By Bob Evans
On April 15, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln issued a “call to arms” for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion after troops from the South Carolina militia fired on Fort Sumter two days earlier.
The president’s call opened a civil war that would last for four long and brutal years. Ohio responded to the call, not with the 13 regiments as requested, but with 20.
In many cases, whole families rushed to sign up to help put down the rebellion. Most thought they would defeat the Confederacy in one grand battle and be home in time to put in the fall crops.
Many troops boarded trains and headed east so quickly they were never properly mustered into service.
Last Sunday in front of the Statehouse in Columbus, members of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) re-enacted the swearing-in ceremony as part of the kickoff of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The day’s events focused on the prominent role of Ohio and her troops in the war.
By war’s end, close to 320,000 Ohioans had answered the call, and 35,475 never returned. Only New York and Pennsylvania sent more troops to the war.
Some of the most important players in the war were from Ohio – including Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and Generals Phil Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer (New Rumley). In all 99 men from Ohio reached the rank of general.
Ohioans played a role politically as well. Serving as Secretary of War was Edwin M. Stanton of Steubenville, whose statue stands in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Trying to imagine what Ohio’s soldiers faced was Adjutant General Deborah Ashenhurse, commander of the Ohio National Guard, who spoke to those who gathered for Sunday’s commemoration.
“Fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, uncles and nephews. What made these boys of 1861 answer the call?” she asked. “Ohio has never failed to answer the call and we will continue to answer the call.”
Two hundred Ohio regiments fought in the war, and seven active units trace their beginnings to that conflict.
“Two of those units are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan today,” said National Guard Historian Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Mann.
On the Statehouse lawn re-enactors from the 1st OVI and the Army of the Ohio set up a living history camp complete with tents and displays of what the 1860s soldiers would have carried with them.
Most men do re-enacting because they had ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
“My great-great grandfather fought in the war with the 8th Ohio,” said Jim Davis, 30-year veteran of re-enacting. “In some ways it is a way for me to retrace his steps and too see what he and others like him went through.”
For others, it’s the love of history.
“It is the history that I enjoy,” David McGee said while listening to period music played by the Champ Chase Fife and Drum Corps. “I enjoy standing around and answering people’s questions.”
Prior to the mustering-in ceremony, a brunch sponsored by the Ohio Historical Society in the Statehouse atrium raised money for the Flag Conservation Effort.
“This is our kickoff event for 150th Anniversary of the Civil War,” said State Rep. Mark Okey, a member of the Ohio Civil War 150 Advisory Committee. “This is a very historic place. Lincoln was here in life as well as in death. This is our chance to start to commemorate.
“We are hopeful that this is going to be a big spark for our economy. Things like this are going on all over the state,” he continued.
“This gives up an opportunity to keep history here, get tourism here, get people here and get Ohioans involved in their history so we can make this a great ecomnic benefit as well as an historical benefit.”
The Historical Society has 388 regimental flags from Ohio; 17 have been re-furbished and two are currently undergoing restoration.
The cost to preserve a flag ranges from $6,000 to $30,000, depending on condition and size.
The keynote speaker for the brunch was Wes Cowan of the PBS series “History Detectives” and an appraiser on the “Antiques Roadshow” also on PBS.
Cowan spoke about Ohio’s role in the Civil War and how so many Americans continue to have a personal connection to the war through souvenirs, letters and other memorabilia handed down through the generations.