Hiram Alonzo Pease: The Legend of a Principled Abolitionist

By Richard Donegan-AmeriCorps Civil War 150 Leadership Volunteer at the Oberlin Heritage Center (2012)


One of Oberlin’s proudest legacies is the town’s role in the Underground Railroad and the fight against slavery. That so many of its citizens were ardent abolitionists is not unknown. A number of people acted in national, state and local theaters to assist people seeking freedom. Naturally, these people’s abolitionist sentiment explained their actions. For one Oberlin man, Hiram Alonzo Pease, history has not shown an exception. As a Captain of the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, Pease’s resignation from his post has long been seen as a protest against the decision of his commander, Colonel William B. Hazen, to return two runaway slaves to their southern master. The narrative of Pease’s resignation as an instance of Oberlinian refusal to be complicit in slavery most likely stems from Robert Fletcher’s 1943 book, A History of Oberlin College, in which the author briefly mentions the incident: “Pease resigned because the colonel insisted on returning escaped slaves to their masters”.1 However, the real reasons for Pease’s resignation, and the events surrounding it, suggest his story does not fit so nicely into the accepted historical narrative.

Hiram Alonzo Pease was born in Stockbridge, Berkshire County, Massachusetts on December 23, 1820. His father was Hiram Abif Pease, described as “an excellent man, but a genuine Yankee and odd in the extreme.”2 His mother was Lydia Remele, whom Hiram Abif Pease married two years before Hiram Alonzo’s birth. Hiram and Lydia Pease would have four more children before the family followed Hiram’s brother, Peter Pindar Pease, out to the Western Reserve. The Pease family reached Brownhelm Township in Lorain County, Ohio by 1831.3 On the way through Buffalo, Hiram Abif Pease reportedly was introduced to Graham crackers, a mix of flour mixed with water. The crackers lasted the family for an entire year and became an early staple in Oberlin history.4

"Partial View [of] Oberlin" by Hiram Alonzo Pease circa 1838

"Partial View [of] Oberlin" by Hiram Alonzo Pease ca. 1838 (Oberlin College Archives)

Hiram Alonzo Pease, known mainly as “Alonzo”, was the age of 12 when his father and uncle Peter Pindar Pease began to clear land for the colony of Oberlin. Alonzo assisted them with the construction of the colony’s first log cabin. Though Alonzo was on the frontier and tasked with numerous physical strains, he eventually took up painting as his primary passion. Alonzo attended Oberlin Preparatory School from 1840 to 1841, and studied only occasionally at Oberlin College, where “all efforts to make of him into a student were [in] vain”.5

Over the next twenty years, Alonzo developed his talent for painting. He worked in various capacities in the art field in Oberlin, Detroit and Cleveland. In the latter town he was a photograph colorizer for James F. Ryder and William C. North. Though, accolades for Pease’s work mainly were for his portrait work. He received commissions to paint Oberlin College presidents Charles Grandison Finney, Asa Mahan, and James Harris Fairchild.6 During the 1850’s, Pease joined the Ohio Militia and became a commander of a company in Lorain County. Alonzo devoted so much time to the study of military tactics, Napoleon Bonaparte and other military greats that he earned the consternation of his father and Charles Grandison Finney.7

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Alonzo was in Detroit and decided to move his family back to Oberlin. Once in town, and seeing that the war was going to last longer than a few months, Alonzo endeavored to raise a company for service. In early August, 1861, Pease approached an Oberlin attorney, John W. Steele, with the prospect of forming a military unit. Oberlin had already sent over 150 men to the army. In a town of 2,100, Pease and Steele struggled to gain recruits for the standard sum of 100 men for a company. By early September, after Pease had official permission from the state of Ohio to raise the company dubbed “The Lorain Guards”, 52 men had entered the rolls and all gathered at Oberlin on September 16, 1861 to eat a farewell dinner put on by the citizens of the town. That night, the company boarded a train for Camp Wood in Cleveland to join the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In keeping with Pease’s artistic profession the Cleveland Plain Dealer stated of the Lorain Guards “We trust they will make their mark upon their great war canvass, honorable to themselves and their country and as indelible as time.” The next morning, Alonzo was elected by the men as Captain of the Lorain Guards, who were designated Company ‘H’ of the 41st OVI. Over the next weeks the company increased in strength to 80 men. John W. Steele was elected to be 1st Lieutenant of the company and the regiment drilled incessantly under its Colonel, William B. Hazen.8

William B. Hazen

William Babcock Hazen (Library of Congress)

