By Kevin Kelley
At the start of the Civil War, Ohio recruits for the Union Army lacked many basic necessities, such as blankets. In response, women on the home front collected blankets for the soldiers and knitted clothing for them. In fact, sheet music for “The Knitting Song,” a tune describing the activity, was published during the war period, said historian John Vacha.
Vacha, a retired Cleveland public school teacher and member of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s speakers bureau, presented a lecture entitled “The Civil War in Northern Ohio” Aug. 13 at Westlake Porter Public Library. The lecture, part of the library’s series on the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, was based on his book “Beyond Bayonets: Northern Ohio’s Civil War,” which Vacha completed following the death of co-author David Van Tassel.
The book’s most significant contribution to the study of the Civil War, Vacha said, was its chronicling of women’s role on the home front.
In his research, Van Tassel discovered several Civil War-era diaries written by Ohio women. One such writer, Nancie Swan, wrote of wanting to go to war in place of her beloved brother. She later lamented the fact that she had become a spinster – at age 25. After the war, she married a Union veteran, Vacha said.
The title of Vacha’s book came from a speech given by James Garfield, a major general in the Union army and future president. During remarks opening the Northern Ohio Sanitary Fair, organized at Cleveland’s Public Square in 1864 by a women’s aid group to assist soldiers, Garfield said that beyond bayonets, soldiers enjoyed “the affections of home.”
Vacha, a Lakewood resident, noted that northern Ohio was the venue for two notable events leading up to the Civil War. In 1858, up to 37 abolitionist residents of Oberlin and Wellington rescued an escaped slave named John Price, who had been captured by U.S. marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Following negotiations with state officials, who had arrested the federal officials who captured the slave, only two of the abolitionists went to trial. Although found guilty, the two received relatively light sentences.
Another fugitive slave, Sara Lucy Bagby, sought refuge in Cleveland in October 1860. Her Virginia owner tracked her down and had her arrested in January 1861. With the outbreak of secession and war looming, her situation was seen as a test case for whether the North would still comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, Vacha said. A judge returned her to her owner, making Bagby probably the last slave returned to the South before the start of the war, he said. In 1861, Bagby was freed by Union troops and later returned to Cleveland, where she lived until her death in 1906.
Abraham Lincoln traveled through Cleveland in 1861 on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., from Illinois, Vacha noted, sleeping overnight at a hotel located at what is now Superior Avenue and West 6th Street. He passed through Cleveland one last time on his way to the Springfield, Ill., cemetery where he is buried, Vacha added.
At the end of the Civil War, Cleveland was at the cusp of the growth that would make it a leading American city during the Industrial Revolution, Vacha said. The city had begun the change from a mercantile center to an industrial center, he said.