“Beyond the Battlefield”: An Ohio History Connection Symposium

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved

The Ohio History Connection (the newly rebranded Ohio Historical Society) on November 8 hosted a symposium on Ohio’s home front during the Civil War. Nine historians, professional and amateur, explored various topics in three panel discussions.

First Panel

Prof. Carol Lasser of my alma mater, Oberlin College, led off with a talk about Ohio soldiers’ courtship-by-letters. Many of the young men were eager for a commitment from their sweethearts (or the young women they hoped would be their sweethearts) as they went off to war. Some of those courted were taken aback by the hurried ardency of the soldiers, but many agreed to marry their boys in blue. One of those who married the woman he wooed by mail was Giles Shurtleff, a U.S. Colored Troops officer after whom Shurtleff Cottage (now an Oberlin B&B) was named.

I then spoke about Ohio’s Civil War governors: William Dennison, David Tod and John Brough. The first was a Whig turned Republican, the other two War Democrats. Each did well in office, strongly supporting the Lincoln Administration’s military policies. In time, however, all three lost political support and were denied reelection, each worn down by the demands of civilian wartime leadership of the state.

Dr. David Bush of Heidelberg University, head of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island (on the board of which CWRT members Kirk Hinman and I serve), discussed the POW camp for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, and recent discoveries at the archeological dig there. Bush talked about binge drinking among the prisoners’ guards while they were on leave (several dozen saloons in Sandusky were glad to take their money), and the recent reenactment of the historic 1864 base ball game between two teams of rebel prisoners.

Second Panel

After lunch, Prof. George Vourlojianis of Lorain County Community College (president of our Roundtable in 1986-87) reported on the American “well-regulated militia,” with its roots in English levies and the widespread fear of slave insurrections in the antebellum South. Blacks were long kept out of the Ohio militia; black troops would be raised when the need was great, but then excluded again once war ended. President Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. military in 1948, but it was not until Gov. Frank Lausche’s 1954 executive order that the Ohio Natl. Guard followed suit.

Prof. Kelly Selby of Walsh University talked about the USCT and Ohio’s black regiments. There was early resistance to black units, as Vourlojianis noted, but support grew after early heavy casualties among white troops and recruiting became more difficult. The General Assembly passed a special tax to support the families of white troops in the field, but not those of blacks. Gov. Tod spoke to a regiment of black troops in June 1863, noting that blacks still lacked too many rights in Ohio, but urging the troops, “Go forth and fight for them!” Despite their battlefield heroism, equality would still be a long time in coming.

Rebecca Urban of the Peninsula Foundation discussed the Grand Army of the Republic, the most prominent (but not the only) social organization of Union veterans. The GAR initially had a grade system corresponding to wartime rank, but it was scrapped when members proved to be much more egalitarian – everyone, generals and privates alike, were simply known as “comrades.” GAR badges were made from melted-down Confederate cannons. (I hadn’t known that – and wonder if there were enough captured cannons to go around!) No more than an estimated 30% of U.S. veterans ever actually joined the GAR. There were small and generally secretive chapters in the South. Membership peaked in 1890 at 409,000 nationwide, and 49,000 in Ohio, and then declined as the Civil War generation died off. Only six veterans were able to attend the last encampment in 1949. The last member, a Minnesotan named Albert Woolson, died in 1954. Even today, however, there is an 84-year-old woman in North Carolina who receives a pension for her father’s service.

Third Panel

Christie Weininger of the Hayes Presidential Center talked about Rutherford and Lucy Hayes’s marriage and his legal and military careers. Hayes represented runaway slaves and murder suspects as a young lawyer and attended the hangings of several convicted clients, which turned him strongly against the death penalty. He successfully mounted one of the earliest insanity defenses in the U.S. for a young woman accused of several poisonings. As a green officer of the 23rd Ohio, Hayes wrote home, “What we don’t know, we guess at, and you may be sure we guess quite a bit.” Lucy visited him in the field often, nursed him – and others – in field hospitals when he was wounded, and brought their children to see him – one of whom, at age 18 months, died of dysentery. (Weininger said none of the couple’s diaries or letters refer to the child’s death with any sense of guilt for having brought the child into such an unhealthy setting). Hayes became beloved by his men, and stood up for them when they were chewed out by Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno shortly before South Mountain for taking fence logs for firewood. Hayes retorted, “I hope you’re as tough on the rebels as you are on my men!” Hayes was reluctant to accept promotion, saying, “I would rather be one of the good colonels than the bad generals.” He was long active in veterans’ affairs and the GAR after the war.

Mark Holbrook of the Ohio History Connection spoke about Ohio manufacturing, mining and agriculture during the Civil War. Ohio was the North’s biggest producer of wool, corn and wheat, and had the most railroad track mileage in the entire country. There was a wartime boom in iron ore mining, with 69 blast furnaces in southeast Ohio alone. Coal mining also boomed. Several Ohio men made or got started on their vast fortunes in the war, including John D. Rockefeller, Orlando Scott of later seed and lawncare fame, and William Procter and John Gamble, who sold vast quantities of soap and candles to the War Department.

The last speaker of the day, Prof. Stacey Robertson of Bradley University, discussed American slavery, its abolition and aftermath. Convict labor and sharecropping became postwar forms of virtual slavery under Jim Crow. She also talked quite a bit about modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and the need to be aware of and fight against it, as she’s doing through the group Historians Against Slavery. “We need a latter-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she said. The Food Empowerment Project explores the link between our love of chocolate and slavery today, and Slaveryfootprint.org estimates how many enslaved people it takes to support a modern Western lifestyle. She quoted the great British abolitionist William Wilberforce: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Related link:
Base Ball on Johnson’s Island