William Hazen graduated from West Point in 1855. In the years prior to the Civil War, Hazen was a Lieutenant in the 4th United States Infantry. After hostilities broke out in 1861 Hazen obtained a leave of absence from the regular army to raise a regiment of Ohio volunteers. As colonel of the 41st OVI, Hazen instituted strict measures to maintain discipline and prepare his regiment for battle. Many of the men were unused to the harsh rigors of military life and the protocol that dictated it. The men were subjected to drills and policies dictating personal hygiene, meals, reveille, and sick call. Most were unaccustomed to having their every waking hour dictated by another man. Lt. James McCleary of Company ‘A’ wrote to his wife, “My time is so occupied from early morn till late at night. Col Hazen the commander of our reg. is a West Point officer and has West Point ways of doing business. He puts us through very hard.”9 With what little free time was available away from drilling and military duties, Pease and other Oberlin men of Company ‘H’ organized weekly prayer meetings. The company earned the nickname, as did at least one other Oberlin company during the war, “The Praying Company”. Pease and the officers of Company ‘H’ even wrote up a petition, submitted to Colonel Hazen, against the use of profanity amongst the men in camp. Hazen’s reply to the petition was typical of his protocol driven personality. The officers were surprised when Hazen told them they were being insubordinate.10

In late November, 1861, the 41st OVI reported to General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio at Louisville, Kentucky. The regiment was now in slave-holding territory and the men would soon be coming into contact with fugitive slaves. At this point in the war, the Lincoln administration had explicitly stated the desired result of the conflict was to restore the Union as it was before. Lincoln had no intention of destroying slavery. More importantly to the war effort, Lincoln had to strike a delicate balance in slave-holding states like Kentucky that had stayed loyal to the Federal government. The President worried that interference with slavery would prompt the border states to withdraw their support from the Union, possibly join the Confederacy, and compound the crisis even more. A few months earlier, Lincoln had publicly rebuked Union General John C. Fremont who had issued his own emancipation proclamation in the loyal slave state of Missouri. With fugitive slaves entering Union lines, army commanders were obligated under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to return them to their masters.11

After joining the Army of the Ohio, Colonel Hazen and the 41st OVI were soon again on the march. In December the regiment moved from Louisville to Wickliffe, along the Mississippi River. On December 10th, a day after leaving Louisville, the regiment encamped for the night. That same evening two fugitive slaves entered the camp of the 41st OVI. The two men stayed the night with the regiment. But by morning their master had tracked them down and met with Colonel Hazen. Hazen’s brigade commander, General Nelson, went directly to Captain Alonzo Pease and Company ‘H’. Nelson ordered Pease to detail a guard to deliver the fugitive slaves to Colonel Hazen where they would be returned to their master. Pease was immediately confronted with a moral dilemma. According to Pease’s own words, published widely in the Lorain County News and Cleveland Morning Leader, he stated to his own men ‘I can’t do this, and yet unless I do do it I shall have to leave you.’” According to Pease, his men responded by saying “Don’t do anything that will cause you to leave us Capt[ain].” Despite his misgivings, Pease detailed a guard and the men were sent to Colonel Hazen’s quarters. When the guards came back from Colonel Hazen, they reported to Captain Pease that Hazen offered to flog the slaves for their master. Pease and the Oberlin men were reportedly horrified by this report. This report would later form Pease’s basis for his resignation from the army.12

Barely a month later, on January 6th, 1862, Pease tendered his resignation and made his way back to Oberlin. Word spread throughout Oberlin of Pease’s home coming. By January 22nd, the Lorain County News published Pease’s explanation of the events of December 12th and his reasoning for his resignation. The Cleveland Morning Leader re-printed the same article six days later. Pease’s reasoning, published as “A Card”, detailed the events with the fugitive slaves. But more significant was Pease’s direct complaints against Colonel Hazen himself. He criticized Hazen for treating “soldiers as machines”, whereas Pease treated them “as men”. Hazen was rigid in his enforcement of army policy, which included a ban on fraternization between enlisted men and officers.13 Pease, chief recruiter of Company ‘H’ and well known amongst the Oberlin recruits (he was popularly elected Captain), expected a continuance of the relationships he experienced in civilian life to carry over into the military. This was a common occurrence, especially during the first years of the Civil War. Civilians who became soldiers did not possess the discipline, structure and protocol that had been ingrained in men in the pre-war regular army. Familiarity could help bond men together, but it could also seriously disrupt the hierarchical structure the military depended on to thrive.14 Pease failed to recognize this fact of military life. In his explanation he went on to say “[Hazen] requires the strictest military Etiquette in all intercourse between officers and men when off duty. I have done my best to please the Col. on the field, but regarding my own men as my equals have treated them as such when off duty.” Pease concluded his indictment of Hazen by suggesting the colonel was a danger to the men of Company ‘H’. Hazen stymied Pease’s abilities to see to Company ‘H’s well being to such an extent that he had no other choice than to resign. Pease also mentioned that Hazen had repeatedly requested him to resign.15

