogether flatteringly, in Stephen Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln”.)  Speaking just weeks after Union forces had suffered a major, humiliating defeat in Virginia, Representative Ashley told his Oberlin audience:

“I am now on my return homewards from Washington.  I saw President Lincoln but the day before I left.  He said to me – Can you tell me why it is that one Secessionist [soldier] is equal to five Union men?  I said, Yes.  The reason is that the Secessionist has an idea; the Union men have not.  The former knows what he works and fights for.  The latter don’t know.  They must save Slavery and yet must fight it; and in this everlasting perplexity and conflict of aims and interests, they cannot have energy, or will…

 

Now, friends, if you will speak out, and if the people of the Great West will speak out, our rulers will obey.  And for myself I am not willing to give such favors to rebels as the policy of our Government thus far seems to accord them.”

James Ashley

Reverend Beecher resolved that “By virtue of the present treason and war, we have a legal right to strike Slavery down”, and “If this is not done, a dark mist of uncertainty hangs over the issue of this war.”  These sentiments resonated with the locals.  Cleveland Reverend James Thome (a former Oberlin College Professor and Lane Rebel) proclaimed, “We who have spoken out all along thus far, ought to speak out now.  Our Government needs and perhaps desires just this expression from us.  If ever there was a time when courage and unswerving boldness were in season, that time is now.”

Edward H. Fairchild, Principal of the Oberlin College Preparatory Department, took it a step further.  Not only should the slaves be freed, they should be armed and allowed to fight: “Let the blacks, bond and free, be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom, and to smite down this rebellion.  When armed and disciplined, let them sweep the Gulf States, take possession, and hold the country.  It is legitimately theirs.”  And according to the Oberlin Evangelist, “All agreed that, through a specially kind Providence, Slavery had put itself into a position where it may be smitten down, and that it is in the highest degree wise for the Federal Government to exercise this war power as fast as it can be done to purpose.” [3]

Jame Thome, E. H. Fairchild

But it would be more than a year later before Lincoln was finally ready to act.  And even then it wouldn’t be the “universal emancipation” that John Quincy Adams had envisioned two decades earlier.  Lincoln insisted that the Constitution only gave him authority to free the slaves in regions that were in rebellion, and thus his Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, freed only those “persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.”  Fully aware that slaveholders in those rebellious regions would not feel the least bit bound by the President’s proclamation, some abolitionists cried foul – insisting that the proclamation didn’t free any slaves at all.  But in Oberlin it was generally cheered.  The Proclamation in fact freed thousands of slaves immediately, some of them right in Oberlin, who had escaped from the rebel states and had ever since lived in constant apprehension of recapture and return to slavery.  And it was understood that with each advance of Union arms many more slaves would be freed, and many of them in turn, would “be marshalled for this contest, and come up to strike for Freedom” themselves, as Principal Fairchild had advocated more than a year earlier.  And so the Oberlin Evangelist jubilantly proclaimed: [4]

“We shall account this proclamation as the great and glorious decision.  It fixes a policy.  It is a mighty word for freedom.  Its echoes will gladden four millions of hearts where little joy has found place for many generations.  We hope the watchword as the tidings flash from one plantation to another all the way from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, will be Pray and wait.  The God of the oppressed is surely coming!”

5th USCT
5th USCT troops

And that’s exactly how it happened.  As Union armed forces made their slow but steady advance into the Confederate interior, the tidings did indeed flash from one plantation to another.  In 1864 the tidings were carried to coastal North Carolina and Virginia, as the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT),  a regiment of “blacks, bond and free” with a strong Oberlin presence, conducted raids into rebel territory, freeing slaves as it went.  (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)   Hundreds of miles away the tidings flashed to Eliza Wallace, in Natchez, Mississippi, who with her three children was helped on the road to Oberlin and freedom by Oberlin resident and alumnus, Chaplain Sela Wright of the 70th United States Colored Infantry.  Nobody knows how many thousands of slaves were freed between Natchez and the Virginia coast, but it’s estimated that 130,000 of them served in the United States army.  And ultimately, after much praying and waiting, the tidings did indeed make it all the way to the Rio Grande, but not until weeks after Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and many considered the war to be over.  And so it was that on June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas with a proclamation that “all slaves are free” and with the military power to back it up. The promise of the Emancipation Proclamation was now complete. [5]

Sela Wright

Reverend Sela Wright, in later years

(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

But wait!  We seem to be forgetting something.  Recall that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves in regions “in rebellion against the United States”.  What about the hundreds of thousands of slaves held in regions where the rebellion had already been suppressed, or slaveholding states which had remained loyal right from the start, like Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware?  Well, the Lincoln Administration didn’t forget about them either.  In fact it employed a carrot and stick approach to entice these regions to abolish slavery voluntarily, which most of them did by the time General Granger landed in Galveston.  And for the last stubborn holdouts – Kentucky and Delaware – the Lincoln Administration had also been using a carrot and stick approach to pass a Constitutional Amendment, originally introduced into Congress by none other than Representative James Ashley (mentioned above), that would ban slavery nationwide and forever.  That amendment was finally ratified on  December 18, 1865, becoming the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, making institutional, legalized slavery extinct everywhere in the United States of America.

