Ann Arbor Abolitionists

In the last week of January 1861, word spread that abolitionists planned to preach disunion at local churches. Handbills invited all “Friends of Freedom in Michigan” to attend. They declared: “No Union with Slaveholders Religiously or Politically.”

Captains of the University of Michigan's three 'guards'—Charles Kendall Adams, '61 [University Guards]; Isaac H. Elliott, '61 [Chancellor Greys]; and Albert Nye, '62 [Ellsworth Zouaves].

Captains of the University of Michigan’s three ‘guards’—Charles Kendall Adams, ’61 [University Guards]; Isaac H. Elliott, ’61 [Chancellor Greys]; and Albert Nye, ’62 [Ellsworth Zouaves].

This was like touching a match to dry grass—and the atmosphere in Ann Arbor was already incendiary. The reception given to these fierce voices of dissent tells us a good deal about how public opinion tilted toward war in the early months of the nation’s greatest crisis.In the preceding weeks, five southern states had seceded from the Union in a bitter reaction to the election of an anti-slavery Republican, Abraham Lincoln, to the presidency. More states were expected to follow. Three companies of U-M student volunteers—the Tappan Guards, the Ellsworth Zouaves, and the Chancellor Greys—were drilling on campus. German-Americans (Ann Arbor’s largest immigrant group) had pledged themselves “to defend and vindicate to the utmost the laws and constitution of our adopted country.” A young lady draped herself in the flag at Hangsterfer’s beer garden and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the ovation was so rousing that she was doing nightly encores.
The Ann Arbor home of minister Guy Beckley was probably a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Ann Arbor home of minister Guy Beckley was probably a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But the driving sentiment in town was Unionist, not abolitionist. Ann Arbor had harbored at least one station on the Underground Railroad, the secret route of escape for fugitive slaves seeking refuge in Canada. Yet at this critical moment, many in town, like other northerners, were prepared to tolerate slavery within the South’s boundaries if it meant the Union might be saved. For most northerners, the issue wasn’t slavery itself; it was keeping slavery out of the western territories. At a distance of 150 years, we see the abolitionists as heroes. But at the time, many pro-Union northerners saw them as extremists and trouble-makers. “Roving, crazy fanatics” was the label given by the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Argus to Josephine Griffing and Parker Pillsbury, the abolitionists scheduled to speak the following weekend. Mrs. Griffing’s talk came first. It led to a melee. After her hour-long speech at the Free Church on North State Street, in which she called for a northern confederacy and the immediate abolition of slavery, the assemblage debated a resolution that the Union should be preserved—a slap at the abolition platform. The argument raged until “Union savers from the grog shops” barged in, chased the abolitionists out of the church with clubs and broken glass, and trashed the place. It was an ugly scene that left several people injured.
Parker Pillsbury's speech for abolition was viewed even by many Unionists as that of a 'roving, crazy fanatic.'

Parker Pillsbury’s speech for abolition was viewed even by many Unionists as that of a ‘roving, crazy fanatic.’

Parker Pillsbury spoke without incident the next day, but the fracas of the day before now sparked a new debate in the local press: Should abolitionists be allowed to voice their case for allowing the country to break apart? The Journal said that if Pillsbury ever came back, “University and city boys should tar and feather him.” The Michigan State News, though arguing that “no man has a moral right to utter treasonable sentiments against his country,” acknowledged that no law prevented him from doing so, thus “we believe in minding our own business and severely letting them alone.” The Michigan Argus had it both ways, condemning “mob law” as well as “any and all persons who in this political crisis will proclaim a meeting for the purpose of rejoicing over the dissolution of the Union.”The test came on April 11, 1862, when the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips, invited by the Students’ Lecture Association, was to speak in Ann Arbor. By now, civil war was well underway. Reports were just arriving from the bloody battlefield at Shiloh in Tennessee.
An 1862 campus speech by Wendell Phillips, though widely opposed, ultimately helped turn the city to the abolitionist cause.

An 1862 campus speech by Wendell Phillips, though widely opposed, ultimately helped turn the city to the abolitionist cause.

The student sponsors of Phillips’ talk were determined to defend the principle of free speech (and to counteract the view that rowdy students had ignited the earlier riot). But, amid fears of another mob action, they had trouble getting a church for the speech. The Congregational Church (then at the corner of Fifth and Washington) agreed to consider acting as host, and after a long debate one of the trustees said: “Brethren, this church building has been dedicated to Almighty God, and if it must be razed to the ground, let it go down in behalf of free speech and the great cause of human liberty. I move that we allow Wendell Phillips to hold his meeting in this church.” The vote was unanimous in Phillips’ favor. Careful preparations were made to ensure the peace. Twelve husky students were stationed outside the doors, twelve more in the vestibule—”mature fellows, most of them, well towards 30 years of age.” All were supplied with four-foot hickory clubs. They filtered the crowd, keeping out known opponents of the abolitionists. Then they fanned out through the pews and gallery, watching for interlopers with rocks or rotten eggs. U-M President Henry P. Tappan himself came in to preside.At last Wendell Phillips entered and made his way to the pulpit—”a man over six feet in height, with broad, square, massive shoulders, a large head and a calm, grand face,” recalled Noah Cheever, a student who approved of Phillips’ views. Angry catcalls could be heard from the crowd outside the church, but inside the audience remained respectful. Phillips unleashed a stream of “indignation and wrath at the untold wrongs and sufferings of the slaves of the south, and the cowardice of the nation that tolerated it.” At one point someone in the crowd let out a loud hiss. The guards rose but couldn’t locate the culprit. A rock thrown from outside shattered a window, but Phillips stood “motionless as a statue till order prevailed,” then “finished his gesture and sentence.”Phillips’s speech galvanized students in the way Pearl Harbor or 9/11 would for later generations.As Noah Cheever recalled it, “A majority of the students left that church, confirmed and determined abolitionists, and many of them entered the army. It is curious to note that a majority of [the] howling mob [outside], within a year from the date of this meeting, had enlisted in the Union army… We supposed that there were only a few hundred abolitionists in Michigan, but we soon found that three-fourths of the people were abolitionists, ready to lay down their lives in support of their convictions.”However complicated their motives may have been, whether they went to war to save the Union or abolish slavery, U-M students and alumni made what one chronicler called “a truly noble record” in the Civil War, fighting at Bull Run, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Petersburg and the Wilderness, among other battles. One estimate puts the number who served at about 1,440, another at 1,514, a third at 1,804. Some 110 gave their lives. Alumni Memorial Hall, now home to the University’s museum of art, was dedicated in part to their memory in 1910.Sources for this article included George May, “Parker Pillsbury and Wendell Phillips in Ann Arbor,” Michigan History, June 1949; F. Clever Bald, “Michigan Men in the Civil War,” Michigan Alumnus, 2/11/1961; Noah W. Cheever, Stories and Amusing Incidents in the History of the University of Michigan (1895), and O.B. Curtis (class of 1865), “Our University During the War,” Michigan Alumnus, June 1897.

Leave a comment: