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Archive for the ‘Oberlin and the Civil War’ Category

Thomas Tucker and Charles Jones: Missionaries FROM Africa

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It’s no secret that one of the primary goals of Oberlin College in its first decades of existence was to train Americans to become missionaries who would go out into the world and crusade against slavery and other moral ills.  That’s why I find the story of Thomas DeSaille Tucker and Charles Jones so intriguing; it’s an interesting twist on the traditional Oberlin narrative.  Tucker and Jones were native Africans who came to America, attended Oberlin College and devoted their lives to combating slavery right here in the United States, serving as missionaries in the American South in its hour of greatest need.

Thomas DeSaille Tucker

Thomas DeSaille Tucker
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Unfortunately I have no picture to post of Charles Jones, and the information on him is scant, but what we do have comes from reliable sources.  There is quite a bit of information available on Tucker, however, and his legacy continues to this very day (although his middle name is subject to a wide range of spellings, including deSaliere, DeSota, and De Selkirk).

Jones and Tucker were raised in Sherbro, Sierra Leone, Africa.  Jones was the son of a powerful Muslim chief, and Tucker was the grandson of another powerful chief, who also happened to be a slave trader.[1]  Both youths were educated in the Kaw-Mendi (a.k.a. Mende or Mendi) mission that was established on the western coast of Sierra Leone by American philanthropists in the 1840s.  In fact the land for the mission was rented to them by Tucker’s grandfather, and the original purpose of the mission was to repatriate the survivors of the slave ship Amistad.  Oberlin College benefactors Lewis and Arthur Tappan were among the main supporters of the mission, which was basically run by Oberlin students and alumni, about 30 of whom would ultimately serve there.  Certainly Jones and Tucker would have known, and perhaps been influenced by, Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the original Amistad captives, who was educated at Oberlin College after her release, then returned to Sherbro in 1849 to become a missionary and teacher herself.  (For more information on Sarah Margru Kinson, the Amistad, and the Mendi mission, see Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive, by Marlene D. Merrill, available from the Oberlin Heritage Center gift shop.)

Jones and Tucker were brought to the United States in 1856 by Oberlin College alumnus George Thompson, who returned to Oberlin after relinquishing his post as director of the Mendi mission.  Tucker would have been about 12 years old at the time, Jones was probably about 17.  Interestingly, they arrived in the United States in the summer, and when asked how they liked it, they replied, “We like it very well, but it is too hot for us, we can’t stand it!”[2]

Both of the boys lived with Thompson initially, although Jones eventually took a shoemaker apprenticeship with Oberlin’s Orindatus S. B. Wall and moved in with his family.  Tucker entered the preparatory school at Oberlin College in 1858 at the age of about 14, and entered the collegiate program two years later.  Jones attended the preparatory school in the 1860-1861 school year.  But both had every intention of returning to Africa after receiving their education, just as Sarah Margru Kinson had, to dedicate their lives, as Tucker put it, to “do good in my native land.”[3]

Thompson and Wall

When Tucker was still in Africa as a 10 year old boy, he had written to Lewis Tappan about the “wicked practices” of his country, including warfare that involved attacking towns when “the enemy on the other part are asleep” and killing “their enemies so much even as not to have pity upon some of young babes.”  A relative of Tucker’s, who would eventually become a slave trader himself, had also written Tappan that “slavery and bigamy or polygamy will be the last sins an african [sic] will forsake.”   But now that Thomas Tucker had crossed the ocean, he came to see that the United States had its own sins and wicked practices, as he wrote to a friend back in Africa:

‘The colored men in this country have no voice in the general government; even in some of the States they have no voice in the State government.  It would fairly sicken you to be here on a fourth of July and hear guns firing and “starspangled banner” waving “over the land of the free and the home of the brave” while there are this day 4,000,000 of slaves in their possession.  O what a hypocrisy.  God will not always sleep but will yet come in judgment against this country except they speedily repent.’[4]

Then the American Civil War broke out.  Union forces made slow progress into the slaveholding states of the South, and as they did so they were thronged by slaves who had escaped from their owners.  The Fugitive Slave Law, which remained in force, demanded that slaves be returned to their owners on claim.  Although some Union commanders were all too happy to comply and relieve themselves of the burden of accommodating the freedom seekers, a few saw this as an opportunity to strike a blow against slavery and the Confederacy.  General Benjamin Butler, who had seized the military bases at Fortress Monroe in the Norfolk-Hampton region of coastal Virginia, was among the latter.  Arguing that the Confederates considered the slaves as “property”  which they were using to support the rebellion, he claimed the right to refuse their return.  And thus hundreds of freedom seekers became “contraband” of war.