So why do we celebrate June 19, 1865, a date that really only affected the slaves in Galveston, Texas?  Probably for the simple reason that they and their descendants kept the memory alive, year after year after year.  Today we might be more inclined to see January 1 (the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect) or December 18 (the date the 13th Amendment was ratified) as more appropriate for a national celebration.   But the vast majority of slaves were freed between those two events, and with a bloody Civil War and a strife-filled Reconstruction in progress, the freed men and women had all they could do to make the difficult transition to freedom, without trying to organize a national day of commemoration.  It wasn’t until the civil rights era of the 20th century that Galveston’s celebration garnered national attention, and the idea spread slowly across the country.  In 2004 the City of Oberlin officially joined the throng by designating “Juneteenth, the Saturday in June that falls between the 13th and 19th of June each year, as an Officially Recognized day of Commemoration and Celebration.” [6]

So please join us in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth this Saturday, June 13th, in Oberlin.  Enjoy the many cultural festivities, stop by the Oberlin Heritage Center’s booth on Tappan Square, perhaps even sign up for one of our historic tours.  But as you’re enjoying the food, music and fun, remember too the millions of Americans who endured the bitter hopelessness of this awful institution, and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, who fought for freedom – some, like Gordon Granger, Sela Wright and the men of the 5th USCT, who freed slaves outright, and others who fought to preserve a Union that would finally bring slavery to its “ultimate extinction”.  And remember too that while institutional slavery is indeed extinct, the racial prejudices and mistrust that propagated it and were perpetuated by it are not.  But that’s our battle.

Happy Juneteenth (and go Cavs)!

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Discussion on Slavery and the War”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Sept. 11, 1861, p. 4

“Legal Notice of Coming Emancipation”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Oct. 8, 1862, p. 3

“The Emancipation Proclamation”, National Archives & Records Administration

History of Juneteenth“, Juneteenth.com

Oberlin Resolution (R01-06-CMS),  Oberlin Juneteenth, Inc.

Abraham Lincoln, First inaugural address, March 4, 1861

Abraham Lincoln to William Kellogg, December 11, 1860, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 4

Abraham Lincoln reply to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1861, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol 5

Worthington Chauncey Ford and Charles Francis Adams,  John Quincy Adams: His Connection with the Monroe Doctrine (1823)

Oberlin News, June 12, 1893

Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895

Abraham Lincoln, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply”, Third Joint Debate at Jonesboro, IL, Sept 15, 1858

“Wright, Sela G.”, Soldiers and Sailors Database – The Civil War, National Park Service

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] First inaugural address; Kellogg; Jonesboro

[2] Ford, Adams, p. 77; Greeley

[3] “Discussion”

[4] Emancipation Proclamation; “Legal Notice”

[5] Oberlin News; “Wright“; General catalogue; Finkelman, p. 394; “History

[6] “History“, Oberlin Resolution

The Lincoln Assassination: 150 Years Ago

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

[Warning – the following text contains some racist language in its original, historic context]

In the evening mist of April 11, 1865, Oberlin’s African American political leader, John Mercer Langston, stood among a crowd on the White House lawn and listened to the words of President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered, by candlelight from a second story window, a “grave and thrilling” speech.  In it, Lincoln outlined his general philosophy for Reconstruction of the Union after four years of bloody civil war – a policy made imminent by the surrender two days earlier of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.   Acknowledging that his Reconstruction plan was a work in progress, Lincoln nevertheless defended it against critics who saw it as too lenient and conservative.  “It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man,” the President confessed.  “I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. . .The colored man, too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.  Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?”  It might not have been everything that Langston, an elected public official himself, hoped for.  But in contrast to what any American President had ever said before, Lincoln’s words struck him as spoken “like a prophet, reminding one of the ancient Samuel as he called the people to witness his integrity.”  Not far from where Langston stood, however, another listener had a very different reaction to Lincoln’s words.  “That means nigger citizenship,” he hissed to his companions.  And he added a vow: “That is the last speech he will ever give.”  His name was John Wilkes Booth and, sadly, he was right about that. [1]

LangstonLincoln

Meanwhile, back in Oberlin, the air was electric with the flush of victory and the promise of peace.  A new term had just begun at Oberlin College, but students were finding it difficult to concentrate on their studies amid all the excitement of the recent news.  First the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia had fallen on April 2nd, then Lee’s army surrendered on April 9th.  The long, bloody rebellion, like the Confederacy itself, was in its death throes.  Oberlin College student Lucien Warner described the atmosphere:

“In the spring I returned to Oberlin to complete the last six months of my college course.  We had hardly commenced our term when Petersburg and then Richmond fell, and the terrible four years’ war was ended.  Victory rang through the nation, and people everywhere celebrated it in the most extravagant ways they could invent.  Everything that could make a noise was called into commission, from horns and tin pans to old anvils.  Such rejoicing comes to a nation but once in many generations.  The whole land took on new light and hope, and we felt that we really were again one nation.” [2]

Ohio Governor John Brough proclaimed an official day of Thanksgiving to be observed on Good Friday, April 14th – the four year anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter which had signaled the start of the Civil War.  Oberlin went enthusiastically about the business of preparing for the celebration.  When the appointed day arrived, there was something for everybody, as described by the Lorain County News:

“The day was opened by the firing of a salute at 6 A.M.  At half past ten the people gathered at the First Church to join in religious exercises and listen to addresses.  Prof. [James H.] Fairchild, Prof. Morgan, and Principal [E. Henry] Fairchild each delivered brief, appropriate, and eloquent addresses, and at the close of the meeting a liberal collection was taken up for the Christian Commission.  In the afternoon a prayer meeting was held in the First Church, and exercises were also held in the Second Church.  The rejoicings were opened in the evening by the firing of a salute and the ringing of the bells.  A general illumination of the College buildings, stores and private dwellings soon followed, and a procession representing beautiful designs, mottoes, transparencies of almost every description, moved through the principal streets, preceded by martial music, and brought up on Tappan Square, where patriotic speeches by citizens and students were listened to, fire-works and balloon ascensions were witnessed, and a huge bon-fire brilliantly lit up the entire square.  Not an accident or disorderly act occurred to mar the spirit of the occasion, and although every one seemed to celebrate and rejoice with a hearty good will, there was observable a mingling of serious earnestness, and quiet joy, which is rarely seen on such occasions.” [3]

 

WarnerTransparency

Lucien Warner described the festivities in a letter home to his mother:

“Last Friday was appointed by the Governor of this State for public Thanksgiving.  All businesses were suspended and every one rejoiced as best he was able.  In Cleveland every one rejoiced by getting drunk, but we remained sober and rejoiced.  In the evening almost every house, tree and door-yard was illuminated, and flags, banners and transparencies were without number.  There were about ten thousand candles burning all at once in the illumination.”  [4]

Oberlin went to bed that night and slept in a state of blissful peace.

But while Oberlinites slept, the telegraph did not:

Washington – April 15, 12:30 A.M.  The President was shot at a theatre to-night and is perhaps mortally wounded.

——————————————————————–

Washington – April 15, 3:00 A.M.  The President is not expected to live through the night.  He was shot at a theatre. Secretary Seward was also assassinated.  There were no arteries cut.  Particulars soon.

——————————————————————–

WAR DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, April 15
To Maj Gen Dix;
Abraham Lincoln died this morning at twenty-two minutes after seven o’clock.
EDWIN M. STANTON, Sec’y of War [5]

——————————————————————–

There was no daily newspaper published in Oberlin at that time, so the awful tidings traveled by word of mouth the following morning.  The sudden shock of the tragic news, in contrast to the jubilation of the night before, was still vividly recalled by Reverend Roselle T. Cross,  then an Oberlin College student, 28 years later:

“Who that was present can forget the rejoicing of April 14th?  Who can forget the illuminations of that night, or the great bonfire in Tappan Square, around which four thousand people were gathered.  And who can forget the awful shock of the next morning when news came of Lincoln’s assassination; all day it rained; recitations were suspended.  All day we walked the streets aimlessly, scarcely recognizing our friends when we met them.  All day long the college bell tolled.” [6]

The Lorain County News described the mood in its next issue, published the following Wednesday:

“But who will attempt to describe our feelings on the reception of the crushing news early on the following day?  At first it seemed incredible.  The sudden transition from overflowing joy, and praise and gratitude to God, to the overwhelming grief which the terrible tidings brought upon us, was too much for the great heart of the people to bear, and all sank beneath it like a crushed reed.  The stars and stripes were lowered half-mast, the chapel bell tolled solemnly and mournfully throughout the long, weary day, recitations were suspended in the Institution, crowds hurried to the [train] depot, to get a sight of the morning paper, business was nearly suspended, the land was overshadowed with dark and weeping clouds, and all nature seemed to mourn.” [7]

Lucien Warner, who had seen President Lincoln in person the year before while serving a 100 day enlistment in the Union army defenses of Washington, D.C., learned the news at the end of his morning recitation:

“The next morning at nine o’clock we received the sad intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln.  It was as though a clap of thunder had stunned every person.  The news was brought to our class at the close of a recitation.  For nearly five minutes we sat motionless, forgetting that the class had been dismissed.  I have loved other public men, but the death of no one could have affected me like that of President Lincoln.  Ever since I looked upon his honest, genial countenance I have loved him like an intimate friend; and so I suppose did every loyal man.  I think there were but few in this town but that shed tears on that day.  Further study was out of the question.” [8]

Throughout the day, as the chapel bell tolled and the students “put on crepe”, details trickled in about the assassinations. The President had been shot in the back of the head by an actor named John Wilkes Booth.  Secretary of State William Seward had been the victim of a savage knife attack at approximately the same time by another assassin – one of Booth’s companions at Lincoln’s final speech, it would turn out.  Later that Saturday morning the telegraph brought news that Secretary Seward had also died.  It wouldn’t be until Monday that it was learned that Seward had survived, to the relief of “the overburdened public mind”. [9]

The assassinations would be the main topic of two sermons delivered the next day, Easter Sunday, by Reverend Charles G. Finney at First Church.  Finney was one of those who believed that “Mr. Lincoln was a man so intensely kind & accommodating that many of us felt that he might be induced to leave the power of the great slave holders unbroken, by too lenient an exercise of the pardoning power.”    And now  he told his congregation: “We must show the world that rebellion is a fearful, terrible thing. The President was an amiable man, tender, kind-hearted, but perhaps he stood in God’s way of dealing with the Rebels just as they ought to be dealt with for the good of the nation, and for the good of humanity.” [10]

John Mercer Langston was still in Washington, D.C. when John Wilkes Booth made good his vow – three nights after Lincoln delivered that fateful speech.  Langston had gone there before the surrender of Robert E. Lee with a bold proposal (for that era) – requesting a colonel’s commission and the command of a combat regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT).  Just months earlier, Sergeant Milton Holland, one of several men Langston had recruited into the 5th USCT infantry regiment,  had been denied a promotion to captain because the War Department was reluctant to appoint African Americans as combat officers. (See my Battle of New Market Heights blog.)  But with the hearty endorsement of Ohio abolitionist General James A. Garfield (who himself would be assassinated as President sixteen years later), Langston received an encouraging reception from Secretary of War Stanton, and Langston and Garfield left the interview “with the belief firmly settled in their minds” that Langston’s proposal “would receive the sanction and approval of the authorities.”  With the surrender of Lee, however, the army immediately began to scale down, and Langston noted that “the department very properly concluded not to adopt the measure”.  On the heels of this came what Langston called “the horror of horrors” – “the assassination of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.”  While it was no secret among abolitionists that Lincoln himself shared some of the racial prejudices of his day, Langston saw him as “a statesman without an equal; a leader, as grand in the immense proportions of his individuality as Moses himself; an emancipator of a race.” [11]

