Monday, April 30, 2012

Charles Case: Political Leader, Congressman, Civil War Officer

In the decade leading up to the Civil War, Charles Case, Fort Wayne attorney, politician, and U.S. Congressman, was at the forefront of debates over the extension of slavery and the rights of black Americans.  At home and as U.S. Congressman for the 10th District, he consistently argued against the Kansas Nebraska Act that would allow slaveholders to move into western territories.  He spoke out for his belief that the Declaration of Independence ensured black Americans freedom and basic rights of citizenship.  He risked his political career, then his life to defend what he believed were the highest principles of our free democracy.

Born in 1817 in Ashtabula County, part of the massive Ohio Western Reserve, Charles Case was destined to champion social reforms.  People on the Reserve valued good schools and lively political debate.  They also welcomed some of the earliest New England missionaries who led the movement to end American slavery.

Ashtabula County was also home to future national antislavery leaders.  As Case grew to manhood, Joshua Giddings was beginning his first term as U.S. Representative.  Case studied law in Jefferson, the county seat, with Benjamin Wade, the future Republican leader of the U.S. Senate.  Wade was then beginning his career in the Ohio legislature leading efforts to repeal laws discriminating against black Americans.  In 1848 Case joined Giddings in forming the new Free Soil Party to block efforts to allow slavery into western territory.

In 1850, at the age of 33, Case moved to Fort Wayne to practice law in our rapidly growing canal town.  He served on the town's first school board and led an unsuccessful effort to fund building the first public school.  Along with other reformers who were concerned about widespread alcohol abuse, he joined in the emerging temperance movement.  When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Case joined the groundswell of opposition to the spread of slavery.

I first became aware of Charles Case when I discovered microfilm of "The Fort Wayne Standard" in the Allen County Public Library.  Case served as its antislavery editor during its first months in the summer of 1854 when he and other local leaders formed a new opposition political party, the People's Party.  For the next year, "The Standard" became the most forceful antislavery newspaper in Indiana.  Case wrote about fugitive slave cases and challenged people to understand the hypocrisy of slavery in a so-called free democracy.  He covered the political campaigns of Samuel Brenton, the Methodist clergyman who represented our district in Congress and national political debates. 

Case gained further public recognition during the summer of 1855.  A man from Ohio who was described as a "mulatto" (mixed race) was arrested under the provisions of the 1851 revised Indiana Constitution that banned all people of color from coming into Indiana.  His arrest brought about one of the most dramatic tests of Fort Wayne's willingness to enforce legal restrictions against black Americans.  Case along with Lindley M. Ninde, another forceful antislavery leader, took on the well publicized case and won broad support for its dismissal.

When Samuel Brenton died in March 1857, Case was nominated by the newly formed Republican Party to complete Brenton's term as U.S. Representative in the 35th Congress.  Despite the strength of Allen County's Democratic Party, Case won solid support from voters in the large 10th Congressional District in the special election.  He did not shy away from his record as an outspoken opponent to slavery, even though his reputation as an abolitionist was a political liability.  He argued that the federal government had the responsibility for blocking the spread of slavery.  In October 1858, Case was re-elected, now to the 36th Congress.

Case's record in local newspapers and "The Congressional Globe" document his consistent efforts to limit slavery to the South, despite astonishing pressure to compromise in order to prevent war.  Along with other antislavery leaders, he was labeled as a "Black Republican."  He was shunned not only by Democrats but also by more moderate Republicans.  As civil war broke out in Kansas and violence erupted on the floors of Congress, Case held on to his uncompromising principles.  On the eve of the Civil War, Case and other Radical Republicans helped elect Abraham Lincoln and build the backbone of the Republican Party that encouraged more moderate Republicans to resist compromise.

In the months following Lincoln's election in 1860 prior to his inauguration in March 1861, the nation was in a state of panic.  Seven states from the deep South left the Union.  Case was harshly attacked in local newspapers for his unwillingness to try to bring these states back and prevent further seccession.  In vote after vote Case supported the policies of the President elect.  Although Case's principles had cost him re-election to a third term he had helped ensure the promises of a free nation.

In 1861, at the age of 44, Case helped organize the 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and served as its adjutant general.  With the 44th, he fought at Fort Donelson and Shiloh.  Until his health was finally broken, he served as colonel of the 129th Infantry during Sherman's campaign through Georgia.  After the Civil War he practiced law in Fort Wayne, then in New Orleans.  He spent his final years in Washington, D.C. He was buried in Washington"s Congressional Cemetery.

As people in Fort Wayne chose to forget the Civil War and struggles of black Americans for full citizenship, Charles Case became lost in memory.  Few monuments to Union soldiers were put up to remind us of their sacrifices and of why they fought.  Now 150 years later, it's appropriate to recover a leader who so skillfully and forcefully articulated the struggle for a better future.  We can try to imagine him at work in the second floor office of "The Standard" along Columbia Street (a block that has long disappeared).  We can envision political rallies with brass bands and torch light parades in front of his home at the corner of West Wayne and Van Buren Streets.  We can look back on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln as one of our country's greatest tests of survival.  Case's astonishing record as a leader from Northeast Indiana helps us understand this important time.

[Research note:  For further reading, see newspaper microfilm at ACPL for "Gazette" Feb.27, 1873;  "Daily Gazette" July 2, 1883; and "News-Sentinel"  July 14, 1926.  See also author, "Charles Case:  A Radical Republican in the Irrepressible Conflict" in Dec. 2011 Indiana Magazine of History.]

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