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Posts Tagged ‘Oberlin’

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 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”

New and Old faces

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Greetings history enthusiasts and arbitrary visitors alike! My name is Austin Spenzer and this summer I am interning with the Oberlin Heritage Center through an organization called Leadership Lorain County. This upcoming fall semester I will be a senior at Miami University of Ohio. I grew up near the shores of Lake Erie in the quaint city of Avon Lake. Currently I am working towards two majors: French and Political Science. The Oberlin Heritage Center appealed to me because it deals strongly with the concepts of freedom, social change coupled with political struggle, and equality. By working with the Oberlin Heritage Center, I will be better able to contextualize the current political scene through the understanding of past predicaments and precedents that led to its unfolding. Also, Oberlin in itself is very interesting to analyze and study considering its immense breadth of history! I feel my work here at the Oberlin Heritage Center greatly compliments my own studies by giving me more perspective into History, but also practically I will learn about the inner workings of a small friendly museum organization.

Austin Spenzer: Intern

Austin Spenzer:
Intern

For my first project at the Oberlin Heritage Center, we decided to redo the exhibits in the hallway of the Vineway Building at 82 S. Main. Upon inspecting the area to decide what it was exactly I wanted to display, it came to my attention there was an abundance of trash around the showcase. This made me think: Frances Jewett would likely not approve of this discarded waste!

It is important to note that Frances Gulick Jewett was a former prominent resident of Oberlin and lived in the Jewett House on S. Professor Street (hence the name Jewett house). She was born on the island of Ponape in the Caroline Islands, Micronesia. Her parents were Christian missionaries who were there to spread the gospel and their God’s message. After spending most of her early years in the islands of Hawaii, she attended Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. It was at the time an all girl school, but has since become a coeducational college. She then spent a year in Europe, thence traveling to Japan where she met her husband, Frank Jewett. They came to Oberlin and later moved into the Jewett house in 1884. Frances Jewett was an author and wrote extensively about health and hygiene. She thought it would be in the best interest of the community to compile the information she learned about health and hygiene into a series of elementary text books designed to enlighten youngsters.

I decided to read up on some of these elementary books and I started my analysis with her book titled, Town and City (copyright: 1906)Jewett starts in chapter one with commentary about the growth of cities. She compares tribal living conditions to that of urban landscapes, and how someone like an “Indian may also be more vigorous and able to run faster, but as a rule he cannot in a single day do so much as the city man, either for himself or for his neighbor.” What she means by this is that when individuals organize into communities, they simultaneously are able to provide more goods and services to one another. Jewett bluntly states, “indeed, that is the one great advantage of our cities: people are close enough together to help each other at the shortest notice and in the best way.”

She goes on to describe the development of towns into cities, using New York City as an example. She elaborates on how initially it was far less densely populated and the spacing between buildings allowed for vegetation. However, with time these gaps between buildings closed, populations rose, and vegetation disappeared. Consequently, as a city develops, there is potential for overcrowding to reach a point where, “everything suffers. Careless people using dark halls, cellars, and bath rooms are not neat in disposing of their rubbish, their garbage, and their soiled clothes. They act as if they thought the darkness were going to save them from disease as well as from disgrace.” Thus, not only do landscapes suffer, but the individual becomes unhealthy from trash abundance and lack of open space.

Frances Gulick Jewett

Frances Gulick Jewett

Although Oberlin is vastly different in comparison to New York City, there exist some similarities, such as population growth. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2013, Oberlin had a population of 8,390 persons with a three year population growth rate of 1.6 percent (or about a growth of 104 people between the years of 2010 to 2013). Despite the fact Oberlin seems to be growing at a negligible rate, it is nevertheless growing. If the population growth rate follows that particular three year trend, being 104 people every three years, by 2064 the population will grow by an amount of about 1733 people. This will mean a definite increase in trash. Consider this: the E.P.A records that the average American creates 4.5 pounds of trash a day, meaning in a 365 day year, roughly 1642.5 pounds of trash. Therefore, just the additional population of 1733 people to Oberlin in 2064 could generate nearly 2,846,452.5 pounds of trash in that year alone. One must remember that is only the theoretical additional population, not the preexisting population…

