Local Autonomy and Civil War Draft Resistance: Holmes County, Ohio

Article excerpt

Among students of draft resistance during the Civil War, the idea that many draft resisters acted out of both loyalty to their local community and hostility to the centralizing forces of modernization has remained a largely untested prospect. The Holmes County draft rebellion of 1863, popularly known as the Fort Fizzle rebellion, reflects an explicit ideology of localism that undergirded resistance to Federal authority. Residents of Holmes County defied conscription into the Union army through armed opposition to the national government, a resistance that culminated in violent conflict. When forces from the wider world intruded into the lives of people of Holmes County, the response was assertively localistic.(1)

Paul Kleppner aptly described the prevalence of localism in the early nineteenth-century Midwest, where numerous isolated, culturally homogeneous localities existed because of limited transportation development. Many persons in these places held a worldview that was localistic rather than cosmopolitan. Instead of seeing themselves as part of a grand social structure, these people thought about their existence in terms of the local area they inhabited, rarely considering the world beyond.(2)

Transportation development broke down such isolation, but some places were more affected than others. Thus, in the 1860s, when the influence of the Lincoln administration reached into every village and hamlet in the North, especially through conscription, some Americans responded violently to these intrusions. In Holmes County, the citizens incorporated Democratic party rhetoric and antiwar sentiment into an ideology of localistic patriotism that could justify armed opposition to the federal government as a means of defending freedom and liberty.(3)

On Friday, June 5, 1863, Elias W. Robinson, a Federal enrolling officer, was working in southwestern Holmes County, on French Ridge, registering men for the draft. As Robinson talked with a group of men of French descent, at least one person threw stones at Robinson. Another person probably discharged a pistol as Robinson rode away on his horse.

The most extensive account of this incident comes from Peter Stuber, a French Ridge resident who told his story in 1888, twenty-five years after the fact. Stuber, a young man in 1863, claimed he had seen his Uncle Jacob talking angrily with two men on horseback. One man Stuber did not know; the other was a neighbor named Burton, and, in the words of Stuber, there "existed no good feeling between the Burtons and the Stubers." Stuber recalled that without inquiring into the nature of the conversation he shouted for the two men to leave, threw a stone that hit the unknown man, and threw a piece of wood that hit Burton. Under this assault, the men rode quickly away. As they rode, at least four other men who had quietly witnessed the entire episode now "began to yell and to shout, and to laugh at a great rate. [William] Greiner foolishly shot off a pistol in the air."(4)

Another account comes from Cora Workman Durbin, who recorded in 1968 the stories told her by her father, B. Harrison Workman, and grandfather, Abraham Workman, stories that Durbin claimed were independently confirmed by Emanuel Dile. All three men had lived close to French Ridge. Abraham Workman had hosted for the night the enrolling officer Robinson, who initially claimed to be in the area to purchase horses for the army, but later revealed his true mission. Robinson asked Workman the next morning to accompany him, but Workman replied, "I am too busy. I suggest you ask a neighbor, Major Borden, to go with you." Robinson and Borden reached the Stuber farm "where a number of Frenchmen, stonemasons, were laying up a barn wall." Robinson began asking them questions, and finally asked "if there were any `copperheads' ... around there. For their answer they stoned him with some of the refuse of the barn wall."(5)

Stuber's account, while that of an eyewitness, should not be accepted uncritically, especially because of the number of years between the actual event and Stuber's recollection. …