Now came the tremendous logistical problem of sheltering them, feeding them, and providing them the education that most had been denied all their lives.  Mary Peake, a local free black school teacher, and Peter Herbert, a local fugitive from slavery, got permission to establish schools on property seized by the Union forces.  Herbert in fact established his school in the abandoned summer home of slaveholding ex-President John Tyler, who had left the area and thrown his support to the Confederacy.  Both Peake and Herbert soon had dozens of students in their classes.

Northern abolitionists, both black and white, from the American Missionary Association (the same group that ran the Mendi mission) also came down to help.  Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood directed relief operations in person and helped establish more schools, while George Whipple (one of Oberlin’s “Lane Rebels”) and Simeon S. Jocelyn petitioned the Lincoln Administration for support.  On December 3, 1862, the Oberlin Evangelist reported:

“Since the meeting of the Am. Missionary Association in this place, Oct. 15, five students from Oberlin College and Seminary have left us for service under the Association in labors among the freemen at or near Fortress Monroe, or in South Carolina, namely: Wm O. King and Palmer Litts, of the Junior Theological Class; Edwin S. Williams of the Middle Theological Class and his wife; and Thomas De Selkirk Tucker of the Junior Class, a native of Sherbro, Africa, brought thence by Rev. Geo. Thompson and in a course of education in Oberlin College.  They are all teachers of considerable experience, with the exception of the last named, and all give promise of efficiency and usefulness in their work.  They left us with many requests for prayer – their case and work awakening profound sympathy among their Christian friends.  Not having completed their course of study, they all expect to return for that purpose after a service perhaps of six months.”

Upon his arrival in Hampton, Virginia, Thomas Tucker immediately began teaching classes in the Tyler house.  It was difficult work.  The teachers were faced with overcrowded classrooms, they endured the hostility and prejudices of many of the Union troops as well as the local populace, and their varying backgrounds and skill levels sometimes created tensions among themselves.  But the missionaries drew their inspiration from their students, finding “their love of freedom strong.  Their desire for learning and the aptitude of children and adults to learn… remarkable.”[5]

Tucker returned to Oberlin in mid-1863.  The time he spent in Virginia and the substandard pay he received while there set his Oberlin education back one year, but with cooperation of the school administration he was able to secure good winter employment and continue his education.[6]

In 1864, Tucker expressed disappointment that his Mendi friend, Charles Jones, had joined the Union armed forces.  Tucker took this as a sign (quite correctly, it turned out) that Jones would not be returning to Africa.  That Jones enlisted is not surprising, given that his Oberlin mentor, O.S.B. Wall, became a tireless recruiter of black Ohio soldiers when the Lincoln Administration finally allowed African Americans to enlist in 1863.  (Wall himself earned a Captain’s commission, perhaps the first African American to do so.)  Wall recruited for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer and the 5th United States Colored Troops (USCT) infantry regiments in 1863, and the 27th USCT infantry regiment in early 1864.  Only one Charles Jones appears on the roster of these regiments, as a private in Company D of the 27th USCT, which recruited several African American men from Oberlin.  If this was our Charles Jones, he would have seen some of the hardest fighting of the entire war in Virginia in the Spring and Summer of 1864.[7]

Tucker himself was still intent on returning to Africa after completing his Oberlin education, saying:

“Whenever I reflect, so far as youth can, on all the Providences connected with my coming to, and residence in this country, thus far, I cannot resist the conviction that he intends me for some work in life.  To be sure all men know that they were not made to be drones; yet there are times when we are, as it were, divinely impressed with a sense of the path marked out for us in life.  I feel that my only highest goodness and happiness will consist in spending my life for benighted dear Africa…  At all events, unless I can see plainer indications of Providence allotting me a sphere of duty in this country, to Africa I will return.”[8]

However he also began to foresee difficulties if he returned to his powerful family in Sherbro, writing:

“Far from any desire to forget and foresake Africa; I still yet, as I have in the past, cherished the deepest sympathy for my native land… My family influences in the Sherbro, as you well know, are very extensive.  Returning there I would be subjected to trials and temptations which you perhaps can not well conceive of in this country.  As your Sherbro mission is the only one you have in Africa, and as I could not return and labor there without great disadvantages, I preferred to be where I could be most efficient.  I could willingly go to such a place as Shengay, Sierra Leone — anywhere where I can be farthest from my relatives.”[9]

But when Tucker received his A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree from Oberlin in 1865, there were no teaching opportunities for him in Africa outside of the Sherbro mission.  He thus resolved himself to be “governed by a sense of duty, and not by selfish inclinations” and to “teach in any capacity — for the elevation of the freedmen.”[10]

And that he did.  After graduating, Tucker returned to the South, this time to educate freedmen in Georgetown, Kentucky and later New Orleans, Louisiana.  His friend, Charles Jones, having survived the war, also heard the calling to head south and became a preacher in Mississippi.  (He was believed to be in Friars Point, Mississippi until about 1883, and then sometime thereafter might possibly have relocated to North Carolina, still preaching.)[11]  Tucker edited a series of newspapers while in New Orleans and studied law at Straight University, a school established by the American Missionary Association to train black missionaries and to provide legal training to students to help support civil rights in the South.  (Straight University eventually merged into present-day Dillard University.)  Tucker earned his law degree in 1883, then moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he had a successful law practice for four years.

In 1887, Tucker co-founded a college in Tallahassee, Florida called the State Normal School for Colored Students.  His co-founder was another Oberlin College black alumnus and one-time Florida state legislator, Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs.  When the State Board of Education selected Tucker to be the school’s first president, the editor of a local newspaper wrote:

“The State Board of Education certainly deserves much credit for the appointments recently made for this school. … We have known Professor Tucker for about 18 years and we have never met a more genial, broadminded and sterling gentleman. He possesses first-class qualities as a friend, gentleman and scholar, and commands the respect of all who know him. He is a strong man, morally and intellectually, and the new Normal has a security of success under his charge.”[12]

Tucker would serve as president for 14 years, but would eventually be forced to resign over policy differences with state authorities.  Influenced by his own Oberlin College education, Tucker wanted the school to offer a strong liberal arts education to its students to complement its vocational training.  State authorities believed the school should focus on vocational training only, and accused Tucker of providing instruction that was “void of the results of the kind for which the money was furnished” and of hiring instructors who were “not in sympathy… with Southern institutions.”  Interestingly enough though, Tucker was replaced by yet another African American Oberlin College graduate, Nathan B. Young.[13]

According to his contemporary Florida historian, Rowland H. Rerick, Tucker was “an able and intelligent man, of excellent character and notable executive ability and an admirable influence upon the students.’’[14]   But now he returned to his law practice and died just two years later in 1903.  If he were with us today, however, he would undoubtedly be proud of the college he co-founded.   No longer known as the State Normal School for Colored Students, it is now called the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (“Florida A&M”), and provides a wide range of studies and programs, from baccalaureate to doctoral, to students of all races and ethnicities, though predominantly African American.  And yes, it provides liberal arts instruction too.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Clara Merritt De Boer, The Role of Afro-Americans in the Origin and Work of the American Missionary Association: 1839-1877, Vols 1 & 2

Robert Francis Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861-1890

Leedell W. Neyland, “State-Supported Higher Education Among Negroes in the State of Florida”, The Florida historical quarterly, Volume 43 Issue 02. October 1964, pp. 108-110

George Thompson, The Palm Land; Or, West Africa, Illustrated

“Teachers for the Freedmen”, Oberlin Evangelist, Dec 3, 1862, p.7

Joseph Yannielli, “George Thompson among the Africans: Empathy, Authority, and Insanity in the Age of Abolition”, Journal of American History, vol 96, issue 4, March 2010, p. 998

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

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College: from its foundation through the Civil War, Volume 1

Clifton H. Johnson, “Tucker, Thomas DeSaliere”, Dictionary of African Christian Biography

Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1, Alumni and Development Records, Former Student File, Series B, Box 313, Folder “Jones, Charles 1860-1861″

1860 United States Census, Lorain County, Russia Township

National Park Service, “Soldiers and Sailors Database”

Ira Berlin, Joseph Patrick Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, The Black Military Experience