From the perspective of Frances Jewett, in order to keep the people, buildings and landscape of Oberlin in optimum condition, it is necessary to reinforce the civic duty of cleanliness. One must thwart the urge of individuals to discard their trash in places other than waste receptacles, especially as the population grows and the levels of trash increase. She states simply that, “There are two reasons, then, why every part of a city should be kept in healthful condition:

1. Because cities need men and women with strong bodies.

2. Because cities need men and women with strong characters.”

From these readings, I realized I could make two interesting exhibits in 82. S. Main that would provide information about Frances, or colloquially know as “Fannie”, Jewett and simultaneously provoke spectator’s minds to be cleaner. To do this, I decided that I will create two scenes, both of which will be miniature cities. The first scene would display what would be a seemingly utopian city of cleanliness. It would have clean streets, happy people and bountiful waste receptacles; it would be the ideal city that I was promoting. However, the other scene would be known as, “The City of Flies”. This city would be utterly decrepit and would essentially be controlled by a legion of flies. My idea for this came from the novel Town and City, for it says, “Why do we carry on an endless fight against them? For the simple reason that flies never wash or wipe their  feet” and “This danger from the fly is very real and because of it every house, every town, and every city should carry on a constant crusade in behalf of cleanliness.” Considering flies in Fannie Jewett’s eyes were the epitome of squalor, the fly became the impetus for the juxtaposition to the utopian city. The scene will depict giant flies swarming over heaps of discarded trash, crumbling streets, and unhappy people. In both scenes, I will include quotations from Mrs. Jewett’s text books, likely in the form of street signs and advertisements.

Through these model cities, I hope to covey to the onlooker how necessary it is for one to be clean, and exercise to ensure their health. Perhaps after viewing these cities and the various facts that will be posted around them, people will become more conscious of cleaning up after themselves in common places such as the area around the showcase. I feel these showcases can be effective considering their proximity to The Bridge, which is a technology center for children and the community. If kids look at these cases and read the signs, perhaps it will inspire them to be clean and healthy, similarly to how Mrs. Jewett sought to achieve this goal with her elementary text books.  I am sure Frances Jewett would be pleased. I plan to finish these showcases near mid July so swing on by and take a look!

The following poem, which can be found in Town and City, portrays the sentiment behind the showcases quintessentially…

town and city 2

 

NEIGHBOR MINE

There are barrels in the hallways,

Neighbor mine;

Pray be mindful of them always,

Neighbor mine.

If you’re not devoid of feeling,

Quickly to those barrels stealing,

Throw in each banana peeling,

Neighbor mine!

Do not drop the fruit you’re eating,

Neighbor mine,

On the sidewalks, sewer, or grating,

Neighbor mine.

But lest you and I should quarrel,

Listen to my little carol;

Go and toss it in the barrel,

Neighbor mine!

Look! whene’er you drop a paper,

Neighbor mine,

In the wind it cuts a caper,

Neighbor mine

Down the street in madly courses,

And should fill you with remorses

When you see it scare the horses,

Neighbor mine!

Paper-cans were made for papers,

Neighbor mine;

Let’s not have this fact escape us,

Neighbor mine.

And if you lend a hand,

Soon our city dear shall stand

As the cleanest in the land,

Neighbor mine.

Secession Concessions

Monday, May 26th, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

It was February 4, 1861, and the United States of America was coming unglued.  On this date Oberlin residents gathered together to pray and discuss their response.  Three months earlier the country, Oberlin included,  had elected a Republican President for the first time in its history.  He was Abraham Lincoln, and he ran on a platform that opposed the expansion of slavery into the national territories (the majority of land west of the Mississippi River).   But just six weeks after that, South Carolina seceded from the Union, stating as a reason that the Northern states had elected a “President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”  This was followed by Mississippi on January 9, 1861, then Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas within the next four weeks.  Altogether there were 15 slaveholding states.  If they all followed the lead of the Deep South states, it would likely be the end of the American Union.  What to do about it was a question that vexed the nation, Ohio, and Oberlin. [1]

