Updated: May 24, 2022
When I was at Oberlin College last summer, I stopped by the library so that I could look at the letters that the Rev. Elam J. Comings and his daughter Sarah wrote when they were in Beaufort, N.C., during the Civil War.
I was interested in Elam and Sarah Comings’ letters because they were written in 1863-64, when they were teachers at the Whipple School, an American Missionary Association (AMA) school in Beaufort, N.C. Most of their students were African Americans who were slave laborers until Union forces captured the town and liberated them in 1862. When Elam and Sarah arrived in Beaufort, the vast majority of North Carolina remained in Confederate hands. Slavery was of course still the law of the land in that section of the state. Things were different in Beaufort, New Bern and a few other coastal towns, however. Held by the Union army, they made up a narrow sliver of the North Carolina coast where African Americans could come out of the shadow of slavery.
William Heady, New Bern, N.C., June 1864.
According to an inscription on the back of this photograph, Heady escaped from a plantation near Raleigh and “arrived at Newberne [sic] N.C. on the 20th May 1864 having been six weeks on the road, neither sleeping or eating in a house during the time.” He was one of thousands of escaped slaves that made their way to New Bern and Beaufort during the Civil War.
By the fall of 1863, Beaufort was busting at the seams. The little seaside town was overflowing with escaped and liberated slaves. Confederate deserters were everywhere. Throngs of Union sailors and soldiers (including many blacks) and sick and wounded soldiers (a Union army hospital was there) crowded the town’s old oyster shell and sand streets. Smugglers, shysters and war profiteers, of every loyalty, abounded.
Originally from Vermont, Rev. Comings had graduated from Oberlin College in 1838 and had been ordained there in 1841. He was at Oberlin at an extraordinary moment in the college’s history. In 1835, Oberlin admitted its first black students, becoming one of the first colleges in the U.S. to do so. To put that in perspective, I might note that was 116 years before the University of North Carolina admitted its first black students.
Two years later, in 1837, Oberlin admitted women students for the first time, becoming the first coeducational college in the U.S. At the same time, the town of Oberlin was becoming a hotbed of anti-slavery activism,.
To what degree Oberlin shaped Rev. Comings’ views on slavery, I do not know. But after finishing at the college’s seminary, his first pastorate was in Frederickstown, Ohio, where proponents of slavery attempted to blow up and burn his church because of his and his congregation’s anti-slavery views.
Doing historical research at Oberlin College is always a treat. At Terrell Library, relics of the college’s long history of support for women’s rights and African American rights abound. They include this bronze bust of anti-slavery and feminist activist Lucy Stone, an Oberlin grad that was the first women from Massachusetts to be awarded a college degree.
Photo by David Cecelski
The Rev. Comings’ abolitionist beliefs also led him to Beaufort. In his and Sarah’s letters, we get a glimpse of wartime Beaufort and of a local history of Afro-Christianity that had defied slavery long before the Civil War.
We also get a fascinating look at the two missionaries, Elam and Sarah, their commitment to African American freedom and education, and also the limits of their commitment to racial equality.
For notes made by author David Cecelski as he read Elam and Sarah Comings’ letters at Oberlin College see the full story here: https://davidcecelski.com/2021/12/17/they-have-got-hold-of-the-bible-beaufort-n-c-and-the-civil-war/