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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”

A Medal of Honor and a Holy… euchre deck?

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

November 1864 – 150 years ago this month – saw a curious spectacle in the American Civil War.  After Union General William Sherman captured the city of Atlanta from Confederate General John Bell Hood, both armies turned and headed away from each other, with the goal of bringing the hard hand of war to their opponent’s civilian infrastructure.  Sherman headed southeast on his infamous March to the Sea, intending to “make Georgia howl”.  Hood turned north on what could have been just as infamous a march, perhaps even inducing some howling north of the Ohio River.  But where Sherman’s march was a success, Hood’s march failed to even make it out of Tennessee.  An Oberlin man would earn the Medal of Honor and an interesting keepsake for the part he played in stopping him.

John Whedon Seele
John Whedon Steele
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives [1])

His name was John Whedon Steele, and he missed by only a few miles becoming one of the first citizens born in Oberlin.  Instead he was born near Akron as his parents migrated en route to Oberlin from New York in 1835.  His father, Dr. Alexander Steele, would become Oberlin’s first full-time physician.  His younger brother, George, would become an Oberlin College professor and co-founder of the music conservatory.  But it appears that John always had somewhat of a reputation as a renegade (well… by early Oberlin standards, that is).  Nevertheless he attended Oberlin College, got his law degree in Michigan, and returned to Oberlin just before the start of the Civil War. [2]

At the outbreak of war, Steele joined with Alonzo Pease (artist, Underground Railroad operative, and nephew of Oberlin’s first settlers) to recruit a company of infantry.  The company would eventually muster into service as Company H of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with Pease as Captain and Steele as First Lieutenant.   They soon found themselves in the “western theater” of operations, ultimately making their way to Tennessee, and Steele was promoted and transferred to Captain of Company E.  According to the Lorain County News, this company was “made up of roystering blades from Cleveland and other cities which have made their previous commanders much trouble.  John [Steele], however, suits them to a dot and they are fast working into a state of superior discipline.”   Steele would lead this company in a “gallantly and successfully” executed charge against a rebel battery at the first bloodbath battle of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, in April, 1862. [3]

It wouldn’t be long, however, before Steele was again promoted and transferred, this time to Major, ultimately serving as aide-de-camp on the staff of General David S. Stanley’s 4th Corps.  Although we sometimes tend to think of staff officers as holding cushy desk jobs, nothing could be further from the truth for many of them.  In the Civil War, staff officers were often in the thick of battle, relaying orders from their superiors to the troops on the field, directing troop movements, and coordinating attacks.  Such appears to be the case with Major Steele.  He participated in two more epic bloodbaths, at Stones River and Chickamauga, before joining in General Sherman’s four month campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864. [4]

After Sherman took that city, the two armies engaged in two months of cat-and-mouse warfare in northern Georgia and Alabama in which they failed to come to a general engagement.  Finally they turned and went their separate ways, in General Stanley’s words, “like two school boys… each saying ‘Well I cannot whip you but I can kick over your bread basket.'”   But before Sherman turned east to kick over Georgia’s bread basket, he detached two corps under General John Schofield, with orders to join forces with Union General George Thomas in Nashville and stop Hood’s advance.  General Stanley’s 4th Corps, with Major Steele as aide-de-camp, was included in Schofield’s detachment. [5]

Hood now knew that his northward journey would be a difficult one, but being one of the most aggressive commanders in the war, he was not deterred.  His army was larger than either Thomas’ or Schofield’s detachments, and he believed that if he could isolate them and bring them to battle independently, he could destroy them in kind, then turn his attention to Ohio’s “bread basket”, or perhaps come to the rescue of Robert E. Lee’s besieged army in Virginia (see my Battle of New Market Heights blog).

Spring Hill-Franklin Campaign, 1864
(Troop movements and positions are approximated and simplified, for clarity’s sake)

Hood’s first victim was to be General Schofield, who had a vulnerable supply line leading back to the main Union depot at Nashville.  Hood devised a plan whereby he would march his army around Schofield’s flank to Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he could cut that supply line and isolate Schofield from Thomas before they had a chance to link up.