Another Oberlin political leader, James Monroe, didn’t learn of the assassinations until more than a month after the fact, having been appointed by Lincoln as U.S. consul to Rio de Janeiro.  When the news finally reached Brazil of the “monstrous crimes”, Monroe declared: “Our strong men wept, and every one felt that he had experienced a great personal calamity.”   Back in 1861, Monroe had had the honor of accompanying President-elect Lincoln on part of his railroad journey from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C.   But by the time Monroe learned of Lincoln’s death, the Lincoln funeral train had already retraced the inaugural route back to Springfield, including a stop in Cleveland where thousands of mourners paid their final respects.  Among those mourners were some from Oberlin, including Oberlin College student John G. Fraser, who recorded in his diary: [12]

“The crowd was the largest I ever saw and by far the most quiet and orderly. The very skies seemed to be weeping for the good man’s fall. I looked upon his face three times. It has a quiet, peaceful look upon it, as though he were at peace with his God, himself and all the world. How could an assassin have the heart to kill such a man?”

LincolnFuneralCleveland-cro

Lincoln funeral reception – Cleveland

Some in that mournful throng may have recalled back to the inaugural train journey of four years earlier and a brief, impromptu, perhaps prophetic speech President-elect Lincoln delivered in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the nation was born.  But when Lincoln spoke there in 1861 the nation’s survival seemed uncertain, with several slaveholding states having declared themselves seceded from the Union because, as their own newly elected President, Jefferson Davis, explained it, “the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” [13]  Speaking on Washington’s birthday, with the prospect of civil war looming and rumors of assassination plots abounding, President-elect Lincoln re-affirmed his commitment to that “sacred Declaration”: [14]

“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence… which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it…

My friends, this is wholly an unexpected speech… I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet.  I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.”  – Abraham Lincoln, February 22, 1861

 

 SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Oberlin Local: The Thanksgiving and Celebration”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

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

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln

Lucien Calvin Warner, Personal Memoirs of Lucien Calvin Warner

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation through the Civil War, volume 2

“Last Public Address”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Assassination of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

Rev R. T. Cross, “The Fourth Decade”, The Oberlin Jubilee 1833-1883

Charles G. Finney to James Barlow, June 22, 1865, The Gospel Truth

“Address in Independence Hall”, Abraham Lincoln Online

“Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, January 21, 1861

“The Great Sorrow”, Lorain County News, April 19, 1865, p. 2

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

“Building Erected for the Reception of the Body of the President at Cleveland”, Library of Congress

“Lincoln Parade Transparency, 1860”, Smithsonian: The National Museum of American History

Catherine M. Rokicky, James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman and Reformer, 1821-1898

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom: 1829-1865

Jacob Henry Studer, Columbus, Ohio: Its History, Resources and Progress

James H. Fairchild, Oberlin: The Colony and the College, 1833-1883

General Catalogue of Oberlin College: 1833- 1908

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Langston, pp. 220-221; “Last Public“; Donald, pp. 581-588
[2] Warner, p. 45
[3] “Oberlin Local”
[4] Warner, p. 45
[5] “Assassination”
[6] Cross, p. 220
[7] “Oberlin Local”
[8] Warner, pp. 45-46
[9] Fletcher, p. 883; “The Great Sorrow”
[10] Charles G. Finney; Fletcher, p. 883
[11] Langston, pp. 219-223
[12] Monroe, pp. 206-207; Rokicky, pp. 65-66; Fletcher, pp. 883-884
[13] “Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Address”
[14] “Address in Independence Hall”

Was Abolitionism a Failure?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent and researcher

Last week the New York Times published a blog posted by Jon Grinspan that asked the question, “was abolitionism a failure?”  The author answered the question with the assertion that “as a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop.”  It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anybody that the Oberlin Heritage Center doesn’t necessarily share that view, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to reply to some of the specific issues raised in that blog, and to let one of Oberlin’s most esteemed historical figures reply to the question in general.

The basic premise of Mr. Grinspan’s blog is that abolitionism was unpopular before the Civil War, and it was only the war itself that turned Northern public opinion decidedly against slavery.  To demonstrate the unpopularity of abolitionism, the blog points to the scant support for the country’s first national abolitionist political party, the Liberty Party, and to the meager 3,000 subscribers to The Liberator, which the blog refers to as “the premier antislavery newspaper.”

Mr. Grinspan is indeed correct that the abolitionist Liberty Party, which existed in the 1840s, only garnered a paltry number of votes (6,797 in the 1840 Presidential election).   But  it should be remembered that prior to the Civil War many abolitionists were opposed to political action altogether, and very few advocated nationwide abolition by the federal government.  Instead, the majority of abolitionists looked to “moral suasion” to convince the public that slavery was wrong, believing that government action, to the extent it was necessary, would naturally follow the shift in public opinion.   This position was explained in 1835 in the Anti-Slavery Record, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society (which by 1840 would have almost 200,000 members): [1]

The reformation has commenced, both at the North and at the South.  The more the subject is discussed, by the pulpit, by the press, at the bar, in the legislative hall and in private conversation, the faster will the change proceed.  When any individual slave holder is brought to believe that slavery is sinful, he will immediately emancipate his own slaves.  When a majority of the nation are brought to believe in immediate emancipation, Congress will, of course, pass a law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.  When the people of the several slave states are brought upon the same ground, they will severally abolish slavery within their respective limits. [2]

