Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


“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

January 1861: Secession and Speculation

January 20th, 2011


The opening month of 1861 was one of growing tension and conjecture throughout the country and, certainly, in Oberlin. As five states (Mississippi on the 9th; Florida on the 10th; Alabama on the 11th; Georgia on the 19th; and Louisiana on the 26th) joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union, both the North and South speculated on the fragility of a perhaps irreconcilably broken America and, not so much if, but when, the country would descend into civil war.

In its first weekly installment of the year, The Lorain County News, Oberlin and Wellington’s local paper at the time, hesitantly asked, “Should not the North Arm Itself?” in response to news of Southern efforts to drill soldiers. By the middle of the month, the News was already soberly writing of “The War Begun”:

“However much we may regret that the fair fabric, which our noble fathers erected, is to be divided against itself, the fact that civil war has begun, and the permanent division has begun to be, cannot be overlooked.” (The Lorain County News, 16 Jan. 1861, p.2, c. 1.)

Oberlin residents were saddened by the likelihood of an American civil war, but they also believed that the “domineering spirit of slavery” was one that could not ever be reconciled, and that war was, in fact, the best and only opportunity for a solution to the “irrepressible conflict” of interests in the country.

On January 12, Oberlin’s own James Monroe (a Ohio State Senator from 1860 to 1862) in his address to the Ohio Senate opened with this remark in regard to the state of the Union: “A fine old author says, ‘Agree with your friends when you can; differ from them when you must.'”

And so war seemed unavoidable, even necessary; but as Monroe later in that same speech passionately spoke of, the notion of an impending Civil War was utterly heartbreaking to most Americans:

“We may be Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Radicals, but we are all Americans…Is there a heart in these bosoms that does not thrill at the words, home, country, native land? Which of you desires to see a single star blotted from the dear old flag? Or to see that flag trailing in the dust, soiled and dishonored? Whose blood does not run at the thought of such a calamity? …Not one, sir. These hearts are American hearts.” (The Lorain County News, 30 Jan.   1861, p. 1, c. 3, 4.)

And yet, the inevitability of civil war was encroaching on all the hearts and minds of Americans this month, 150 years ago.

Questions? Comments?

Please email Karyn at cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Sources Consulted:

Hansen, Henry. The Civil War: A History. New York: Signet Classics, 2010; The Lorain County News. 2  Jan. 1861, p. 2, c. 1.; The Lorain County News. 16 Jan. 1861, p. 2, c. 1.; The Lorain County News. 30 Jan. 1861, p. 1, c. 3, 4.

Prelude to the Civil War: The Election of 1860

January 5th, 2011

This year (2011) marks the beginning of the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War—perhaps the most defining and critical event in our country’s history. Oberlin’s involvement and sacrifices in the war were considerable. The Heritage Center is initiating a blog series on Oberlin in the Civil War to highlight some of Oberlin’s brave and innovative men and women, its home front developments, and its military participation. You will find that Oberlin from 1861 to 1865, as per usual, was progressive, inspired, and full of ordinary people doing extraordinary things!

Reform, Progress, and Advancement on the Eve of the Civil War

The presidential election of 1860 is arguably the most infamous in our country’s history. With the confirmation of Lincoln’s presidency Oberlin’s vastly Republican populace was overjoyed, but the Union itself was irrevocably shaken. On December 20th, South Carolina announced its secession from the Union, and with the coming of the new year war seemed imminent.

For months before the November election day, Oberlinians were actively promoting Lincoln and the Republican cause. The Lorain County News (Oberlin and Wellington’s weekly newspaper at that time), for instance, rarely mentions Stephen Douglas or the Democratic party, and then, only in a negative sense; but it did avidly publish promotional articles on Lincoln, Republicans, and every citizen’s duty to vote Republican with great frequency. A rather humorous example is given below:

“REPUBLICAN!
Are you going on a journey?
Are you going to be married?
Are you going away to teach school?
Are you going away for anything?
IF SO,
Don’t go until after Election! Save your Vote—it will be needed.
Respectfully Yours,
THE PUBLIC GOOD”

-The Lorain County News, 3 October 1860, p. 2, c. 2.

