Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


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.

Young Scholars Defend Research

April 6th, 2011

By Donna Marie Shurr, Teacher Oberlin High School

For the eleventh year, Langston Middle School and Oberlin High School students have represented Oberlin at District 3 National History Day.  On Saturday, March 19, students traveled to Case Western Reserve University to present their work before panels of judges. The 2011 contest included 400 students.  This record number of entries made for a very exciting day.  Students prepared original exhibits, historical papers, creative performances, media documentaries and imaginative web sites.

Representing Oberlin High School for her fifth and final year, senior Katherine Cavanaugh presented her original, individual performance entitled “ Roe vs. Wade: The Life Saving Debate .”  One of Cavanaugh’s judges commented, “Your final scene was very powerful.” Freshman Julia Robinson defended her paper, “Passion: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry” before a panel of three judges who asked scholarly questions. Sophomores Madeline Geitz and Hannah Kim dramatized a group performance entitled, “Emma Goldman.”  Geitz and Kim were recognized for their research into local history by the Early Settlers of the Case Western Reserve.  They received certificates and a check for their work.

In the Junior Group Division, four Langston Middle School students also submitted their projects on the theme of “Debate and Diplomacy in History.” All 8th graders wrote a research paper for English class on a National History Day topic of their choice that fit into the theme. Those who wanted to do the projects for the competition worked on them during NHD club time on Wednesdays during the 21st Century Program.

Max Annable and Schuyler Coleman presented their group documentary, American Isolationism before WWII.  Ian Sweet defended his individual documentary, The Hetch Hetchy Dam Debate and Tong Li explained an individual exhibit, Nanking Massacre, the Forgotten Holocaust.

Alison Smith, eighth grade language arts teacher explains, “I am very pleased with the quality of work that all of the 8th graders produced for their research projects and I am very exited about these NHD projects. It’s exciting to see students excited about research and history and to see them take on these projects as their own. THEY chose and researched their topics so they are highly invested in the content matter. This is IB at its best- student directed and student initiated projects.”

LMS teacher Alison Smith and OHS teacher Donna Shurr are the History Day advisors for Oberlin district students.  Bravo to all of the student participants for their hard work and for representing Oberlin and the Oberlin school district!

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

March 8th, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In retrospect, in the first days of March 2011,

Karyn Norwood

Questions? Comments?

Email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Source Consulted:

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

For the Union or Slavery? The Case of Lucy Bagby: Oberlin’s Perspective

February 5th, 2011

Oberlin was outraged following the outcome of the trial of the fugitive slave, Sara Lucy Bagby, in Cleveland on January 23, 1861, in which the court decided to restore Lucy to her Virginian owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

“Now what strikes us most forcibly with respect to this tragedy and its accessories is the fact that there seems to have been a studied attempt on the part of men, from whom better things are due, to make it appear that the Western Reserve is compliant toward the Fugitive Slave act and that its people will cheerfully obey that barbarous statute. We object to the representation as being utterly false…” (The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861, p. 2, c. 2)

Bagby was a twenty-eight year old freedom seeker from Wheeling, Virginia. Pregnant and alone, she had escaped to Cleveland and was residing there when her master, William Goshorn, found out her location and had her promptly arrested on the 19th of January, 1861. In a time when the country was facing the secession of five states from the Union, the typically abolitionist-leaning Cleveland was under pressure—if they would not obey a federal law, were they against the Union as well? One of the Southern states’ main complaints was that the Northern states were all too often disobedient to federal  laws—especially so with the Fugitive Slave Act. The Wheeling, Virginia’s Daily Intelligencer included a quote by Mr. Barlow, the counsel for Goshorn during the trial, on the court’s decision to return Bagby to her Southern claimant, which aptly sums up the Southern grievance:

“The duty of the Court is to give effect to the law. In justice to the claimants, I must say they are actuated by no mercenary motives. Neither do they come to wake the prejudices of the North. Virginia now stands in a commanding position, and wishes to show the Southern people that the Northern people will execute the laws, and be faithful to the Union. “ (The Daily Intelligencer, 26 Jan 1861)

Oberlin, as ever staunchly abolitionist, however, did not view Cleveland’s court decision as a noble act of support for the Union, but as a betrayal of morality—on something that they believed all of the Western Reserve felt strongly: that the Fugitive Slave Act was an abomination and slavery must be abolished.

“The people of the Reserve (at least two thirds of them) being Christian born and Christian bred, hate slavery. They look upon it as an outrage of all the rights which neither statutes can sanction nor law sanctify.”(The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861)

When the National Democrat castigated Oberlinians as being “disunionists” for their condemnation of Cleveland’s actions, The Lorain County News editors responded rather adroitly:

“We are not, nor have we ever been, Disunionists. We have always believed that the Constitution which cements the union of the States is an instrument which, rightly expounded, would secure not only all needed political but all desirable personal rights…” (The Lorain County News, 6 Feb 1861, p. 2, c. 1)

Despite the heated abolitionist sentiment in Northern Ohio, and despite several attempts by some African American activists to break Lucy out of the federal building she was kept in during the Cleveland trial and to rescue Lucy on her train ride back to Virginia, Bagby was one the last Northern freedom seekers to be returned to the South under the Fugitive Slave Act. Upon her return to Virginia she was apparently punished harshly, and her child, born enslaved. However, Wheeling was captured by Union forces early on in the war. She was thereupon emancipated, married a Union soldier, and later, she returned once again to Cleveland.

Sources Consulted & Recommended Reading:

“Public feeling on the Reserve with Respect to the Fugitive Slave Act.” The Lorain County News, 30 Jan 1861, p.2, c. 1-4; “Are We Disunionists?” The Lorain County News, 6 Feb  1861, p. 2, c. 1, 2.; Stauffer, John. “Fear and Doubt in Cleveland.” The Times Opinionator. Published 22 Dec 2010. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/fear-and-doubt-in-cleveland; “Bagby Fugitive Slave Case.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Last modified 21 Jul 1997. http://ech.case.edu/ech-cgi/article.pl?id=BFSC; Daily Intelligencer, 26 Jan 1861. In “Lucy Bagby.” http://wheeling.weirton.lib.wv.us/history/people/others/lbagby.htm; Vacha, John E. “The Case of Sara Lucy Bagby, A Late Gesture.” Ohio History 76 (Autumn 1967).

Questions? Comments?

Please contact Karyn via email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org