History Hits Home
Ohio commemorates its ties to the Civil War.
It was the war that defined us as a country and showed the world our fervent belief in freedom. As America remembers the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, Ohio rediscovers its connections to this decisive period in our history. More than 300,000 men from our state served. Of those, 35,000 died in battle, from wounds or disease. Here, we visit four places where the war is remembered every day.
As Harriet Beecher Stowe gazed out her parlor window, she pondered the racial inequality that permeated in Cincinnati: Since the city bordered the slave state of Kentucky, Ohio law imposed steep fines on anyone assisting runaways. And when James Birney began publishing his abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, there were riots in the streets, culminating in his printing press being thrown into the Ohio River. The young woman knew she could no longer keep silent about the injustices surrounding her.
Located two miles from downtown Cincinnati in the neighborhood of Walnut Hills, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House looks much as it did when she lived there. A desk in her father’s study holds dozens of books on religion and politics written by the author and her illustrious family. A copy of an original manuscript page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is prominently displayed in the library.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was the daughter of prominent Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. In 1832, Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati, where he assumed the presidency of the Lane Theological Seminary.
In an age when women did not receive a formal education, Stowe was passionate about learning. She had studied the classics, Greek, Latin and mathematics at a girls’ school run by her sister, Catherine. So, upon arriving in Cincinnati at age 21, she was not shy about expressing her opinions about the human condition.
“Living on the frontier of freedom, Stowe came in contact with many prominent people who became part of the abolitionist movement,” Good explains.
She followed the heated debates about slavery held at her father’s seminary and witnessed a slave auction in Kentucky. It didn’t take long for Stowe to decide where her sympathies lay.
“She felt slavery was evil and that people who were complicit in any way were guilty of sin,” Good says.
That compassion toward slaves increased after she married seminary professor Calvin Stowe in 1836, and the couple weathered the death of their one -and-a-half-year-old son, Charley, from cholera in 1849.
“The passing of her son served as a pivotal point in Harriet’s life,” Good says. “Because she knew that families were often broken up on the auction block, she could empathize with their loss of a child.”
The release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made its author a household name. More than 150 years later, the book is still a best-seller, having been translated into more than 75 languages.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin put all abolitionist rhetoric, facts and statistics into a form that was accessible to everybody,” Good reflects. “It was introduced in the parlors of people who had never seen a slave and led to a huge change in public opinion. It made it possible for Lincoln to be elected president.
“And to think,” she adds, “that in a time when females did not vote, did not have legal rights or were even allowed to speak in public meetings, this woman, who became the most influential political leader of the 19th century, lived right here.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe House, 2950 Gilbert Ave., Cincinnati; 513/751-0651, harrietbeecherstowehouse.org
His was a destiny that included taking command of the Union forces during the Civil War and becoming the 18th President of the United States. Certainly, Hiram Ulysses Grant is a native son to be proud of. But his beginnings were far from auspicious.
The future soldier and statesman entered the world on April 27, 1822, in a one-room cottage on the banks of the Ohio River in the little town of Point Pleasant. Measuring barely more than 16 by 19 feet, the place in which he was born can truly be considered humble surroundings for a hero.
But as he grew in stature, so, too, did the Grant Birthplace: From 1890 to 1936, the house toured the United States on river barges and a flatbed railcar before returning to the spot where it was constructed in southwest Ohio. The timber-framed dwelling is still a favorite tourist attraction for Civil War scholars. Lovingly preserved, it’s filled with artifacts that belonged to the would-be leader’s family, including the cradle he was rocked in; leather boots crafted by his father, a tanner; and a locket worn by his mother, which contains a snippet of her famous son’s hair.
When Grant was a year old, the family moved 25 miles east to Georgetown, where he resided until 1839, the year he left for West Point. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, the Grant Boyhood Home contains an animatronic version of a teenage Ulysses discussing his Ohio roots. There’s also a timeline detailing Grant’s road to victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga before he accepted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The Grant Schoolhouse, located five blocks down the road, has been restored to look much as it did when he attended classes there.
Clearly, Grant has earned his rightful place in the annals of history. And, says Bowling Green historian James Bissland, much of the kudos for who he ultimately became can be attributed to his upbringing here.
“Ohio shaped his character,” explains Bissland, author of Blood, Tears & Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War (Orange Frazer Press). “Grant exuded a quality that many Ohioans had then and still have: humility. He was very unpretentious. Most Civil War generals were loud, cocky and brash. But Grant was different. He didn’t like Army life, he didn’t like to hunt and kill animals and he didn’t like the sight of blood. He couldn’t even stand to eat rare meat.”
But, Bissland adds, “his great gift was something he was born with: the ability to win a war.”
And extend the olive branch when it was needed most.
In the companion book to PBS’ acclaimed series, “The Civil War,” historian Geoffrey C. Ward writes, “the [surrender] terms Grant offered were simple and generous. Confederate offi-cers could keep their side arms and personal possessions; officers and men who claimed to own their own horses could keep them, too; and each was allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authorities.” Grant also provided 25,000 rations for Confederate soldiers.
Bissland isn’t surprised.
“Grant is an example,” he says, “of America at its best.”
Grant Historical Sites
For more information on any of these sites, visit ohiohistory.org
Grant Birthplace: 1551 State Rte. 232, Point Pleasant; 800/283-8932
Grant Boyhood Home: 219 E. Grant Ave., Georgetown; 877/372-8177
Grant Schoolhouse: 508 S. Water St., Georgetown; 937/378-3087
John Hunt Morgan undoubtedly believed he and his troops would sweep through Ohio in July 1863. After all, the Confederate general and his cavalry of 2,000 had spent several months riding through Kentucky and Indiana, successfully wreaking havoc on Union troops by stealing horses and destroying supplies.
But Morgan didn’t bank on the tenacity of Ohio’s military might. In what came to be known as the Battle of Buffington Island, the Union prevailed.
After his forage through Kentucky, Morgan and his men ferried across the Ohio River, rode through Indiana and entered Ohio at Harrison. On July 13, they began fighting their way across the southern portion of the state — destroying bridges, railroad tracks, gristmills and farms in their path. Morgan’s mission: to rattle the North and divert the Union army’s attention away from the South.
Ohio troops sprang into action. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commander of the Department of Ohio, sent gunboats and steamers up the Ohio River filled with several thousand troops led by Gen. Henry Judah. At the same time, Gen. Edward Hobson led a Federal column in direct pursuit. The Union troops surrounded Morgan and his men at dawn on July 19 in the Meigs County town of Portland, as they were preparing to cross the ford near Buffington Island to safety in Virginia (now West Virginia).
Cutting off the Confederates’ chances of escape, the Union soldiers charged into enemy lines. During the skirmish, 55 of Morgan’s men were killed and 20 Union soldiers perished. The Rebel leader, however, remained unscathed. He fought his way northward to Reedsville, but returned to rescue members of his troops who were trapped on the Ohio side of the river. Several days later, they surrendered near West Point in Columbiana County, and were sent to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.
“Although the battle itself lasted only five hours, it was very intense,” explains Edd Sharp, president of the Buffington Island Battlefield Preservation Foundation. “It’s one of the few Civil War clashes that involved every branch of service — navy, infantry artillery and cavalry.”
And, he adds, its significance should not be underestimated.
“When Morgan got to Portland on July 18, he had four cannons, 55 wagons loaded with stolen goods and 1,800 men. When he escaped after the battle, Morgan had no artillery, no wagons and only 800 men. He was no longer the military threat he had been.”
Civil War buffs from around the country make the pilgrimage to Portland to learn more about Morgan’s raid. A monument fashioned from Ohio glacial boulders is a focal point in the four-acre park comprising a portion of the 1,500-acre battle site.
This fall, the Ohio Historical Society and the Ohio Civil War Trail Commission will unveil the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail. It will feature 57 markers that follow the 20-county route Morgan rode through Ohio.
“The raid was four weeks long, but it’s taken us 16 years to complete this trail,” Sharp says with a smile.
“And the wait,” he adds, “was well worth it.”
Buffington Island Battle Site, 20 miles east of Pomeroy on State Rte. 124 at Portland in Meigs County; 800/686-1535.
For information on the John Hunt Morgan Heritage Trail, visit ohiohistory.org.
The gravestones at Johnson’s Island have faded a bit with time. Yet they remain stalwart tributes to those lying beneath them. From April 1862 to September 1865, 10,000 soldiers resolutely squared their shoulders here to meet the enemy.
And that enemy was us.
During the Civil War, this 300-acre strip of land between Marblehead and Sandusky was the site of a prison camp for captured Confederates. Given its distance from Canada and southern battlefields, the isolated location was secluded enough to discourage thoughts of escape, yet accessible enough for transport of prisoners and provisions.
“Initially, the 12-block compound was built to be an incarceration complex for Confederates of every rank and file,” explains Dave Bush, anthropology professor and director of the Center for Historic and Military Archaeology at Heidelberg University in Tiffin and chairman of the Friends and Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. “But as the war raged on, it became apparent that the Union was going to have a lot more inmates than it had anticipated. So Johnson’s Island became a facility for officers and generals only.”
Although just a trace of the bedrock foundation remains, the place easily evokes images of the tragic aftermath of war: 250 men died here, far away from the ones they loved. Of those, 230 are buried in the cemetery, some known, some not.
As Bush walks the grounds, he poignantly describes what life at the prison camp was like. At first, it was bearable. In 1862, food was plentiful and summer breezes off Lake Erie made conditions somewhat tolerable.
“This wasn’t summer camp,” he’s quick to add, “but the prisoners were treated decently.”
That changed as word spread about the atrocities Union officers were facing in prisons at the hands of Confederates throughout the South. By 1864, rations at Johnson’s Island had been cut in half and restrictions were imposed on how much mail soldiers could receive. Punishment at the hands of the guards was often brutal.
Winters on the island also became a test for survival.