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

Mark St. John Erickson, “An uneasy alliance of white missionaries and refugee slaves leads to freedom in Civil War Hampton”, HR History

Joe M. Richardson, Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890

Adam Fairclough, “Being in the Field of Education and also Being a Negro…Seems…Tragic: Black Teachers in the Jim Crow South”, The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 1. (Jun., 2000), pp. 65-91

Emma J. Lapsanky-Werner, Margaret Hope Bacon (editors), Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America, 1848-1880

Marlene D. Merrill,  Sarah Margru Kinson: The Two Worlds of an Amistad Captive

Abdul Karim Bangura, “The Life and Times of the Amistad Returnees to Sierra Leone and Their Impact: A Pluridisciplinary Exploration”, Africa Update Newsletter, Vol. XIX, Issue 2 (Spring 2012)

Versalle F. Washington, Eagles on their Buttons

Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Anne W. Chapman, “Fight for Home Saves Plantation”, Daily Press

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Yannielli, p. 998
[2] Yannielli, p. 998; De Boer pp. 121-122; 1860 U.S. Census; Thompson, pp. 441-442
[3] Sharfstein, p. 94; 1860 U.S. Census;  General Catalogue; Lapsanky-Werner, p. 152
[4] De Boer, pp. 119-121, 123
[5] Engs, p. 36, 48
[6] De Boer, pp. 258-259
[7] De Boer, p. 261; Washington, p. 13; Berlin, p. 93; Bigglestone, pp. 237-240; “Soldiers and Sailors Database”
[8] De Boer, p. 259
[9] ibid, p. 261
[10] ibid, pp. 260, 262
[11] Yannielli, p. 998; Oberlin College Archives, RG 28/1
[12] Neyland, p. 108; General Catalogue; Johnson, “Dictionary”
[13] Neyland, pp. 109-110; Yannielli, p. 998; General Catalogue
[14] Neyland, p. 110

A Fond Farewell and Oberlinians’ First Battle of the Civil War

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

It is with great sadness that I write my last Civil War blog post for the Oberlin Heritage Center as the regional  Civil War 150 Leadership Corps volunteer in the AmeriCorps Ohio History Service Program. It has been a most wonderful experience living in the community of Oberlin and working at the Heritage Center; one that I shall not forget! Fear not, I won’t leave before sharing one more story from the war. The end of my service term coincides with the first major battle of the Civil War that a large contingent of Oberlinians participated in. This battle was a small one; one that was more of an ambush than a battle.

The date was August 26, 1861. Oberlin’s first company of men, the Monroe Rifles, Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, were bivouacking with their regiment, under Colonel E.B. Tyler, in western Virginia (now, West Virginia). They’d been ordered by command to return to the area of Kesler’s Cross Lanes, after marching some twenty miles to Gauley bridge a few days before to ward off a possible Confederate attempt to cross. The Confederate General Floyd, whose troops the 7th were sent to repel over at Gauley, had proceeded to direct his troops back towards Carnifex Ferry near Cross Lanes–and so the 7th was sent marching back. On Sunday the 25th of August the 7th set up camp for the night in Kesler’s Cross Lanes; Company C actually quartered in a store and farmhouse for the evening.

What follows are accounts of the battle in the words of those from Oberlin who fought in it:

Leroy Warren in his diary, “Little did I know Sunday night what the morrow was to bring forth—and our officers must have been as ignorant as the men, or else they were guilty of the most awful and wicked carelessness.”

Sergeant E.B. Stiles in his journal, “More crackers & meat for breakfast. While we were eating crack! Crack! Went the guns of our pickets. We were nearly surrounded & attacked by Floyd’s brigade of from 3500 to 4000 men with cavalry & artillery—“

Private Willard Wheeler in his diary, “Co. A and our Co. (Co. C) were ordered onto a high hill about 20 rods from the road and nearest the enemy. Before we left the road, we could see them coming vast numbers, and they immediately opened fire upon us. We ran across the field and up the hill under the tremendous fire from 3 regiments…the bullets flew on all sides and hissed like demons. They cut the trees, the grass, the air, and the ground. They cut our clothes and whistled through our hair.”

Stiles: “[we] made some resistance—fled—had hard times in the woods—were again surprised & taken prisoners by Col. Tompkin[s] & Capt. Barber, others escaped—were led back through the old camp of the enemies and our imprisonment began. They have treated us very kindly thus far.”

