As part of the celebration of the year of 2015 marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Union held a handful of special events last week.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death at the end of the war, the bells of Memorial Chapel rang at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday. Max Caplan ’16 played tunes from the Civil War era, such as “Aura Lee,” “The Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
To recognize Union’s particular involvement in the Civil War and its aftermath, students, faculty and members of the Union community attended the opening reception for a new exhibit in Nott Memorial titled: “Profound and Poignant: Union College Connections to the Civil War Era.”
Attended by President Stephen C. Ainlay and the co-curators of the exhibit, Associate Professor of History Andrea Foroughi and Florence B. Sherwood Professor Emeritis of Physical Sciences Tom Werner, the reception highlighted the importance of remembering Union’s history and Union’s place in the grand picture of American history.
According to Foroughi, the Union Notables Committee is a committee that recognizes Union alumni who have “achieved a notable status in their respective professions or public endeavors.” Past Union Notables have included President Chester A. Arthur, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Robert Porter Patterson, Charles Proteus Steinmetz and more contemporary figures, such as Richard Templeton, Andrea Barrett and Helena Binder.
“To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the final year of the Civil War, the committee decided to create one larger exhibit to highlight Union College’s many connections to the Civil War era and the Lincoln assassination,” explained Foroughi. Crediting Eliphalet Nott with an “innovative approach to education” that prepared graduates with a “wide array of skills,” Foroughi spoke of many professions Union alumni entered during the antebellum period. Later, Union graduates would fill “military, political, and diplomatic positions during the war.”
These positions ranged from Secretary of State to Congressional Medal of Honor recipients to student-formed regiment Union College Zouaves. Fourteen Union alumni even served as officers in African-American regiments.
Foroughi hopes to compile biographical information about these figures in a glossary, which will be accessible online and in the college archives. At the moment, some of the information can be found on the Schaffer Library’s Union Notables page.
Tom Werner, co-curator of the exhibit and chair of Union’s Notables Committee, gave some more specific details of Union’s connection to the events of the Civil War.
Of the 40 individuals featured in the exhibit, Werner highlighted a few famous figures. Werner mentioned that William Seward, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Union’s Class of 1820, was Lincoln’s “most trusted political advisor” and served as Secretary of State from 1861 to 1869. Known for his opposition to slavery, he also advocated for the survival of the Union, which set him at odds with radical abolitionists and Southerners alike. Seward was also targeted on the same night that Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, but managed to escape with his life.
Werner next introduced some military figures from the Civil War. Henry Halleck, Class of 1837, was “general-in-chief of all Union armies for over a year and a half.”
Werner named Elias Peissner the “only Union faculty member ever killed in the war.” Peissner taught German, Latin and “Political Economy,” a progenitor of today’s economics. During his time at Union, he was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Phi. When the Civil War broke out, Peissner organized and trained the Union College Zouaves, many of whom would take positions as officers in the Union Army.
John Bigelow, Class of 1835, served as ambassador to France and persuaded the “French not to aid the Confederacy,” according to Werner.
Daniel Butterfield, for whom Butterfield Hall is named, was a “Medal of Honor recipient and creator of ‘Taps.’” Butterfield was also a member of Sigma Phi during his term at Union.
Connecting Union’s alumni to Lincoln, Werner mentioned Samuel Wilkeson, Class of 1837, whose “elegant reporting” about the “death of his son at Gettysburg may have inspired parts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” Werner also explained Union’s connection to the assassination of President Lincoln.
Henry Rathbone, Class of 1857, and his fiancée, Clara Harris, were sitting with the president and the first lady in Lincoln’s box on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was shot. Clara was the daughter of Union alumnus Ira Harris, who graduated from Union in 1824.
Phineas Gurley, Class of 1837 and “Lincoln’s spiritual advisor,” read him his last rites and comforted the Lincoln family as Lincoln lay dying the next morning, April 15, 1865, in the Petersen House
After the death of Abraham Lincoln and the resulting manhunt, Union alumnus John Hartranft, Class of 1853 and a Medal of Honor recipient, managed the “incarceration and execution of John Wilkes Booth’s four co-conspirators.” At Union, Hartranft was a member of Sigma Phi and studied civil engineering.
Summing up the impact of these Union alumni, Werner noted, “These narratives, and many more in the exhibit, demonstrate that Union alums were the makers and observers of this nation’s most critically important period to an extraordinary degree.”
The Civil War exhibit will be open in the Nott Memorial throughout 2015.