On Election Day, November 6th, 1860, as The Lorain County News had been promulgating for months, Oberlin men did go out and vote overwhelming Republican, as did Lorain County and Ohio as a whole.  Perhaps most interesting, though, to a modern reader of Oberlin’s local newspaper, is a small article at the bottom of page two delineating the protest of a considerable number of Oberlin ladies desiring the right to vote at the polls. The editor writes kindly of their endeavor, but firmly states “American politics” is not a realm for women. While the article elicits shock and even laughter at its now “antiquated” sensibilities, it illustrates well the strong feelings and need for involvement and progression by a portion of society in the Civil War that is often overshadowed by the battles and soldiers:  the women.  The suffragist movement was gaining momentum at this time, and the progressive Oberlin women were, of course, right on top of it. Hats off to you, ladies!

Reform, Progress, Advancement

Two or three dozen ladies, married and single, appeared at the polls in this enterprising village yesterday and offered to vote. Owing to some unaccountable omission in the copy of the constitution which was read to them, or owing to the want of gallantry manifested by the judges of election, or owing to a general, floating idea about “spheres” and so forth that prevails to quite an extent, or owing to some other untoward, unlucky, and unfortunate circumstance the ladies did not exercise the right of suffrage.

We think we are progressive, we trust we are generous, we believe we are liberal, we hope we are destitute of gallantry, we desire to be reformatory, in theory at least, we solemnly aver that we are both a phil-anthropos and a phil-gunikos, but, bless you ladies! Don’t vote. Not that we are afraid of having masculine prerogatives taken away, masculine patents interfered with, or masculine rights whelmed, devoured, and swallowed up in a resistless ocean storm of reformatory and aspiring crinoline,–not at all: but ladies don’t vote!

Soberly, we honestly believe that there are some rights, important ones, of which a woman is deprived, but we have yet to be convinced that the right of suffrage is among the number. There is yet room for expansion inside the much talked of “sphere” without walking out at the gap of the ballot box. –We would be glad to see the atmosphere of the hustings purified,–not, however, at the expense of contaminating the womanhood of our country. Women should hesitate long lending their influence to a movement, which if it could ever prove successful, would bring their sex into contact with the most debasing of civilized life—American politics.

Again, God bless you, ladies! But don’t vote.”

The Lorain County News, 7 November 1860, p. 2, c. 3, 4.
 
Comments/Questions:

Please contact Karyn Norwood, the AmeriCorps Civil War 150 Leadership Corps Volunteer at the Heritage Center, via email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org.

Preserving Oberlin’s History: Norman G. Long

October 22nd, 2010

By Alan Cuthbertson

I am a history major at the University of Akron, and I am hoping to someday obtain a career in historical research.  In preparation for that, I recently started a term of volunteer/internship work here at the Oberlin Heritage Center.  My first few weeks have been memorable ones.  Following introductions to the staff and to the various resources available at the center by Liz Schultz, I was introduced to the collections specialist Prue Richards.  Prue helped me to familiarize myself with document preservation, and I was soon after given my first assignment.

As my first project here at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I was assigned the task of preserving and documenting historical artifacts from a fascinating member of the Oberlin community, the late Mr. Norman G. Long.  I was presented with a rich assortment of letters, photographs, and various other personal documents with which to preserve and to paint a picture of this man who, it can be said, led a full, rich, significant life.

Mr. Long was a very religious man.  He served in the United States Army in 9th Cavalry.  His service included that as an officer and a chaplain.  He later received a Doctorate of Ministry from Vanderbilt University in 1974.  Additionally Mr. Long dabbled in real estate planning.

Among other things, I was able to preserve letters to his wife, college, and many photographs.  I also got to work with Mr. Long’s military decorations from the second World War.  This was probably the most interesting thing that I did for this project.  I say that because I have a keen interest in military history, and to work with some firsthand was was a real treat for me.  Mr. Long received many decorations for his World War II service.  However as I was researching what exactly what the decorations were for, I came across one that I have yet to identify.  It has a band of blue on the edges, followed by an equally thick band of white, followed by a slightly thicker band of red, with a relatively thin band of yellow centered in the middle.  All you military experts out there:  please weigh in on this!

I have already learned a lot from this experience.  I have obtained skills in preservation, documentation, cataloguing, and research.  Prue in particular has been an invaluable resource for me throughout this process.  I hope that the  work that I am doing now will someday be useful to others in trying to accomplish historical research and/or interpretation.  Through my work here at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I feel that I am gaining skills and knowledge that will help me tremendously in my forthcoming career.  I cannot say enough about the wonderful staff here at the center as well, they are all very friendly and helpful.

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