However, in the closing years of the 1840s the threat of slavery’s expansion caused many abolitionists to take a more active role in politics.  The old Liberty Party was dissolved and was supplanted by the Free Soil Party, which received exponentially more votes, and which in turn was supplanted by the Republican Party, which took control of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and most Northern governorships by 1860.  And while the Free Soil and Republican parties were pragmatic political coalitions in contrast with the purely abolitionist Liberty Party,  they both espoused opposition to slavery as their core issue.  The 1860 Republican Party platform contained 7 (out of 17) planks that directly advocated anti-slavery principles and policies.  To be sure, it also included a states’ right plank leaving the legality of slavery to the individual states to determine for themselves, but the 1844 Liberty Party platform left slavery to be “wholly abolished by State authority” as well.  Pledging federal non-interference with slavery in the states where it already existed was a sentiment shared by the vast majority of abolitionists throughout the antebellum period, and was in no way an attempt to “abolish abolitionism”, as the blog describes it. [3]

As for the characterization of The Liberator as “the premier antislavery newspaper”, this is also taking a partial snapshot of the early abolitionist movement and applying it to the entire antebellum period.  The Liberator, published in Boston and edited by William Lloyd Garrison, was arguably the premier antislavery newspaper in 1831 when it was first published.  (See my William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass debate in Oberlin blog.)  But its strident disunionist, “no government” message, despite grabbing national attention, was too radical to ever develop a large subscribership, even as scores of anti-slavery newspapers proliferated throughout the Northern states over the next 3 decades, including The National Era (with a peak subscription base of 28,000),  Frederick Douglass’ Paper,  the Tappan brothers’ American Missionary (which was “read by twenty thousand church members”), and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (with a peak weekly circulation of 200,000).  Ohio had numerous anti-slavery newspapers of its own, including the radical Garrisonite  Anti-Slavery Bugle (with Oberlin College student Lucy Stone as a correspondent), the Cleveland Morning Leader, and the Oberlin Evangelist (which itself  had a peak subscribership of over 4,300).  Thus by the start of the Civil War hundreds of thousands of Northerners were subscribing to unabashedly anti-slavery newspapers.  So it’s no wonder that William Lloyd Garrison, despite his own newspaper’s scant subscription base, could declare in 1860 that “a general enlightenment has taken place upon the subject of slavery. The opinions of a vast multitude have been essentially changed, and secured to the side of freedom.” [4]

 

Garrison & Stone

But even in the lean years of the 1830s and early 1840s, abolitionists had enough clout to make a significant impact.  In 1835 they launched a mass mailing campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of anti-slavery publications to clergymen and prominent leaders nationwide.  Southern slaveholders felt so threatened by this campaign that they began a program of postal censorship, with South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun advising them to “prohibit the introduction or circulation of any paper or publication which may, in their opinion, disturb or endanger the institution” of slavery.  Even President Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveholder, asked Congress in his Annual Message to censor the mail “in the Southern states”.  Some of the less politically inhibited early abolitionists also  flooded Congress with tens of thousands of anti-slavery petitions – so many that slaveholders tried unsuccessfully to prohibit (“gag”) anti-slavery petitions in the Senate and did succeed in gagging them in the House of Representatives from 1836 to 1844. [5]

Although the leaders of the South did indeed manage to squelch the abolitionists in the southern states, their assault on free speech and constitutional rights only served to strengthen the abolitionist message in the North, where many Southern-born abolitionists emigrated and added their voices to the chorus.  (See my William T. Allan – Lane Rebel from the South blog.)  One of these was Oberlin’s John Mercer Langston, born in Virginia to an emancipated slave, sent to Ohio in his youth to escape the growing racial repression in the South, and educated at Oberlin College.  On August 2, 1858, now a successful attorney and political leader, Langston delivered a “very stirring and excellent” speech to a Cleveland audience describing his impressions of the American abolitionist movement.  Here are some excerpts: [6]

The achievements of the American anti -slavery movement since that time have been such as to impart hope and courage to every heart. Of course, I do not refer to the achievements of any separate and distinct organization. I refer to the achievements of that complicated and stupendous organization composed of persons from all parts of this country, whose aim is the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of the colored American. What, then, are some of its accomplishments? In the first place, it has brought the subject of slavery itself distinctly and prominently before the public mind. Indeed, in every nook and corner of American society this matter now presents itself, demanding, and in many instances receiving, respectful consideration. There is no gathering of the people, whether political or religious, which is not now forced to give a place in its deliberations to this subject. Like the air we breathe, it is all-pervasive. Through this widespread consideration the effects of slavery upon the slave, the slaveholder, and society generally, have been very thoroughly demonstrated ; and as the people have understood these effects they have loathed and hated their foul cause. Thus the public conscience has been aroused, and a broad and deep and growing interest has been created in behalf of the slave.

In the next place, it has vindicated, beyond decent cavil even, the claim of the slave to manhood and its dignities. No one of sense and decency now thinks that the African slave of this country is not a man…

More than this, the anti-slavery movement has brought to the colored people of the North the opportunities of developing themselves intellectually and morally. It has unbarred and thrown open to them the doors of colleges, academies, law schools, theological seminaries and commercial institutions, to say nothing of the incomparable district school. Of these opportunities they have very generally availed themselves; and now, wherever you go, whether to the East or the West, you will find the colored people comparatively intelligent, industrious, energetic and thrifty, as well as earnest and determined in their opposition to slavery… In the State of Ohio alone thirty thousand colored persons are the owners of six millions of dollars’ worth of property, every cent of which stands pledged to the support of the cause of the slave. Animated by the same spirit of liberty that nerved their fathers, who fought in the Revolutionary war and war of 1812, to free this land from British tyranny, they are the inveterate and uncompromising enemies of oppression, and are willing to sacrifice all that they have, both life and property, to secure its overthrow. But they have more than moral and pecuniary strength. In some of the States of this Union all of their colored inhabitants, and in others a very large class of them, enjoy the privileges and benefits of citizens. This is a source of very great power…

