May 23, 2006

Local Ohioans rose to Civil War challenges

As chronicled in new book, Behind Bayonets, The Civil War in Northern Ohio

Behind Bayonets, The Civil War in Northern Ohio

In his 1864 tribute to Cleveland area volunteers supporting the soldiers at war, U.S. Representative James Garfield declared, “There is something behind bayonets, the affections of home.”

Pulled from those words would be the title and focus of a new volume of history, Behind Bayonets, The Civil War in Northern Ohio (Kent State University Press), co-authored by the late David Van Tassel, Case Western Reserve University professor of history, with John Vacha (Case, B.A. ’60; M.A., history ’67).

Behind Bayonets is more than a story of what the families in Ohio did for their soldiers; it is the closing chapter on the long and productive professional life of Van Tassel.

The professor of history arrived in Cleveland in the late 1960s from the University of Texas. A specialist in American history, Van Tassel would soon become knowledgeable of Cleveland’s past and establish a modern city encyclopedia project that would become the model for other U.S. cities.  He also would start a local history competition that would ignite the passions of school teachers and students, first in Cleveland, and within a few years, those of the country to become National History Day.

At the time of his sudden death in 2000, Van Tassel was in the midst of writing this as a complementary volume for “Civil War, for God, Union and Glory”—an exhibit he curated for the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Invited by John Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History at Case and then managing editor of the Cleveland encyclopedia, Vacha completed the book Van Tassel began.

Vacha had worked for a number of years with Van Tassel on local History Day competitions from its early years—first as a teacher at the old West High School and Lincoln-West High to later years as the competition’s regional coordinator from 1997 to the present and then as a volunteer contributor and later associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History/Dictionary of Cleveland Biography. He is the author of several books on local history—Showtime in Cleveland: The Rise of a Regional Theater Center and The Music Went ‘Round and Around:  The Story of Music Carnival (both from the Kent State University Press).

Van Tassel left behind three full boxes of copied materials, a binder of war letters from Col. Oliver H. Payne from the Payne Fund, more than 100 copies of photos and art from the WRHS’s archives and a completed prologue, two chapters and two partial drafts for other ones. From that material, Vacha gleaned hints as to Van Tassel’s direction for the book.

“David was remarkable in finding new and fresh sources of information,” said Vacha.

A lot has been written about Civil War battles, but Vacha said he sensed Van Tassel want to take a novel direction by focusing on war efforts at home to support the troops.

Aside from New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio would send more of its young men to war than any of the other states in the Union.

At the time of the Civil War, Ohio Governor William Dennison told Secretary of War Simon Cameron, “The lion in us is thoroughly aroused.” Asked initially to provide 13 regiments, Ohio would eventually muster the strength of 230 Ohio Volunteer Infantry regiments by the war’s end.

Ohio’s families banded together to fill the troops’ needs when were communicated by returning soldiers or in letters to families.

Reports of scurvy brought homegrown and canned food from family gardens that was shipped by railroad cars.

When men needed uniforms, the women across Northern Ohio cut, stitched and knitted clothing until industrialization supplanted some of those functions as demand outpaced the ability of women to produce the quantities required.

It would be the Civil War that transformed Cleveland as a mercantile town into an industrial stronghold, said Vacha.

Cleveland’s philanthropic reputation nationally was shaped through its war efforts by such patriotic volunteers as Rebecca Rouse.  She mobilized a network of families through the Soldiers’ Aid Society and would organized the Sanitary Fair that enclosed Public Square in a cross-shaped structure with a 65-foot tall dome filled with gardens, entertainment and new industrial products and wares for view and purchase.

The money raised from admission and sales of 25-cent tickets would establish a new Soldiers’ Home near the railway station on Euclid Avenue.  Before the end of the war, the home provided respite and housing for some 57,609 troops passing through Cleveland.

Today’s the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument of Cleveland Public Square provides an enduring homage to the contributions made in battle.

But Van Tassel and Vacha, like Garfield, pay tribute in Behind Bayonets to the people at home. “Possibly the troops could have survived without the help from home, but they would not have been as comfortable, and many lives were saved by the medical supplies, clothing and dietary supplements sent from the home front,” said Vacha.

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Kevin Adams, May 23, 2006 11:02 AM | News Topics: Authors, College of Arts and Sciences

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