Oberlin and the Civil War


By Anne Cuyler Salsich, Assistant Archivist


This digital collection, representing but a selection of Civil War era materials in the Oberlin College Archives, cannot be understood without an appreciation for the context in which the originals were created, and of Oberlin’s preeminent place in what was then the American West for the antislavery cause. Both college and town were founded simultaneously in 1833 as a utopian experiment in Christian ideals in action as exemplified by the life and work of their namesake, John Frederick Oberlin, a minister in Alsace, France. Oberlin College was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to admit men and women of all races by 1835. It welcomed the persecuted antislavery students from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati (the so-called Lane Rebels), Lane Trustee Asa Mahan, and former Lane faculty member John Morgan. Oberlin continued to welcome those harassed for their outspoken commitment to the realization of a more egalitarian American society.1

Oberlin was a tightly knit community, with no separation between college and town. Until 1916 the college offered private secondary school education in their Preparatory Department (renamed the Academy in 1892), further blurring distinctions. From the beginning Oberlin was a manual labor school; students could work in exchange for a portion of their tuition and board, hence the school’s first motto, “Learning and Labor.” Many of the residents were related by blood or marriage, and their views were closely aligned. Upon Lincoln’s call for volunteers following the fall of Fort Sumter, Oberlin College quickly rescinded a regulation barring students from joining military companies. More than 750 Oberlin alumni and students served in Ohio units during the war, six gaining the rank of general.2

While the ostensible reason for Lincoln’s call to arms was to save the Union, to Oberlin the cause was clearly to end the expansion of slavery in the West, and to eradicate it altogether in the country as a whole. Oberlin’s defining act of civil disobedience leading up to its commitment to the Union cause was the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, an incident that challenged the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, an evil compromise by the U.S. government, in the view of Oberlinians. The story of that incident is too involved to summarize here, but the researcher will find resources in this collection specific to that historic event, recounted in fascinating detail by Nat Brandt in The Town that started the Civil War (New York: Laurel, 1991). A full treatment of Oberlin’s history in the antebellum era and the Civil War years can be found in Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College From its Foundation to the Civil War (Oberlin College, 1943).

We invite you to delve deeper into Oberlin’s stories, by using secondary sources whose writers have made extensive use of the Oberlin College Archives, exploring some of the electronic resources listed on these pages, or by pursuing your own primary research at the Oberlin College Archives or at the Oberlin Heritage Center.

1. J. Brent Morris, “'All the truly wise or truly pious have one and same end in view': Oberlin, the West, and Abolitionist Schism,” Civil War History 57, No. 3 (September 2011): 236.

2. David Van Tassel with John Vacha, Behind Bayonets: The Civil War in Northern Ohio (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2006), 55.