“Ring the good ol’ bugle, boys, we’ll sing another song,
Sing it with the spirit that will start the world along,
Sing it as we used to sing it 50,000 strong
While we were marching through Georgia.”
It’s 1865, and thousands of Southeastern Ohio boys are returning from the war. In every village and town, they are greeted warmly. Some communities have rallies, parades, band concerts and other festivities to honor the returning veterans of the War of Rebellion. This was no civil war. It was a dirty, rotten, stinking rebellion by the slave-holding oligarchy. It had to be put down. The Union had to be saved. They and their comrades did it! They were most proud of their accomplishments. Some would even say smug and self-satisfied.
But, after all, they had been part of the mightiest army the world had ever seen. Many had fought with William Tecumseh Sherman, the much beloved general from Lancaster, in such far away places as Shiloh, Tenn., Vicksburg, Miss., Corinth, Miss., and Atlanta, Ga. Many of them had marched to the sea with Uncle Billy, as they called Gen. Sherman. Some had even fought in Bentonville, N.C., one of the last battles of the War, before participating in the Grand Review — that triumphant parade in Washington, D.C., on May 23-24, 1865 that brought a tear even to the eye of battle-hardened Uncle Billy, who described the compact columns of his veteran Army as “simply magnificent” and marveled that the “glittering muskets looked like a solid mass of steel, moving with the regularity of a pendulum.”
As they went back to their farms and started to till the soil once again, they would often sing to themselves as they followed that old mule and guided the plow through the rain-softened earth in the spring or bailed hay and tossed it onto the horse-drawn wagon in the fall. Songs of the war were often on their lips as they remembered those days when they had a hand in putting down the rebellion . . .
“Hurrah, hurrah, we bring the jubilee!
Hurrah, hurrah, the flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia!”
In general, that’s how the veterans in Southeastern Ohio felt — mighty contented and mighty proud of what they had done. And in the nearby parts of that new state — West Virginia — they were also proud of having given Johnny Reb his due. In fact, if you followed the mountains from West Virginia, to Eastern Kentucky, to Eastern Tennessee, to Western North Carolina, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama, you’d find the same thing. Mountain folks had no time for this so-called confederacy. Now, mind you, mountain folks weren’t as likely to be abolitionists as their comrades in Southeastern Ohio, but they hated the genteel slave-holder class nonetheless. They wouldn’t fight in the Rebel army, and huge numbers actually went north to find a union regiment to volunteer for. The rosters of many union regiments are strewn with hometowns like Asheville, N.C., Johnson City, Tenn., Clayton, Ga., Forkville, Ala. and Pikeville, Ky., and Abington, Va.
Southeastern Ohio was not without its Copperheads, those so-called “Peace Democrats” who’d rather just let the South go its own way and restore peace at any price. But, Republicans and the “pro war” factions were much stronger in Southeastern Ohio. In fact, the 1863 governor’s race is a case in point. In Athens John Brough, a War Democrat running on a Union “fusion ticket” with Republican endorsement, defeated Clement Vallandigham, the Peace Democrat, by more than a three to one margin, while in the state as a whole the margin was “only” about 1.5 to one.
But, that’s not how the now-romanticized version of the War of Rebellion is remembered by the good, white folks of Southeastern Ohio. Many think that because this is SOUTHeastern Ohio, we were teaming with southern sympathizers and that the Mason-Dixon line went somewhere just south of Columbus. It’s almost a case of “generational amnesia” of Biblical proportions. As the ancient Israelites forgot time and again the lessons their parents’ generation had learned, we, the current citizens of Southeastern Ohio, don’t quite understand the world the way our great-grandparents once did. Unfortunately, history misremembered can be as dangerous as it mistaken.
My personal family history is a case in point. My great-great grandfather, four of his brothers, as well as their “old man” all fought in the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Another brother was in the 27th Ohio. These Monroe County boys were joined by a number of first cousins in Washington County, who served in the 77th Ohio. The old man, John Denbow, was 63 years old when the war broke out. Because, according to a family story, he had become an abolitionist, he lied about his age and joined up to fight with his sons. He and one of his boys died in the service of their country.
The 78th regimental history is replete with abolitionist rhetoric and refers to the conflict as both the “slave-holders’ war” and the “Great Rebellion.” Some feeling for the “racial sensibilities” of our Southeastern Ohio forbearers can be garnered by reading a chapter in this book which contains the first person account of the POW experiences of Capt. W. W. McCarty of McConnelsville.
In this remarkable narrative Capt. McCarty tells about his shock at seeing a Negro POW beaten by a guard at a rebel hospital. But listen to McCarty’s own words:
“This hospital was in charge of G. R. C. Todd, a brother-in-law of President Lincoln. The doctor was an ardent rebel, and one incident occurred there which I shall not soon forget. A colored prisoner, belonging to a Massachusetts regiment, who had been taken at Fort Wagner [remember the movie Glory?], was accused by the guard of spitting from the portico of the building down into the yard, and without any investigation whatever, the doctor caused him to be stripped and tied, and receive thirty lashes on his naked back. The indignation of our sick prisoners was intense at this brutal treatment inflicted by the hand of a man far inferior to the negro [sic], for the latter could read and write, while the other could do neither, and could scarcely tell his name. The negro was a prisoner of war, born and educated in a free State, and he was entitled to the same protection and treatment that we were, and the doctor could assign no other reason for his violation of the rules of warfare, than that the boy was a ‘d– d nigger.’ But perhaps the doctor will apply for a pardon now.”
Later, McCarty tells of an attempted escape in which he and three of his comrades are at large for a week or so. During that period, he relates numerous examples of being aided by the slaves who upon discovering their identities as escaped Yankee POWs would give them shelter and food. These experiences gave him a very favorable impression of those of African descent: “In all my experience,” he said, “I have never met a treacherous negro. That there are some, I have not a doubt, but all I met I found trusty, and many of them more intelligent than the poor whites.”
McCarty’s reminiscence gives not only a glimpse into the nature of the slavery system in this country but also clearly shows how knowledgeable the black population of the South was about the war and their desire to aid in ending the “peculiar institution” that was keeping them subjugated. This is certainly a far different picture than one gets from such classic tales as Gone with the Wind, written as it was from the perspective of the Southern aristocracy.
Even stronger sentiments than those of Capt. McCarty were expressed several decades earlier by the abolitionist society that met at the Sunsbury meeting house in nearby Monroe County. These radicals, who may have included my great-great-great grandmother (Martha Sharp Denbow, John’s wife), felt that slavery was “incompatible with the principles of Christianity” and was “a crime of the deepest dye that ever did, or ever will disgrace any people, and that wherever equal rights and equal privileges cease there slavery begins . . .”
Here in Athens County, abolitionism was also strong, especially in the western townships. As early at the mid 1850s, an abolitionist newspaper — the Free Presbyterian — was being published in Albany. Both Albany and the nearby village of Hebbardsville were “hubs” on the Underground Railroad, a clandestine operation that moved slaves from southern bondage to Canada and freedom.
In the decade leading up to the war, the black population was expanding rapidly in the Albany area. By 1860 nearly 8 percent (174/1301) of the inhabitants were of African descent. In the next ten years the black population increased 48 percent, while the white population decreased 21 percent — apparently lured west by better farmlands in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska made available at little or no cost by the Homestead Act of 1862.
In the first few decades after the war similar concentrations of blacks could be found in other parts of Southeastern Ohio, including the Washington Street area in the city of Athens. In one such pocket, in Gallia County, there exists to this day the oldest, continuous celebration of the signing on Sept. 22, 1862 of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. Begun by Gallia County blacks on the very first anniversary in 1863, this celebration has been held every year since.
Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, while the war was still being waged, a group of black citizens — many of whom were ex-slaves — started the Enterprise Academy in Albany. One of the founders was Cornelius Berry, father of Edward Berry, who after being educated at the academy became a noted businessman in Athens and later opened the Berry Hotel. This Enterprise Academy may have been the first such educational effort started by blacks for blacks.
Perhaps it was the presence of this enlightened culture in Southeastern Ohio that drew Pat Mason and his family to Albany, where in 1861 his daughter Ednah Jane was born. Years later this remarkable woman — after graduating from Oberlin College, teaching school and operating a business — became the second wife of the first African-American to play major league baseball. This was not Jackie Robinson but Oberlin-educated Moses Fleetwood Walker. The life of Walker, who was raised in Steubenville, serves as an excellent example of the regression in race relations that took place in the decades after the War of Rebellion — when the figurative Mason-Dixon line moved north to somewhere near Cleveland.
Walker, who was accepted as a player for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the then-major league American Association in 1884, found that by 1890, he could no longer play even in the minor leagues. In fact, his final year as a professional baseball player was in the International League in 1889. No other black played in the IL until Robinson broke the baseball color barrier for good a half a century later.
Walker’s biographer, David W. Zang, bewailed the developing racial polarization in the Ohio hill country as the new century began by observing, “The eastern Ohio area, whose population of former slaves and vigorous participation in the Underground Railroad had once made it a progressive outpost of race relations, now [in 1906] strained under its legacy of tolerance, which did not mesh well with the national inclination to regard separation as inevitable.”
Jim Crow was on the march north! Chapters of the Klu Klux Klan were established not just in Southeastern Ohio but throughout the state. In fact, an Ohio president — Warren Harding — even met with the barbarians of the KKK in the White House. Why this phenomenon occurred is hard to figure out. Many explanations have been put forward, including a “Great Reconciliation” in the last decade or so of the 19th Century between white southerners and white northerners that “buried the hatchet” of the War of Rebellion, now euphemistically called the Civil War, squarely in the backs of the former bondsmen! The desire of the hordes of new European immigrants to step on the backs of blacks to elevate themselves one step above the bottom rung of the social latter may also have been a factor.
As Southeastern Ohioans we can look back on our role in the War of Rebellion and the abolitionist movement as the most important hallmarks of our heritage. It is from this more tolerant era that we should seek to draw our strength and on which we should fashion our future. Let us resolve to follow in the footsteps of those forebearers who envisioned a better and more equitable society and in the process hearken back to the best of our Appalachian culture.
The Midi file of “Marching Through Georgia” is used by permission of
Benjamin Robert Tubbs from his website at Public Domain Music.