The delegates to Georgia’s secession convention had proposed a potential solution.   On January 18, they enumerated a list of “satisfactory guarantees” that might keep them “permanently in this Union.”  Among the guarantees they sought were “that Congress shall have no power to abolish or prohibit slavery in the territories.”  They also insisted that “each State shall be bound to surrender fugitive slaves,” and that all states should “purge their statute books” of personal liberty laws, which were laws that had been passed by many of the Northern states to circumvent the federal Fugitive Slave Law (see my Kidnapped into Slavery blog for details). [2]

Variations of these demands were considered by numerous committees and conventions, called together to attempt to coax the seceded states back into the Union, or at least discourage more slaveholding states from joining them.  But in their February 4th meeting, Oberlin residents, led by Mayor Samuel Hendry and Reverend Miner Fairfield (soon to be pastor of Oberlin’s  Second Congregational Church), made it clear exactly how they felt about concessions: “we solemnly protest against any concessions to slavery, or to the demands made by the abettors in any form whatever, and especially against making such concessions at the behest of traitors in arms against the Union.” [3]

Nettleton and Cowles
This protest was printed in both of Oberlin’s newspapers, the Oberlin Evangelist, and the Lorain County News (both published by publishers V. A. Shankland and J. F. Harmon).  The Lorain County News, edited by Oberlin College student Alvred Nettleton, gave its full-fledged support to the residents’ protest, calling it “the expression of God fearing men who are imbued with an unflinching devotion to the principles of freedom.”  The Oberlin Evangelist, edited by former Oberlin College professor Henry Cowles, said “there ought to be at least ten thousand such meetings held in the free North.” [4]

The Oberlin Evangelist also editorialized its own sentiments: “Concession, not compromise, is really the word now… We oppose it utterly.  To make one new concession now to the demands of the Slave Power, be it ever so small, would practically break down the Federal Government.” [5]  And they made it clear that their anti-concession stance extended to the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws as well:

“It has been often intimated that the personal liberty laws of several of the Free States are the special grievance…  But they cannot be repealed.  They exist as the demand of our times.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 puts the personal liberties of free men in peril in every Free State.  While that act remains in force, no Free State ought to repeal the personal liberty laws.  That act provides facilities for kidnapping free men, and utterly fails to provide due safeguards for determining the great question of personal freedom.” [6]

The Lorain County News agreed: “The Fugitive Slave Act is an outrage upon rights, an arrogant imposition on enlightened consciences and a burden which is intolerable to all high minded men and women.” [7]

James Monroe

James Monroe
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

So it would sound as if Oberlin was united against any compromises or concessions, right?  Well, not exactly.  There was at least one conciliatory voice, and ironically it came from Oberlin’s leading politician, Ohio state Senator James Monroe, a Republican abolitionist.  On January 12, 1861, Monroe addressed the Ohio Senate and said:

“Civil war even now threatens us.  Fortifications that were all erected by the same fraternal hands and whose thunders should never be awakened except against a common and a foreign foe, now stand frowning defiance at each other in Charleston harbor [South Carolina - Fort Sumter]…  Let us then act at once, and act unitedly… let us send along the wires throughout the whole Country the firm but friendly words of these Resolutions.”

The resolutions to which he referred were a series of resolutions that he had co-authored, designed to “send words of encouragement and cheer to citizens of Slave States who are struggling to hold back States from the vortex of secession.”  The “friendly” resolutions would “disclaim all right or intention to abolish slavery in the States where it exists” and “commend the course of President Buchanan in all that he has done to resist the spirit of disunion.”  (For an Oberlin Republican to commend the staunchly pro-slavery Democratic President James Buchanan was quite a departure in itself!)

