- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

At the center of this nation's history is the Civil War. In "Beyond the River," Ann Hagedorn tells how the men and women living on the nation's moral fault line of slavery, as embodied by the Ohio River, made their choices.
While still a territory, Ohio had been governed by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, America's first law banning slavery. "This new land of the free had particular appeal amongst those ex-soldiers of the Continental Army who had fought with the cause of liberty in their hearts and after the Revolution saw only hypocrisy in the slavery sanctioned by their home states," the author says.
One such was Col. James Poage. Upon his retirement from surveying, he rejected more domesticated lands to choose as his permanent settlement a thousand-acre military warrant on the Ohio River, taking among his possessions his slaves, whom he freed in a free land. In 1812, he founded what soon became known as Ripley, Ohio, drawing many other citizens of conscience as early residents. Then in 1818, 950 freemen forced to leave Virginia within a year or face re-enslavement, settled north of Ripley.
Conceived in liberty, Ripley became a major port of entry for the Underground Railroad, an effort in which free blacks and whites worked uncommonly together to help fugitive slaves escape to free states and Canada. The spark to this tinder, however, was the arrival of the subject of "Beyond the River," John Rankin, an abolitionist preacher who believed in the emancipation of slaves and the integration of blacks into American society as equals.
The year was 1821 and the Missouri Compromise had just been enacted in an attempt to placate the South. Rankin's life shows why such attempts eventually guaranteed war. Rankin may have hung a lantern from a 30-foot pole atop a hill to guide fugitive slaves across the river, but he had left the South to be able to speak more freely about the evil of slavery.
Even "benevolent" slavery was impetus enough for thousands of black men and women to risk their lives for freedom. Rather than urge the repatriation of blacks to Africa, a land nearly as alien to them as it was to white Americans, Rankin provided help for them food, clothing, money, safe conduct, often as far north to Canada, to put them out of reach of slavers.
Slave chasers, however, with or without warrants, would search the property of those they suspected of hiding refugees. If that did not intimidate abolitionists, slavers might attempt to kidnap them for trial in slave states, while freemen were at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. There were assaults against freemen and abolitionists alike: beatings, knifings, floggings, women stripped of their bedclothes by armed men, houses and barns and interracial schools set ablaze, gunfire in the night.
For 30 years, abolitionists who faced these dangers were often derided as fanatics by Northerners of weaker conscience. Then, in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law. This law abolished habeas corpus, jeopardized freemen, compelled white bystanders to take the side of slavers, and created financial incentives for the judiciary to rule in favor of the slavers, regardless of whether their victims were escaped slaves or free blacks.
By legally requiring every Northerner to help uphold slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act killed much of the indifference, if not scorn, abolitionists faced.
Southerners had a choice: egalitarian abolition or maintaining slavery, first as pro-slavery individuals carrying fire and the sword into the North, then as a region extorting peace. So the sons of many an abolitionist, including five of Rankin's, would take fire and sword to the South.
Erin Solaro is a Washington-based writer. She is at work on her master's thesis, "Casualties, Cohesion, and Combat Effectiveness," and a book of essays, "The Woman Soldier."


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