“Buildings were the thickness of a single piece of wood,” Bush explains, “ so the boards would split and the knotholes would pop out. Prisoners spent a lot of time shoving newspapers into the cracks to stay warm.”
To pass the time, the men wrote letters home, staged minstrel shows and fashioned trinkets from pieces of hard rubber purchased from fellow prisoners or Union guards. Using their pocket-knives, they transformed the pliable material into rings and brooches for their wives, sweethearts and mothers.
It is these relics that fire the professor’s imagination.
“They really point to the fact that these guys were trying to stay connected to their families,” he says. “As they worked on these pieces, it would help them think about those loved ones.”
And, thanks to Bush and a team of Heidelberg students, many of the articles the soldiers left behind are no longer lost. For 13 summers he and his fellow explorers have conducted digs at Johnson’s Island. Much of what they’ve uncovered — which, in addition to the rubber jewelry, includes pocket watches, mirrors and a locket with a piece of braided hair tucked inside — are on display at the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky and in the Gillmor Science Hall at Heidelberg.
“Seeing these items,” Bush says, “brings home the humanity of what went on out here.”
Johnson’s Island — The cemetery is part of Marblehead Village and lies between the Marblehead peninsula, Cedar Point and the city of Sandusky. For more information, visit johnsonsisland.org.
AIMING FOR AUTHENTICITY
A history buff describes the experience of reenacting life on the battlefield.
Mark Holbrook fought at Shiloh, Antietam and Vicksburg — and lives to tell about it. Fifteen years ago, the 50-year-old Columbus resident joined the ranks of the 50,000 Americans who are Civil War reenactors. Over the years, he’s proudly donned a Union uniform to participate in more than 150 staged skirmishes around the country. To Holbrook — who’s also the marketing manager for the Ohio Historical Society — time spent on the battlefield is more than just a hobby. It’s a heartfelt homage to a pivotal point in our country’s history.
“The Civil War is our war,” Holbrook explains. “It’s the only conflict which has been fought entirely on American soil, and we weren’t fighting against somebody from the outside. That’s why it’s so visceral.”
In fact, he adds, “many scholars believe the Civil War was just as important, if not more so, in forming our country than the Revolutionary War. When the United States was created in 1776, democracy was a brand-new model filled with trial and error. The Civil War defined what freedom should be and answered the question of how this country was going to operate.”
The idea of reenacting battles that took place during the War Between the States was initiated by the veterans themselves in order to remember fallen friends. The practice grew in popularity throughout the 20th century, as reenactors began banding together to raise funds to purchase and protect battlefield lands and provide educational opportunities for students.
A history buff since grade school, Holbrook became fascinated with reenactments after watching a documentary on the subject. In 1995, he attended a Civil War encampment weekend in Newark and was hooked. Holbrook joined the 49th Ohio, a reenactor group headquartered in Columbus, and ordered a custom-made uniform replicating the one his great-great-grandfather John Abrams wore as he fought for the North. He learned the fine points of firing a musket filled with blanks and perfected his horseback-riding prowess.
Clearly for Holbrook, it’s the authenticity that makes reenacting unforgettable to both actor and audience. Which is why even the most minute detail — down to the wooden pegs in the soles of his boots — is never overlooked.
“Good first-person interpreters don’t just present facts,” he says. “They create experiences filled with what will become powerful memories.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games. Like their ancestors, Holbrook and his fellow soldiers dress in wool uniforms that become sweltering when temperatures soar. Each man carries a knapsack filled with 70 pounds’ worth of gear that includes a change of clothing, a rubber blanket, hardtack, coffee beans, a canteen, sugar, cooking utensils and a piece of canvas that will be used to fashion a pup tent.
Reenactors prepare Civil War-era meals over an open fire and sleep on the ground, rain or shine. Bottles of fresh water and portable toilets are the only modern-day conveniences permitted.
And, also to the point, the comradeship that was unheard of 150 years ago is very much in evidence: When reenactors representing men from both sides of the conflict come together, discussions of who was right and who was wrong are off-limits.
“We’re honoring the soldiers who fought, regardless of political views then and now,” Holbrook acknowledges quietly.
Which, he adds, is exactly how it should be.
“One of the things we do as human beings is to package everything in our minds so it’s easier for us to understand,” Holbrook says. “But life’s not that simple: Maybe a Confederate soldier didn’t give a hoot about slavery, but if you lived in Georgia and saw Union troops marching toward your small farm, you’re going to protect it. And, conversely, there were northerners who were pro-slavery. Our goal is to help people get away from the stereotypical characterizations all of us have of North vs. South.”
As he prepares for a summerful of encampments, which include reenactments at Manassas, Virginia, this month and Ohio’s Zoar Village in September, Holbrook reflects on the men whose memory he is helping to honor.
“Everyone learns about the Civil War generals who were superstars,” he says. “But sometimes we forget that achieving accomplishments of real importance is never done by an individual alone.
“It’s the 4 million soldiers on both sides,” he adds, “who make up the real story.” — LF