Author Archives: ams366

In This Issue: Fall 2015

Along with the usual book reviews, this edition of the Northeast Ohio Journal of History features an exhibit that touches on the intersection of several historical phenomena readily visible to residents of Northeast Ohio. “Understanding Tombstones in Cleveland: Religion, Memory, Social Status, and Gender in Cemeteries” by Frank Jastrzembski traces the ways in which tombstones of area cemeteries reflect the social, cultural, and economic realities of the eras in which they were made, as well as their changes through time. With numerous representative photographs of tombstones used as examples, this piece revives the “virtual museum exhibit” that had been a regular feature of this journal since its first issue.

This issue also takes advantage of our new, more streamlined website interface.  We hope this will make future editions easier to produce, and will be working to make all back issues readily available in the new format.  As always, if you have questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact the editor at kkern@uakron.edu.

Kevin Kern

Feature Article: Exhibit: Understanding Tombstones in Cleveland: Religion, Memory, Social Status, and Gender in Cemeteries
By Frank Jastrzembski

Book Reviews

Do They Miss Me at Home? The Civil War Letters of William McKnight, Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. Edited by Donald C. Maness and H. Jason Combs. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010. xv, 271 pp. Hardcover. $ 35.96. ISBN 9780821419144.
By Andrew J. Carlson

Andrew Welsh-Huggins. No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States. Ohio University Press Series on Law, Society, and Politics in the Midwest. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009. x + 222 pp. Acknowledgements, introduction, notes, selected bibliography, index.
By Charles F. Casey-Leininger

The Untried Life: The 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. By James T. Fritsch. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. 516 pp.)

By Natalie Hall-Hiles

Book Review: The Untried Life: The 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. By James T. Fritsch. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012. 516 pp.)

In The Untried Life: The 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, James T. Fritsch provides an in-depth and extensive chronological regimental history of the men involved in the creation and sustenance of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  Fritsch’s goal is to provide an accurate and comprehensive history, which he argues is critical to understanding just how important and unique a role these men played in the war.  The only previous history of the regiment was written in the 1880s by a man named J. Hampton SeCheverell, who spent a mere six months with the regiment before being mustered out of service.  That fact alone was not the only early regimental recording’s weakness; according to Fritsch, the history was a mere 130 pages and had a very triumphalist tone.

Fritsch sought to do more.  His ambition covered fifteen years of research and writing, attempting to give as complete a picture as possible of the regiment’s origins, its battles, and its dissolution.  Moreover, he believed it absolutely necessary to explore not only the highlights and triumphs of battle, but also the darker side of war, where desertion, flagging morale, and questions of morality always lurked.

The regiment’s soldiers came primarily from two counties in Ohio: Summit and Ashtabula, both of which were notorious hotbeds of anti-slavery sentiment and outspoken abolitionists like Joshua R. Giddings.  The area was so closely associated with the abolitionist movement throughout the nation that the 29th OVI became concerned about their own safety, as they feared they would be hanged if captured by the enemy.  The creation of the 29th was largely based on the disappointment they felt as part of the 19th Ohio Volunteer, where in their short time served as part of this regiment, they were not paid and were expected to enforce the Fugitive Slave laws; in effect, making proud soldiers with a history of abolitionist sentiment into slave catchers.  Giddings, who largely influenced the creation of the 29th in the first place, saw their purpose not as a fight to salvage the broken Union, as so many others of his day saw the purpose of the war, but instead saw the soldier’s sacrifice as the beginning of the end for slavery.  In a letter to Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, he wrote that, “The first gun fired at Fort Sumter rang out the death-knell of slavery.” (p.14)

Fritsch’s account also highlights the changing attitudes with which soldiers confronted the hardness and unforgiving nature of war.  In the spring of 1862, soldiers had backtracked their steps a number of miles to repair a fence that the soldiers had damaged.  They did so because they did not want to offend the owner of the fence.  A year later, in the summer of 1863, between the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns, the 29th was camped near Leesburg.  A farmer nearby vocalized his support of the confederacy, and subsequently had his home and mill burned to the ground.  The Union soldiers “let it be known that others in the neighborhood would fare the same if they did not keep shut.” (p.249)

Fritsch’s account follows soldiers through the many years of war, including their participation and action in well-known battles as Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  Their largest loss of life came at a place known as Dug Gap in May of 1864, where approximately 120 men were killed or wounded. While the number of total causalities varies for the 29th, approximately 126 men were killed outright in battle, while many others died of either wounds sustained during battle, fatigue, or disease.  In the SeCheverell history, 541 men were listed as killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  In the beginning, their numbers were around 1,000 soldiers.  As they came home at the war’s end, a parade in Cleveland showcased a mere 235 soldiers of the 29th. (p.377)  War had been hard on the families and friends of Summit and Ashtabula counties.

Fritsch’s work is an honest account of the history of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  As he argues in the preface, his purpose was to give an even-handed account of the trials and tribulations of the regiment that was not strictly black and white, but rather highlighted the variety of triumphs and failures felt by these men.  In this, he succeeds.  His attention to detail through extensive archival research creates a description of these men that is thorough and satisfying.  Although no doubt a lengthy account of the 29th through its inception, war years, and dissolution, this work reads easily.  In addition to his close attention to detail, Fritsch’s narrative flows easily throughout the account, pulling the reader into this narrative he has expertly woven.

Natalie Hall-Hiles

University of Akron

Book Review: Andrew Welsh-Huggins. No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States. Ohio University Press Series on Law, Society, and Politics in the Midwest. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009. x + 222 pp. Acknowledgements, introduction, notes, selected bibliography, index.

Although published six years ago, this volume by Andrew Welsh-Huggins remains a valuable examination of the national debate about capital punishment, using Ohio as a case study. With an accessible writing style and solid research, the author, an Associated Press reporter on Ohio’s death penalty beat, deftly uses representative cases to humanize and provide context for the legal and ethical debates around the death penalty, including the variety of arguments for and against it. Welsh-Huggins concludes that despite numerous efforts in recent years to decrease its unpredictable execution, “capital punishment is carried out unevenly not only in Ohio, but across the country” (3-4).

The author begins with a history of the death penalty both in Ohio and nationally. Throughout the nineteenth century, governors, legislators, and the public often questioned capital punishment and the ways in which it was carried out, a debate that continued into the twentieth century. Indeed, as late as 1949, the Ohio House voted 69 to 35 to repeal capital punishment. This bill died in the state senate, however.

Nevertheless, after 1963, a virtual moratorium on capital punishment developed in Ohio as a number of challenges to it wound their way through the state and federal court systems. In 1967, federal court decisions led to a national moratorium. In 1971, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, found in Furman v. Georgia that Georgia’s death penalty statute and by extension, statutes throughout the United States violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. This emptied death rows across the country. However, only two of the justices in the majority found the death penalty unconstitutional on its face. The other three justices in the majority found death penalty statutes unconstitutional because they resulted in uneven and unpredictable application of capital punishment. States then attempted to craft death penalty laws that would pass constitutional muster and in 1976 executions resumed after the high court approved death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. In Ohio, executions only resumed in 1999 as ongoing challenges delayed executions. Since then Ohio has become, in the words of the book’s title, “One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States.”

Despite rewritten laws, the unpredictable implementation of the death penalty has persisted. As the title to the book notes, this capriciousness has been largely due to “Race, Politics, and Geography.” Numerous statistical studies clearly show that the race of the killer and the victim both have powerful influences on who is executed. Killers of whites, especially African Americans, are far more likely to end up on death row than killers of blacks, regardless of race. Proponents of the death penalty agree that this may be racist, but that the cure is to prosecute killers of blacks more effectively. Opponents argue that racism is so endemic that fair imposition of the death penalty is impossible. For its part, the Supreme Court has decided that statistical evidence of the extent of racial prejudice is insufficient by itself to bar capital punishment in individual cases. Moreover, the court has argued that barring the death penalty on statistical evidence would inevitably bring into question convictions for a wide array of crimes and bog down the whole justice system in the U.S.

Welsh-Huggins also shows that geography can have a profound impact on whether a killer will face the death penalty. Prosecutors in Ohio’s three largest counties, Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton, seek the death penalty at much different rates. Hamilton County, with its ardently pro-death penalty prosecutor, has the largest number of convicts on death row. Prosecutors in the other counties seek the death penalty at lower rates. Although opponents of capital punishment cite such wide variations as an argument against it, supporters argue that differing community standards are an inherent right of local communities. Moreover, they argue that the failure of some prosecutors to consistently seek the death penalty may mean that some criminals are getting away with murder. Prosecutors, for their part, argue that where evidence is weak, plea bargains resulting in non-capital sentences may be the only way to take killers off the streets. Moreover, they point out that persuading killers to plead guilty to non-death penalty charges can protect witnesses or families of the victims from distress surrounding trials.

