THE TOWN THAT STARTED THE CIVIL WAR by Nat Brandt

THE TOWN THAT STARTED THE CIVIL WAR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Don't be put off by the obvious whimsy of the title, Brandt--a former editor at American Heritage and Publishers Weekly who wrote about an obscure Civil War incident in The Man Who Tried to Burn New York (1986)--has mined a jewel of local history, a forgotten antebellum cause cÉlèbre ""unequaled in political chicanery, convoluted legal maneuvering, incredible audacity, and ironic twists"": the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. The book recounts the events preceding and following the September 1858 seizure of John Price, a runaway Kentucky slave, in Oberlin, Ohio, a small town that mirrored the liberal attitudes on race and female education of its famous college. On hearing of the kidnapping, 25 Oberlin citizens rushed to nearby Wellington, where, joined by 12 sympathizers from that community, they prevented Price's four abductors from transporting him by rail back to his old master. The runaway's deliverance led to a federal indictment of the rescuers, and inflamed Northern and Southern passions about the odious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. To nail down convictions in the case, the Buchanan Administration resorted to what Brandt justifiably calls ""a series of flagrantly biased tactics,"" such as selecting a Democratic prosecutor, judge, and jury (the latter including a party to Price's kidnapping). Meanwhile, the defense attempted to rally public opinion in the heavily Republican region and, ironically, adopted a time-honored slaveowner practice by questioning federal jurisdiction in this local matter. Though he lacks a central magnetic figure, Brandt compensates with an excellent collective portrait of a small town that prompted national soul-searching by breaking an unjust law. Here is a well-researched local history, written with verve and filled with contemporary implications about the fight of individual conscience vs. the might of the state.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0440503965
Publisher: Syracuse Univ. Press