Private J.M Ginn: “I dodged into a thick clump of laurels, and hid. They went on both sides of me…I lay concealed until all was quiet, and then got up and looked around. I was all alone.”

Stiles, Wheeler, Warren and twenty-six others were imprisoned; thirty-four were originally captured, but five managed to escape. Ginn and the rest of Company C reunited with the regiment. Burford Jenkins and Joseph Collins, both students of the college, died from wounds in the battle—the first casualties of the war from Oberlin. It was a Confederate victory.

We have many first-hand accounts by men in Company C who spent time in Confederate prisons of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, Castle Pinckney in Charlestown, South Carolina, and Parish Prison in New Orleans. Twenty of the twenty-nine Oberlin prisoners were from the college; all spent approximately six months to a year in prison. E.W. Morey of the Monroe Rifles, on the idea of being a prisoner, said: “Most of us had realized that we were liable to be sick, wounded or killed, but had not dreamed of the possibility of being captured.”

Life in prison was often a very dull, difficult affair; quarters were cramped, conditions were rough, and food was scarce. On the dullness of day-to-day life, an Oberlin soldier, Willard Wheeler of the Monroe Rifles, lamented in his diary: “One day comes and goes and is followed by another and brings no change of account. The same dreary monotony.”

Prison food was apparently even worse than camp food. Giles Shurtleff, then Captain of Monroe Rifles, relates: “We had been more than twenty-four hours without food…when it came it consisted of raw coffee in the kernel, sea biscuit, and salt pork full of maggots.”

How did Oberlin soldiers break up the monotony and lack of food, space, and shelter? All Oberlinian accounts that we have include works they were reading; books were scarce to come by, but they managed to get a hold of them through various means, sometimes by selling personal items; for example, Giles Shurtleff sold his watch to purchase editions of Livy and Virgil. They also usually held a prayer-service in a jail cell on Sundays.

A fair number of Oberlin prisoners from Company C participated in a Union Lyceum and a newspaper, The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. The lyceum was organized in early winter of 1861 in Parish Prison, with the intention to “hold weekly meetings, to participate in readings and declamations, and the reading of our paper [The Stars and Stripes].” The newspaper was a collaborative of different Yankees from around the North, but Oberlinians often contributed articles, and Leroy Warren of the college was editor for two editions. A diary entry from a soldier in the NH 2nd Volunteer Infantry commented on the happenings in Richmond Prison:

“The ‘Stars and Stripes,’ a paper read in the lyceum of the prison, contained the following allusion to our unfortunate condition: ‘A squad of caged Yankees may be found on free exhibition at No. 4, third floor.’ This lyceum was supported mainly by Oberlin College students, of whom there were quite a number in the prison. They also conducted a weekly prayer meeting, and on Sunday, a Bible-class.”

An interesting new trade immerged at Parish Prison in New Orleans, called the “Bone-Dust Trade.” Leroy Warren elaborates:

“The branch of industry chiefly followed by the war-prisoners in New Orleans was the so-called ‘bone-dust trade.’ It consisted of the manufacture of all manner of bone trinkets, such as rings, toothpicks, bodkins, crosses, Bibles, and ornamental pins… Bone too, was plentiful, owing to the highly osseous character of our Texas beef…The citizens of New Orleans who came to visit us bought rings and other articles of bone-work, as mementoes of the Yankees…The guards who were placed over us, traded for bone-work with eagerness.

Attempts were made, on occasion, to escape prison. Giles Shurtleff writes of a complex escape plan that he and another fellow conjured up in Richmond. They managed to procure some citizens’ clothing and then to make a steel saw from a watch’s mainspring. Their plan was to cut a hole through the floor, then through the brick partition separating their room from another which had a widow to the side street. The floor was cut with a pocketknife. They worked on that floor for two hundred and twenty hours. However, upon getting ready to put their plan into action, others attempted escape from the nearby room and a sentry was placed directly outside the wall they were planning to escape from and their plan halted.

The soldiers from Company C eventually were released eventually after spending on average six months to a year in prison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Oberlin during the war, check out the annotated bibliography here: http://www.oberlinheritage.org/researchlearn/bibliographycivilwar for some great primary and secondary sources. Look out for a digital Civil War collection at the Oberlin College Archives in late fall!

