This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, 1861-1865. Many battle reenactments, special events, presentations, displays, and other activities are planned during the next four years. In "Along Spain Creek" will be found, in weeks to come, special tributes to the men of the area who took up arms in defense of the Union.
Hero: In Memory of Oliver P. Colwell
(c) 2009 Ralph Lowell Coleman, Jr.
All Rights Reserved
Heroes are made, not born. They arise and step forward when the situation calls for someone to do something heroic in nature. Events, circumstances, and opportunities are key ingredients in these situations.
The Civil War, which tore this nation asunder during four years of unrestricted warfare, provided numerous opportunities for heroes. Men who wore blue and men who wore gray were afforded ample events, circumstances and opportunities to show their mettle. Some were fortunate enough to live to tell the tale; others were horribly maimed or died as a result of their heroism. None of them should be forgotten.
Oliver Colwell was a farmer from the close-knit community of Woodstock when he left his home and family to enlist in the Union cause. He did not set out to become a hero, but he did so just the same. During the fierce fighting which accompanied the Union drive toward Nashville, Tennessee, this young man rushed forward in the heat of battle to capture a Confederate battle flag. This selfless action particularly inspired the men of his company.
In the process he was awarded this nation’s highest decoration for bravery under fire...the Medal of Honor.
What follows is his story. Of such humble surroundings come heroes.
The name of Oliver Colwell first appears in the 1850 United States Federal Census for Urbana, Champaign County, Ohio, in the household of his mother, Lavina Colwell, age 50. It was an active household, with no less than eleven people living under one roof.
The tenants of the house were recorded by the census enumerator. In addition to Lavina and the fifteen-year-old Oliver were other sons and daughters, to include Robert R. Colwell, age 30; Fletcher Colwell, age 19; Ross Colwell, age 17; Rebecca Colwell, age 12; and Frances Colwell, age 7. There were also servants who were listed as members of the household: William Boyd, age 63; Nandy Boyd, age 49; Hannah Boyd, age 14; and Fanny Boyd, age 11.
Why his father, Peter Colwell, was not listed in the household by the enumerator, Colin McDonald, during the census survey on that warm August day is not presently known. Perhaps this mystery is best left as a story for another time.
Little else is known about Oliver’s youth, or the circumstances in which he found himself as he grew older. He was probably hardworking and industrious; most young boys his age were generally brought up to acknowledge the value of hard work and honest effort. He came from people who had learned how to work the soil, and to reap the benefits of manual labor. His Colwell ancestors had settled in the farming areas of New York and New Jersey prior to the American Revolution. They had prospered there, yet felt the compelling urge to move west to the new American frontier. Ohio in the early part of the 19th century offered virgin soil, rolling plains and hearty woodlands. There was plenty of fresh, clean water. Fish and fowl, deer, wild turkeys, and other sources of meat were abundant in the forests. There could be found the raw materials of construction for solidly-built homes, barns, and other out buildings.
So the Colwells had moved west to this new frontier, settling first in the area of present-day Franklin County before moving even farther west. They decided to make Champaign County their home, and planted their family roots in and around Urbana. Restlessness compelled some of them to move yet again, to the areas around Woodstock and Mechanicsburg. Here, they tilled the soil, planted the crops, and adapted to the lifestyle which was to be expected of hard-working farmers. Here Oliver became a man.
Oliver was still a relatively young man when he left the stability of his family home to marry. He had fallen in love with, and courted, an attractive young woman, Martha J. Corbet, who was the daughter of Amasa Corbet, one of the area’s prominent farmers. They were married in Urbana on September 20, 1857, in a short service conducted by S. G. Smith, Justice of the Peace.
At the time of the marriage, Martha’s father Amasa was about 51 years of age, presiding over a household of at least nine people. He was born in New York, but had migrated westward to the Ohio country. His wife, Experience, age 51, had been born in Virginia. Together the couple had seven children: John (1829), Lewis (1832), Ollie M. (1834), Martha J. (1836), Benjamin (1838), William H. (1841), Marion (1847) and Amasa (1850). The elder Corbets eventually relocated near the community of North Lewisburg and continued to prosper.
The young Oliver and Martha began their married life together, and were - over a period of time - parents of six children. Their eldest son, Charles, was born in 1856. A daughter, Flora, joined the family in 1857. A second son, William, was born in 1859. Two more daughters were to join the family—Jennie in 1860 and Mary in 1862. A third son, Frank, eventually rounded out the family in 1866.
The family made their home on property in Rush Township, Champaign County, which was adjacent to land owned by Abram Colwell—Oliver’s grandfather—according to a township plat map of 1874. This plot of land consisted of 63.5 acres of ground, and was located near the southern boundary of the township.
The whole country was aflame with bitter conflict as geographic regions were pitted one against another over the issues of the day. Even the quiet community of Woodstock and the surrounding Rush Township was divided on the issues of slavery and states’ rights.
Oliver Colwell was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the new territories of the West, and had seen firsthand the problems which involuntary servitude created for slaves. In April 1861 the controversy erupted into full-fledged war between the states which composed the Union, and those of the Confederacy. The war did not go well during that first year for the Union forces. What was at first thought to be a short struggle before the wayward Southern states were “whipped” back into the Union became something much more demanding. Resources were needed to fight the war...men, ammunition, foodstuffs, and other supplies. The call went out on a regular basis for more men to wage the war.
Oliver was undoubtedly a pro-Union man. He soon made his way to Columbus, Ohio, where he volunteered for enlistment as a Second Lieutenant in Company G, 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, on July 21, 1862. With little training to prepare them, he and the other men in his unit marched off to camp.
He received his official commission as a Second Lieutenant on August 19, 1862. Just a short time later, the unit was on the march toward Richmond, Kentucky. There Oliver and his comrades were exposed to the full fury of war; many of the men were wounded or killed outright. Most of the unit was captured by the Confederate forces in the lopsided battle. But prisoners were hard to maintain—to feed and to shelter—while engaging in war, so the captured men were soon paroled and exchanged for Confederates who had likewise been captured in battle.
Oliver was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant on December 5, 1862. He continued to serve with distinction and valor as Company G, 95th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, moved across the landscape and engaged the enemy in pitched battles over the next two years.
During the struggle around Nashville, Tennessee, in December 1864, the brave Captain moved forward under harsh enemy fire and captured one of the opposing unit’s flags. He was cited in dispatches, and eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits.
He was promoted to full Captain on February 27, 1865.
He was mustered out of the service on August 14, 1865, after more than three years of selfless service, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Oliver P. Colwell, hero of the Civil War and resident of Woodstock, Champaign County, Ohio, died on October 12, 1872, at the age of 40 years 1 month and 12 days. He is buried in a plot of ground, part of the oldest part of Woodstock Cemetery, Woodstock, Rush Township. His grave site, surrounded by those of other family members, is marked with inscribed memorials.