Another achievement of the American anti-slavery movement is the emancipation of forty or fifty thousand fugitive slaves, who stand to-day as so many living, glowing refutations of the brainless charge that nothing has, as yet, been accomplished…

But the crowning achievement of the anti-slavery movement of this country is the establishment, full and complete, of the fact that its great aim and mission is not merely the liberation of four millions of American slaves, and the enfranchisement of six hundred thousand half freemen, but the preservation of the American Government, the preservation of American liberty itself. It has been discovered, at last, that slavery is no respecter of persons, that in its far reaching and broad sweep it strikes down alike the freedom of the black man and the freedom of the white one. This movement can no longer be regarded as a sectional one. It is a great national one. It is not confined in its benevolent, its charitable offices, to any particular class; its broad philanthropy knows no complexional bounds. It cares for the freedom, the rights of us all… [7]

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston

Of course Langston would be among the first to tell you that race relations in the North were far from perfect in 1858, but they had clearly come a long way since the advent of The Liberator and the Liberty Party.  As a gauge of just how far they had come, consider this:  in 1837, an abolitionist journalist named Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, for expressing anti-slavery sentiments.  Two decades later, in October 1858, an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took the podium in that same town and said this:

I have said, and I repeat it here, that if there be a man amongst us who does not think that the institution of slavery is wrong in any one of the aspects of which I have spoken, he is misplaced, and ought not to be with us…

Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very institution of slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity, save and except this institution of slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging slavery,-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a wen or cancer upon your person, and not be able to cut it out, lest you bleed to death; but surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing with it as a wrong,-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new countries where it has not already existed…

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. [8]

But far from being lynched, Lincoln was applauded for these words in 1858, and this and similar speeches gained for him the national recognition that would help elect him to the Presidency two years later.  It was the heroic efforts of people like Elijah Lovejoy, John Mercer Langston, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and thousands of other abolitionist teachers, preachers, lecturers, authors, journalists, politicians, Underground Railroad agents, and parents (many of them educated at Oberlin College) that made that possible.

LovejoyMonument

Elijah Lovejoy monument – Alton, Illinois

Just six weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina would secede from the Union, stating as the cause that the Northern states had “united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” and who believed that “the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” [9]

As it turns out, it was.  The attempt to avoid that reality via secession only served to hasten its demise.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Jon Grinspan, “Was Abolitionism a Failure?“, New York Times, January 30, 2015

John Mercer Langston, “The World’s Anti-Slavery Movement; Its Heroes and its Triumphs

Abraham Lincoln, “Last Joint Debate at Alton; Mr. Lincoln’s Reply

The Anti-Slavery Record, Vol 1, No. 1, January 1835

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

Free Soil Party Platform (1848)“, Teacher’s Guide Primary Source Document Collection

1844 Liberty Party Platform“, Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, Civil War Trust

William Lloyd Garrison, The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From disunionism to the brink of war, 1850-1860

John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time

James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1907, Volume 3

William Cheek and Aimee Lee Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

1840 Presidential Election Results“, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Robert S. Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War

Stanley Harrold, The Abolitionists & the South

About New-York Tribune“, Library of Congress

Blacks and the American Missionary Association“, The United Church of Christ

American Anti-Slavery Society“, Encyclopaedia Britannica

 All photos public domain.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “1840 Presidential Election”; “American Anti-Slavery Society”

[2] Anti-Slavery Record

[3] “Republican Party”; “Free Soil Party”; “1844 Liberty Party”

[4] Harrold, p. 142; “Blacks”; “About New-York”; Fletcher, Chapter XXVII; Garrison, p. 698

[5] Calhoun; Richardson, p. 176

[6] Cheek, pp. 325-326

[7] Langston

[8] Lincoln

[9] “The Declaration of Causes

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

Wednesday, 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

Secession Concessions

Monday, May 26th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It was February 4, 1861, and the United States of America was coming unglued.  On this date Oberlin residents gathered together to pray and discuss their response.  Three months earlier the country, Oberlin included,  had elected a Republican President for the first time in its history.  He was Abraham Lincoln, and he ran on a platform that opposed the expansion of slavery into the national territories (the majority of land west of the Mississippi River).   But just six weeks after that, South Carolina seceded from the Union, stating as a reason that the Northern states had elected a “President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”  This was followed by Mississippi on January 9, 1861, then Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas within the next four weeks.  Altogether there were 15 slaveholding states.  If they all followed the lead of the Deep South states, it would likely be the end of the American Union.  What to do about it was a question that vexed the nation, Ohio, and Oberlin. [1]

The delegates to Georgia’s secession convention had proposed a potential solution.   On January 18, they enumerated a list of “satisfactory guarantees” that might keep them “permanently in this Union.”  Among the guarantees they sought were “that Congress shall have no power to abolish or prohibit slavery in the territories.”  They also insisted that “each State shall be bound to surrender fugitive slaves,” and that all states should “purge their statute books” of personal liberty laws, which were laws that had been passed by many of the Northern states to circumvent the federal Fugitive Slave Law (see my Kidnapped into Slavery blog for details). [2]

