Today, a national event slowly creeps towards its end. April of 2015 will mark the end of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Thousands of people have been commemorating these sesquicentennial events by donning the blue and gray wools, picking up new books, or turning on their TVs to the history channels.
Any way it is celebrated, names of generals, politicians, and battles begin to become more familiar to the average American. Almost everyone has heard of Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee.
They are familiar with Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, and they most certainly know the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. Almost every state that was around during 1861 can boast of heroes and tell tales of courage New York state alone supplied the Union army with more than 360,000 soldiers. What may impress some people is the contribution Union made during the War Between the States.
In the years prior to the outbreak of war, Schenectady contained about 3,000 inhabitants. Located within the city, as I am sure you all know, was the prestigious Union College. Union had a total of 568 men take up arms during the war. Of the 568, 46 of them enlisted within the army of the Confederate States of America. Three of the 46 were brigadier generals leading their fellow Johnny Rebs. One of the brigadier generals for the Confederacy was Class of 1828 graduate, Robert Toombs. Following Lincoln’s election, Toombs returned to his home in Georgia and was a primary leader of the secession movement that was sweeping the Deep South. He was appointed the Secretary of State in the C.S.A. but after a few months of boredom and clashing with President Jefferson Davis, Toombs resigned and was appointed brigadier general under Robert E. Lee.
During the months of 1860 and 1861, Union saw a large split between students from the South and North. Students like Newland Holmes, Jr., (who later became a colonel during the war) could not bear the thought of fighting against their home states and left Union to join the Confederate army.
But, the other 522 students who grabbed their Springfield and Enfield rifles did so to save the Union. A vast majority of the former Union students joined the army, but 23 took to the sea. The highest-ranking alumni in the navy was Robert Townsend, class of 1838, who was promoted to captain on July 25, 1866. (Note that this was a little more than a year following the surrender at Appomattox.)
Of the 499 men who decided to stay on land, four of them acquired the rank major general, 10 brigadier generals and 40 colonels. One of the more notable officers of the war was Major General Daniel Butterfield, class of 1849. Butterfield was promoted to colonel of the 12th New York Infantry only a few weeks after enlisting in April of 1861. He would go on to take part in the Seven Days Battle, Battle of Gaines Mill, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. During his years of service, he would rise to the rank of major general in the Army of the Potomac.
Ultimately, he would become the Chief of Staff for Joseph Hooker and George Meade. Butterfield has also been credited with composing “Taps,” a bugle call that replaced the customary firing of three volleys following a burial. The apex of his career came 30 years after the battle of Gaines Mill in 1862 when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was recognized for his bravery under fire and the official medal citation read “Seized the colors of the 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteers at a critical moment and, under a galling fire of the enemy, encouraged the depleted ranks to renewed exertion.”
Arguably the most famous Union alum during the Civil War was William Henry Seward. Seward, who graduated in 1820, was one of the brightest students in his class. At the age of 15, he was evaluated to be at the educational level of a junior, but by recommendation of President Eliphalet Nott, he was placed in the sophomore class. Like most students today, Seward liked to enjoy himself, but took his classes extremely seriously.
In his memoirs, Seward recalls rising at 3 a.m. During his junior year, he was rewarded for his diligent efforts by being one of the 12 students accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, which was a prestigious honor society during the 19th century However, a fight over finical issues with his father forced Seward to leave Union in the winter of 1819. After a short time as a headmaster of Union Academy in Eatonton, Ga., Seward returned and graduated with high honors.
Following college, Seward entered a life of politics. Originally an Anti-Mason, Seward secured his first major political position as a Whig. With the aid of Thurlow Weed, and influetional writer, Seward was elected the 12th governor of New York and a state senator in the 1850s.
During his years as a senator, Seward gained national recognition and with the national presidential election of 1860, Seward appeared the obvious choice for the young Republican Party. Seward’s ardent belief in abolition would prove to be one of his downfalls. The Republican National Convention ended up selecting the less radical Abraham Lincoln to run for their party, a major shock to Seward and much of the nation.
Instead of retiring to public life, Seward rallied intensely for the election of Lincoln and was rewarded in March of 1861 by being named the Secretary of State in the Lincoln cabinet.
Seward would prove to be one of the most important members in the president’s cabinet. He played a major role, along with Union alum John Bigelow, in keeping Europe out of the war. Along with overseeing the Union’s foreign affairs, he played a crucial part in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation and was one of the driving forces behind the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the Union.
It was also rumored that Seward helped edit the Gettysburg Address due to the fact that Lincoln and Seward met the night before the address was to be given. Seward would go on to survive an assassination attempt by Lewis Powell on the same night that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. As Secretary of State for Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, Seward negotiated to buy Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in March of 1867.
Men like Seward, Butterfield and other Union alumni helped shape this nation into what it is today. They fought for their states, reunion and some for the concept that all men are created equally.
When you look back at the events that took place over 150 years ago, remember that tiny Union played a huge role in the greatest conflict on American soil.