As controversy over the death penalty has grown, legal challenges have caused lengthy delays between sentencing and execution. Indeed, in many states and at the federal level, lawmakers, executives, and judges, responding to public pressure, have sought to shorten the appeals process by placing restrictions on it. Moreover, governors have found that granting clemency or commuting death sentences can result in political backlash to such an extent that in Ohio and many other states both Republican and Democratic governors have increasingly refused to grant commutations and then only if there is some indication that the case against the condemned is severely flawed.

Welsh-Huggins does note that recent changes in Ohio law apparently have to a decreased imposition of capital punishment. These changes permit prosecutors to obtain sentences of life without parole for capital crimes. Previously they had to choose between capital punishment and sentences with the possibility of parole.

For those wanting to explore the issue of capital punishment, Welsh-Huggins’s book provides a solid foundation. Some may want to pursue the debate more deeply in academic, legal, and research institute studies, but this book is a valuable introduction for the interested public and for secondary and post-secondary classes and its extensive notes provide additional sources for further inquiry.

Charles F. Casey-Leininger

Department of History

University of Cincinnati

Book Review: Do They Miss Me at Home? The Civil War Letters of William McKnight, Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. Edited by Donald C. Maness and H. Jason Combs. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2010. xv, 271 pp. Hardcover. $ 35.96. ISBN 9780821419144.

Donald C. Maness and H. Jason Combs’s edited volume, Do They Miss Me at Home, is an absolutely fascinating collection of 108 letters, written mostly from William McKnight to his wife, Samaria, between 1862 and 1864 when he was with the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. From the larger perspective of the Civil War drama, McKnight’s life story may be most interesting because John Hunt Morgan and his raiders stayed at his home in Meigs County during their famous ride across Indiana and Ohio in July 1863; and then in June of 1864 McKnight was killed in battle as Ohio’s Seventh Volunteer Cavalry chased Morgan and his men from Cynthiana, Kentucky.  But the valuable contribution of this book is the raw and unfiltered glimpse it provides into the emotional life of an ordinary soldier as he silently communicates through letters with his wife.

The authors organize the letters into five chapters that correspond to McKnight’s sojourn from military camps in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, where he spent most of the 22 months of the 3-year term he signed up for in September 1862. Maness and Combs note in their introduction that the Union army handled a remarkable 135,000 letters daily, clear evidence of how important written correspondence was to soldiers and their families. (1) The introduction provides a useful overview of the McKnight family, the Ohio Seventh Volunteer Cavalry, and the role of Ohio in the Civil War. Reproductions of letters and photographs, five appendices, and three maps round out the book.  Exhaustive footnotes make sense of problems with dating and geography and provide insight into topics such as diet and battle histories.  The bibliography is not exemplary.  The index is thorough.

William McKnight did not fit the profile of the typical Civil War soldier: single, between the ages of 18 and 24, and native born.  He was married, the father of six children, 29 years old, and born in Canada in 1832 to parents who had immigrated from Scotland to New Brunswick just two years before.  In 1836 his parents moved with their five children to Meigs County in southeastern Ohio.  There they had six more children that they raised in Pomeroy and Langsville, small towns near the Ohio River.  William became a blacksmith and, at age 25, married Samaria Braley, whose family had moved to the area from Maine in 1816.  By the time McKnight joined the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in September, 1862, he and Samaria had four children.  Twins girls were born in the summer of 1863.

McKnight volunteered for service out of duty to country. He did not mention the issue of slavery and only used the term Negro on two occasions.  (217, fn11) In the first year of correspondence Samaria’s voice is heard only as William responds, for example when he defended his decision to volunteer “against your wil.” (55) McKnight answered her: “I hope you might be Proud of me to know that I had honor and spunk enough to go defend our countryies rights.” (56)

But he was conflicted by the emotional trauma his decision brought Samaria and  the children: “Oh how bad it makes me fell to think of them sweet little children of mine crying for papa and especially that dear little one… crying for me…. It is for them that I feel the most hurt for no one but God knows who wil take Care of them if their Pa falls a victim to this rebelian….” (56) Samaria’s letters often brought William to tears.(56, 58)

McKnight’s age, business skills, and literacy made him a natural officer. Appointed as a first sergeant of Company K in September 1862, he was promoted to second lieutenant in April of 1864.  Killed in action two months later, he was never commissioned at this rank. He complained to his wife that promised promotions and pay raises did not come through. In December 1863 he wrote: “May [My] just Dues from the Government set to the present amounts to over $600.00 dollars & I need it & cant get a cent.” (149) In his second to last letter to Samaria, on June 3, 1864, he wrote that “it is now eleven months past since I recd any pay….” (185)

To support himself and his family McKnight traded horses, sold other goods, and borrowed.  (154) He also hounded Samaria to collect fees owed from his blacksmith business. (129) Samaria collected some of the old bills, much to William’s satisfaction, but she also relied on her own and William’s families.  William often suggested chores for family members and neighbors, including cutting firewood and planting corn.

McKnight comes across as needy and demanding, keeping score on his own and Samaria’s letters: “There was a mail come through for the Regmt.  All the Boys got letters but me.  I don’t see why that I am slited.  I write every chance I get.” (135)  “I have long anxiously awaited a letter from you but in vain….” (137) “I have not herd from you for a month or more & the only by Bro Johns letter…. Please write to me at least once a week & I wil write as often as I can if it is evry other day.” (157)

A major theme is news from Meigs County via old newspapers, letters, and gossip from men who have travelled home for a week or two.  William asked Samaria to date her letters because they did not always arrive sequentially due to problems with transportation and the Seventh’s movements.(128) William also has news for Samaria about what has happened to men from his area, whether it is desertion or injury or death or encounters with the Confederates. (72)

William wants the correspondence to be conversational.  In February 1863 he began a letter: “Oh Samaria. Samaria.  Do you hear me if you do I want you to listen to me a little while….”(52) A year later he wrote: “I recd a letter from sister Mary last night.  She informs me that you have red 6 letters from me lately which I am glad to hear & anxiously look for a letter from you.  Then I may have something to found a letter upon.” (158) On several occasions William also asked for “likenesses” or “photographs” of his family.  (3, 152)  Samaria wrote to him: “Thoes Potograps cant be beat….I have one of them whare we can se it all the time….” (183)

Some of the gossip from home underscored how serving in a company of men from one’s own county limited privacy.  In December of 1862, Samaria apparently wrote to William about local gossip that he had been with other women.  William wrote back: “I think the folks at home must have very little to do and you dear Wife inflicted a severe wound in my Heart when you intimated that I had been unfaithful to you God bless.”(31) In the spring of 1863 McKnight wrote to Samaria that he had heard folks at home were gossiping again and tried to defend himself: “I never did run after Bad Women but even if I did there is no reason for any such report to get afloat about me.” (88) Over the next few weeks he signed off penitently: “Your absent and almost Broken Hearted William” (89) and “your unworthy Husband” (90).  When Samaria did not write to him, he became nearly desperate: “Oh how I study over it think of evry thing but cant imagine why am so neglected.  I know I deserve nothing better but stil I did not expect to be entirely neglected by every one…. It is a bad state of things when a soldier has to defend his caracter at home and his life abroad one at a time is enough.” (91-92)

Samaria forgave him.  At least McKnight went home for two short furloughs in the summers of 1863 and 1864.  And in the two letters in the collection from Samaria to William, written in the last month of his life, she wrote: “I have but one falt to find with your letters love and that is they ant long enough or you don’t write half as mutch as I like to hear.” (177)  “Oh let me hear from you often.  If you dont get a letter for every one you write so be a good man and I will do the best I can until then.” (184)

Samaria McKnight raised their six children by herself and never re-married.  When she died, in 1905, her son asked the U.S. Pensions Agent in Columbus to direct the last two months of William McKnight’s pension to the daughter who had stayed at home to take care of Samaria. (193)

Collections of letters are not easy fare for undergraduates or even more mature readers.  But Do They Miss Me at Home is in many ways more compelling than fiction or a carefully wrought historical monograph. There is William McKnight, by himself, writing to his beloved Samaria, about the most difficult situations of his life, hoping that he will be lucky enough to once again join her and the children back in Ohio.

Andrew J. Carlson

Capital University