The Civil War...150 Years Ago. The Civil War's First Conflict? The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Story...

For some people, history is a dull and dreary topic, while for others it is a subject of endless fascination. Textbooks necessarily cover topics quickly for the sake of compressing complex time periods into a few paragraphs. Occasionally, textbook publishers were also motivated by the regions where they sold books. This was particularly true in the northern and southern United States, where there was a wide difference of opinion as to the causes and nature of the 1861-65 Civil War.

Even the term "Civil War" was controversial in the South. "The War For States' Rights," "The War of Northern Aggression," and "The Lost Cause" were alternative names used to identify the war from the South's perspective. Even battles were known by different names. Southerners referred to the first and second "Battles of Bull Run" as the "Battles of Manassas." "The Battle of Shiloh," from the South's point of view, was "The Battle of Pittsburg Landing," and "The Battle of Antietam" was considered "The Battle of Sharpsburg" to Southern eyes. Even the famous battle of ironclad ships, well known in the North as "The Monitor vs. the Merrimack," was known as "The Monitor vs. the Virginia" in the South. This was because the USS Merrimack was a captured Union ship that had been re-built as an ironclad and re-christened CSS Virginia by the Confederates. The Union never recognized the southern name of the vessel.

Even the beginning date of the Civil War is a topic of discussion among those who love studying that time period. If ever two regions of the country saw things differently, it was in those years leading up to the Civil War. Most historians probably feel the struggle began with the South's opening cannonade on Fort Sumter in 1861. Ironically, however, many history lovers believe that the first great rebellion against federal authority happened not in the South but less than 50 miles from Lakewood, and it was not the South rebelling against federal authority at that time, but rather Northerners doing so over the issue of forcing a slave to return to his owner.

It was a time when powerful forces began to flex their muscles. For many in the North, the issue of slavery was just plain wrong. From the South's perspective, however, the heavy weight of Northern industrial muscle, combined with a strong Northern belief about increasing the powers of the Federal Government over the states, produced an intolerable toxic mix of circumstances that threatened the very fiber of Southern existence. To many wealthy Southerners, slaves were, after all, private property, and that settled the issue of slavery once and for all. If a government (they reasoned) could take away some of a citizen's personal property, then they could also take the rest of it, and freedom would no longer exist for anyone. At that point, everyone would become slaves to the government. Some Southerners argued that there were indeed many free Blacks in the South already, and many felt that the day was soon coming when they would all be free anyway, if for no other reason than slavery was getting less economically feasible. It was fast becoming cheaper to pay someone for a day's work than have to feed, clothe, and house them.

For many, if not most, Americans, the above arguments were of little more than idle interest, at least until they affected their personal lives. Here in Ohio, that started to happen when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 took effect. That law forced anyone living in a free state to either return a slave to their owner or face federal prosecution. For years, Ohio had been an important part of the "Underground Railroad," the system of loosely connected "stations" where slaves could escape to freedom. Many former slaves had found homes in our state after escaping from the South. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, however, neither Ohio nor any other Northern state was considered safe for an escaped slave. Rewards were offered, even more slave catchers invaded Ohio, and escaped slaves already living here were forced to high-tail it to Canada.

Lakewood's part of the Underground Railroad has been documented by several sources, although much of the evidence is admittedly murky and inconclusive at best. That there were numerous tunnels from homes along Detroit down to the lake is well known. That some prominent local residents (reportedly including Philander Winchester and Dr. Jared Potter Kirtland) participated in helping escaped slaves at some point in their lives is also well known. That the Rocky River Valley was one such avenue of escape for slaves has also been well-documented, as are the various slave-holes found in the basements of properties in some of the antebellum homes around here (including Strongsville's famous Pomeroy House). These points being made, few were willing to openly discuss their part in helping slaves to escape, so until more information comes to light there remains much to be told. 

Perhaps the best example of what could happen around here when people were caught protecting an escaped slave would be the case of John Price in 1859. Price had been an escaped Kentucky slave who was working in the Oberlin area when someone reported his whereabouts to his former master. A federal marshall and slave catchers soon caught up with Price and spirited him off to Wellington, nine miles south of Oberlin. They locked Price up in Wadsworth's Hotel until their train could arrive. Before it did, a mob of about 600 people from both Wellington and Oberlin, many of them armed, surrounded the hotel and secured the release of the prisoner, taking him first back to Oberlin, then through the Underground Railroad system and on to Canada. There being no particular secret as to who had been involved in the liberation of Price, thirty-seven men were subsequently arrested, taken to Cleveland, and charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Those rescuers collectively chose to voluntarily remain in jail rather than be released on bond. They became local celebrities and heroes. Eventually, two were finally tried, found guilty and received astonishingly light sentences. As time went by, and the war clouds gathered, charges against the remainder of the defendants were finally dismissed. This case received national attention and arguably produced a domino effect: The newly formed Republican Party decided to officially and firmly oppose the Fugitive Slave Act, angering many Southern Democrats, thereby helping to split their own party into two factions and enabling the national election of Republican President Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln elected, many in the South started preparing to split off from the Union.

Perhaps it would be an over-simplification to say that the Oberlin-Wellington rescue and its subsequent trials were a direct cause of the Civil War. That said, the situation ignited a righteous flame in our nation--sending the message that laws had to be fair to everyone, even if they had once been slaves. The political benefit for the Republican Party was incalculable. People who had once casually sat on the sidelines of politics became enraged, engaged, and involved in the process of seeking equal rights and freedom for all, regardless of their skin color. How ironic it was that the Oberlin/Wellington rescuers' defiance of federal authority likely inspired (and was not altogether unlike) the South's later decision to also defy the federal government, the only principal difference being the motivations of the two groups.

In any case, Ohioans, including a number of those from our own Rockport Township area, continued to support the Underground Railroad with renewed vigor and a passionate dedication, until the time came when state-sanctioned slavery was finally washed from our land by the bloodshed of war and... the arrival of the 13th amendment to our Constitution. It's likely that very few people are aware that the Underground Railroad probably continued, even after the Civil War...but why?

Well, here's a little known fact for those who think that the Civil War's sole purpose was to abolish slavery: American slavery DID NOT end with the Civil War! Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation ONLY banned slavery in the states in rebellion. Two loyal Union states, Kentucky and Delaware, actually continued to allow slavery AFTER the Civil War for many months, at least until the 13th Amendment was finally ratified in December of 1865.

Read More on Pulse of the City
Volume 10, Issue 9, Posted 11:25 AM, 04.29.2014