Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns

December 8th, 2012

Earlier this Fall I had an opportunity to visit the little abolitionist town of Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. As an avid history buff, this was a visit I really looked forward to. And as a docent on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Freedom’s Friends” tour, I couldn’t help but contrast these two very important abolitionist towns. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

I started out on a tour of the home of Reverend John Rankin, the spiritual leader of the Ripley abolitionist community. It’s believed that most of the estimated 2,000 freedom seekers who came through Ripley found shelter in his house or barn. The house itself is quite small. It certainly would have been cramped quarters for Rankin and his wife, Jean, and their 13 children, their several “foster” children, and whatever freedom seekers happened to be staying with them at the time. The house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s nice to see the meticulous work that’s being done to preserve it and restore its antebellum character.

Rankin House

Rankin House, Ripley, Ohio

The house sits atop a 540 foot high bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Reverend Rankin built a set of stone steps leading all the way down to the riverfront streets below so that freedom seekers could have “easy access” to his house after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. One of the highlights of my visit was descending, then climbing, these steps. (What can I say? I get into that kind of thing, lol.) A large section of the steps has since been replaced with a wooden stairwell, which undoubtedly made the climb easier than it would have been back in the day. It certainly would have been a difficult climb at night, possibly carrying a child, after a long hard journey through Kentucky and across the Ohio River to get there in the first place.

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairway overlooking the Ohio River

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairs from the bottom

Reverend Rankin was an “evangelistic abolitionist”, much like Oberlin’s spiritual leader, Reverend Charles Finney. Both believed that slavery could and should be ended through moral reform and prayer. However, where Reverend Finney felt that Underground Railroad activity was a distraction to the real work at hand, Reverend Rankin was one of the most active Underground Railroad conductors in the country. Rankin would also eventually come to take a more political stance, becoming a member of the Liberty Party (an abolitionist political party that would be a precursor to the Republican Party) in 1843. Rankin, however, was only the leader of Ripley’s anti-slavery element, which was only a small minority of Ripley’s overall population. Finney on the other hand was a spiritual leader of Oberlin as a whole, where the vast majority of the population was anti-slavery.

After visiting the Rankin House, I went down the hill for a visit to the John Parker House, on the riverfront street appropriately called Front Street. John Parker was born into slavery in Virginia, but eventually was able to purchase his freedom and move to Ripley, where he became a very successful businessman and industrialist. He was also one of the most daring of all conductors on the Underground Railroad. His house is now a museum. I enjoyed the many fine exhibits there and the informative presentation the staff gave about John Parker and his exploits. Parker has an Oberlin connection in that he sent two of his sons (Hale Giddings Parker and Cassius Clay Parker) to Oberlin College.

John Parker House

John Parker House

What was most unique about Parker is that unlike the other Ripley Underground Railroad conductors, he would actually cross the river into Kentucky to help freedom seekers escape from slavery. In this way he assisted hundreds of people to their freedom. His story brought to mind the story of Calvin Fairbank, an Oberlin College student who went to Kentucky and helped dozens of enslaved people find their way to freedom. Interestingly, both the Oberlin and Ripley abolitionist communities were uncomfortable with these exploits. It was extremely dangerous work, it violated Kentucky law, and many considered it provocative. Fairbank was caught and spent a total of 16 years in Kentucky prisons, enduring numerous beatings and whippings. Fortunately Parker was never caught. Being a black man, he undoubtedly would not have gotten off so “lightly”.

After leaving the Parker House I took a walk along Front Street and read some of the historical markers that line that road. One highlights the journey of an enslaved woman who crossed the thin ice of the Ohio River with her two year old child and became the inspiration for the story of “Eliza” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This too has an Oberlin connection, for in the book (but not in real life), Eliza was married to a man named George Harris, who also escaped from slavery and joined her in Ohio. The George Harris character is said to have been inspired by Oberlin resident Lewis Clarke, who is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

While in Ripley I bought a book called Beyond the River, by Ann Hagedorn. The book gives an outstanding description of the abolitionist history of Ripley, much like Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War does for Oberlin. One of the things that really stuck out for me in reading this book was the detailed accounts of the “Lane Rebels”, who would play such an important role in abolitionizing Oberlin. These were students at the Lane Theological Seminary, in nearby Cincinnati. Some of the Lane students shared a similar background with many of the abolitionist founders of Ripley – Southerners who had been born and raised with slavery, but came to question it and even abhor it. In a series of 18 public debates in 1834, attended by Reverend Rankin and other Ripley abolitionists, a group of Lane students debated the question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states abolish slavery immediately?” At the end of the debates, their answer was a unanimous YES. But the surrounding community wasn’t happy with this, or with the other anti-slavery/civil rights work the students were involved in. Eventually a mob even threatened to tear the school down. As a result, the trustees of the school prohibited any further anti-slavery activity or discussion, which prompted dozens of the students to quit the school in protest. Many of these so-called “Lane Rebels” would come to Oberlin the following year and become the seed of the abolitionist movement here.