But another resolution was even more dramatic, although it might not appear so at first sight.   Monroe proclaimed that “the Constitution and all laws made in pursuance thereof, must be carried out in all States and Territories.”  As vague and innocuous as this may sound to us today, and perhaps to some of his constituents back then, it had a very specific meaning to the slaveholding states.  The U.S. Constitution included a clause that required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners, and the federal Fugitive Slave Law was one of those “laws made in pursuance thereof.”  Thus this resolution was meant to convey to the slaveholding states Ohio’s support for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. [8]

And Monroe took it even further.  He also called “for the repeal in all States of all unconstitutional enactments.”  To the slaveholding states, this meant repeal of the personal liberty laws, which they considered to violate the constitutional obligation to return fugitive slaves.  This was quite a stunning reversal for the man who had just five years earlier drafted and defended Ohio’s most radical personal liberty law, which had been repealed by the Democratic-controlled Ohio General Assembly after being challenged by a United States District Judge.  (See my Monroe’s Personal Liberty Law blog for details.)  Monroe’s about-face had to come as quite a shock to U.S. Representative Joshua Giddings from Ashtabula County, who had entreated Monroe: “If you do anything I hope and trust you will assert our rights and call on other states to do the same instead of advising them to repeal their [Personal] Liberty bills.  This is no time for cowardice.” [9]

So what was up with Monroe, anyway?  Was it really “cowardice”?  Perhaps not.  For one thing, Monroe was only one of several co-authors of these bipartisan resolutions, and he admitted that “the Resolutions are not in all respects what I would personally have preferred.”  For another thing, we’ve only looked at the “friendly” resolutions so far, but as Monroe stated, there were “firm” resolutions as well.   One such resolution “denounce[d] secession as impossible under our form of government”,  and another one “pledge[d] the entire power and resources of Ohio to aid the Federal Government by whomsoever administered in preserving the Union in its integrity.”

Perhaps most important though is what the resolutions didn’t say.  Some legislators wanted to add wording to support the “Border State Propositions”, which were a series of proposed Constitutional amendments guaranteeing support for the institution of slavery – most notably allowing its expansion into the national territories.  This was a proposition that was vehemently rejected by President-elect Lincoln, who had won election on a non-expansion platform.  Monroe postulated that the Ohio “Senate can never unite upon these propositions.”  Per Monroe’s request, the Border State Propositions were excluded, and the resolutions Monroe advocated were passed almost unanimously by the Ohio General Assembly. [10]

So Monroe appeared willing to make concessions on the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws, but like the Oberlin residents and newspapers, he was unwilling to concede on allowing slavery to expand into the territories.  And Monroe also appeared to be taking a firm stance against secession.  How did the Oberlin newspapers feel about that issue?  Let’s start with the Oberlin Evangelist:

“As to the more remote future, we expect a Southern Confederacy.  We do not expect concession enough from the free States to satisfy the demands of the slave States… They have in imagination a glorious ideal of the blessings of independence.  They must try it in the reality…

They will have opportunity to learn how much it costs to carry on and out the system of forced labor with no help from the free States in footing their bills.  This will be a new experience – we hope, instructive.” [11]

They were advocating, in the words of Horace Greeley, to “let the erring sisters go in peace”, rather than the use of force (“coercion”) to keep them in the Union.  (Hey, maybe Oberlin wasn’t “the town that started the Civil War” after all!)  The Lorain County News struck a similar chord:

“But as our wrath cools, we are beginning to doubt whether coercive measures are, after all, the best methods to employ against the traitors. We question whether the country would ever be compensated for the mutual hate, the pecuniary expenses and the rivers of blood which coercion would be likely to cost. We begin to see, too, that the worst punishment which could possibly be inflicted on the rampant treason would be a good letting alone, and that if the southern forts and arsenals should be given up to the traitors and their political existence should be distinctly recognized, they would soon plunge into a ruin which would be a standing warning against the danger of basing a State on injustice and cruelty.” [12]

This in fact was the anti-coercion policy of President Buchanan (who they ironically called an “imbecile” in the same article).  But even President Buchanan acknowledged that secession was unconstitutional and that it would render the nation a “rope of sand, to be penetrated and dissolved by the first adverse wave of public opinion in any of the States.” [13]  And of course Monroe had taken it even further when he declared that secession was “impossible under our form of government”.  To this sentiment, the Oberlin Evangelist replied:

“But it is said, if secession is to be allowed, then our government is a failure.  It has no power for self-preservation.  It is true that our government has its limitations – it can do some things, and others it cannot do.  It was designed for a free, self-governing people, intelligent in regard to their real interests and ready to accord to others what they ask for themselves.  It cannot hold, by the hand of power, States or provinces of unwilling subjects.  If a State refuses to be governed, our government cannot help it, and was never intended to do so.  It is not adapted to a people where the barbarism of slavery exists and extends itself.  Its power cannot work and control such  a people, for its power must be exerted through the people themselves.  Coercion might succeed, if a single insignificant State, like South Carolina, were affected with the mania of secession, with a division of sentiment within itself; but when vast sections of the Union move with a common impulse, however unjustifiable or unconstitutional the movement, we must let them go, and adjust ourselves to the new condition as we can…

Our first great danger is in compromise – our next in coercion.” [14]

Clearly there was a divide between Monroe and at least a sizable portion of his Oberlin constituency.  The James Monroe of 1858 would have been more in sync with them, at least on the issue of the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws.  But Monroe, who would become the namesake of Oberlin’s “Monroe Rifles” in the ensuing civil war, had changed his tune by 1861.  In fact, he was now echoing the more conservative policies of President-elect Lincoln, who he actively campaigned for in the general election and would tour the state with in the following month.  If secession was to be resisted, it was wise to make some concessions and compromises to achieve as much unity as possible for prosecuting the civil war that might result.  If, on the other hand, you were willing to “let the erring sisters go in peace”, as were the Oberlin newspapers (and perhaps the general Oberlin populace), no compromises or concessions were necessary.

It bears repeating, however, that all of these players were rock solid in their commitment to prevent the expansion of slavery into the national territories, which Lincoln believed would put slavery on “the course of ultimate extinction”.  And on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, these men were all united behind the United States soldiers who would fight to put down the rebellion.  (See our “Lorain on Fire!! War Spirit at Oberlin!!!” blog for details on how these leading Oberlinites reacted.)

Five years later, when the dust, smoke and fog of civil war finally cleared, it would appear that the Oberlin Evangelist had been prophetic as to the end result, even though they didn’t envision the means by which it would be achieved: “It is so plain that even wayfaring men can see it – that God is preparing to use secession as a battering ram upon the entire system of American Slavery.”The Oberlin Evangelist, January 2, 1861 [15]

 

(If you would like to hear more about the controversy over the Fugitive Slave Law and Monroe’s personal liberty law, especially as it related to Oberlin, please join me and the Oberlin Heritage Center at the Heiser Auditorium at Kendal at Oberlin, at 7:15 PM, Tuesday, June 3rd, for a presentation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law.)

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Remarks of Mr. Monroe”, The Lorain County News, Vol 1, No. 48, page 1, January 30, 1861

“Prayer and Protest”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Feb 13, 1861, p. 31

“Protest”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“Are We Disunionists?”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“The Great Crisis. Secession”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 2, 1861, p. 5

“Coercion”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 30, 1861, pp. 22-23

“The Future of these once United States, and the Duty of the Hour”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 30, 1861, p. 22

“Compromise and Concession”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Feb 13, 1861, p. 28

“What is the Federal Union Worth?”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Jan 2, 1861, p. 7

Catherine M. Rokicky, James Monroe: Oberlin’s Christian Statesman & Reformer, 1821-1898

Journal of the Public and Secret Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Georgia, Held in Milledgeville and Savannah in 1861, Together with the Ordinances Adopted

Declaration of Causes of Seceding States“, The American Civil War Homepage

Roy Franklin Nichols, The Disruption Of American Democracy

President James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Message” (December 3, 1860)

“The Border State Convention”, The Lorain County News, February 6, 1861

“Shall the Impending War be a Good or an Unmitigated Evil?”, The Oberlin Evangelist, Apr 24, 1861, p. 70

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

Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College

Republican Party Platform of 1860“, The American Presidency Project

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Declaration”
[2] “Journal”
[3] “Prayer”
[4] “Protest”; “Prayer”
[5] “Compromise”
[6] “The Great Crisis”
[7] “Are We Disunionists?”
[8] “Remarks”
[9] “Remarks”; Rokicky, p. 63
[10] “Remarks”; Nichols, p. 456; Rokicky, p. 64
[11] “The Future”
[12] “Are We Disunionists?”
[13] Buchanan
[14] “Coercion”
[15] “What is the Federal Union Worth”

“Odious business” in Oberlin: Northern States’ Rights, Part 3

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

“An act to prevent slaveholding and kidnapping in Ohio”REPEALED!

