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

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments? Questions?

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

Sources consulted:

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

Young Scholars Defend Research

Wednesday, 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

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In retrospect, in the first days of March 2011,

Karyn Norwood

Questions? Comments?

Email: cw150@oberlinheritage.org

Source Consulted:

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

January 1861: Secession and Speculation

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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.