But Ms. Hagedorn’s book also highlighted a major difference between Ripley and Oberlin. In Ripley, like in most abolitionist towns, the abolitionists were a small minority of the overall population, a situation aggravated by its close proximity to Kentucky. Oberlin, however, was quite unique among abolitionist towns in that its abolitionists formed the vast majority of its population ever since the arrival of the Lane Rebels in the second year of its existence. In Ripley, the abolitionists had to operate in top secrecy, and they were frequently subject to raids by mounted posses of slavecatchers who would storm into town, pound on their doors at any time of the day or night, and demand to search the premises, often at gunpoint. In Oberlin, by contrast, the abolitionists could be relatively open about their activities, and it was the slavecatchers who had to operate in secrecy. A freedom seeker coming to Ripley generally could not stay more than a day, for fear of being found in one of the few abolitionist homes. But the estimated 3,000 freedom seekers who came to Oberlin had many more options of where they could stay, and often would stay for months, years, or even “for keeps”. In Ripley and the surrounding area, there were many instances where pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist mobs burned down schools, churches, barns and homes, and even abducted abolitionists and people believed to be fugitives from slavery. In Oberlin, when the mobs gathered, they were mobs of abolitionists (and much less violent). Oberlin mobs might surround a house that was being staked out by slavecatchers and help the inhabitants escape undetected. Or, in the case of the “Oberlin -Wellington Rescue”, an Oberlin/Wellington mob even stormed a hotel to free a man who was being held by slavecatchers.

In closing, I have one final observation that came to me as I was doing some independent research. In an interview in the 1880s, John Parker said of Ripley, “The town in its simple way goes on unheeding its valiant men and their deeds.” In the decades following the Civil War, it would appear that Ripley, like Oberlin, lost sight of its abolitionist heritage. Fortunately both towns have long since rectified that. And thanks to dedicated organizations like Ripley Heritage, Inc., the John P. Parker Historical Society, the Ohio Historical Society, and our own Oberlin Heritage Center, the proud heritage of both towns will continue to thrive and flourish.

Ron Gorman
Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Sources consulted:

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Oberlin Heritage Center “Freedom’s Friends” history walk

Duke University collection of John Parker autobiographical notes

John P. Parker, Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land

Winter Term 2012: Finding Community Through History

January 27th, 2012

Until my time spent at the Heritage Center, my interest in museum work and cultural heritage management was underwritten by my fascination with the objects involved—Classical archaeology was only as interesting as its statuary and American history was only as interesting as the objects which told its stories. My concept and appreciation of museum work gained another crucial dimension during my month with the Heritage Center: the importance of community. In many ways the Oberlin Heritage Center is a professional institution, but in seemingly as many other ways it is a community club of sorts, relying heavily not only on the monetary support of its members but also their expertise and experience.

Towards the end of January, Prue Richard, the Collections Assistant, invited me to attend a collections committee meeting, which would be held at—to my surprise—Kendal (a local retirement community). On the way to the meeting I remember asking Prue if these meetings were public or private, if the committee was composed of board members or paying members, and who would be attending. The answers to these questions were not at all what I had expected. The committee was composed of an incredible diversity of volunteer talents, each of which was hugely valuable to the Heritage Center. The use of community talent and expertise seems essential to the continued prosperity of the Center.

I also enjoyed and learned quite a bit in my more day-to-day tasks at the Center. Interested in both research and collections management, I was able to spread my time somewhat evenly between these two interests. In terms of research, I was given the task of updating biographies on the previous tenants of Monroe house to go with the new furnishings plan. I focused primarily on the Monroe Children—Emma, Mary, Charles, and William. As far as collections management goes, I was able to help Prue develop a new salvage plan which would be used to evacuate the most important objects in the event of a fire or other major crisis. In performing these two tasks I became very familiar with the museum database program Past Perfect as well as a number of genealogical research databases. I also spent a good deal of time in the College archives poring over old financial and legal documents.

The tasks I was given by the Heritage Center staff were undoubtedly personally valuable—and hopefully valuable to the Center as well; but, the aspect of my time here that I may have enjoyed most was being my friends’ personal Oberlin historian. Dozens of times other Oberlin students would approach me with questions about the age of their home or the previous tenants, and given my access to all the information stored at the Heritage Center, I was more than capable of answering these questions. From finding the building history of my house on East College to finding that my friend’s apartment was previously a Masonic Temple, these small bits of historical knowledge have really brought Oberlin to life for me—breaking out the four year cycles I tend to see Oberlin as being stuck in, and revealing a community with a rich, important history that needs to be told and remembered.

Greg Brown
OC Class of 2012

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

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

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

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.