“An act to prohibit the confinement of fugitives from slavery in the jails of Ohio”REPEALED!

Monroe’s 1856 Habeas Corpus ActREPEALED!

In early 1858 the newly elected Democratic Ohio General Assembly wasted no time attacking Ohio’s personal liberty laws, which had been passed by the prior Republican legislature to counteract the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.  (See my Northern States’ Rights, Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts).  Between February and April they repealed the three laws listed above.  They also attempted to repeal a fourth law, “An act to prevent kidnapping”, but were unsuccessful at that, making it the only Ohio personal liberty law left standing. [1]

Although this might sound like a massive backlash on the part of the Ohio electorate, it might not have been quite as dramatic as it appears.  Ohio had a long history of flip-flopping between anti-slavery and anti-black legislatures from one election to the next.  Ohio historian William Cochran also attributed it to voter “apathy” in an off-year election, and to the Republicans “pat[ting] themselves on the back and go[ing] to sleep.”   But it’s also clear that the Democrats made a campaign issue of Republican policies, including the personal liberty laws, and it’s reasonable to assume that at least some conservative Ohioans were energized to vote Democratic by their apprehensions over the “radical” anti-slavery policies of the Republican legislature. [2]

One thing was certain though, the repeal of the personal liberty laws by the Democratic legislature opened up Ohio as a potential hunting ground for slavecatchers.   Oberlin, in particular, was vulnerable, both because it was widely known to be a haven for people seeking freedom from slavery, and also because one of Oberlin’s few pro-slavery residents, Anson P. Dayton, had just been appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal by the pro-slavery administration of President James Buchanan. [3]

The years prior to 1858 had been very quiet in northeast Ohio in terms of slavehunting activities.  The Cleveland Leader noted that “during the whole of President Pierce’s and the half of Mr. Buchanan’s Administration no efforts were made in these parts, in a business so odious to the people.”   But that would change now.  According to John Mercer Langston, who was Town Clerk at the time, in the Spring of 1858 “alarm was created by the presence of negro-catchers from Kentucky and other neighboring Southern States, who were prowling in stealth and disguise about this holy place in search of their fleeing property.”   In mid August, an attempt was made to capture the Wagoner family, and on August 20, Marshal Dayton and 3 cohorts attempted unsuccessfully to seize an African American woman and her children.  The attempt was repeated three nights later.  But Oberlin demonstrated that it could hold its own even without the support of state law, as all of these attempts were thwarted by a vigilant community.  In one case, James Smith, on hearing that Marshal Dayton was conspiring with slaveholders in North Carolina to capture him, chased the Marshal into the Palmer House (at the site of the present day Oberlin Inn) and struck him with a cane. [4]

In September, another Oberlin resident noted that “it was also universal town talk that there were several Southerners at [Chauncey] Wack’s tavern, whose business it was supposed to be to seize and carry off some of the citizens of the place.” [5]   And indeed one of those Southerners would conspire with a U.S. Marshal and two other men to abduct John Price, an alleged fugitive slave living in Oberlin.  The abduction and rescue of Price is a much publicized event known as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue”, so I won’t go into details here, but I thought it might be interesting to examine how the Rescue related to Ohio’s personal liberty laws.  (For details about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, see The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue 1858)

As we shall see, Monroe’s Habeas Corpus Act might have been written for just such an event as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, and it’s interesting to note that the Republican Governor and the Republican state supreme court proceeded as if that law had never been repealed!  They defied the Buchanan Administration in Washington D.C. and the slaveholder dominated United States Supreme Court, and opened the door for a potential armed confrontation between the state and federal governments that could have dwarfed the “Battle of Lumbarton“, fought  two years earlier.