Variations of these demands were considered by numerous committees and conventions, called together to attempt to coax the seceded states back into the Union, or at least discourage more slaveholding states from joining them.  But in their February 4th meeting, Oberlin residents, led by Mayor Samuel Hendry and Reverend Miner Fairfield (soon to be pastor of Oberlin’s  Second Congregational Church), made it clear exactly how they felt about concessions: “we solemnly protest against any concessions to slavery, or to the demands made by the abettors in any form whatever, and especially against making such concessions at the behest of traitors in arms against the Union.” [3]

Nettleton and Cowles

This protest was printed in both of Oberlin’s newspapers, the Oberlin Evangelist, and the Lorain County News (both published by publishers V. A. Shankland and J. F. Harmon).  The Lorain County News, edited by Oberlin College student Alvred Nettleton, gave its full-fledged support to the residents’ protest, calling it “the expression of God fearing men who are imbued with an unflinching devotion to the principles of freedom.”  The Oberlin Evangelist, edited by former Oberlin College professor Henry Cowles, said “there ought to be at least ten thousand such meetings held in the free North.” [4]

The Oberlin Evangelist also editorialized its own sentiments: “Concession, not compromise, is really the word now… We oppose it utterly.  To make one new concession now to the demands of the Slave Power, be it ever so small, would practically break down the Federal Government.” [5]  And they made it clear that their anti-concession stance extended to the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws as well:

“It has been often intimated that the personal liberty laws of several of the Free States are the special grievance…  But they cannot be repealed.  They exist as the demand of our times.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 puts the personal liberties of free men in peril in every Free State.  While that act remains in force, no Free State ought to repeal the personal liberty laws.  That act provides facilities for kidnapping free men, and utterly fails to provide due safeguards for determining the great question of personal freedom.” [6]

The Lorain County News agreed: “The Fugitive Slave Act is an outrage upon rights, an arrogant imposition on enlightened consciences and a burden which is intolerable to all high minded men and women.” [7]

James Monroe

James Monroe
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

So it would sound as if Oberlin was united against any compromises or concessions, right?  Well, not exactly.  There was at least one conciliatory voice, and ironically it came from Oberlin’s leading politician, Ohio state Senator James Monroe, a Republican abolitionist.  On January 12, 1861, Monroe addressed the Ohio Senate and said:

“Civil war even now threatens us.  Fortifications that were all erected by the same fraternal hands and whose thunders should never be awakened except against a common and a foreign foe, now stand frowning defiance at each other in Charleston harbor [South Carolina – Fort Sumter]…  Let us then act at once, and act unitedly… let us send along the wires throughout the whole Country the firm but friendly words of these Resolutions.”

The resolutions to which he referred were a series of resolutions that he had co-authored, designed to “send words of encouragement and cheer to citizens of Slave States who are struggling to hold back States from the vortex of secession.”  The “friendly” resolutions would “disclaim all right or intention to abolish slavery in the States where it exists” and “commend the course of President Buchanan in all that he has done to resist the spirit of disunion.”  (For an Oberlin Republican to commend the staunchly pro-slavery Democratic President James Buchanan was quite a departure in itself!)

But another resolution was even more dramatic, although it might not appear so at first sight.   Monroe proclaimed that “the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance thereof, must be carried out in all States and Territories.”  As vague and innocuous as this may sound to us today, and perhaps to some of his constituents back then, it had a very specific meaning to the slaveholding states.  The U.S. Constitution included a clause that required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners, and the federal Fugitive Slave Law was one of those “laws made in pursuance thereof.”  Thus this resolution was meant to convey to the slaveholding states Ohio’s support for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. [8]

And Monroe took it even further.  He also called “for the repeal in all States of all unconstitutional enactments.”  To the slaveholding states, this meant repeal of the personal liberty laws, which they considered to violate the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves.  This was quite a stunning reversal for the man who had just five years earlier drafted and defended Ohio’s most radical personal liberty law, which had been repealed by the Democratic-controlled Ohio General Assembly after being challenged by a United States District Judge.  (See my Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law blog for details.)  Monroe’s about-face had to come as quite a shock to U.S. Representative Joshua Giddings from Ashtabula County, who had entreated Monroe: “If you do anything I hope and trust you will assert our rights and call on other states to do the same instead of advising them to repeal their [Personal] Liberty bills.  This is no time for cowardice.” [9]

So what was up with Monroe, anyway?  Was it really “cowardice”?  Perhaps not.  For one thing, Monroe was only one of several co-authors of these bipartisan resolutions, and he admitted that “the Resolutions are not in all respects what I would personally have preferred.”  For another thing, we’ve only looked at the “friendly” resolutions so far, but as Monroe stated, there were “firm” resolutions as well.   One such resolution “denounce[d] secession as impossible under our form of government”,  and another one “pledge[d] the entire power and resources of Ohio to aid the Federal Government by whomsoever administered in preserving the Union in its integrity.”

Perhaps most important though is what the resolutions didn’t say.  Some legislators wanted to add wording to support the “Border State Propositions”, which were a series of proposed Constitutional amendments guaranteeing support for the institution of slavery – most notably allowing its expansion into the national territories.  This was a proposition that was vehemently rejected by President-elect Lincoln, who had won election on a non-expansion platform.  Monroe postulated that the Ohio “Senate can never unite upon these propositions.”  Per Monroe’s request, the Border State Propositions were excluded, and the resolutions Monroe advocated were passed almost unanimously by the Ohio General Assembly. [10]

So Monroe appeared willing to make concessions on the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws, but like the Oberlin residents and newspapers, he was unwilling to concede on allowing slavery to expand into the territories.  And Monroe also appeared to be taking a firm stance against secession.  How did the Oberlin newspapers feel about that issue?  Let’s start with the Oberlin Evangelist:

