It is with great sadness that I write my last Civil War blog post for the Oberlin Heritage Center as the regional Civil War 150 Leadership Corps volunteer in the AmeriCorps Ohio History Service Program. It has been a most wonderful experience living in the community of Oberlin and working at the Heritage Center; one that I shall not forget! Fear not, I won’t leave before sharing one more story from the war. The end of my service term coincides with the first major battle of the Civil War that a large contingent of Oberlinians participated in. This battle was a small one; one that was more of an ambush than a battle.
The date was August 26, 1861. Oberlin’s first company of men, the Monroe Rifles, Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, were bivouacking with their regiment, under Colonel E.B. Tyler, in western Virginia (now, West Virginia). They’d been ordered by command to return to the area of Kesler’s Cross Lanes, after marching some twenty miles to Gauley bridge a few days before to ward off a possible Confederate attempt to cross. The Confederate General Floyd, whose troops the 7th were sent to repel over at Gauley, had proceeded to direct his troops back towards Carnifex Ferry near Cross Lanes–and so the 7th was sent marching back. On Sunday the 25th of August the 7th set up camp for the night in Kesler’s Cross Lanes; Company C actually quartered in a store and farmhouse for the evening.
What follows are accounts of the battle in the words of those from Oberlin who fought in it:
Leroy Warren in his diary, “Little did I know Sunday night what the morrow was to bring forth—and our officers must have been as ignorant as the men, or else they were guilty of the most awful and wicked carelessness.”
Sergeant E.B. Stiles in his journal, “More crackers & meat for breakfast. While we were eating crack! Crack! Went the guns of our pickets. We were nearly surrounded & attacked by Floyd’s brigade of from 3500 to 4000 men with cavalry & artillery—“
Private Willard Wheeler in his diary, “Co. A and our Co. (Co. C) were ordered onto a high hill about 20 rods from the road and nearest the enemy. Before we left the road, we could see them coming vast numbers, and they immediately opened fire upon us. We ran across the field and up the hill under the tremendous fire from 3 regiments…the bullets flew on all sides and hissed like demons. They cut the trees, the grass, the air, and the ground. They cut our clothes and whistled through our hair.”
Stiles: “[we] made some resistance—fled—had hard times in the woods—were again surprised & taken prisoners by Col. Tompkin[s] & Capt. Barber, others escaped—were led back through the old camp of the enemies and our imprisonment began. They have treated us very kindly thus far.”
Private J.M Ginn: “I dodged into a thick clump of laurels, and hid. They went on both sides of me…I lay concealed until all was quiet, and then got up and looked around. I was all alone.”
Stiles, Wheeler, Warren and twenty-six others were imprisoned; thirty-four were originally captured, but five managed to escape. Ginn and the rest of Company C reunited with the regiment. Burford Jenkins and Joseph Collins, both students of the college, died from wounds in the battle—the first casualties of the war from Oberlin. It was a Confederate victory.
We have many first-hand accounts by men in Company C who spent time in Confederate prisons of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, Castle Pinckney in Charlestown, South Carolina, and Parish Prison in New Orleans. Twenty of the twenty-nine Oberlin prisoners were from the college; all spent approximately six months to a year in prison. E.W. Morey of the Monroe Rifles, on the idea of being a prisoner, said: “Most of us had realized that we were liable to be sick, wounded or killed, but had not dreamed of the possibility of being captured.”
Life in prison was often a very dull, difficult affair; quarters were cramped, conditions were rough, and food was scarce. On the dullness of day-to-day life, an Oberlin soldier, Willard Wheeler of the Monroe Rifles, lamented in his diary: “One day comes and goes and is followed by another and brings no change of account. The same dreary monotony.”
Prison food was apparently even worse than camp food. Giles Shurtleff, then Captain of Monroe Rifles, relates: “We had been more than twenty-four hours without food…when it came it consisted of raw coffee in the kernel, sea biscuit, and salt pork full of maggots.”