After dozens of Oberlin and Wellington men were arrested by the federal government for rescuing John Price from his captors, the Ohio Supreme Court issued writs of habeas corpus to bring two of the rescuers before it to determine for itself whether the federal government had a right to imprison them.  According to historian Thomas D. Morris in his acclaimed study of the personal liberty laws of the North, this was in direct defiance of the United States Supreme Court, which had just weeks earlier, in another Fugitive Slave Law case, ruled that a state court had no authority to interfere with, or even question, a detention once it learned that the prisoners were held under authority of the federal government (Abelman v. Booth).  In addition, the writs weren’t directed to the federal law enforcement officers who had arrested the rescuers (and who likely would have ignored the writs); instead they were directed to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff, who had jurisdiction over the jail the rescuers were being held in.   This is exactly what would have happened under the Monroe law.  The Buchanan Administration angrily protested that “the State Court have no authority to meddle with this business.”  But the Sheriff, who was sympathetic to the rescuers, voluntarily complied with the writs.  (He would have been required to under the Monroe law.)  This left the federal law enforcement agents with no choice but to accompany the Sheriff and their prisoners to the state court in Columbus.  However, they were under strict orders from the Buchanan Administration that the rescuers “must under no circumstances be surrendered”, even if the Ohio Supreme Court ordered them released. [6]

While all this was going on, Ohio Governor Salmon Chase was publicly telling a large crowd in Cleveland that he would go along with whatever the Ohio Supreme Court decided, and that if they decided the rescuers should be set free, then “so long as Ohio was a Sovereign State, that process should be executed.” [7]  Chase, of course, knew that the federal law enforcement officers would never free the rescuers voluntarily, and thus it would appear he was prepared to use force to free them, as would have been authorized by the terms of Monroe’s repealed law.  As it turns out though it was all a moot point, since the Ohio Supreme Court decided by a 3 to 2 margin that the imprisonment of the rescuers was indeed authorized by the U.S. Constitution (in spite of the judges’ own personal feelings).   Thus another armed confrontation between the federal government and the state of Ohio was avoided, but it was nonetheless a disheartening verdict for the rescuers and a sad day for Oberlin.

But all was not yet lost.  There was still one arrow left in the quiver.  Ohio still had one lonely personal liberty law left on the books, the 1857 “act to prevent kidnapping”.  If you recall from Part 1 of this series, that law mandated a minimum sentence of three years hard labor in the state penitentiary for anyone who should “forcibly or fraudulently carry off or decoy out of this state any black or mulatto person… claimed as fugitives from service or labor, or shall attempt to [do so], without first taking such black or mulatto person or persons before the court, judge or commissioner of the proper circuit, district or county.”  In February, 1859, a Lorain County Grand Jury issued an indictment under that law against the four men (including the U.S. Marshal) who had captured John Price.  Since these men were frequently coming to northeast Ohio to testify against the rescuers at their trials, it set up an interesting cat-and-mouse game where Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr (an Oberlin College alumnus) tried to arrest the slavecatchers, while the federal government tried to protect the slavecatchers so they could testify against the rescuers.  This led the anti-Oberlin Cleveland Plain Dealer to scoff, “Oberlin has now taken up and become the champion of the Southern doctrine of ‘State Rights’.”  [8]

Sheriff Harmon E Burr
Lorain County Sheriff Harmon Burr
(from Lorain County Sheriff’s Office)

Ultimately Sheriff Burr did succeed in arresting the slavecatchers and in convincing them that an angry Lorain County jury would almost certainly convict them at their trial, which was scheduled to begin in July.  The slavecatchers wanted no part of a three to eight year sentence of hard labor in the notorious Ohio State Penitentiary, so they accepted a deal where the county would drop the charges against them if they persuaded the federal government to drop the charges against the rescuers.  Since the testimony of the slavecatchers was essential to the case against the rescuers, the federal government had no choice but to comply with their request.  And so it was that the most conservative of  Ohio’s personal liberty laws ultimately led to the liberty of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.  News of Oberlin’s triumph spread nationwide and even overseas, with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican exulting, “So ends the famous rescue cases and it may be safely set down as a fixed fact that they are the last of the sort in Ohio.  The persecution of Christian men for showing kindness to runaway negroes is a losing operation socially and politically.” [9]

Out of Jail poster
Poster announcing celebration for Rescuers
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