Interested in serving in AmeriCorps or know someone else who would be? Find out more about the AmeriCorps position opening at the Oberlin Heritage Center here: AmeriCorps Opening at Heritage Center

-Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps volunteer (2010-2011) at the Oberlin Heritage Center

Sources consulted:

E.W. Morey, “Prison Life,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 330; Willard Wheeler, Civil War Diary: August 1861-February 1862, including time spent in a parish prison, New Orleans, LA (Peoria, IL: Charity G. Monroe, 1995), 7; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year with the Rebels,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 39; The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. A series of papers written by federal prisoners in Richmond, Tuscaloosa, New Orleans, and Salisbury, N.C, ed. by William Bates, (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1862), 7; William H. Jeffrey, Richmond Prisons, 1861-1862 (St. Johnsbury, VT: The Republican Press, 1893), 147; Leroy Warren, in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 344-345; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year  with the Rebels,” in Ibid., 323; Leroy Warren, in his war diary 1861-1862, “Oberlin Files,” RG 21, Series X, Box II, Oberlin College Archives; E.B. Stiles, quoted in Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 845; J.M. Ginn, in The Lorain County News, 11 Sept 1861, p. 2, c. 4.

Allopurinol

Profile of an Oberlin Soldier: Henry Whipple Chester, 2nd Ohio Cavalry

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Henry Whipple Chester was born on December 25, 1840 in Bainbridge, Ohio. His father was a farmer, innkeeper, and a postmaster, and an ardent abolitionist. Henry assumed many of his father’s traits and was himself a multi-tasking abolitionist. He entered the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College in 1858 and had just completed his course when the Civil War broke out. Like many boys in attendance at the college, he enlisted as a volunteer to fight at the age of twenty-one in the fall of 1861 in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a private. For the next four years, Chester fought in thirty-eight battles and skirmishes and travelled over 22,000 miles through thirteen states and territories. Eventually, he rose to captaincy of Company K in the 2nd Ohio. Making it safely through the war, afterward he lived in Kansas doing odd jobs, like selling sewing machines and working at a bank, married, and then moved to Chicago and formed a lumber company.  In the early 1900’s, he wrote a very detailed recollection of the war; it was published a few years before his death in 1918. His recollections display a lively and humorous personality and a war-experience that was at times harrowing, humorous, lively, and bitter-sweet. Below are some stories from his experiences as a soldier.

The 2nd Ohio spent much of the year of 1863 in the state of Kansas. While in Iola, Kansas, Chester recounts observing Native Americans playing “a ball game…called LaCross, I believe.” One of the chiefs would act as Umpire.

In the summer of 1863, Henry and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were charged with the task of helping to chase down the Confederate John Morgan and his close to 2,000 men who were raiding through the southern part of Ohio until the Battle of Buffington Island, in which the Confederate forces were defeated and many of them imprisoned. Chester received a furlough for his services and headed home to Oberlin. Dusty, weary, and not in uniform, Henry rode into town at sunset in July of 1863. The Lorain CountyNews, Oberlin’s local paper published an article on his arrival:

“On Wednesday of last week, just as the shadows of the evening were beginning to make objects obscure, a Cavalryman, armed and equipped a la regulation, and mounted on a beast which looked as if he had been either one of Morgan’s raiders or of the chase after Morgan, came into the town from the south. There was something in the lone horsemen’s style which excited suspicion, and as he rode directly through the village without pausing or conferring with anybody, it was surmised that he might be one of Morgan’s spies. Accordingly, there was a “mounting in hot haste” and hot pursuit. But the scare soon ended by the discovery that the worn and dusty dragoon was no other than our young townsman, Henry W. Chester.”

Chester was afterward warmly greeted by his parents and the rest of the town. He was also rewarded with his first bath in over a month.

Henry Chester during the 1862 Kansas and Indian Territory Campaigns. Apparently, his parents did not even recognize him in the photo.

In November of 1864, Chester was almost captured by Confederates in a skirmish in Virginia, which he described in a letter to his mother, “I found myself surrounded and a revolver on each side of my bared, hatless head.” Chester was asked to run alongside his Confederate captor’s horse; however, thanks to a charge by some of the rest of the 2nd Ohio, amid action Chester was able to grab a rock “the size of a coconut” and throw it at his captor’s side and escape. Stumbling along the road without a horse or weapons, he then ran into a Confederate in a similar situation.

