I have just been re-reading Nat Brandt’s book, The Town that Started the Civil War, and it reminded me of a recent visit to Oberlin, Ohio, the town referenced in the title. Brandt’s thesis is that the war started with an event in 1858, when a group of Oberlin professors, students, and townsmen rescued a free black man who had been taken captive by slave-catchers in nearby Wellington, Ohio. Oberlin was a truly Radical place at the time, a key station on the Underground Railroad and a hotbed of abolitionism.
Ultimately the men who stopped the abduction were convicted, but not before massive public demonstrations in the region protesting the Fugitive Slave law. One of the key speakers at the demonstrations counseled against taking the law into one’s own hands, but instead changing the law. That man, Jacob D. Cox, an Oberlin graduate and a leader of the Republican party, took his own counsel and was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859. That event ultimately propelled him into a Civil War generalship, the governorship of Ohio, and the authorship of several histories of the war. My biography of Cox, Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era, was published in 2014 by Ohio University Press.
My wife Kathryn and I visited Oberlin College on October 10, 2018 primarily to present a copy of my biography of Jacob Cox to College President Carmen Twillie Ambar, whose office is in the Jacob Cox administration building.
During a delightful chat with the President, who had been inaugurated in her position only a few days before, I noted that I first arrived in Oberlin almost 50 years before to begin the research for my doctoral dissertation. The Oberlin College archives, then in Bosworth Hall, were the home of Jacob Cox’s papers, and I spent many months roaming through his writings and those of his many famous correspondents.
Below are pictures of Brandt’s book, of my book, of our meeting, as well as of the Cox building. Note that above my left shoulder in the group photo is a painting of Charles Finney, Oberlin’s second president and Cox’s father-in-law.