MOUNT VERNON — History is controversial. Official histories are often heavily influenced by whomever has power and money.
One of the things I like about writing a small local history column is that I’m not burdened with that kind of editorial interference. But there is a general social tendency to want to sweep the ugly stories under the rug and pretend that everything is, and always has been picture-perfect.
Thus, this week’s column gives me a bit of a dull headache, because I know there are plenty of people around who would rather not be reminded of unpleasant past episodes, but I firmly believe that if we don’t confront our past mistakes, how can we ever fix them and move forward into a better future?
And so, I’m sharing an open letter that a group of Knox County (and one Holmes County) veterans wrote to former Union general, and later Ohio governor, Jacob Cox, which was published in the July 29, 1865 edition of The Daily Ohio Statesman, a Columbus newspaper.
I tend not to flinch at unsavory history, but there are lines of decency, so I’m not going to type out a certain racial slur (yes, the one that begins with the letter ‘N’) that the soldiers used freely in their letter. The newspaper published the word without hesitation.
In the wake of the Civil War, there was much discussion about the future of former slaves. Many of the progressive people who had supported the abolition of slavery also favored giving ex-slaves full citizenship, including the right for black males to vote. Female suffrage was still decades away.
It can come as no great surprise that there were many opponents to black suffrage in central Ohio, for the region was notorious for its Southern sympathies during the war, including the farcically brief rebellion known as “Fort Fizzle” which broke out in Holmes County in 1863 (and which I wrote about in an earlier History Knox column, which, alas, I was unable to access).
With so much of its ancestral roots dating back to Virginia, central Ohio was never all that firmly on the Union side of the war, and that’s why Knox County was chosen as the locale for an important speech by Clement Vallandigham when he was running for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1864 (and which was also covered in an earlier, no longer accessible column as Knox Pages goes through its transition to a new website with a new computer system).
Even those who supported the union during the war had limits about how far they would support Lincoln’s agenda, even after the president’s tragic assassination in April of 1865. The debate about the black vote continued, drawing forth a very unpleasant letter just a few months later.
The letter was dated July 15, 1865, and postmarked Greersville, Ohio. The town’s name was later shortened to Greer, and it can still be found straddling Ohio 514 on the Mohican River in Jefferson Township of Knox County.
The letter starts aggressively and only gets worse: “Dear Sir:– We do not write to you as party men, but as citizen-soldiers who have returned from the field to resume the duties of civil life.
“We entered the war to put down the rebellion, and thereby preserve the Union; but we cared nothing for the n—– then, nor do we now. If slavery went under, we did not care, and if not, it was all the same to us, provided we saved the Union. We did not want to see the Union broken up, nor do we now want to be placed on a level with negroes, as a reward for our services.
“As you are a soldier, General, we have a right to look to you to defend our right, and if you will stand by the boys, they will stand by you; but if you go to placing us upon an equality with negroes, then we’ll all go against you.”
It’s an interesting kind of stance to make. I have no idea whether or not the writers of this letter were aware of the implied threat of a group of former soldiers publicly stating “we’ll all go against you.” But I suspect they were completely aware of the veiled threat, considering that they were all farmers with guns, and since they’d been soldiers, they obviously knew how to use them.
The sentence is worded so that the threat remains veiled, and therefore legally unactionable. It makes me think of the current controversy with the Jason Aldean song, where the writer professes not to be making violent threats, though the ingredients are all presented, leaving the observer to connect the dots.
The letter goes on to say that the undersigned soldiers were against having negro soldiers, “for we were able to whip the rebels ourselves,” which is demonstrably untrue. It then goes on to tell a blatant further falsehood, that “although the negroes wore the uniform, you know, General, that the White soldiers did the fighting.”
Whatever the writers wanted to claim, it is well documented that there were numerous instances of brave and impressive battlefield conduct by African-American soldiers.
That’s about as much practical defense the writers take of their baldly racist position. Soon, they reveal their hatred plainly: “…[N]ever will we consent to march up to the polls alongside of n—–s.” The writers then claim that General William Tecumseh Sherman was “always opposed to n—– troops, and he is now opposed to n—– voters….”
While Sherman did oppose the use of Black troops during the war (for strategic reasons), and had expressed initial opposition to extending voting rights to blacks, he later reconsidered his position after seeing the abuses of post-war Reconstruction in the South, and declared his support for full civil rights for Blacks, including the right to vote.
Did this letter influence General Cox’s public views? We can’t know for sure, but he did ultimately side with his former soldiers in opposing the Blacks right to vote. He was elected governor of Ohio before he was even mustered out of the army, serving from 1866 to 1868.
He later served as Secretary of the Interior under President Ulysses S. Grant until Grant forced him out. Cox then served in Congress from 1877 through 1879. He later served as the president of the University of Cincinnati. Unlike General Sherman, Cox’s views on Black suffrage are not known to have ever evolved.
So, who were the former soldiers Cox ended up uniting with in racism? I’ll list them here with what little I was able to find out about them:
1. William H. Drincan, who served in Company K of the 69th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. I was unable to find out anything about him.
2. Ephraim Barker, who served in Company E of the 20th OVI. I found reference to a minister by that name who lived in Licking County, but I don’t think this is him. I found only a single reference to an Ephraim Barker living in Richland Township in Holmes County, east of Greer, in the 1880 agricultural census. This Barker sharecrops a 120-acre farm (80 acres tilled/40 acres woods), and has two milk cows, 10 swine, and 40 chickens.
3. David Blubaugh, who served in Company K of the 63 rd OVI. He was born in 1833 and lived most of his life near Danville. He died at the age of 41, when he fell from a tree where he was attempting to get a raccoon.
4. Vincent Piar (also spelled in some records as Pyar and Paiar), who served in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry. He was born in Switzerland or Germany in 1830. He came to the U.S. before the Civil War and lived in Fredericktown, where he worked as a farm laborer. He married Rachel Blubaugh, a sister of the David Blubaugh listed above. Paiar is listed in the 1890 Veterans Census, but in the infantry. He died in 1905 of blood poisoning.
5. Robert Hyelt, who served in Company G of the 98th OVI. I was unable to find out anything about him.
6. Henry Peighlor, who served in Company K of the 43rd OVI. I was unable to find out anything about him, though the surname looks like an alternate spelling of “Pealer,” a familiar name from northwestern Knox County. However, I was unable to find anything under that name, either.
7. William Sapp, who served in Company K of the 43rd OVI. William was born in 1839, and appears to have been the younger brother of Henry Sapp.
8. Henry Sapp, who served in Company I of the 33rd OVI. He was born in 1837 and died in 1921. He is buried in Brinkhaven. He served eight months, from September of 1864 to June of 1865.
9. Peter Neff, who served in Company E of the 20th OVI. He was born in 1838 or 1839. He was listed as a resident of Jefferson Township of Knox County in the 1863 draft. He later served a year and a half from January of 1864 to July of 1865. He did not remain in Knox County after the war, relocating to Cameron, Missouri, where he died in 1921.
The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing Black men the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1869, and ratified by the states in less than one year. It is unknown if any of the veterans who wrote this letter later changed their views.
The world, though, has moved on, and continues to challenge people to learn and grow. Examining the past is an important part of that process.