“I stepped right in front him with my empty holster in my right hand and stuck it in his face so near that he could not see that it was not a revolver…it certainly looked like a gun. I ordered the man to surrender and give me his carbines. He did so at once. I then stepped back and began to laugh at him and showed him that I had no gun until I had secured his.”

He then proceeded to take the Confederate soldier prisoner and make his way back to camp. Luman Harris Tenney, another Oberlinian in the 2nd Ohio, wrote to The Lorain County News about the whole event and said of Chester, “Chester thinks it ‘better to be born lucky, than rich.’”

Five months later, Chester and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were at Appomattox Courthouse when the Confederate Lee surrendered to Grant—he wrote to his aunt a few days later in 1865: “My Dear Aunt: PEACE ON EARTH: GOOD WILL TO (NEARLY) ALL MEN! WHAT GLORIOUS NEWS! THE GREAT REBELLION CRUSHED!! SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY PLAYED OUT!!!”

Comments? Questions?

Email Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps CW150 Leadership Corps volunteer at cw150@oberlinheritage.org.

Sources consulted:

Chester, H.W. Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: A Story of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865. Wheaton, IL.: Wheaton History Center, 1996; Tenney, Luman Harris. War Diary of Luman Harris Tenney, 1861-1865. Cleveland, OH: Evangelical Publishing House, 1914. Image from Chester’s Recollections of the War of the Rebellion.

“Lorain on Fire!! War Spirit at Oberlin!!!” Oberlin Responds in the Wake of Sumter’s Fall

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

“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.”

The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861

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.

The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861

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)


Sources Consulted:

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.

Questions? Comments? Please email cw150@oberlinheritage.org.

“Oberlin Knows No Crisis”: Local Happenings during the Presidential Inauguration of 1861

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011


On March 4, 1861, one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States of America. Only a few weeks before in Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated provisionally as President of the Confederate States. With already seven states having seceded from the Union, Lincoln began his presidency of a fragile United States. Fittingly, his speech was entirely devoted to the “secession flurry.” The country was at a breaking point, he admitted—but it was unnecessarily and wrongly so.  “May his views of prerogative penetrate the nation,” Oberlin’s local paper, The Lorain County News states approvingly, “[but] whether the mild measures which Mr. Lincoln proposes will not excite civil war remains to be seen.”

While the federal government was in strife, small town life in Oberlin was not—“Oberlin Knows no Crisis,” the local paper comments. Yes, the country was in a tough spot, and certainly, Oberlinians were aware of it. Daily life in the village, though, very much like today, was ongoing. So, what was going in Oberlin 150 years ago? A perusal of the local paper finds out: a lot!

The weather in Wellington and Oberlin was mild these first two weeks in 1861, more like “May, instead of March.” Temperatures were recorded as being upwards of sixty.

The college’s student population was threatening to reach an all time high—700 enrolled, and perhaps, could reach 1000! This, despite the “crisis,” the editor of the paper notes. Oberlin College students had just participated in the “Day of Annual Fasting and Prayer for Colleges,” which entailed, as the title speaks of, fasting and prayer for Christian students and the colleges that endeavored to educate them.

Complaints were pouring in about the condition of some of the sidewalks in Oberlin: “One fourth of the walks in our otherwise moral and orthodox village are indecently dangerous! [They are] in a state hardly navigable for cats.” (To modern Oberlinians and readers elsewhere just coming ourselves out of a long and snowy winter: I think we can relate!)

A classified in the local paper reads similar to one we might find today for a car, “For Sale-A valuable Horse, and a first rate new Lumber Wagon, (single or double) cheap for cash. Call on R.J. Shipherd.”

An elderly woman wrote in to the paper and commented on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “What a critter Mrs. Stowe is to write!” This was just after she had just finished another chapter of the book.

On impure drinking water, the local paper advises: “Set a pitcher of iced water in a room inhabited, and in a few hours it will have absorbed from the room nearly all the respired and perspired gases of the room, the air of which will have become purer, but the water utterly filthy. Hence water…should be often renewed.”

In retrospect, in the first days of March 2011,

Karyn Norwood

Questions? Comments?

Email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Source Consulted:

The Lorain County News, 6 March 1861, p. 2,3; The Lorain County News, 13 March 1861, p. 2.