The movement was accomplished brilliantly, but when Hood’s troops arrived at Spring Hill on November 29, they were met by a division of General Stanley’s 4th Corps, which had been sent in advance with Schofield’s wagon train.  It’s not known what part Major Steele played in the fierce fighting that accompanied this part of the battle, but his comrades held their ground, and the rebels retired at nightfall.

They didn’t retire far, however.  In fact they went into bivouac right alongside the turnpike that General Schofield’s troops would have to travel to get to Nashville.  It was an “extremely perilous” situation for the federals, and Schofield decided he needed to get out of it – quick.  So he ordered a night march in which his troops would tramp as quietly as possible up the turnpike past the resting Confederates. [6]

Amazingly, it worked.  Well, almost.  Schofield’s infantry marched cleanly out of the trap.  But bringing up the rear was the slow, cumbersome wagon train – 800 wagons and caissons carrying the food, ammunition, medicines, and artillery needed to support Schofield’s infantry.  With most of the infantry already gone, the train creaked and groaned up the narrow turnpike, past the campfires of the rebel troops, escorted only by a scant guard.  It was, in General Stanley’s words, “like treading upon the thin crust covering a smouldering volcano.” [7]

Then at about 3:00 A.M. the volcano blew.  Several regiments of Confederate cavalry launched a flank attack against the head of the helpless wagon train.  Years later, General Stanley, who was “thrown into despair” by the news, described what happened next: [8]

“My two most vigilant staff officers, General [then Colonel] Fullerton and Colonel [then Major] Steele … were near the point attacked which was about four miles from Spring Hill.  Instantly they took measures to repel the attack.  They found our headquarter’s guard…  This company was about thirty-five strong and commanded by a gallant young officer, Captain Scott.  Using this as a nucleus, these gallant officers picked up from train guards, headquarter’s guards, anyone carrying a gun, a little body of men, marched up to point blank range, gave the rebels a volley which cleared the road, and very soon our big train moved on again.” [9]

Interestingly, in Stanley’s original report to headquarters, he gave all the credit to Major Steele, with no mention of Fullerton or Scott.  But by all accounts less than five percent of the Union wagons were destroyed; the rest were saved by the makeshift strike force, whose boldness apparently deceived the rebels into believing the train guard was much larger than it really was. [10]

At daybreak, Hood was furious to learn that Schofield had slipped out of his trap.  Now that his best opportunity to prevent a link-up between Schofield and Thomas was lost, he would throw his troops headlong into Schofield’s command in desperation.  That reckless assault would occur late that afternoon, November 30th, fifteen miles north of Spring Hill, at Franklin, against stout Union defenses prepared largely by another Oberlin alumnus, Major General Jacob Cox of the 23rd Corps, and supplied in part by the wagon train that had been saved by Steele’s improvised force that morning.   The result was arguably the most devastating defeat suffered by the Confederate army in the entire war.  Six Confederate generals were mortally wounded that day.  Only one Union general was wounded, and that was General Stanley, who was struck by a bullet in the  neck as he took the field to help lead a countercharge and close a dangerous breach that had opened in his lines.  Major Steele was reported to be with him; that is, until he was knocked off his horse by a rebel Minié ball (a large caliber rifled bullet notorious for its bone-shattering effects) that passed through his breast pocket.  But Hood was repulsed, and that night Schofield slipped away again, ultimately to hook up with General Thomas at Nashville, where two weeks later they virtually destroyed what was left of Hood’s army.  Ohio was saved from invasion. [11]

Jacob Dolson Cox
Jacob Dolson Cox [12]

Meanwhile, Stanley and Steele were furloughed to convalesce from their wounds.  Steele would tell the Oberlin townsfolk how his life had been saved by the contents of his breast pocket, which absorbed the impact of the Minié ball that struck him down.  But this wasn’t the classic narrative of the devout war hero saved by a bullet-stopping Bible.  Instead, Steele liked to tell how he was hit “in my euchre deck”.  (One can only wonder whether the theologians of Oberlin shook their heads in disappointment over the card-playing, cigar-smoking, renegade hero!) [13]

Steele recovered and returned to action, this time in Texas, to fight the last major Confederate hold-out, General Edmund Kirby Smith.  He received one more promotion, to brevet Lieutenant Colonel, before he was mustered out of service in 1866.