Pease’s initial article triggered a number of responses, many contrary to his claims and in defense of Colonel Hazen. One man, known only as ‘W.B.,’ overheard the conversation between Colonel Hazen and the master of the fugitive slaves. He stated explicitly in a letter to the Cleveland Morning Leader that Hazen never offered to flog the slaves.16 Oberlinian 1st Lieutenant John W. Steele disavowed Pease’s statement to his men after being given the order to deliver the slaves to Colonel Hazen. Steele reported that Pease “detailed the guard and performed the duty ordered with alacrity, greatly to the wonder and consternation of many of his men”. Excerpts of Hazen’s affidavit were published in the Cleveland Morning Leader in which he did not deny offering to have the slaves flogged, but explained that he received orders from General Nelson himself to have that done.17 Within a few weeks after Pease’s initial explanation was published, both the Cleveland Morning Leader and Oberlin’s own Lorain County News published articles absolving Colonel Hazen and suggesting that Pease was not cut out to be an officer. The Lorain County News reported that various letters from men in the 41st OVI had reached its office which lauded Colonel Hazen for his professionalism. The Lorain County News allowed “Captain Pease was probably more influenced by personal feeling in making his charges than he was aware of.”18 Perhaps the most damning testimony of all came from 1st Lt. John W. Steele , the man with whom Pease recruited for Company ‘H’. Steele accused Pease of being unfit for command and of being drunk “three fourths of the time” in the months leading up to his resignation.19 This was a serious charge, especially when leveled against a man from Oberlin, a town that was overwhelmingly in favor of temperance. Another soldier, Private A. Hubbell of Company ‘E’, also complained of Pease’s making “Col. Hazen a scape goat to cover his own want of military skill.”20 In a letter to his wife, Emerson Opdycke of the 41st OVI wrote to his wife in late January “I know but little about Col. Hazen’s former politics and care less…I do know Col. H. to be a kind hearted man (Capt. P. to the contrary.) All admit his eminent qualities as an officer”.21 Towards the end of February, Private Ebenezer Kingberry of Company ‘H’, wrote a letter to the Lorain County News. It was the last mention of the incident in the press and settled the question of Pease’s abilities as an officer. Kingberry wrote “The men are very much pleased with our new captain, we hope that we shall continue so. The good people of Oberlin and vicinity may believe as many stories about the officers of the 41st as they are disposed to. We know the truth here, and the men, as a general thing, don’t wish for any better officers.”22

For his own part, Hazen did little to defend himself in the press, except for an affidavit that was published in the Cleveland Morning Leader. In his memoirs written after the war, Hazen did not mention fugitive slaves. He did not even mention Pease by name but wrote that “individual exceptions must be made; but most of the officers proved themselves competent.” Hazen also noted, “Officers not suited to their places, either from want of industry, character, or other causes, soon made their unfitness evident in many ways; and when there was no hope, they either voluntarily resigned or were informed in a kind way that they were not likely to be useful, and quietly went home.”23 By all accounts, Hazen was a tough disciplinarian, but a fair and even kind officer. Pease, on the other hand, did not appear to have the qualities needed to be a Captain in the service of the United States Army. He admitted as much in his initial explanation in saying that he sought to treat his men as equals despite army regulations against fraternization. The long standing reason for Pease’s resignation, in the fugitive slaves, seems to have come from the initial reports of the story itself. Editors wrote of the need to inform their readers in abolitionist northeast Ohio the truth of the story. Because of the abolitionist sentiment of so many people in Oberlin, Hiram Alonzo Pease went down in Oberlin history as a man who resigned his commission based on his anti-slavery principles.

End Notes

1Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College: From Its Foundation Through the Civil War, Volume II. (Oberlin College: Oberlin, Ohio, 1943) 867.

2Rev. Delavan L. Leonard, D.D., The Story of Oberlin: The Institution, The Community, The Idea, The Movement. (Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1898) 433.

3Hiram Abif Pease, Subject File/People, P, Pease Folder, Oberlin Heritage Center.

4Fletcher, 432.

5Mary Jane Haverstock, Jeanetter Mahoney Vance and Brian L. Meggitt eds. Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary. (Kent State University Press: Kent, OH, 2000) 668, and Oberlin College Alumni Directory, 1908, (Oberlin College: Oberlin, OH, 1908) 750.

6Haverstock et al, 668.

7Cleveland Morning Dealer, October 6, 1861.

8Robert L. Kimberly and Ephraim S. Holloway, The Forty-First Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1861. (W.R. Smellie: Cleveland, OH, 1897), 227, and Cleveland Morning Dealer, October 6, 1861.

9James McCreary to "My Dear Friends", November 13, 1861. Oberlin College Archives, Record Group 21, Series: 2, Subgroup: B, Box# 1 James McCleary 41st OVI.

10Kimberly and Holloway, 228.

11James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedome: The Civil War Era. (Oxford University Press: New York, 1988), 352-353.

12Lorain County News, January 22, 1862 and Cleveland Morning Leader, February 6, 1862

13Lorain County News, January 22, 1862.

14McPherson, 326-327.

15Lorain County News, January 22, 1862.

16Cleveland Morning Leader, February 4, 1862.

17Cleveland Morning Leader, February 12, 1862.

18Lorain County News, February 12, 1862.

19Cleveland Morning Leader, February 12, 1862.

20Cleveland Morning Leader, January 30, 1862.

21Glenn Longacre, editor, To Battle For God and the Right: The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke. (University of Illinois: Champaign, 2007), 12.

22Lorain County News, March 12, 1862.

23General W.B. Hazen, A Narrative of Military Service, (Ticknor and Company: Boston, 1885), 8-9.