And it was indeed a “losing operation” for the Democrats, as the Republicans regained control of the Ohio General Assembly in the elections of 1859.  Voter disgust at the Fugitive Slave Law and the treatment of the rescuers by the federal government was a contributing factor to yet another electoral flip-flop.  Beginning their new term in early 1860, James Monroe and other “radical” Republicans now looked to try and reinstate the repealed personal liberty laws.  But the situation was different than it had been the last time the Republicans were in control.  Now the Republicans were looking towards the Presidential election of 1860 and the very real possibility of a first-time ever Republican victory placing an anti-slavery President in the White House – IF they played their cards right.  And that meant playing no cards that would lead the public to perceive them as being too radical.   This was especially true after John Brown’s raid of the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October, 1859.  Republicans wanted to distance themselves from radical and violent abolitionism as much as possible. As a result, the Republican Ohio General Assembly passed no personal liberty laws, and other northern states refrained from radical legislation as well. [10]

The strategy paid off, and Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected to the Presidency in November.  But almost immediately after his election, slaveholding states started seceding from the Union.  Despite the fact that Republicans had shown restraint in passing new personal liberty laws, the seceding states included the personal liberty laws in a list of grievances justifying their secession.   Texas, in its “Declaration of the Causes” of secession, claimed the following:

“[Texas] was received [into the federal Union] as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time… But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them? …

The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the [fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact, designed by its framers to perpetuate the amity between the members of the confederacy and to secure the rights of the slave-holding States in their domestic institutions– a provision founded in justice and wisdom, and without the enforcement of which the compact fails to accomplish the object of its creation. Some of those States have imposed high fines and degrading penalties upon any of their citizens or officers who may carry out in good faith that provision of the compact, or the federal laws enacted in accordance therewith.

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery…” [11]

The secession of the slaveholding states ultimately led to civil war, and civil war moved the Fugitive Slave Law controversy to a new forum and its combatants to new battlefields.  But finally, in 1864, the United States Congress repealed the notorious Fugitive Slave Law.  The next year the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery nationwide.  And two months after that, the Ohio General Assembly finally retired its lone surviving personal liberty law, “An Act to prevent kidnapping” – the law that had brought to Oberlin one of the  greatest triumphs and most joyous celebrations of its rich and colorful history.

(This ends my blog series on Northern States’ Rights, but if you’re interested in hearing more about Oberlin’s relationship to the Fugitive Slave Law and the personal liberty laws, please join me and the Oberlin Heritage Center for a presentation commemorating the 150th anniversary of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, at Kendal at Oberlin, on June 3, 2014.  Details will be posted at this web site as the date approaches.)

SOURCES CONSULTED:

William Cox Cochran, The Western Reserve and the Fugitive Slave Law

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: The Personal Liberty Laws of the North 1780-1861

“A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union”, Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, University of Tennessee

John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol

William Cheek, John Mercer Langston and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1829-65

Jacob Rudd Shipherd, History of the Oberlin Wellington Rescue

James Monroe, Speech of Mr. Monroe of Lorain, upon the Bill to Repeal the Habeas Corpus Act of 1856

James Monroe, Oberlin Thursday Lectures, Addresses, and Essays

Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity

Acts of the State of Ohio, Volume 63

The public statutes at large, of the state of Ohio [1833-1861], Volume 4

“Harmon E. Burr”, Whiteside County Biographies

General catalogue of Oberlin college, 1833 [-] 1908, Oberlin College Archives

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Public, Vol 4, pp. 3028, 3036; Cochran, p. 118
[2] Cochran, p. 118; Monroe, Speech, pp. 3, 4, 13
[3] Cheek, p. 316
[4] Cochran, pp. 119, 121; Fletcher, Chapter  XXVI; Langston, p. 183
[5] Shipherd, p. 32
[6] Morris, p. 187; Finkelman, p. 178; Brandt, p. 202
[7] Cochran, p. 186
[8] Cochran, pp. 197-198; Brandt, pp. 172-173; General Catalogue, p. 336; “Harmon”
[9] Cochran, p. 201
[10] Cochran, pp. 209-210; Monroe, Thursday, p. 121; Morris, pp. 188-190, 219-222
[11] “A Declaration”