But his life of service was only just beginning.  He returned to Oberlin and became active in all aspects of community life and politics.  He served as Lorain County Probate Judge and for many years as Oberlin’s Postmaster.  At a community meeting in February, 1866, he delivered a speech and joined in passing a set of resolutions supporting Congress in its growing rift with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction policy.  Among the resolutions passed was one exhorting Congress “to give the control of the nation to its loyal inhabitants, and full protection to the freed men in the exercises of all rights and privileges we claim for ourselves.” [14]

He was a staunch advocate of a reliable, safe community water supply, and played a crucial role in bringing it to fruition.  He also worked tirelessly for other modern improvements, as well as community beautification.  “We’ve got to keep moving,” he told a community meeting.  “No psychology or theology will make a person who is accustomed to a marble lavatory, satisfied with a wash bowl on a stump.  Self-inflicted torture is out of date… The world moves and we have to move with it.  In fact we ought to move a little ahead of it.” [15]

He firmly believed that citizens ought to “so arrange our private affairs as not to close the door against our public duties.”  And practicing what he preached, he accepted an appointment as a trustee of the County Children’s Home in Oberlin.   In the words of Oberlin College Professor Azariah S. Root, “One had only to see the Judge as he was about the place and witness the affectionate attitude of the children toward him, to realize how much of genuine, loving service he was giving to the enterprise…” [16]

In 1897 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “saving the train” at the Battle of Spring Hill 33 years earlier, and President William McKinley, a fellow Ohio Republican Civil War veteran, invited him to the White House.  (Interestingly, Steele’s commanding officer, General Stanley, received the Medal of Honor four years earlier for the counterattack he “gallantly led” at the Battle of Franklin in which he and Steele were wounded.)

Steele’s final public service was one of particular honor and responsibility.  He was selected to distribute the funds that had been donated by  Andrew Carnegie to students and residents of Oberlin who had been financially devastated by the failure of the Citizens Bank in the wake of the Cassie Chadwick scandal.  According to Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King, “no one could be associated with him in that work, and not recognize the great pains with which he went into the multitudes of cases, following them out with insight and tact and sympathy, carrying often their burden as though it were an individual burden of his own.” [17]

It is noteworthy that Steele, a non-religious man, should gain such a reputation for “uncompromising honesty” and trustworthiness in the devoutly pious community of early Oberlin.  He did in time, however, confess to telling one little white lie.  In an 1886 interview with a Chicago newspaper, Steele divulged that the bullet-stopping contents of his pocket on the battlefield that distant day was not a euchre deck after all.  But neither was it a New Testament or an Old Testament.  Instead it was a leather-bound memorandum book, which he kept and passed on to his family, bullet hole and all.  When asked why he had told the “staid but patriotic professors at Oberlin” that it was a euchre deck, Steele explained: “You see, I was afraid they would distort my memorandum book into a Testament, and make a text of the incident, and I had to do a little hedging to keep myself out of the pulpit.” [18]

On April 26, 1905 the pulpit caught up with Colonel Steele nonetheless, when at the age of 69 he died of a heart ailment.  The Oberlin News devoted its entire front page and much of its second page to an obituary and the transcripts of three eulogies delivered at his funeral service at First Church.  One of the eulogists was Oberlin College President King, whose words I close with:

“…In his death Oberlin loses one of her most individual links with her past, and one of her most interesting and important citizens.  Thinking himself, doubtless, sometimes out of sympathy with much in Oberlin, he nevertheless showed a persistent and an almost unmatched devotion to her interests, both in the defense of her reputation and in care for her practical interests…

We are coming to understand now what was not so clear in the days of his young manhood, that we cannot require the same kind of response from widely different temperaments.