How did Oberlin soldiers break up the monotony and lack of food, space, and shelter? All Oberlinian accounts that we have include works they were reading; books were scarce to come by, but they managed to get a hold of them through various means, sometimes by selling personal items; for example, Giles Shurtleff sold his watch to purchase editions of Livy and Virgil. They also usually held a prayer-service in a jail cell on Sundays.
A fair number of Oberlin prisoners from Company C participated in a Union Lyceum and a newspaper, The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. The lyceum was organized in early winter of 1861 in Parish Prison, with the intention to “hold weekly meetings, to participate in readings and declamations, and the reading of our paper [The Stars and Stripes].” The newspaper was a collaborative of different Yankees from around the North, but Oberlinians often contributed articles, and Leroy Warren of the college was editor for two editions. A diary entry from a soldier in the NH 2nd Volunteer Infantry commented on the happenings in Richmond Prison:
“The ‘Stars and Stripes,’ a paper read in the lyceum of the prison, contained the following allusion to our unfortunate condition: ‘A squad of caged Yankees may be found on free exhibition at No. 4, third floor.’ This lyceum was supported mainly by Oberlin College students, of whom there were quite a number in the prison. They also conducted a weekly prayer meeting, and on Sunday, a Bible-class.”
An interesting new trade immerged at Parish Prison in New Orleans, called the “Bone-Dust Trade.” Leroy Warren elaborates:
“The branch of industry chiefly followed by the war-prisoners in New Orleans was the so-called ‘bone-dust trade.’ It consisted of the manufacture of all manner of bone trinkets, such as rings, toothpicks, bodkins, crosses, Bibles, and ornamental pins… Bone too, was plentiful, owing to the highly osseous character of our Texas beef…The citizens of New Orleans who came to visit us bought rings and other articles of bone-work, as mementoes of the Yankees…The guards who were placed over us, traded for bone-work with eagerness.“
Attempts were made, on occasion, to escape prison. Giles Shurtleff writes of a complex escape plan that he and another fellow conjured up in Richmond. They managed to procure some citizens’ clothing and then to make a steel saw from a watch’s mainspring. Their plan was to cut a hole through the floor, then through the brick partition separating their room from another which had a widow to the side street. The floor was cut with a pocketknife. They worked on that floor for two hundred and twenty hours. However, upon getting ready to put their plan into action, others attempted escape from the nearby room and a sentry was placed directly outside the wall they were planning to escape from and their plan halted.
The soldiers from Company C eventually were released eventually after spending on average six months to a year in prison.
If you’re interested in learning more about Oberlin during the war, check out the annotated bibliography here: http://www.oberlinheritage.org/researchlearn/bibliographycivilwar for some great primary and secondary sources. Look out for a digital Civil War collection at the Oberlin College Archives in late fall!
Interested in serving in AmeriCorps or know someone else who would be? Find out more about the AmeriCorps position opening at the Oberlin Heritage Center here: AmeriCorps Opening at Heritage Center
-Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps volunteer (2010-2011) at the Oberlin Heritage Center
E.W. Morey, “Prison Life,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 330; Willard Wheeler, Civil War Diary: August 1861-February 1862, including time spent in a parish prison, New Orleans, LA (Peoria, IL: Charity G. Monroe, 1995), 7; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year with the Rebels,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 39; The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. A series of papers written by federal prisoners in Richmond, Tuscaloosa, New Orleans, and Salisbury, N.C, ed. by William Bates, (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1862), 7; William H. Jeffrey, Richmond Prisons, 1861-1862 (St. Johnsbury, VT: The Republican Press, 1893), 147; Leroy Warren, in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 344-345; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year with the Rebels,” in Ibid., 323; Leroy Warren, in his war diary 1861-1862, “Oberlin Files,” RG 21, Series X, Box II, Oberlin College Archives; E.B. Stiles, quoted in Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 845; J.M. Ginn, in The Lorain County News, 11 Sept 1861, p. 2, c. 4.