“As to the more remote future, we expect a Southern Confederacy.  We do not expect concession enough from the free States to satisfy the demands of the slave States… They have in imagination a glorious ideal of the blessings of independence.  They must try it in the reality…

They will have opportunity to learn how much it costs to carry on and out the system of forced labor with no help from the free States in footing their bills.  This will be a new experience – we hope, instructive.” [11]

They were advocating, in the words of Horace Greeley, to “let the erring sisters go in peace”, rather than the use of force (“coercion”) to keep them in the Union.  (Hey, maybe Oberlin wasn’t “the town that started the Civil War” after all!)  The Lorain County News struck a similar chord:

“But as our wrath cools, we are beginning to doubt whether coercive measures are, after all, the best methods to employ against the traitors. We question whether the country would ever be compensated for the mutual hate, the pecuniary expenses and the rivers of blood which coercion would be likely to cost. We begin to see, too, that the worst punishment which could possibly be inflicted on the rampant treason would be a good letting alone, and that if the southern forts and arsenals should be given up to the traitors and their political existence should be distinctly recognized, they would soon plunge into a ruin which would be a standing warning against the danger of basing a State on injustice and cruelty.” [12]

This in fact was the anti-coercion policy of President Buchanan (who they ironically called an “imbecile” in the same article).  But even President Buchanan acknowledged that secession was unconstitutional and that it would render the nation a “rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States.” [13]  And of course Monroe had taken it even further when he declared that secession was “impossible under our form of government”.  To this sentiment, the Oberlin Evangelist replied:

“But it is said, if secession is to be allowed, then our government is a failure.  It has no power for self-preservation.  It is true that our government has its limitations – it can do some things, and others it cannot do.  It was designed for a free, self-governing people, intelligent in regard to their real interests and ready to accord to others what they ask for themselves.  It cannot hold, by the hand of power, States or provinces of unwilling subjects.  If a State refuses to be governed, our government cannot help it, and was never intended to do so.  It is not adapted to a people where the barbarism of slavery exists and extends itself.  Its power cannot work and control such  a people, for its power must be exerted through the people themselves.  Coercion might succeed, if a single insignificant State, like South Carolina, were affected with the mania of secession, with a division of sentiment within itself; but when vast sections of the Union move with a common impulse, however unjustifiable or unconstitutional the movement, we must let them go, and adjust ourselves to the new condition as we can…

Our first great danger is in compromise – our next in coercion.” [14]

Clearly there was a divide between Monroe and at least a sizable portion of his Oberlin constituency.  The James Monroe of 1858 would have been more in sync with them, at least on the issue of the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws.  But Monroe, who would become the namesake of Oberlin’s “Monroe Rifles” in the ensuing civil war, had changed his tune by 1861.  In fact, he was now echoing the more conservative policies of President-elect Lincoln, who he actively campaigned for in the general election and would tour the state with in the following month.  If secession was to be resisted, it was wise to make some concessions and compromises to achieve as much unity as possible for prosecuting the civil war that might result.  If, on the other hand, you were willing to “let the erring sisters go in peace”, as were the Oberlin newspapers (and perhaps the general Oberlin populace), no compromises or concessions were necessary.

It bears repeating, however, that all of these players were rock solid in their commitment to prevent the expansion of slavery into the national territories, which Lincoln believed would put slavery on “the course of ultimate extinction”.  And on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, these men were all united behind the United States soldiers who would fight to put down the rebellion.  (See our “Lorain on Fire!! War Spirit at Oberlin!!!” blog for details on how these leading Oberlinites reacted.)

Five years later, when the dust, smoke and fog of civil war finally cleared, it would appear that the Oberlin Evangelist had been prophetic as to the end result, even though they didn’t envision the means by which it would be achieved: “It is so plain that even wayfaring men can see it – that God is preparing to use secession as a battering ram upon the entire system of American Slavery.”The Oberlin Evangelist, January 2, 1861 [15]

 

(If you would like to hear more about the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law and Monroe’s personal liberty law, especially as it related to Oberlin, please join me and the Oberlin Heritage Center at the Heiser Auditorium at Kendal at Oberlin, at 7:15 PM, Tuesday, June 3rd, for a presentation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law.)

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Remarks of Mr. Monroe”, The Lorain County News, Vol 1, No. 48, page 1, January 30, 1861

“Prayer and Protest”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Feb 13, 1861, p. 31

“Protest”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“Are We Disunionists?”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“The Great Crisis. Secession”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 2, 1861, p. 5

“Coercion”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 30, 1861, pp. 22-23

“The Future of these once United States, and the Duty of the Hour”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 30, 1861, p. 22

“Compromise and Concession”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Feb 13, 1861, p. 28

“What is the Federal Union Worth?”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 2, 1861, p. 7

Catherine M. Rokicky, James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman & Reformer, 1821-1898

Journal of the Public and Secret Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Georgia, Held in Milledgeville and Savannah in 1861, Together with the Ordinances Adopted

Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, The American Civil War Homepage

Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption Of American Democracy

President James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message” (December 3, 1860)

“The Border State Convention”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“Shall the Impending War be a Good or an Unmitigated Evil?”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Apr 24, 1861, p. 70

George Frederick Wright, A Standard History of Lorain County, Ohio

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Declaration”
[2] “Journal”
[3] “Prayer”
[4] “Protest”; “Prayer”
[5] “Compromise”
[6] “The Great Crisis”
[7] “Are We Disunionists?”
[8] “Remarks”
[9] “Remarks”; Rokicky, p. 63
[10] “Remarks”; Nichols, p. 456; Rokicky, p. 64
[11] “The Future”
[12] “Are We Disunionists?”
[13] Buchanan
[14] “Coercion”
[15] “What is the Federal Union Worth”