The Town That Started the Civil War

The Town That Started the Civil War

The Town That Started the Civil War

The Town That Started the Civil War

Excerpt

This is a story about courage--about physical courage and moral courage. About citizens of a small town, black and white, living and working side by side in unusual harmony. They were ordinary people--tradesmen, shopkeepers, students, teachers. Some were educated, some were not. Some had experienced slavery firsthand, some could only imagine what it was like. Yet, when a relative newcomer, an escaped slave, was trapped and spirited away, they left their shops, their homes, and their classrooms without hesitation, without debate, without regard to consequences, to rescue a man whom most of them did not even know.

This is also a story with contemporary parallels. The clash between the law of the land and an individual's conscience, between what a government decrees and what those in Oberlin believed to be "Higher Law," the law of God, continues into our own time. It is represented today by the Sanctuary movement, in which Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen and lay workers are shielding Central American victims of oppression from deportation.

The title of the book is, of course, an exaggeration. But like any exaggeration, it bears a kernel of truth, indeed more than a kernel. Writing under the nom de plume Petroleum V. Nasby early in the second year of the Civil War, humorist David Ross Locke echoed a theory that became widely held, at least in the Western Reserve: "Oberlin commenst this war. Oberlin wuz the prime cause uv all the trubble." A simplistic view, the stuff of which local legend is made. However, what is known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue reflected in myriad ways the forces that were dividing the United States and leading to war, as well as issues such as states' rights and civil rights. Its uniqueness lies not only in the singular events of the Rescue, the trials and the martyrdom in a Cleveland prison, but also, and most especially, in the attention the Rescue received throughout the country, particularly in the North. It was, for want of a better word, the epitome of incidents regarding the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and it thrust the question of that law into the . . .

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