… but his close friends learned to see that a sometimes brusque manner was the shield of a marked sensitiveness and a rare tenderness that yet could not be wholly hidden.  And those did not know him who had not seen in him that delicate courtesy that seems often to belong to the true soldier – a courtesy that was more than courtliness, full of genuine human feeling, and free from all affectation and every trace of condescension.  He was a rare friend and a rare public servant.” [19]

Steele tombstone

John Whedon Steele is buried in Westwood Cemetery, Section R, where his grave is a stop on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Radicals and Reformers” history walk.

SOURCES CONSULTED:

Wilbur H. Phillips, Oberlin Colony: The Story of a Century

“Another Honored Citizen Gone”, Oberlin News, May 2, 1905, pp. 1-2

David S. Stanley, Personal Memoirs of Major-General D. S. Stanley

“John W. Steele Ex ’60”, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Vol 1, pp. 238-239

“Col. J. W. Steele”, The Elyria Republican, July 29, 1886

John K. Shellenberger, The Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee

Dennis W. Belcher, General David S. Stanley, USA: A Civil War Biography

Jamie Gillum, Stephen M. Hood, Twenty-five Hours to Tragedy: The Battle of Spring Hill

“The 41st O.V.”, Lorain County News, April 16, 1862, p. 2

“The 41st O.V. before, at and after the Battle of Pittsburg Landing”, Lorain County News, April 30, 1862, p. 2

“The Voice of Oberlin, Its Words for the Crisis”, Lorain County News, March 7, 1866, p. 3

Official Records of the Rebellion (abbrev. “O.R.” below)

“Promoted”, Lorain County News, February 29, 1862, p. 2

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

Oberlin College Archives, “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858″ student file, RG 28, Series 1, Sub-series 1, Box 241

41st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (1861-1865)“, Ohio Civil War Central

Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)“, The North Carolina Civil War Experience

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

General Catalogue of Oberlin College, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives, p. 1582

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

“Pension applications for service in the US Army between 1861 and 1900″, National Archives.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Steele, John Whedon 1851-1858″ student (alumnus) file, Box 241

[2] Phillips, pp. 220, 234

[3] “Promoted”, “The 41st O.V.”; “The 41st O.V. before…”; O.R. Series I, Volume X, Part 1, p. 324

[4] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[5] Stanley, pp. 196-197

[6] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 1138

[7] Stanley, p. 204

[8] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[9] Stanley, p. 205

[10] O.R. Series 1, Vol 45, Part 1, p. 115

[11] ibid.; Belcher, p. 213; “Col. J. W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 223-224

[12] “Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900)

[13] “Col. J.W. Steele”; Phillips, pp. 224, 239

[14] “The Voice of Oberlin”

[15] Phillips, pp. 153, 233; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[16] Phillips, p. 234; Wright, p. 183; “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[17] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

[18] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”; Phillips, pp. 224, 234; “Col. J.W. Steele”

[19] “Another Honored Citizen Gone”

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

The Battle of the Crater: 150 years ago

Friday, July 25th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

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

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

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

AOPspring1864

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

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

Burnside
Major General Ambrose Burnside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crater-resized

The Crater (pictured shortly after the war)

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

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

Crater27th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PerryCartergrave-resized

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

SOURCES CONSULTED:

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

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

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

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

James M. Guthrie, Campfires of the Afro-American

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

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

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

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

William E. Bigglestone, They Stopped in Oberlin

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

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

Oberlin News, July 7, 1892, p. 5

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

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

“Westwood Cemetery Inventory”, Oberlin Heritage Center

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

George S. Bernard, War Talks of Confederate Veterans

Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, The 48th in the War

Andrew Carroll, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars

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

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Oberlin News; “A Social Event”

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

[3] Hess, p. 55

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

[5] Hall, p. 235

[6] Guthrie, p. 523

[7] Guthrie, p. 529

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

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

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

[11] Hess, p. 141

[12] Hess, p. 217

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

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

[15] Slotkin, pp. 290-291

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

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

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

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