By Nat Brandt

Syracuse University. 315 pp. $29.95

The town that started the Civil War? Would that be Concord, Mass., home of abolitionists like Thoreau? Or Cincinnati, where Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? Or maybe Harpers Ferry, where John Brown made his disastrous raid?

All are good candidates, but in this fine book Nat Brandt -- a former editor of American Heritage and Publishers Weekly -- proposes in their stead the remarkable, small college town of Oberlin, Ohio. It was here, in 1856, that occurred an abolitionist cause ce'le`bre: "the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue," the forcible freeing of an escaped slave who had been kidnapped by a quartet of "man-stealers" from Kentucky.

Located some 20 miles south of Lake Erie and about 45 miles southwest of Cleveland in Lorain County, Oberlin was founded in 1834 by a pair of Presbyterian ministers, who wanted to establish a Utopian community based on learning, prayer and evangelism. From the start, though, Oberlin College was also thoroughly, shockingly radical.

To begin with, it was coeducational. In 1841 three of its graduates received the first baccalaureates ever granted to women in America. It was also deeply spiritual: An early president was none other than Charles Grandison Finney, the preeminent revivalist preacher of his time. In 1845 his First Church in Oberlin was "the largest building west of the Allegheny Mountains, and the size of its congregation was rivaled only by that of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, the congregation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother Henry Ward Beecher." And, not least by any means, ever since 1835 Oberlin had been accepting students "irrespective of color." By 1844 it was, according to an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, the only place in the country where a black might get an inexpensive education and "at the same time, be respected as a man."

Naturally, such a town was strongly antislavery. As Brandt points out, "six well-established routes of the Underground Railroad ran through Oberlin," and by 1856 the community was said to be "second only to Canada as an asylum for the hunted fugitive." By this time too blacks made up a significant proportion of its store owners and artisans, Oberlin commonly being dubbed a "nigger" town. The term Oberlinism even became a synonym for abolition, and it was said that wherever the college's graduates settled, "a way station for the Underground Railroad could be found."

In 1858 an escaped slave named John, who had been living for the past two years in Oberlin, was lured into the countryside one morning, seized by four men and driven to the town of Wellington, some eight miles away. En route John glimpsed a pair of college students and shouted for help. One of the men kept quiet when he got back to Oberlin, but the other -- Anselm Lyman, a 22-year-old English major -- quickly spread the word that a man had been kidnapped.

Immediately, people began to shout "They can't have him!" Students, shopkeepers, professors, blacks and whites, virtually the entire male population of the town saddled up, chartered wagons or started to walk to Wellington. Many were armed. By midafternoon the square in front of Wadsworth's Hotel was filled with between 200 and 500 men.

Negotiators tried to talk the "man-stealers" into releasing John, without success. Rumors sprang up that the 5:23 train -- on which the Kentuckians had planned to escape -- would be bringing in special troops to break up the rescue attempt.

Late in the day, a young student named William Lincoln called for volunteers. Under his leadership a half-dozen men, black and white, burst through the hotel doors, threatened to blow out the brains of any who opposed them, and fought their way up to the room where John was being held. There, through bluff and confusion, the former slave was able to escape once more to freedom. No one was hurt. For the next two weeks John hid in the home of James Fairchild, a professor of mathematics and future president of the college. Eventually the hunted man was led to safety in Canada.

The story might have ended there, but politics reared its ugly head: Oberlin and its radical citizens needed to be taught a lesson. So 37 of the Rescuers, as they were soon called, were indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required people to assist, not thwart, any so-called "man-stealers."

The trials in Cleveland of the Rescuers -- each was to be judged separately -- became a focus for abolition sentiment, covered by newspapers from all over the country. At the second trial, black schoolteacher Charles Langston presented what his brother called "perhaps the most remarkable speech that has been delivered before a court by a prisoner since Paul pleaded his own cause before Agrippa." It brought the courtroom to tears and applause:

"There is not a spot in this wide country, not even by the altars of God ... no, nor in the old Philadelphia Hall, where any colored man may dare to ask a mercy of a white man. Let me stand in that Hall, and tell a United States Marshal that my father was a Revolutionary soldier; that he served under Lafayette, and fought through the whole war; and that he always told me that he fought for my freedom as much as for his own... ."

Though he had justice and eloquence on his side, Langston was convicted anyway, fined $100 and sentenced to 20 days in prison.

Eventually, skillful political maneuvering -- involving counter-indictments against the Kentuckians for kidnapping -- led to the release of the Oberlin group. But the furor the Rescuers started never let up: Later that same year, 1859, three Oberlinians died with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Charles Langston himself eventually married the widow of one of these men -- and by so doing became the grandfather of the great poet Langston Hughes.

The Oberlin Rescue rapidly passed into local legend. By the 1950s and '60s the example of the Rescuers strengthened the college's support of both the civil rights movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam. To this day Oberlin aims to instill the ideals of the Rescuers: the prizing of learning, community service and moral courage.

The reviewer, a writer and editor for Book World, grew up in Lorain County and graduated from Oberlin College in 1970.