The Town That Started the Civil War

Underground Railroad from A. B. Hart 1906 - bg
Oberlin was founded in 1833 by Presbyterian minister John Shipherd. From its beginning the town was an integrated community dedicated to reform. After 1834, the free blacks of Oberlin celebrated Aug.1 as the day of Independence, rather than July 4, in honor of the abolition of slavery in Jamaica. When the Board of Trustees of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati prohibited the antislavery society founded in 1834 by Prof John Morgan and students after hearing Theodore Weld speak, the 39 "Lane Rebels" went to Oberlin with Morgan. The college grew under the presidency of Charles Finney and funding from the Tappans. Finney built First Church in Oberlin in 1845, the largest church west of the Appalachians, holding 1800 with a choir loft for 150. Finney would be pastor of the church for 37 years and his large congregation rivaled that of Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Women and blacks were admitted to the college, and in 1841 it graduated the first women to earn a college B.A. degree in the United States. A large number of the 1250 students from Oberlin every year became abolitionists and went South to lead slaves to freedom. Calvin Fairbanks would serve 14 years in Kentucky prisons, was whipped and beaten for helping 47 slaves escape north. By the time the town officially incorporated in 1852, it was a major terminus of the underground railroad and had helped 3000 slaves escape to freedom. Wherever Oberlin students went, they established the underground railroad and founded schools and missions.

James Buchanan from LC
However, by 1858, Democrats in Ohio gained control of the state legislature and repealed the personal liberty law that allowed fugitives to apply for a writ of habeas corpus. The fugitive slaves who sought refuge around Oberlin became targets of slave-catchers from the South who entered Ohio under the authority of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. When fugitive slave John Price was captured and taken by a U. S. marshall to nearby Wellington on September 13, 1858, a large group formed in Oberlin to "rescue" Price from his captivity. This group included former slaves, townspeople, students, faculty, and freeborn blacks such as John Mercer Langston, Ohio's first black lawyer, and John Copeland who later joined John Brown at Harper's Ferry. At the urging of President James Buchanan, the government indicted 37 of this group for violating the Fugitive Slave Law and put them on trial before U.S. District Judge Hiram Willson. The federal jury was all Democrat, including the judge, and the 37 "Rescuers" were all Republican. The Rescuers were found guilty but appealled to the state for a writ of habeas corpus. While the Rescuers waited in jail, they were visited by John Brown whose father Owen had been an Oberlin trustee in the 1830s. On May 24, 1859, a great rally was held in Cleveland, organized by Joshua Giddings, and featured as speakers the Rescuer's black leader John Mercer Langston, and Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase. Until this crisis, Chase had been a Republican moderate, opposed violence, had been criticised for doing nothing in 1856 to help Margaret Garner who had tried to escape from slavery in Kentucky with her husband and parents and 4 children by crossing the Ohio River at Cincinnati. When she was caught, she started to kill her children rather than allow them to return to slavery, killing one daughter before being stopped by the slave-catchers. When the steamboat she was being transported on collided in the river with another steamboat, one of her infant children drowned and Margaret wept with joy.

Salmon P. Chase from LC
On May 30, 1859, the Ohio Supreme Court refused the appeal of the Rescuers. The group decided to accept settlement petitions that allowed them to be released from prison if they promised to stay out of northern Ohio. The Ohio Republican Party urged Lincoln to seek repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, but in a letter of June 9 to Salmon Chase, Lincoln decided not to challenge the law. Yet popular support grew in Ohio for the Republican Party, and in the October state elections that produced 75% voter participation, the highest in the history of the state, the Republicans won the governorship and both houses of the legislatures and most state offices. John Brown recruited 2 blacks at Oberlin for his Oct. 16 raid on Harper's Ferry: John Copeland, and Lewis Leary, whose Irish ancester Jeremiah O'Leary had fought in the Revolution with Nathaniel Greene. Oberlin would be blamed for causing Brown's raid. John Mercer Langston organized Ohio's first black regiment in 1863 and became a national leader for blacks after the war, founding the National Equal Rights League, organizing the Freedman's Bureau, becoming professor at Howard University, serving as minister to Haiti and as the only black congressman from Virginia in 1890.


Tappan Hall at Oberlin 1836
Oberlin College seal

John Mercer Langston in 1849
Oberlin rescuers in 1859

revised 2/6/02 by Schoenherr | Civil War